In an angry and sinister speech, Vladimir Putin offered one of his most forceful condemnations of NATO and the United States to date, railing against the West for creating what he believes is a “neocolonial system” designed to destroy Russia.
While the stated purpose of Putin’s address was to declare and celebrate Russia’s sham annexation of four Ukrainian territories, the speech went far beyond that, and marked one of the most serious escalations of the Russia-Ukraine war thus far.
“I want the Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me, so that they remember this. People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever,” Putin said on Friday.
The address ultimately demonstrated that Putin is growing more determined and unhinged with each passing day, and made clear that he poses more of a danger to the Ukrainian people, to the international order, and to global democracy than ever before.
The West has largely put up a united front throughout the war vis-à-vis sanctioning Russia’s economy and sending billions of dollars in weaponry and aid to Ukraine. This level of support has made possible the successes of Ukraine’s recent counter offensives in Russian-occupied territory, including parts of the ‘annexed’ lands.
However, the West’s resolve and Ukraine’s determination – which have set Putin’s forces back on the ground and created domestic turmoil in Russia – have only hardened the Russian dictator’s resolve to keep fighting until Russia achieves victory, no matter the human or economic cost.
Putin’s suggestion that Russia could resort to nuclear warfare – if the West continues to send military aid to Ukraine and does not pressure Kyiv to agree to a solution that appeases Moscow – was evidence of that.
He preemptively justified the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine by claiming that the United States created a “precedent” for the use of such weapons when our military deployed atomic bombs against Japan during World War II.
While many observers have argued that Russia would never take such a drastic step, we have no reason to believe that Putin’s threats are empty.
Against all odds, Russia did take the once-unthinkable step of invading Ukraine. And every day since, Putin has demonstrated a complete disregard for the laws of war and for human life, considering the gruesome and unthinkable war crimes that Russian forces have allegedly committed.
Another disturbing takeaway from Putin’s address, which should not be taken lightly, was his hint that Russia could induce an energy crisis in Europe this winter if the West does not back down from supporting Ukraine.
Putin baselessly blamed the dual explosions at the Nord Stream pipelines – which deliver Russian gas to Europe – on the United States, even though it is widely believed that Russia was responsible. However, Putin very-well may use this as a false pretense to justify continuing to cut off gas supplies from Russia, which may provoke an energy crisis throughout Europe.
By weaponizing energy supplies – especially in the dead of winter – Putin’s goal is to cause fractures in the Western alliance, given Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian energy.
To be sure, Putin’s threats of resorting to nuclear and energy warfare are grave and troubling. But his pledge to wage the global battle for a “greater historical Russia” provided unparalleled – and unnerving – insight into his long-term ambitions.
Even though Russia has faced stiff and unexpected battlefield setbacks as well as an unanticipatedly coordinated response from the West, Putin’s endgame remains the same.
For Putin, invading Ukraine was one step in his grander plan to spread autocratic rule, divide NATO, reclaim Russia’s influence in the world, marginalize the United States, and dismantle the liberal world order.
Indeed, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is one battle in the larger global war between democracy and autocracy, between freedom and oppression.
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Putin’s blatant disparagement of civil liberties and basic human rights in his speech – specifically, his attacks on the LGBTQ community – underscores the risks to future generations if the West does not continue to stand firm against Russian aggression.
“Do we want children from elementary school to be imposed with things that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries? This is unacceptable to us; we have a different future,” Putin said.
The liberal world order that has existed since World War II is being threatened like never before. The West must continue to oppose Russian aggression at all costs, and do all we can to combat global autocracy.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.