Putin Address Takes Swipe at U.S.-Led World Order

By: The Wall Street Journal

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s combative address Monday from the Kremlin was a nearly hourlong recitation of decades worth of historical grievances and an unmistakable challenge by Moscow to the post-Cold War international order dominated by the West.

The speech, ostensibly aimed at recognizing the independence of two breakaway statelets that Russia carved from Ukraine in 2014, outlined Mr. Putin’s view that Ukraine was a historical accident that the U.S. has turned into a launchpad to attack Russia.

“The United States and NATO have begun the shameless development of the territory of Ukraine as a theater of military operations,” Mr. Putin said, seated at a desk flanked by Russian flags.

Pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, Ukraine, react in a street as fireworks explode, after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities. PHOTO: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

Mr. Putin’s speech echoed defiant remarks he delivered in Munich in 2007 that helped set the trajectory of his combative relations with Washington. Then, he sharply criticized what he called a U.S. monopoly on foreign relations and American use of force in places such as Iraq.

While on Monday he left his precise intentions toward Ukraine unclear, he expounded the Russian view that Ukraine’s borders were drawn arbitrarily by the Soviet Union’s founder, Vladimir Lenin, and only exist now because of the U.S.S.R.’s hurried breakup in 1991.

Mr. Putin said those borders ignored deep civilizational ties between Russia and Ukraine and questioned the legitimacy of an independent Ukrainian state, saying, “Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country, it is an integral part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Mr. Putin addressed his speech not only to Russia, but also to “our compatriots in Ukraine.”

Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a move backed in a referendum by an overwhelming majority of the population and quickly recognized by Russia. Ukrainians have increasingly sought to forge a separate identity from Russia, particularly since Moscow invaded and seized portions of the country in 2014.

A senior Biden administration official said Mr. Putin’s speech was intended to attack Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. “He made a number of false claims about Ukraine’s intention that seems designed to excuse possible military action,” the official said. “This was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war.”

Mr. Putin has long railed against what he calls U.S.-led efforts to turn Ukraine into a Western-facing democracy, claiming Russia’s ties with Ukraine gave it a unique right to intervene there. Now, he has bracketed Ukraine on three sides with more than 150,000 troops.

“Right now I have my doubts that the European political elite and diplomats understand the full complex of problems they will run into” as Mr. Putin works to advance his agenda, said Aleksei Chesnakov, a former adviser to the Kremlin on foreign policy. “He wants more decisive steps militarily, politically and economically. He is ready.”

The Russian president’s address veered from assessments of Ukrainian economic policies to a recounting of debates between Lenin and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to a theoretical estimate of flight times for ballistic missiles from an eastern Ukrainian city to Moscow. The U.S. has said it has no plans to place missiles in Ukraine.

The speech echoed years of complaints by Mr. Putin that the West was trying to tear Ukraine away from Russia. He was scarred by the 2004 Orange Revolution, when mass protests overturned a tainted election and vaulted a pro-Western candidate to the presidency over one of Mr. Putin’s protégés.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document Monday recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. PHOTO: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL/AP

Another revolution in 2014 ousted a pro-Russian president and led the Kremlin to seize Crimea and try to foment pro-Russian protests across the south and east of Ukraine, a territory that Mr. Putin then referred to by its Czarist-era name, Novorossiya. Those protests were largely put down by local law enforcement or pro-Ukrainian activists, with only the protests in Donetsk and Luhansk escalating into warfare.

One protest in Odessa ended with the deaths of dozens of pro-Russian protesters who took shelter in a building that then caught fire in a day of pitched street battles. Mr. Putin promised vengeance in his address.

“The criminals who committed this atrocity have not been punished, no one is looking for them, but we know their names and will do everything to punish them: find them and bring them to justice,” he said.

Mr. Putin said “external forces” had been promoting governments in Kyiv that have been striving to dissolve the traditional bonds between Russia and Ukraine and “distort the consciousness and historical memory of millions of people, entire generations living in Ukraine.”

As a result, he said, “Not surprisingly, Ukrainian society is faced with the rise of extreme nationalism, which quickly took the form of aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism.”

Mr. Putin and his propaganda channels have long tarred pro-Western forces in Ukraine as nationalists and sought to portray radical groups, which are marginal, as a guiding force behind government policy. Successive Ukrainian governments have pursued closer security, political and trade ties with the West, policies Mr. Putin has decried as anti-Russian.

The Russian president for years has appealed to shared cultural ties, from language to religion, in calling Ukraine and Russia “brother nations.” But Moscow’s military interventions in Ukraine since 2014, which have caused some 14,000 deaths, have turned Ukrainians against their former ruler.

Since 2014, Ukrainian authorities have sought to rid their country of the symbols of the Soviet past, felling statues of Lenin and changing the names of roads and cities across the country. They have won recognition for their own Orthodox church, independent of Moscow. Polls show more than half the country would now vote for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, rather than accession to any Russia-led blocs.

Those changes, Mr. Putin suggested in his address, were forced on the country by nationalists backed by the U.S.

“Ukraine has become a colony of puppets,” he said. “Ukrainians squandered not only everything we gave them during the U.S.S.R., but even everything they inherited from the Russian empire.”

A woman placed flowers Sunday at a memorial in Kyiv to those killed in 2013 protests in Ukraine over issues including plans by the leader at that time for a closer alliance with Russia.

In one portion of his speech, he called Soviet ideals “odious” but elsewhere made a veiled threat against Ukrainians who had pulled down statues of Lenin. “Do you want decommunization? Well, we’re fine with that. But there is no need, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”

Mr. Putin wants to return to a world of empires with spheres of influence, which makes Ukraine the key challenge, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher and editor.

“Putin is quite logical in a way,” he said. “But this logic is inhuman. It says human lives and nation states don’t matter.”

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