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What Putin’s speech reveals about his plans in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin began his address before Russia’s parliament on Tuesday by underlining the stakes of his war in Ukraine.

“This is a time of radical, irreversible change in the entire world, of crucial historical events that will determine the future of our country and our people, a time when each one of us bears a colossal responsibility,” he told the gathered lawmakers.

Many of the headlines coming out of his speech focused on his announcement that Russia would unilaterally suspend its involvement in the last remaining nuclear treaty with the United States — a move that further stoked nuclear anxiety in the West.

But the speech also offered indications of how the Russian leader might handle the second year of the war he started on Feb. 24, 2022, and how he is seeking to shape the narrative to his domestic audience and the world.

“This is the closest to a true wartime speech that we have heard so far,” said Daniel Goure, a defense expert and senior vice president at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank.

And Putin is no longer framing his fight as a special operation to liberate Ukraine, he is now casting it as an existential war against Western civilization.

“This came closest to sort of saying it’s them versus us,” added Goure.

Clash of civilizations

“The Western elite make no secret of their goal, which is, I quote, ‘Russia’s strategic defeat.'” Putin said Tuesday.

“What does this mean to us? This means they plan to finish us once and for all,” he said. “In other words, they plan to grow a local conflict into a global confrontation. This is how we understand it and we will respond accordingly, because this represents an existential threat to our country.”

This sweeping framing of the war — blaming imperial America and its allies for starting the war despite supposed Russian efforts at peace — gives Putin much-needed political cover as he gears up for a long fight, experts said.

The Russian leader set early expectations that his special operations would take a matter of days. He now needs to justify an all-out war that has cost thousands of lives, isolated Russia internationally and promises months or years of additional pain.

The case for sending Russian soldiers to die is much stronger if Putin says “look, this is defending not just Russians in Ukraine, or even the Russian border, this is defending the culture. This is defending the [Russians] against the pollution from the west,” said Goure.

Putin also needs to explain why Russia’s war effort is flailing, after a year in which Moscow’s troops made early gains but have been on a monthslong losing streak, noted Andres Kasekamp, ​​a political science professor at the University of Toronto who studies the war.

“So he’s trying to explain that, ‘No, no, we’re fighting the entire West. That’s why it’s so difficult.’ So that’s a domestic narrative,” he said.

Internationally, blaming the West, and specifically the US, for the war helps muddy the diplomatic waters and might help convince some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to maintain a neutral stance, rather than denouncing Russia’s aggression, he added.

“It helps to reach that non-western global audience who might be anti-western in their perception,” Kasekamp said.

Nuclear blackmail

Kasekamp described Putin’s address as “largely rehashing all of the same old grievances,” and noted that he made no attempt to apologize for his failures or signal an openness for dialogue or changing course.

The only “new information” in the speech was his announcement that Russia would suspend its participation in the Nuclear START treaty, a post-Cold War agreement that was already effectively paused due to the Ukraine war.

Kasekamp called the announcement “bluster and trying to push the one button that he thinks that for US policymakers, he can get their kind of attention and irritate them.”

Leon Aron, a Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said nuclear blackmail is the only tool Putin has left.

“As Russia sinks deeper and deeper into this quagmire of the war in Ukraine — it’s a war of attrition and a bloody slog — what’s left is nuclear weapons. And it appears that’s Russia’s only effective way of influencing both that war, but broader relations with the West,” he said.

While Putin has been rattling his nuclear saber since before the war started, Aron says his suspension of the START treaty was a concrete move meant to back up his nuclear blackmail.

“Essentially he buried arms control,” Aron said. “Why would he do this? Well…he knows that he cannot sustain an indefinitely longer war, and he has to end it one way or another. That is when I think the nuclear blackmail is going to be deployed.”

What that looks like is less clear. Aron wrote an article for the National Review last week raising the possibility that Putin could invade another country in a bid to force a negotiated settlement in Ukraine.

Would Putin actually use a nuclear weapon, or just ramp up the threat?

“I hope he’s not mad,” Aron said. “But certainly it makes it plausible that he would resort to, one way or another, kind of a very real nuclear blackmail.”

So far, Putin’s nuclear saber rattling has worked — with the US and its Western allies engaging in what Kasekamp called “self-deterrence,” waiting months before providing lethal weapons out of fear of provoking Putin.

And each additional weapon — air defense systems, long-range missiles, tanks and now jets — spurs a new debate around the same fear of escalation, with Russia’s nukes as the backdrop.

Preparing for a long war

Short of the nuclear option, Putin’s strategy appears to be maintaining the current war of attrition, and encouraging Russians to adapt to their new reality.

In his address, he boasted that Western sanctions were failing to cripple Russia’s economy, with agricultural production up and unemployment down. And he sent a message to businesspeople who may still yearn for a “comfortable place abroad.”

“There is another option: to stay with your Motherland, to work for your compatriots, not only to open new businesses but also to change life around you in cities, towns and throughout your country.”

With President Biden delivering his own address Tuesday promising to stand with Ukraine until the end, Putin sent his own message of undying commitment to the fight.

“His game plan has always been that he thinks that he can outlast the West,” said Kasekamp. “He has always thought that OK, I’m taking great losses now, but the unity of the West is fickle.”

And while Biden may have the resolve to support Ukraine for the long haul, that could quickly change if a Republican wins the White House in 2024, or if NATO unity breaks due to changes in other countries.

“Governments come and go in the West, and Putin’s staying forever, in his own mind,” Kasekamp added.

All three experts who spoke to The Hill were hopeful that this dynamic would push the West to drop its self-imposed limitations on support to Ukraine and help Kyiv win the war — realizing that the status quo ensures a continued slog with neither side gaining an upper hands

“Russia has to lose and has to lose big,” said Kasekamp.

Goure said he believed the Biden administration was coming around to similar thinking.

“This is rapidly coming to a point where…politically, certainly this administration will not be able to stand a negotiated settlement, to split the baby down the middle,” he said. “So that’s the reason I’m expecting to see the next round of advanced weapons being sent by the summer.”


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