Before dawn, just before the explosions began in cities across Ukraine, Russian state television unexpectedly aired a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two self-proclaimed ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbass region, which he had officially recognized as independent less than two days earlier, had ‘turned to Russia with a request for help’ , he said. To respond to this call, he launched a “special military operation”. Its objective: to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine.
Within minutes, Russian missiles began hitting targets in Ukraine. “Our actions are self-defense against threats,” he told fellow Russians, saying Moscow had no intention of occupying Ukraine. “We have no intention of imposing ourselves on anyone,” he insisted.
Putin described the “special military operation” in limited terms, to protect people living in Donbass who he said had been subjected to “genocide”, a charge Ukraine strenuously denied. But in the next breath, he lambasted more broadly: “NATO supports Ukrainian neo-Nazis…our actions are self-defense against threats.”
Then, in an extraordinary passage, he spoke directly to members of the Ukrainian army, at that precise moment in the crosshairs of the Russian army. Addressing them as “dear comrades”, he told them that they had sworn “oath of allegiance to the people of Ukraine, not to the anti-people junta which is robbing Ukraine and abusing this same people “.
“Don’t follow his criminal orders!” he ordered. “I urge you to lay down your weapons and go home.”
As he has done so many times before, Putin asserted that Russia had no choice but to defend itself. With a harsh tone in his voice, he seemed to threaten the United States, Europe and NATO which, in a few minutes, would see its armed forces open fire on Ukraine, which the Kremlin had always dismissed as Western “hysterics”.
“Anyone who tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your story.
“We are ready for any development of events. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken.”
Putin, who for years had criticized the West for ignoring his complaints about NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, finally hit back with fury. “I hope,” he concluded his short speech, “that I was heard.”