What To Watch For In Putin’s February 21 Address




Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the nation might seem like a big deal: It comes three days before the unprovoked invasion he unleashed against Ukraine enters its second year, and a day after U.S. President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv and condemned Moscow’s "brutal" assault on a sovereign country.

There’s been plenty of buildup: Russia’s constitution requires the president to deliver an address to parliament annually, and Putin hasn’t done it since April 2021. And Russia’s two parliament chambers are to hold what are billed as unscheduled sessions the next day, followed by a massive rally and concert in Moscow -- indications that something may be afoot.

But in speeches, remarks, and writings both before and after the start of the large-scale invasion, Putin has repeated familiar and often false narratives about Ukraine and other issues, and lashed out at Washington and the West, without saying much of anything that is new or which casts light on his plans and intentions beyond signaling more of the same.

So, with no sign of an end to his war on Ukraine in sight, and with a clampdown on all forms of dissent continuing in Russia, Putin’s speech may not produce much substance.

However, here are some things to watch for.

Escalation

After suffering setbacks last year and losing swaths of Ukrainian territory its forces had overrun, Russia is in the midst of a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, mainly in the Donbas -- the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where it stepped up attacks around the end of January.

Military analysts say it’s not going very well for Russia, which is suffering heavy losses while gaining ground only gradually. Ukraine still holds the city of Bakhmut, despite relentless attacks, and high casualties in the battle for the town of Vuhledar have underscored the problems facing the Russian military.

SEE ALSO: What Happened In Vuhledar? A Battle Points To Major Russian Military Problems

There have also been suggestions that Russia could launch a new offensive on a larger scale in the coming months, sending more troops into Ukraine and trying to make major gains despite its earlier setbacks -- including the failure to take Kyiv in the first weeks of the invasion -- and problems with manpower, morale, and organization.

And Putin may be eager to make a convincing retort to Biden, whose surprise visit to Kyiv was a show of support for Ukraine and a rebuke to the Russian president.

"When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong," Biden said in a statement released during his visit on February 20, omitting Putin’s first name and title.

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) walks next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during his surprise visit to Kyiv on February 20.

Outlasting the West is exactly what many analysts say Putin still hopes to do. He is counting, they say, on its unity fading and weapons deliveries and other support flagging, enabling Russia to seize the upper hand sooner or later. Watch for any substantive signals from Putin on this score.

Climbdown Or Red Lines?

It seems highly unlikely that Putin will signal any kind of a climbdown, let alone speak directly of concessions. For one thing, the worst battlefield setbacks so far came last year, and talk of Russian forces being pushed much further back in the near future has quieted so far in 2023.

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In addition, if Russia hopes to outlast Ukraine and the West, it must keep pushing for months or even years, and Putin has shown no particular concern about the number of casualties his forces have suffered. Speaking on February 18 at the Munich Security Conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said experts have calculated that about 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded.

Meanwhile, Kyiv is vowing to regain its land in full, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia occupied and claimed as its own in 2014. But even if he wanted to seek an agreement involving ceding any territory that Russia has captured or vowing not to press for more gains, Putin would face an obstacle of his own making: In September, he formally asserted that the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions of Ukraine -- none of which Russian forces control in its entirety -- are part of Russia. So, as Russian forces did when they retreated from the city of Kherson in November, abandoning those regions would violate the constitution.

More likely than a climbdown might be a new ultimatum to Kyiv and the West, an attempt to draw new "red lines" or threaten concrete consequences for crossing existing ones. The February 2022 invasion was preceded by outlandish demands that would have stripped Ukraine of its sovereignty and reversed some of the results of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago. Given the setbacks Russia has suffered since the invasion and the vows of Biden and other Western leaders to back Kyiv "as long as it takes," Putin might be hard put to find a convincing way to apply pressure.

Nuclear Saber-Rattling

Putin and other Russian officials, notably former President Dmitry Medvedev, have issue thinly veiled threats to potentially use nuclear weapons in connection with the war in Ukraine.

SEE ALSO: Russian State Duma Head Joins Officials Warning Of Nuclear Retaliation In Ukraine

These threats have been worded in ways that seem designed to provide deniability and to keep the West guessing about Moscow’s intentions. But while U.S. officials have said they see no signs that would indicate preparations to use nuclear weapons, and analysts point out that any such use would be extremely risky for Russia, few in the West are entirely ruling out the possibility. In short, watch for any wording on this score, particularly phrasing that seems aimed at weakening Western resolve -- but beware of remarks that just muddy the waters.

Beyond Ukraine

Plans for a big rally and special parliament sessions the day after Putin’s address could suggest some new step that would be announced by Putin, turned into legislation, and celebrated in a choreographed show of public support, similar to the way the seizure of Crimea was formalized -- in Moscow’s eyes -- in 2014.

Putin is seen on a screen on Moscow’s Red Square as he addresses a rally in September marking Russia’s claim to have annexed four Ukrainian regions, which none of its forces fully control.

State-run media have said the legislature will adopt laws related to the four Ukrainian regions Russia claimed in September, so it’s possible Putin’s speech could include a new claim or demand relating to those regions. Russian officials have repeatedly asserted that Kyiv and the West must accept that those regions, and Crimea, are now part of Russia -- something they have vowed never to do.

But there has also been speculation that the fanfare could suggest Russia will use the occasion to bring Belarus closer to Russia or bring it into the war -- or to engineer a change in the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian-occupied separatist regions of Georgia that Moscow has recognized as independent but not attempted to annex.

The de facto heads of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are expected be in the audience for the address.

Back In Russia

While Putin uses his state of the nation speech and other set-piece events to send signals to the world and the West, he also -- of course -- is speaking to Russians, seeking to solidify support and call for unity.

Putin "unleashed an unjust, aggressive war against Ukraine under ridiculous pretexts. He is desperately trying to give this war the status of the ‘people’s’ war, trying to make all the citizens of Russia his accomplices," imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote on Twitter on February 20.

In the February 21 address, he is likely to talk up the Russian economy, casting it as resilient in the face of Western sanctions, and to press the narrative that Russia is fighting not a war of aggression aimed to subjugate Ukraine but a necessary war of defense against the United States and NATO, which he has baselessly claimed are using Kyiv as a cudgel to subdue and even destroy Russia. While he may not dwell on the persistent clampdown on dissent, which has been ramped up since the invasion, there is little or no chance he will signal a let-up.

Among other things, the domestic audience will likely be listening for indications of whether Putin will declare that what the Kremlin has so far called a "special military operation" is officially a war -- and whether he plans a big new call-up following the mobilization he announced in September, which brought some 300,000 men into the ranks and added to the exodus of Russians who have fled the country since February 24, 2022.

Blinken, in Munich, said that "more than 1 million Russians ‘have left their country because they do not want to be part of this war and the direction that the country is being taken.’

As with many of Putin’s remarks, the speech will be watched for statements or signals about his political plans -- and Russia’s political future. The address comes about 13 months before the country is due to hold its next presidential election, in March 2024, and follows constitutional amendments that allow Putin to run for two more six-year terms.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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