Putin’s Ominous Message

Vasil Jaiani reads between the lines of Putin's speech on Crimea to discern what the Kremlin's intentions are.
By: /
March 31, 2014

Immediately following the so-called referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech on its absorption into Russian Federation. It was a victorious moment for the Russian leader, who has been growing increasingly defiant to the West over past decade. He spoke with habitual firmness and precision, occasionally interrupted by vigorous applause of the attending political elite and guests of honour. The patriotic mood was imbued with a sense of pride for Russia’s military and political supremacy in its post-Soviet backyard. Several important messages emerged in Russian President’s address that will likely define the Kremlin’s new, resurgent foreign policy. Putin was clear on some messages, but customarily ambivalent on others. However, it is not difficult to read between the lines what the Kremlin attitudes and intentions are.

Further Threat of Ukraine’s annexation

Putin mentioned Ukraine in his address on multiple occasions. Although he did not openly suggest it, it is clear from the speech that Crimea may be a stepping stone for further “land grab” in the southeastern regions of Ukraine. Indeed, Putin highlighted that the historical southern Russian lands were previously transferred to Ukraine. He then reproached the Bolsheviks for doing so without taking into account “ethnic composition of people” in the region. When uttered by the Kremlin strongman, it sounded like dangerous historical argumentation.   

The Russian leader further lambasted the current, interim Ukrainian government as illegitimate and controlled by radicals. As a testament to the grip by radicals he noted that, “meetings with ministers from the current government are possible [only] with [the] permission of Maidan fighters.” In these circumstances, he argues, Russia can’t talk to anyone in Kyiv.

Putin then called on the Ukrainian people not to believe “those” who scare them with Russia and claimed that other regions would follow Crimea in voting for independence. He then added that “millions of Russians live and will live in Ukraine and Russia will always protect their interests with political, diplomatic and legal means.” The world has already seen during the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and recent Crimean annexation what these means are likely to be.

In an adroitly structured narrative, one could also catch allusions to the Moscow’s inability to stomach Ukraine’s existence as an independent state. While recounting a story of Crimea’s transfer from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954, Russian president sadly noted that, “it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia would not be together, but become separate states. But it happened.” On the same note, Putin expressed his concern with turmoil in Ukraine and uncertainty of future. He then elaborated that his concern is only natural as “we [Russians and Ukrainians] are not just close neighbours, but we are virtually…the same people.” Indeed, it is not an “I-am-showing-you-my-affection” talk, but a display of “you-are-in-my-backyard” sentiment that permeates Moscow’s political elite.

NATO expansion warning

The Russian president did not shy away to send yet another warning to Brussels and Washington against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastward expansion. He emphasized: “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory.”  This served as a chilling reminder to the West as well as for Georgia—whose NATO membership aspiration resulted in the Russian occupation of unrecognized breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. For Moscow, NATO’s expansion represents a redline as Putin strives to reestablish spheres of influence and buffer zones between Russia and Europe. The Russia-dominated Eurasian Custom’s Union serves as a convenient set-up for absorbing neighbouring countries in this post-Soviet construction.

Setting the stage for defending Russians elsewhere

While recounting his version of Russia’s history, Putin also considered the Russians who found themselves trapped in “foreign countries” following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. He notes, “millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics." The subtle grief in this statement was complemented with a rather defiant tone claiming that “the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” Given the Kremlin’s recent inclination to absorb “historic Russian” lands into the Russian Federation, the political elites of the countries with sizable ethnic Russian population, such as Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Latvia have cause to feel rather uneasy.

Putin also rejected the West’s accusation of Russian intervention in Crimea with a rather bizarre statement: “I cannot recall a single case in history of an intervention without a single shot being fired and with no human casualties.” The logic in the statement is fairly transparent; if there is a plea for help by Russian ethnic minorities from any former Soviet republic, Russia can step in, intimidate local authorities, and cement Russia’s influence. As long as no shots are fired, it would not qualify as intervention.

Russia is resurging from humiliation and containment

Another theme that emerged in Putin’s address was Russia’s resurgence after a period of humiliation and containment. While evoking pride for past military glory and patriotic sentiments, he blamed communists as well as the West for weakening and cornering Russia. He defiantly complained, “we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it, and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy.”

According to Putin, Russia is now reversing its unfavourable position and is ready to firmly defend its interests. He thanked millions of Russian citizens for their broad support for Crimean annexation. What he said next sounded like a preparatory notice for military adventures that may be on Moscow’s hidden agenda. He states: “Now, we need to continue and maintain this kind of consolidation so as to resolve the tasks our country faces on its road ahead. Obviously, we will encounter external opposition, but this is a decision that we need to make for ourselves. Are we ready to consistently defend our national interests, or will we forever give in, retreat to who knows where?” This does not sound very encouraging for the countries in Russia’s neighbourhood from a man who orchestrated partial occupation of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014.