A year ago Vladimir Putin delivered the speech that made it clear he had decided to go to war against Ukraine. In the Russian president’s almost hour-long tirade on 21 February 2022 he claimed that Ukraine had no history of “genuine statehood”, that it had been reduced to a “colony with a puppet regime”, and that it was being transformed into a “springboard” for the West to attack Russia. He accused the government in Kyiv of perpetrating “genocide” against the Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine and claimed that he had been left with no choice but to act. Three days later he began his full-scale assault.
When Putin returned to the podium to deliver his state of the nation address in Moscow today (21 February), he was a diminished figure in several respects.
Whereas his bloodcurdling speech of the year before was backed by the threat of the apparently formidable Russian armed forces, which had waged successful operations in Syria and seized Crimea from Ukraine, the past 12 months have revealed the limits of Russian military might. Putin’s previous reputation as a master strategist (which was never supported by a close examination of the facts) has been dashed against the reality of his repeated blunders.
So, too, has his claim to have restored stability and rebuilt the Russian economy after the humiliation of the Soviet collapse been shattered by his decision to plunge the country into an unwinnable war. His conflict has kneecapped the Russian economy and condemned hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens to fight, and in many cases die, for his ambitions.
Putin’s latest speech offered no revelations and little variation on his usual grievances. Once again he repeated his lies that the Ukrainian government has been taken over by a “neo-Nazi regime” and that Russia has been forced to defend itself against the nefarious West and its scheme to seize “unlimited power”. Even the senior officials seated in the audience in front of him in the vast hall looked bored.
“Blah, blah, blah, there is no point in listening any further,” remarked Igor Girkin, a prominent Russian military commentator and avowed nationalist, on his Telegram account during the speech. “Ok, it’s clear: the special military operation will continue in its current mode of obscurity. War or even counter-terrorist operation has not been declared, and won’t be.” Girkin, who has been convicted of murder in absentia in the Netherlands over the destruction of a civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, is one of a vocal group of nationalist bloggers in Russia who have urged Putin to formally declare war and intensify his aggression against Ukraine.
Instead, Putin reiterated his nuclear threats to the West, announcing that he had ordered Russia’s ground-based strategic forces to be placed on “combat duty” and suspended participation in the New Start treaty, the last remaining strategic arms control treaty between Russia and the US. He warned that if the US conducted a nuclear test then Russia would as well, threatening the beginning of a new nuclear arms race. “This is a time of radical, irreversible change in the entire world,” Putin declared, “of crucial historical events that will determine the future of our country and our people.”
The Russian leader’s nuclear brinkmanship is not new. He has invoked the threat of Russia’s nuclear arsenal since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine and was filmed ordering Russia’s strategic forces to be placed on a “special regime of combat duty” on 27 February 2022. Yet this does not mean that this speech does not matter, and that Putin’s threats can be disregarded. Rather, he is signalling that he is doubling down and that he still believes that the West will crack first and that he can outlast the current displays of US and European unity in support of Ukraine. This speech was intended to communicate to his citizens, to the regime elite and to the Western leaders who doubt his capacity to continue to wage this war that he has no intention of backing down.