February 21, 2023 - 11:37am

Vladimir Putin today held his first State of the Nation speech since launching his vastly expanded invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The Russian President did not announce any new overriding agenda — though the subtext of his speech made clear that he sees the conflict as a long-term one. When starting the campaign, Putin referred to it as a ‘special military operation’ and barred referring to it as a war. No longer. Putin himself repeatedly used the once-forbidden word in his address.

This was, in effect, Putin’s rallying cry to unite behind the war, which he implicitly acknowledged would not be short. The conflict was a running theme throughout his address, even during the portions that were seemingly unrelated. The speech was an opportunity for him to recount his narrative of the war and blame the West for its inception, arguing that its support for Ukraine’s post-2014 governments, NATO expansion efforts, and development of new missile defence technologies formed an ‘anti-Russia’ revanchist agenda. He also claimed that he had only intervened in Ukraine to defend the people of the Donbas region, which contains the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. 

Putin argued that his war was not with the Ukrainian nation, but, rather, with the West. The only justification he gave for why the war has expanded so far beyond the Donbas — including his stated annexation of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts even when Russian forces never controlled a majority of their combined territory — was because of the supply of Western weaponry. He claimed that “the more long-range weaponry the West supplies to Kyiv, the further we will be forced to drive those weapons away from our borders”. 

Putin also sought to emphasise what he sees as the cultural gulf between Russia and the West. Less than 20 minutes in, he went off on a tangent to argue that the West was “legalising paedophilia” and that the Anglican Church’s supposed decision to consider a “gender-neutral God” was evidence of its “degradation” and “insanity”. He also renewed his claims that the Ukrainian government was illegitimate and that it is willing to use “terrorists, Nazis, and the devil himself” in its fight-back against the invasion. He did not, however, outline any changes on how he plans to pursue the war.  

Putin only later turned to bread-and-butter issues, including tweaks to taxes and the raising of Russia’s minimum wage by 10%. But even these were cast in the context of Ukraine’s annexed territories, as he stated benefits that would help integrate them. Putin did mention the West’s sanctions, effectively welcoming them and mocking the idea that they would significantly impact the Russian economy. This included a message for Russia’s oligarchs, as he claimed that he had forewarned them of the West’s seizure of their assets, calling on them to instead invest in his vision for Russia. 

His only major announcement was left towards the end of his 90-minute speech, that Russia will be formally suspending participation in the New START Treaty, the only significant arms control agreement with the US. This was more of an acknowledgement of reality than a new policy: Washington had accused Russia of non-compliance last month. Nevertheless, Putin insisted he was still dedicated to pursuing its resumption and peace more broadly. But with no changes to his approach in Ukraine outlined, and a doubling-down on plans to proceed with annexation, it is clear he still believes he can win peace on the battlefield, no matter how long it takes. 

Putin’s approach was summed up by a remark that he cited from Russia’s early-20th century monarchist prime minister Pytor Stolypin: “We must all unite, coordinate our efforts, our duties and our rights in support of one historical right — the right of Russia to be strong”.

Maximilian Hess is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.