For the second time this week Vladimir Putin addressed Russians from a wood-paneled room in the Kremlin as he laid out his justifications for the start of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – possibly the largest military attack in Europe since the second world war and one that he had likely long planned.
The Russian president slouched behind his desk wearing the same suit and tie as in an earlier address, broadcast on Monday. He brimmed with resentment at Ukraine’s right to exist in its current form and made clear that he was prepared to go ahead with the invasion at all costs.
“Whoever tries to stand in our way or create threats for our country and people should know Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history,” Putin said.
US intelligence had repeatedly warned Russia was planning a series of “false flag” attacks to create a pretext for war by accusing Ukraine of attacking two separatist territories in the eastern Donbas region, whose independence Moscow recognized earlier this week.
But even though the separatists asked Russia to help them repel “Ukrainian aggression”, recent events on the frontline were only an afterthought in Putin’s speech. His grievances with Ukraine and the west, he made clear, run far deeper.
Putin accused the west of turning Ukraine into a “hostile anti-Russia on our own historical territories” for the US to use as a platform to attack Russia. He cited the right to self-defense as enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations charter.
He then vowed “to defend people who have been victims” of “the Kyiv regime” and “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine”.
The calls amounted to a vow of regime change. Russia claims that Ukraine is under the thumb of radicals inspired by nationalists who fought the Soviet Union alongside the Nazis in the second world war.
Putin stressed that Russia’s goals went far beyond the Donbas – a point emphasized by air strikes that began across Ukraine immediately after his speech. He said Russia would “hand over everyone who committed bloody crimes against civilians, including Russian citizens, to court” – implying that he believed he would soon be able to do so.
Though Putin denied Russia planned to occupy Ukraine, he made it clear he was intent on redrawing its borders. “Let me remind you that when the USSR was created after the second world war, people who lived in certain territories included in modern Ukraine. . . no one ever asked them how they themselves wanted to build their life, ”he said.
He also referred to the UN’s right to self-determination – a possible indication that Russia plans to create more Moscow-backed rump states in Ukraine’s south-east.
And Putin appeared fully bent on regime change in Kyiv. “All responsibility for possible bloodshed will be completely and totally on the conscience of the regime ruling on Ukrainian territory,” he said.
Putin’s speech was far removed from the impassioned address made a few hours earlier by Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president.
Clearly on the verge of tears as he switched into his native Russian to address Russians directly, Zelensky told them: “Ukraine on your TV news and the real Ukraine are two totally different countries. Ours is real. ”
Zelensky, who is Jewish, rubbished Putin’s claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis. “How can a people who gave more than 8mn lives for victory over Nazism support Nazism? How can I be a Nazi? Tell that to my grandfather, who spent the whole war in the Soviet infantry, then died a colonel in independent Ukraine, ”he said.
Recalling people he knew and places he’d been in the Donbas, Zelensky asked Russians: “I’m speaking Russian, but nobody in Russia understands what these places, streets, and events are. This is our land and our history. What are you fighting for? And with whom? ”
He vowed Ukraine would never surrender its independence. “We want to defend ourselves. When you attack, you will see our faces, not our backs, ”Zelensky said.
But in the end, he added, the only people who could stop the war were Russians themselves.
“I know that Russian TV will not show my speech. But citizens of Russia need to see it. They need to see the truth. The truth is you need to stop before it’s too late, ”Zelensky said.
He ended by quoting a famous Soviet era antiwar song. “Do the Russians want war? I’d love to answer that question. But the answer only depends on you – citizens of Russia. ”