The speech is very long, more than 6000 words. There is no yet a full official English translation. There is partial one here: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828 About 2,500 words (the start of the speech) are about the common history between Russia and Ukraine beginning with “time immemorial” and ending with the Maidan situation in 2014. Then about 1,000 words are about what happened post Maidan and March 21 when, according to Putin, Ukraine adopted a new military strategy which is what triggered the current Russian response. Then, there are about 2,500 words on what exactly that strategy is. Finally, the actual decision: the declaration of the independence of DNR/LNR is about 100 words.
Whether one agrees with the speech or not is beside the point: Putin makes it clear where Russia is coming from and that this is not a random decision. I will spare you the details of history – ‘his story’ is always written by the victors and while we may know the ‘facts’, it is more difficult to fully know the nuances and context which is what really matters when we make a judgement. Here are a few quotes though:
“Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”
“…modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”
This is not just about Ukraine, Putin is lamenting the dissolution of the whole Soviet Union:
“The September 1989 plenary session of the CPSU Central Committee approved a truly fatal document, the so-called ethnic policy of the party in modern conditions, the CPSU platform. It included the following provisions, I quote: “The republics of the USSR shall possess all the rights appropriate to their status as sovereign socialist states.””
But Putin’s issue is not so much with the fact that the Soviet Union does not exist any more (“our people who accepted the new geopolitical reality that took shape after the dissolution of the USSR, and recognised the new independent states.”) but with the way particularly Ukraine behaved in the aftermath (“it was striking how the Ukrainian authorities always preferred dealing with Russia in a way that ensured that they enjoy all the rights and privileges while remaining free from any obligations.”)
Putin reminds us in his speech that Russia “provided to Ukraine along with economic and trade preferences, the overall benefit for the Ukrainian budget in the period from 1991 to 2013 amounted to $250 billion.” What Russia got back was “Kiev tried to use dialogue with Russia as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West, using the threat of closer ties with Russia for blackmailing the West to secure preferences by claiming that otherwise Russia would have a bigger influence in Ukraine.” The culmination of that was Maidan’2014 “coup d’état where…they received direct assistance from foreign states. “ But Maidan “did not bring Ukraine closer to democracy and progress…” but “into the abyss of civil war” and economic collapse.
It seems Russia’s patience brew over in March 2021 when Ukraine adopted a new Military Strategy which was “almost entirely devoted to confrontation with Russia aiming to draw foreign states into conflict with our country”. He quotes from that document claiming Ukraine has organized terrorist activities in “Russian Crimea and on the territory of Donbas”. Moreover, and what follows is the gist of why Russia is undertaking the present actions, “Ukraine is going to create its own nuclear weapons, and this is not empty bravado…it is only a matter of time…. We cannot but react to this real danger, especially since, I repeat, Western patrons can contribute to the emergence of such weapons in Ukraine”…” In recent years, under the pretext of exercises, military contingents of NATO countries have been almost constantly present on the territory of Ukraine. The command and control system of Ukrainian troops has already been integrated with NATO’s”. He goes into a lot more details on this latter point about how NATO is operating on the territory of Ukraine even though “Article 17 of the Constitution of Ukraine does not allow the deployment of foreign military bases on its territory.”
And the point about each country has the right to choose its own foreign policy alignment, “Yes, of course, each country has the right to choose its own security system, to conclude military alliances….” But “…international instruments explicitly enshrine the principle of equal and indivisible security, which, as you know, includes obligations not to strengthen one’s security at the expense of the security of other States. I can refer here to the 1999 OSCE Charter for European Security, adopted in Istanbul, and to the OSCE Astana Declaration of 2010. In other words, the choice of security methods should not pose a threat to other states, and Ukraine’s accession to NATO is a direct threat to Russia’s security.”
The point about NATO being a defensive alliance: “they are trying to convince us time after time that NATO is a peace-loving and purely defensive alliance. Like, there are no threats to Russia. Again, they offer to take their word for it. But we are well aware of the real price of such words. In 1990, when the question of German reunification was discussed, the Soviet leadership was promised by the United States that there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or military presence by a single inch in the eastern direction. And that the unification of Germany will not lead to the expansion of the NATO military organization to the East. It’s a quote… They spoke, gave verbal assurances, and everything turned out to be empty words. Later, we were assured that the accession of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to NATO would only improve relations with Moscow, rid these countries of fears of a difficult historical legacy and even, moreover, create a belt of states friendly to Russia. Everything turned out to be exactly the opposite.”
This is in stark contrast to what Russia did: “Russia has fulfilled all its obligations, including the withdrawal of troops from Germany, from the states of Central and Eastern Europe and thereby made a huge contribution to overcoming the legacy of the Cold War. We have consistently proposed various options for cooperation, including in the format of the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE.”
Naturally, “As a result, the Alliance and its military infrastructure went directly to Russia’s borders. This was one of the key causes of the crisis of European security, had the most negative impact on the entire system of international relations, led to the loss of mutual trust.”
And this: “In NATO documents, our country is officially explicitly declared the main threat to Euro-Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for such a strike.”
He then goes on to describe that negotiating with the US has been a waste of time. “The dog barks, and the caravan goes”. Then he turns to the situation in Donbas and how Ukraine has failed to implement the Minsk Agreement. “On the contrary, it is trying to organize a blitzkrieg in the Donbas again, as it was already in 2014 and 2015.” So, he plays the human rights card, well known and practiced across the world by the US. He mentions the word genocide to 4m people “fighting for their elementary rights – to live on their land, to speak their language, to preserve their culture and traditions.”
And here it is: “How long can this tragedy last? How much longer can we tolerate this? Russia has done everything to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine, all these years persistently and patiently fought for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2202 of February 17, 2015, which consolidated the Minsk Package of Measures of February 12, 2015 to resolve the situation in the Donbas.”
Basically, he is saying, enough is enough, “In this regard, I consider it necessary to make a long-overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic.”
The big question is whether this is where it all ends. If it was not for the 2,500 words of historical preface about Ukraine being an integral part of Russia, I would have said that “Yes, this is where it ends: Russia simply wanted Ukraine to honour the Minsk Agreement and it had to do what it had to do given that Ukraine didn’t”. I am not so sure any more. But I doubt it Russia would go all the way unless it is provoked.