The Russian Invasion Putin Settles Accounts with the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine. In his Thursday morning video announcing the hostilities, he again accused the West of crossing "red lines" and warned of drastic consequences if anyone intervenes.
By Christina Hebel in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Foto: Russia President Press Office / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO

AAt 5:40 a.m. in Moscow, Russian state broadcaster Russia-24 cut to Vladimir Putin. He could be seen sitting at his desk with two Russian flags behind him. "The situation demands that we act decisively and immediately," the president intoned. He announced the beginning of a "special operation in the Donbas" aimed first and foremost at defending the region's population. The people of eastern Ukraine, who are "being abused and murdered by the Kyiv regime," have to be protected, Putin claimed, invoking the calls for help issued by the heads of the self-proclaimed "people’s republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk.

But as Putin continued speaking, it became clear that his focus goes far beyond eastern Ukraine – that he wants to settle accounts with the leadership of Ukraine. "We are aiming at the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine," he announced.

The television appearance was Putin’s declaration of war against Ukraine, the fulfillment of that which so many people had not thought possible in recent weeks, even as Putin amassed more and more troops near his country’s western border with Ukraine, on the Crimean Peninsula to the south and in Belarus to the north.

Europe now finds itself facing the largest conflict since World War II, triggered by a man who has spent the last several months seeking to force through his interests at the barrel of a gun, not just in Ukraine but in all of Europe.

On Thursday, he took the final step. He went to war.

The timing of the broadcast of his speech was chosen carefully, just as the United Nations was holding an emergency meeting in New York to discuss the threat facing Ukraine. It would be hard for Putin to make clearer just how little respect he has for international organizations like the UN. Putin wants to show the world how powerless it is.

Pre-Recorded Declaration of War

Only a few minutes after Putin’s televised address, it quickly became clear that the Russian president had ordered a comprehensive attack on his western neighbor, as initial reports of detonations in the capital Kyiv made the rounds. Russia has attacked military installations across the country, particularly air defense facilities, air force bases and control systems. Air strikes were also reported in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine.

The Russian air force has bombed airports in several Ukrainian cities, including that of the capital Kyiv. There are reports from Odessa and the coastline of the Sea of Azov in southern Ukraine that Russian forces have been landing from the sea. In the north, tanks have rolled across the border into Ukraine from Belarus – which makes it clear why Moscow and Minsk decided to delay their joint military maneuver by a week.

Putin appears to have made his decision to go to war several days ago. There are indications that the speech broadcast on Thursday morning was actually recorded on Monday. That was the day that the Russian president officially recognized the self-proclaimed "people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists for several years. In both speeches, Putin is wearing the same suitcoat and the same tie. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has reported that the metadata from Thursday's video indicates that it was recorded on Monday.

For quite some time, many have been wondering what world Putin lives in. His declaration of war on Thursday was also a reckoning with the West, who he accused of having transgressed "red lines."

In the speech, he lashed out against the "Western block," including the U.S., NATO and others. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been systematically swindled, the Russian president said, speaking of an "empire of lies." He made elaborate mention of Western military operations in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria – all of them, he insisted, represent violations of international law by the West, which has consistently overestimated its own abilities. The countries involved in those operations, Putin said, have either disintegrated or become the targets of terrorism.

The Isolation of Russia

By contrast, Putin characterized the war that he has now launched as self-defense, claiming that he saw no other alternative to protect Russia from those "who have taken Ukraine hostage.” Again, the Russian leader repeated his claims of "genocide" allegedly being perpetrated against Russians in eastern Ukraine, without providing a shred of evidence for the accusation. All of those who have committed crimes against Russian citizens, Putin said, will be held accountable. More than 800,000 people in the Donbas region of Ukraine possess a Russian passport.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Foto: Efrem Lukatsky / dpa

Putin’s military operation will have extreme consequences for Russia. The country will be isolated internationally for the foreseeable future. Painful sanctions are inevitable, and the country’s economy will suffer. The value of the Russian currency, the ruble, plunged further on Thursday.

Putin demanded that the Ukrainian army immediately lay down its weapons. That, though, seems unlikely. Contrary to Putin’s professed beliefs, the military doesn’t view the democratically elected government in Kyiv as an enemy, but Putin himself.

Should Putin send large numbers of ground troops into Ukraine, a large number of casualties is likely. Resistance would likely be fierce.

Putin's Threat

Is he planning on bringing large parts of his neighboring country under Russian control? How far is he prepared to go? He already annexed Crimea in 2014 and has provided financial and military support to the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas for years. More than 14,000 people have already died in the conflicts.

Putin said on Thursday that he doesn’t intend to occupy Ukraine. But what will happen if the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who Putin loathes, refuses to step down? How long does Putin intend to wage war?

He says he blames the government in Kyiv for any loss of life. Ukraine, meanwhile, has already reported initial casualties, while Zelensky has declared martial law in the country and asked the world to come to Ukraine’s aid.

Putin has warned against providing assistance to his western neighbor. "To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside – if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history," he said, with his threats clearly aimed at the U.S. and NATO. He hopes, Putin said after issuing his threat, that he has been heard.

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