Speaking the day after President Biden paid a dramatic surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a state of the nation address from Moscow on Tuesday that revisited familiar themes of geopolitical and cultural grievance while also seeming to raise, though not for the first time, the prospects of a nuclear confrontation.
Putin spoke as Biden was preparing to make another set of remarks, this time in Warsaw. With the war in Ukraine on the cusp of its first anniversary — Russian rockets began to fall on Kyiv in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2022 — Western resolve to supply Ukraine with the heavy weaponry it needs to defend itself remains unshaken.
Just how long that resolve will last remains one of the war’s key questions. But for now, Russia's gains have been modest — and the price of those gains in terms of human life, economic pain and international isolation has been immense.
That difficult reality left Putin with few options but to reiterate the warped complaints and historical revisions that led him to launch the invasion in the first place.
1. The nuclear threat, updated and elevated
Putin’s most newsworthy — and arguably most troubling — announcement was that Russia is “suspending its cooperation” in the New START treaty negotiated in 2010.
While the announcement does not mean that nuclear war is imminent, it does signal the end of the effort to reduce the threat of such a conflict, most famously symbolized by the 1986 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.
Putin’s announcement appeared to be predicated on the false assertion that the United States was conducting nuclear tests of its own — which it has, in fact, not done since 1992.
“Of course, we will not do this first. But if the United States conducts tests, then we will. No one should have dangerous illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed," Putin said.
New START limits both Russia and the United States to 1,550 nuclear warheads mounted on ballistic missiles, or carried by heavy bombers and submarines. If Putin were to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine — a remote possibility, though a real one — he would almost certainly deploy smaller “tactical” devices not covered by the convention.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the news of Russia’s backing away from its nuclear arms control commitment as “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.”
2. It’s still about the Nazis
The Kremlin initially justified its invasion of Ukraine by arguing that it was necessary to “de-Nazify” the ruling regime in Kyiv. The argument was nonsensical to begin with, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the first Jewish person to lead that country.
And while there are far-right elements within Ukrainian society and armed forces, the same is true of Russia, most European countries and the United States.
Still, in a country where the defeat of Hitler in World War II remains a source of deep collective and personal pride, tying the Ukrainian invasion to victory over the Nazis may be politically prudent, if egregiously ahistorical and ultimately damaging to the legacy of the enormous Soviet sacrifice in the fight against fascism.
Putin began Tuesday’s address by invoking the supposed need “to eliminate the threat coming from the neo-Nazi regime that had taken hold in Ukraine,” a reference to Kyiv’s increasing orientation away from Russia and toward the West since the popular antigovernment uprisings of 2014. He later referenced Ukrainian units that seemed to be wearing regalia that originated with the Wehrmacht — the German army during the Third Reich — or the murderous deaths squads of the SS.
“Their hands are also stained with blood,” Putin said.
He also suggested that the West was abetting the rise of fascism in Ukraine just as it had done in Germany in the 1930s, when concerted action could have almost certainly stopped Hitler’s ascent.
“I would like to recall that, in the 1930s, the West had virtually paved the way to power for the Nazis in Germany. In our time, they started turning Ukraine into an ‘anti-Russia.’ Actually, this project is not new,” Putin warned.
As usual, he elided the inconvenient fact that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whom Putin reveres, signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler and, in fact, supplied the German war machine with critical supplies.
3. It’s a war for culture
Putin has long been a favorite of nationalists in both Europe and the United States, who have regarded his authoritarian, militaristic and superficially Christian regime as a model to emulate.
As the war effort in Ukraine has faltered, Putin and other top Kremlin officials have sometimes resorted to a cultural framing of the conflict, depicting themselves as noble defenders of Western tradition against the corrupting forces of progressivism and globalization.
Putin has even used the language of “cancel culture” to make his case, in an apparent — and not entirely unsuccessful — appeal to Western conservatives.
He made that appeal again on Tuesday. With the chief cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church — the virulently pro-Putin Patriarch Kirill, who has been condemned by leaders of other Christian denominations — Putin criticized a new Church of England proposal to refer to God by gender-neutral pronouns.
"They distort historical facts, constantly attack our culture, the Russian Orthodox Church, and other traditional religions of our country. Look at what they do with their own peoples: the destruction of the family, cultural and national identity, perversion, and the abuse of children are declared the norm,” he warned.
Reprising the ominous tone of last fall’s speech celebrating the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Putin darkly warned that “millions of people in the West understand they are being led to a real spiritual catastrophe.”
4. Russia is the victim
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has invaded Chechnya (twice), Georgia and Ukraine, first in 2014 and then again last year. Still, the Kremlin continues to proffer the argument that Russia is the victim of Western expansionism. Inaccurate as it is, that argument plays on an inferiority complex that dates back to czarist times, when European architects were enticed to turn St. Petersburg — a swampy outpost — into a city to rival Paris.
Charging the West with “Russophobia and extremely aggressive nationalism,” Putin cast the Ukraine invasion not as a war of aggression he started but as a proxy conflict the West is using to destroy Russia. He charged that the recent security conference in Munich, attended by Vice President Kamala Harris, was “an endless stream of accusations against Russia.”
During the conference, Harris said that Russia had committed crimes against humanity.
Russians, however, are fed a relentless stream of propaganda supposedly showing Ukranians as the perpetrators of abuses, with their own soldiers depicted as noble liberators. And it was the Ukrainians, according to the official Russian narrative, that started the war on their own soil, by repressing the pro-Russian sentiments in the nation’s eastern regions.
“We were doing everything in our power to solve this problem by peaceful means, and patiently conducted talks on a peaceful solution to this devastating conflict,” Putin said.
In reality, it was Russia alone that sought conflict.
5. Russia will win
Putin once imagined himself as one of Russia’s great leaders, on par with Peter the Great or Stalin. Now he is regarded as a criminal by much of the world, and even loyalists are said to be plotting to succeed him.
It is not clear that victory is even possible at this point, given Western commitment to bolstering Ukraine’s defenses. And what would that victory even look like, with the dream of the Russian tricolor flying over Kyiv having been relegated to one of history’s more notorious military miscalculations?
Still, if Putin is to save his own legacy, victory in Ukraine is the only option. Defeat will likely place his fantasy of a Pan-Slavic, autocratic Russia — however fantastical to begin with — in danger.
“Russia will answer any challenges, because we are one people,” Putin said near the end of Tuesday’s speech.
The crowd, which seemed somnolent at times, stood and clapped.