On March 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a fiery speech to Russian cabinet members, offering a strong message that the war in Ukraine was part of an existential fight against the Western world.
Speaking publicly for the first time in 11 days, Putin doubled-down on his claims that Ukraine was a “pro-Nazi regime” fueled by “revanchist hysteria” while describing Western sanctions as acts of “economic war.”
In some of the most unnerving portions of his rant, Putin assailed Pro-Western or anti-war Russians as “traitors and scum.” Chillingly, Putin described the removal of this so-called “fifth column” as being a “natural and necessary self-purification of society.”
Putin’s harsh language towards Russians who disagreed with him seemed to signal that increased domestic repression could be on the way. Most shocking, some of Putin’s comments were targeted directly at Russia’s influential oligarchs.
Putin’s hardline tone came as a stark contrast to earlier messages by the Kremlin that a compromise to end the invasion of Ukraine might be nearing. Hours before Putin’s speech, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Russia saw “a certain hope that a compromise can be reached.”
Somewhat typically, most Western observers largely dismissed the speech as the latest self-aggrandizing rant by the Supreme Supreme Commander-in-Chief and President of the Russian Federation.
However, in his most extended public address since the war began, Putin’s March 16 speech provides an invaluable glimpse into his current thinking. Having shocked many with his decision to invade Ukraine, Putin’s melodramatic sermon likewise offers clues about what might happen next.
Ultimately, rather than being willing to cut his losses to end a war, the U.K. Ministry of Defense recently described as “faltering” – Vladimir Putin sounds like a man who believes the battle has just begun.
Here is The Debrief’s in-depth analysis of Putin’s speech and an assessment of what it could mean.
Putin’s Justification For War
Putin began his declamation with a preamble justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Let me remind you that at the very beginning, in the early morning of February 24, I publicly and openly named the reasons and the main goal of Russia’s actions. This is help to our people in the Donbas, who for almost eight years by the most barbaric methods – blockade, large-scale punitive actions, terrorist attacks, and constant artillery shelling – were subjected to real genocide,” Putin dictated.
Without evidence, Putin made additional assertions that Ukraine was developing weapons of mass destruction.
Repeating recent Kremlin conspiracy theories, Putin said that the “pro-Nazi regime in Kyiv” was working with the Pentagon to develop biological weapons, including “experiments with samples of coronavirus, anthrax, cholera, African swine fever, and other deadly diseases.” Again, offering no evidence to back up these claims, Putin said, “traces of these secret programs are now strenuously trying to be covered up.”
Putin further said that at the encouragement of the “United States and a number of Western countries,” Ukraine had been planning for a “bloody massacre and ethnic cleansing of the Donbas.” According to Putin, Crimea would have been next.
As evidence of Ukraine’s violent intent, Putin highlighted a March 14 rocket attack in central Donetsk that reportedly left 23 dead and over 30 injured.
Ukraine has denied conducting the missile strike in Donetsk. According to an investigation by the Russian-based open-source intelligence (OSINT) group, Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), the Tochka-U missile that landed in Donetsk was fired from territory controlled by Russian and pro-Russian separatist forces in southeast Donbas.
“CIT has extensive experience in studying the wreckage of the Tochka-U missile found on the ground, which allows determining where it came from,” said CIT founder Ruslan Leviev.
Putin claimed Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion was fueled “with fanaticism and frenzy of the doomed,” comparing it to “the last days of the Third Reich tried to drag as many innocent victims as possible with them to the grave.”
Overall, Putin framed it as Russia was “forced” to launch a “special military operation” to stop “genocide” against the Russian-backed separatist regions of Donbas and to defeat Ukrainian “Nazis.”
Putin held firm to the Kremlin’s fairly consistent three-week party-line with his opening justifications, painting a portrait of the invasion as a “peacekeeping mission.”
Sprinkled amongst unsupported claims of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide,” Putin added the also unsubstantiated threat of Ukraine having weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The accusations of Ukraine developing WMDs are relatively recent. Putin first mentioned Ukraine trying to obtain nuclear weapons when he announced the launch of Russia’s “special military operation” on February 24.
The baseless WMD claims likely serve two purposes in the Kremlin’s justification for military action.
First, the allegations impose the potential of a direct threat to the Russian people. This provides a counterpoint to any Russian citizens who are disaffected by the emotional appeals of ending supposed suffering to the people in eastern Donbas.
Secondly, by invoking WMDs, it offers the Kremlin the ability to engage in its favorite diversionary tactic of “whataboutism” by bringing up the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Suppose Moscow never provides evidence of there being WMDs in Ukraine. In that case, they can also just fall back on, “well, neither did the United States in Iraq, so let’s talk about that instead.”
What About NATO?
Absent from Putin’s preamble was any real mention of NATO.
In only one sentence did Putin say, “They [Ukraine] have also begun the practical implementation of plans to join NATO.” In fact, in the entire nearly 5,500-word speech, Putin only mentioned NATO three times. The two other instances were related to NATO providing military aid to Kyiv.
The lack of blame for NATO’s western expansion as justification for the war in Ukraine has been one of the most curious aspects of the Kremlin messaging in the past three weeks.
For years, and with an increasing fever pitch in the months leading up to the invasion, Moscow described Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and western expansion by the defensive alliance as an existential threat.
As Russia was amassing its forces on Ukraine’s borders, pockets of Western pundits and the general public said things like, “What would America do if Russia was trying to make a military alliance with Mexico?!”
The persons spouting these claims were apparently oblivious to the fact this wasn’t really a rhetorical question.
Three years into World War I, in January 1917, Germany did just that and proposed a military alliance with Mexico. Offering “generous financial support,” Germany promised the recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if Mexico invaded America. When the “Zimmermann Telegram” of this offer was intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence, it ultimately led to the U.S. declaring war on Germany and entering WWI.
America did not, however, invade Mexico. Instead, the U.S. went to the source of the problem, but I digress.
Either way, the “NATO being the root of the problem in Ukraine” message had achieved fairly decent traction in the lead-up to the invasion. However, surprisingly, when Putin announced the “special military operation,” he said it was to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. There has since been virtually no mention of NATO by the Kremlin or Russian state media.
Russia’s sprawling propaganda and information warfare apparatus has actually appeared to be caught off guard by the “denazification” of Ukraine. During the war’s opening weeks, state-media outlets were scrambling to put out content that said, in effect, “By Nazis, we mean NATO.”
The likely reason for toning down NATO expansion as justification for war is because Moscow has repeatedly billed it domestically as a relatively small-scale “special military operation.” Putin likely doesn’t want the Russian public to start worrying that this is, or could be, a large-scale conflict between Russia and NATO.
By “denazifying” Ukraine, it also allows the Kremlin to sell the theme that Russia is acting as the magnanimous savior to the downtrodden and oppressed.
Putin Admits It’s an Invasion Without Saying It’s an Invasion
While constantly downplaying Russia’s military involvement, Putin subtly acknowledged this was a full-scale invasion.
“The appearance of Russian troops near Kyiv and other cities of Ukraine is not connected with the intention to occupy this country,” said Putin.
Up to this point, the Kremlin has been intentionally vague about their objectives in Ukraine, saying simply to “denazify” and “demilitarize.”
However, Putin acknowledged Russian troops were “near Kyiv and other cities for the first time.” Although still maintaining that Russia has no intention of occupying Ukraine, Putin is at least now admitting Russian troops were engaged in battles near the Ukrainian capital.
Putin went further by justifying why he opted for a full-scale invasion (without using the word invasion) instead of simply occupying and defending the separatist regions of DPR and LPR.
“But what I want to emphasize and ask you to pay attention to is that if our troops acted only on the territory of the people’s republics, helped them liberate their land, this would not be the final solution, would not lead to peace and would not eliminate the threat at the root – for our countries, already for Russia,” asserted Putin.
Putin Invokes “The Final Solution”
In his excuse for invasion, Putin disturbingly used the phrase “okonchatel’nym resheniyem” or in English: “the final solution.”
The term is intimately tied to the “Final Solution to the Jewish question,” or the official code name for Nazi Germany’s plan for the genocide of the Jewish people. Because of this, the term is almost universally avoided. Particularly in the context of a military invasion.
Given the significance he’s placed on Ukrainians being Nazis, it’s odd Putin would opt to use a phrase so intimately tied to Nazi Germany to describe his own actions.
In fairness, the Russian word “resheniyem” can be synonymous with “decision” or “resolution.” Yet, it’s still unusual that a man like Putin, who carefully crafts his words and appearance, would carelessly use a phrase that evokes genocide and Nazi Germany.
It’s worth noting the phrase has likewise been used in recent weeks in a Kremlin-backed essay appearing in multiple Russian-state news outlets. The paper, in fact, went a step further by saying Russia was currently involved in solving “the final solution to the Ukrainian question.”
How’s the Invasion Going?
In our continuing coverage, The Debrief has been providing up-to-date analyses and assessments of the military situation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Current assessments have not painted a pretty picture of the Russian military, from failed planning, poor execution, inept logistics, and the general inability to engage in a multi-domain, combined arms military campaign. This bleak outlook of Russia’s military performance has been likewise shared by the vast majority of Western governments, defense experts, and military scholars.
However, Putin disagrees.
In his speech, Putin said, “the operation is developing successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans.” Putin provided a near-verbatim response in his last public appearance on March 5, during a meeting with female flight crews of Russian airlines.
The Russian President added that the Russian military’s tactics have been “fully justified.” Even taking it a step further by saying Russian troops were doing “everything in their power to avoid losses among the civilian population of Ukrainian cities.”
Roughly two hours after his speech, an explosion ripped through the Mariupol Drama Theater. An estimated 1,000 to 1,200 civilians were reportedly using the building as a shelter. As of March 18, Ukrainian authorities said 130 survivors had been rescued from the theater’s basement. It is still unknown how many people might still be trapped under piles of rubble.
The Kremlin has denied any fault in the theater attack, saying instead that “Ukrainian nationalists” had bombed the theater.
Russia has also previously shelled a maternity hospital, churches, and countless residential buildings, typically claiming afterward these locations were being used as Ukrainian military sites.
In many of these instances, analyses by The Debrief of pre-and-post blast imagery have consistently failed to find evidence of these sites having any military value.
“Scum and Traitors”
Perhaps the most surprising portion of Putin’s speech was his scathing condemnation of Russians deemed unsupportive of his war efforts. Putin degraded these perceived disloyal fellow countrymen a pro-Western “fifth column” and “national traitors.”
“Yes, of course, they [the West] will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here, with us, but live there, and “live” not even in the geographical sense of the word, but in their own way. thoughts, in his slavish consciousness.”
“I am not at all judging those who have a villa in Miami or the French Riviera, who cannot do without foie gras, oysters, or so-called ‘gender freedoms,'” Putin sardonically fumed. “The problem is absolutely not in this, but, I repeat, in the fact that many of these people, by their very nature, are mentally located precisely there, and not here, not with our people, not with Russia.”
Several influential Russian oligarchs have spoken out against the war in recent weeks, including media mogul Evgeny Lebedev, metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman, and banker Oleg Tinkov.
One of Russia’s original oligarchs, Fridman, who has been sanctioned by the European Union, recently said that the punishment of influential Russian billionaires showed the West had a troubling misunderstanding of power in Russia.
“If the people who are in charge in the EU believe that because of sanctions, I could approach Mr. Putin and tell him to stop the war, and it will work, then I’m afraid we’re all in big trouble. That means those who are making this decision understand nothing about how Russia works. And that’s dangerous for the future,” Fridman told Bloomberg.
Putin seemingly backed up Fridman’s claims in his fiery remarks, appearing wholly unafraid of the Russian elite.
“This is what they think – in their opinion! – a sign of belonging to a higher caste, to a higher race. Such people are ready to sell their own mother if only they were allowed to sit in the hallway of this very highest caste, hissed Putin when describing wealthy unsupportive Russians.
“They want to be like her [the West], imitating her in every possible way. But they forget or do not understand at all that if they are needed by this so-called higher caste, then as a consumable material in order to use them to inflict maximum damage on our people.”
Reserving his harshest language for these declared “traitors,” Putin angrily proclaimed, “But any people, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the floor.”
Frighteningly flirting with the same fascist views he accuses of his enemies, Putin ended his tirade by saying, “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion, and readiness to respond to any challenges.”
Listening to his passionate denunciation of unsupportive Russians, particularly the direct shots at oligarchs, one has to wonder if a “Night of the Long Knives” – The 1934 political purges and extrajudicial executions by Hitler to consolidate power – could be on Russia’s horizon.
On March 17, reports emerged that the Deputy Director of the Russian National Guard, General Roman Gavrilov, had been detained by Russia’s federal security service (FSB). Russian-state media would only confirm Gavrilov had been fired for unspecified reasons.
There are additional unconfirmed reports that some of the top leadership at FSB have been placed on “house arrest.”
Putin At War With The West
The most harrowing portion of Putin’s March 16 speech involved the Russian President making it abundantly clear he believes Russia is currently in an existential war with the Western world.
Portraying a dystopian view of reality, Putin colorfully laid out a metanarrative that Russia- on the side of good – was in an epic battle against the forces of evil or the “Western political beau monde.”
Abruptly shifting from “denazification,” Putin charged Ukraine with being run by “Western masters” who were intent on “creating an anti-Russia” vassal state. He further accused the West and supplies of “new batches of weapons, intelligence, and other assistance” as responsible for the continued bloodshed.
The West, according to Putin, was using the “military operation in Ukraine” as a pretext for launching an economic war aimed at destroying Russia’s “entire domestic economy, our social and humanitarian sphere, every family, every citizen of Russia.”
Sneering, Putin framed the West as trying to “cancel” Russia by refusing medical care, education, and employment for Russians living in Western countries. He likewise claimed Western nations were banning Russian music, culture, and literature.
Going back to the well of Nazi parallelism, Putin likened this alleged systematic oppression of the Russian people to Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews.
“It just begs a direct analogy with the anti-Semitic pogroms that the Nazis staged in Germany in the 30s of the last century, and then their henchmen from many European countries who joined Hitler’s aggression against our country during the Great Patriotic War.”
Using a populist line that often tends to find a home with some Westerners, Putin implied all the world’s problems, “including millions of people in the West,” were the result of “many years of actions by the ruling elites of their states, [and] their mistakes, myopia, and ambitions.”
Putin condemned the sanction and seizure of Russian foreign assets while saying, “unlike Western countries, we will respect property rights.” The comments offer a moment of macabre irony, given that Russia is literally destroying countless properties right now in Ukraine.
Seated behind a desk at the Kremlin and flanked by the Russian flag and coat of arms, Putin made it exceedingly clear, he was not discussing a hypothetical scenario. According to Putin, Russia is currently engaged in a war that aims for “the destruction of Russia.”
“The collective West is trying to split our society, speculating on military losses, on the socio-economic consequences of sanctions, to provoke a civil confrontation in Russia and, using its fifth column, is striving to achieve its goal. And there is only one goal. I have already spoken about this, the destruction of Russia.”
Putin also made it clear that this perceived war with the West was a battle he was willing to fight, no matter the cost.
“Russia will never be in such a miserable and humiliated state, and the struggle we are waging is a struggle for our sovereignty, for the future of our country and our children,” said Putin.
“The current situation is, of course, a test for all of us. I am sure that we will pass it with dignity, through hard work, joint work, and mutual support, we will overcome all difficulties and become even stronger, as it has always been in the history of thousand-year-old Russia.”
These hyperbolic, absolutist rebukes of the West are frequently dismissed by the media and Western political leadership as simply the latest populist ravings of Vladimir Putin.
And yet, Putin’s vociferous disdain for the West isn’t merely fear-mongering for domestic political repression. Instead, as many longtime Russian observers frequently point out, Vladimir Putin deeply believes precisely what he is saying.
Loathe for the West is a central tenet of Putinism – or the thoughts, habits, and opinions shared by Putin and his inner circle.
Resentment at Russia’s lost status after the collapse of the Soviet Union and belief that the West, particularly the United States, were determined to keep Russia weak has been the driving force of Putinist foreign policy.
Frustration that the West is undermining Russia’s perceived destiny of being a great world power has been the underlying reason for the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, interference in 2016 U.S elections, and the most recent full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Putin’s claims of Ukraine being a Western vassal state represent another centerpiece of Putinist thought.
For over two decades, Putin has made it clear that he generally has a relatively low opinion of humanity’s ability for self-contemplation. To Putin, political protests, such as Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution or the recent anti-war rallies in Russia, are not the organic actions of a populace dissatisfied with its governance.
Instead, consistent with his belief that people are essentially sheep and easily manipulated, Putin believes these events are the work of malign foreign influence bent on undermining and ultimately destroying Russia.
Putin’s insistence of currently being at war with the West reiterates the “threat” to Russia isn’t bombs, missiles, or weapons of mass destruction. It is the potential of having another nation with a broad tradition of individual liberties and a constitutionally-limited, democratically accountable government on Russia’s doorstep.
Right now, many Westerners express worry that the invasion of Ukraine has placed the world on the cusp of World War III. This is because most Westerners view war like an on/off switch. To be at war looks like what we see right now in Ukraine and an armed conflict involving uniformed militaries.
However, Putin does not share this binary view of warfare. For him, being at “war” can mean bombs and tanks or hybrid activities like cyberattacks, psychological warfare, and “reflexive control” to influence a foreign populace’s decision-making processes.
Suppose there is only one point to take away from Putin’s March 16 speech. In that case, it is that Vladimir Putin believes with conviction that Russia is, and has, been at war with the West for a very long time.
This also means that on the balance of probabilities right now, Putin escalating the war in Ukraine vastly outweighs the prospects of a diplomatic solution.
Or, in Putin’s own words, “We will fight for the right to be and remain Russia. An example for us is the courage and steadfastness of our soldiers and officers, the faithful defenders of the Fatherland.”