Before the crack of dawn, just before explosions began in cities across Ukraine, Russian state television unexpectedly broadcast an address by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, in the breakaway Ukrainian region of Donbas, which he had officially recognized as independent less than two days before, had “turned to Russia with a request for help,” he said. To answer that call he was launching a “special military operation.” Its purpose: to “demilitarize” and “denazifiy” Ukraine.
Putin described the “special military operation” in limited terms, to protect people living in Donbas who, he claimed, had been subjected to “genocide,” a charge that Ukraine has strenuously denied. But in the next breath, he lashed out more broadly: “NATO supports Ukrainian neo-Nazis … our actions are self-defence against threats.”
Then, in an extraordinary passage, he spoke directly to members of Ukraine’s military, at that very moment in the crosshairs of the Russian military. Addressing them as “dear comrades,” he told them they had taken an “oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people, and not to the anti-people junta that is robbing Ukraine and abuses those same people.”
“Don’t follow its criminal orders!” he demanded. “I urge you to lay down your weapons and go home.”
As he has done so many times before, Putin claimed Russia had no choice but to defend itself. With a hard-edged tone in his voice, he seemed to threaten the US, Europe and NATO which, in just a few minutes, would witness his armed forces opening fire on Ukraine, something the Kremlin had consistently dismissed as western “hysterics.”
“Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.
“We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made.”
Putin, who for years had criticized the West for ignoring his complaints about NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders, was finally striking back with fury. “I hope,” he concluded his short address, “that I have been heard.”