It was the most terrifying speech I heard in my adult life. These twenty-eight minutes activated my inherited memory of war’s destructiveness. The calm with which Putin spoke was leaden. Even the fact that he was sitting behind a desk, with white low-tech phones on his left showed his determination. I don’t need to show off, to raise my voice, he seemed to say. Indeed, he slightly raised his voice only at the end of his speech. Otherwise he was just resolute.
He just unleashed a war. Of course, the war was already on for some time, and the speech seems to have been taped a couple of days earlier. I heard the speech while in Kyiv and Kharkiv you could already hear explosions. Yet, it was kind of revelation, partially spelled out, partially suggested. He addressed three constituencies: the United States, the Ukrainians and the Russians. He very clearly formulated his grievances and plans for the near future. We have been wronged, he said, we were forced to do what we are doing, and if you interfere, we will use extreme weapons against you. Beware.
For the first ten minutes of his 28-minute long speech Ukraine was not even mentioned. Yes, he opened with the name of Donbas in the first sentence, but then he spoke about the United States and the encirclement of Russia by NATO. The enemy was the West. The story of the offences against Russia was very long. For thirty years we tried, he said, to prevent the approach to our borders of hostile military forces, but we were only met with lies and disdain. We were undone by the lack of will – that was the reason for why the Soviet Union collapsed. It should be the lesson for us today. Weakness makes one lose.
The balance of forces in the world is gone, he said. The USA is the leader of the West composed of its satellites that do its bidding. (The word “Europe” was not mentioned at all). Right after the collapse of the USSR, the “collective West” put its efforts to destroy Russia. It declared itself victorious in the cold war. And then started to act as a victor. Remember the bombardment of Belgrade. Remember Iraq, Libya, Syria, the resulting terrorism, massive migration. Where the West imposes its system of values, there is destruction, lies, a nation dies. And here – in the 12th minute of his speech – he smoothly moved back to the 1940s and the most poignant war moment of Russian history – World War II. The country was not prepared then, the price was very heavy, we will not make this mistake again.
Now, in the fifteenth minute of the speech – Ukraine appears as one link in the encirclement of Russia if the enlargement of NATO into its territory would happen. That would put Russia’s very existence in danger. It is our red line that was crossed. In the seventeenth minute – the Donbas and Lugansk question appears. Eight years we tried to peacefully solve that situation, finally we have to move against the West-supported nationalist and Nazi regime. They want to kill us just like they did during the war. They wait to attack us. We will not allow it.
The speech opened in the tone of a good father – “Dear compatriots, dear friends”, but finished with hard menaces. If the West interferes, it will meet with unprecedented consequences. (It certainly made me think, and not only me, of nuclear weapons.) The menaces were also directed against “nationalistic and Nazi” forces within Ukraine, the forces enabled by the West to take Ukraine captive and commit genocide. We are coming for you.
The third threat was directed against those Russians that would oppose this war. It was an indication of further control over internal dissidence. At the end Putin said, seeming sincere: we ourselves do not want to occupy Ukraine. We will only demilitarize it and de-nazify. And put to judgment those who committed crimes against its inhabitants. The principle of our action is freedom, freedom of choice for people in Ukraine. We are not attacking Ukraine, we are defending Russia. So, I ask Ukrainians to put down their weapons and go home. And I ask the members of our multinational country to defend Russia. To show their love.
After the threat of the use of unprecedented means (not experienced in history) against the enemy, Putin made a meaningful pause and said “I hope I was heard.” I for one certainly heard him. And understood that the house of cards of our last thirty years has been kicked down. That nothing is the same, and the better times belong to the past. That Putin, while trampling Ukraine, is looking straight at the US. And that the first step has been made towards a disaster which will be new because nothing in history happens twice. And yet, it will also be very well known. Violence, like Medusa, was looking at us from behind Putin’s words. Let’s hope it will not turn us into stone.