On the eve of the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine War on February 24, Putin delivered his State of the Union address to the Federal Assembly (both houses of Congress) at noon on February 21 Moscow time. Apart from criticism from the "Nazi", he has no inkling on the direction of the war in Ukraine. He only proposes to suspend the implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) signed with the United States. The entire speech also focuses on domestic policies.
Looking back, before the Russia-Ukraine war, the same statutory annual State of the Union address did not take place.
Instead, on February 21 of that year, Putin announced the recognition of the independence of the Udonian states "Lugansk People's Republic" and "Donetsk People's Republic", and announced the launch of "special military operations" against Ukraine on the 24th. .
Some commentators believe that at that time, Europe, the United States and Russia generally predicted that the Ukrainian defenders would be quickly defeated. Putin's idea was probably to postpone the State of the Union speech and turn it into a "celebration of victory" event.
But that day has not come yet.
The strength of both sides in the war is "not as good as expected"
After a year of war, Putin's report card can only be regarded as "mixed" on the positive side.
On the one hand, the performance of the Russian army is far below expectations. Whether it abandoned its multi-pronged offensive in April last year and turned to concentrate on attacking Udon Donbas (Donbas); The annexation of the four states of Ukraine, the energy infrastructure offensive that started in October, the energy war against Europe in the winter, and the new offensive launched after 2023, all attempts have not changed the long-term stalemate of the overall war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of the war. situation.
But from another perspective, the "extreme sanctions" imposed by Europe, the United States and their allies have not caused the expected blow to the Russian economy.
Russia's economy will only shrink by 2.1% in 2022, and it is expected to grow slightly this year; the price limit order for Russian oil seems to limit its crude oil price below $60 a barrel, but the transaction data of Russian oil buyers in Asia is not transparent. Public information may not reflect the actual situation; moreover, under the background that the countries where most of the world’s population live have not joined the sanctions against Russia, the material life of the Russian people has not become impoverished because of this, but some things that people used to be used to are missing. Some western brands only.
In other words, the strength of the Russian army is far worse than expected, but Western sanctions are not very good.
In the predicament where the West’s intention to aid Ukraine has not changed, the Ukrainians’ anti-Russia sentiment has not diminished, and Russia’s confidence is still in the predicament, all parties still believe that they have the possibility of winning in the end, so the war seems to have no end in sight. If the fight continues, it will even turn a stalemate where the two sides have had occasional offense and defense since the middle of last year into a normal situation.
2023 has just begun, and many war observers, such as Michael Kofman, director of the Russian Research Program at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), have predicted that the war will continue until 2024.
The outside world is clear about Ukraine’s intentions: it is nothing more than striving for “Brexit Russia and join Europe”, join the EU and NATO, obtain long-term security guarantees from the West, and drive the Russian army out of the battlefield, including Crimea The entire territory of Ukraine, forcing Russia to accept war compensation, war crimes trial and other end-war demands as the loser.
Although European and American countries have different attitudes towards Ukraine and Russia, the realization of their intentions can only be based on Ukraine's intentions.
But what exactly are Putin's war intentions?
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a state of the union address to parliament on Feb. 21, on the eve of the first anniversary of Russia's war with Ukraine (Reuters)
Among Putin's speeches before and since the start of the war, his statements can be described as varied.
One is to protect the rights and safety of the ethnic Russian population in Donbass from the oppression of the "neo-Nazi" and "anti-Russian" Ukrainian rulers.
The second is to prevent NATO from expanding eastward to protect Russia's national security.
The third is to keep Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence, accept the "historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians", and prevent the development of Ukrainian national identity into an "anti-Russian" concept.
The fourth is to "demilitarize" and "denazize" Ukraine, which seems to involve the overthrow of the Zelensky government.
There are so many other details that cannot be exhaustively recorded.
Protect the Donbass Russians?
In terms of protecting the rights of the Urussian population, Putin does have some reason in terms of motivation.
Even though Putin often cited the 13,000 deaths in the Donbas conflict, the vast majority actually occurred between the fierce fighting between the separatist armed forces and the Ukrainian government in 2014 and 2015. The figures include the deaths of both sides, and mainly armed personnel. It does not only refer to Ukrainian Russian civilians as the Russian propaganda suggests; however, since the pro-European demonstrations in Ukraine kicked out the pro-Russian president in 2014, the Crimea incident, and the outbreak of Ukrainian separatist wars, Ukrainian pro-European The government has indeed implemented a series of policies of "respecting Ukraine and demoting Russia".
After the passage of the "De-Communization Law" in 2015, Ukrainian place names and traffic place instructions were completely removed from Russification, and only Ukrainian and English were retained. Public institutions including the Udon Donbas region can only communicate in Ukrainian.
In 2016 and 2017, Ukraine passed a number of laws to set up regulations on the proportion of Ukrainian language for radio and television broadcasts, obviously to reduce the popularity of Russian and consolidate Ukrainian as the only national language. At the same time, it also stipulates that the teaching language should only be Can use Ukrainian or various official languages of the EU, excluding Russian. This law has also been criticized by EU institutions as discriminatory against Russian.
In 2018, Ukraine's Constitutional Court ruled that a 2012 law passed by the pro-Russian government guaranteeing rights to Russian and other regional languages was "unconstitutional."
In the same year, Lviv Oblast, one of the birthplaces of Ukrainian nationalist narratives and located near the Polish border in the west, tried to legislate to ban the public display of Russian-language movies, books, and songs, but was eventually rejected by the court.
The 2019 "Law on Ensuring Ukrainian Language Plays the Role of the National Language" stipulates that Ukrainian should be used preferentially in more than 30 areas of public life, including public administration, media, education, science, culture, publishing, advertising, public events, medical care, etc. , which provides different exemptions for Crimean Tatar, English and the various official languages of the European Union, but also excludes Russian.
By 2022, after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine War, Ukraine will even ban Russian citizens from printing books, generally ban the import of Russian-language books, and restrict the broadcasting of Russian-language music on radio and television.
Here, although Putin is well-known for his "teachings" to Ukraine, his two "teachings" in 2014 and 2022 have obviously intensified the de-Russization of Ukraine, which has had the opposite effect.
Moreover, its intention to protect ethnic Russians cannot explain why Putin wants to compete for Kherson Oblast and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in southern Ukraine, where the Ukrainian majority "Wartime referendum" to include them in the territory of the Russian Federation.
Is stopping NATO's eastward expansion the main reason?
Preventing the eastward expansion of NATO, especially Ukraine's eventual accession to NATO, is also the intention that Putin has clearly mentioned.
As early as the end of 2021, when Russia sent soldiers to more than 100,000 people on the Ukrainian border, Russia announced two documents, asking NATO and the United States to sign a pledge not to allow other former Soviet countries that did not join NATO to join NATO, and to join NATO after 1997 Countries in China (including Poland and the three Baltic countries, etc.) withdrew their troops, banned NATO from conducting military activities in Ukraine, other Eastern European countries, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, acknowledging in disguise that these areas belong to Russia's sphere of influence.
These conditions were of course not accepted by NATO in the end.
As a result, Putin's subsequent decision to go to war was attributed by international political realists represented by John Mearsheimer to his response to "NATO's eastward expansion."
Maps of NATO expansion from 1949 to the present.
But is stopping NATO's eastward expansion really the main purpose of Putin's decision to go to war last year?
First of all, Putin seems to have agreed before going to war that Ukraine will not join NATO immediately or even in the short term, which may pose a security threat to Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz assured Putin that Ukraine's NATO membership "wouldn't happen in the next 30 years" before Putin swooped in last February, according to a report in the German newspaper Die Welt.
Putin's public response at the time was that he also knew that "Ukraine is not ready to join NATO", but "when Ukraine is ready to join NATO, it will be too late for us".
Second, why does Ukraine's entry into NATO pose an existential threat to Russia that it has to "preemptively strike" with force?
The closest straight-line distance between Ukraine and Moscow is about 450 kilometers. Of course, Ukraine's joining NATO may increase NATO's military threat to Russia.
However, Latvia, which joined NATO as early as 2004, is actually less than 600 kilometers away from Moscow in a straight line, and for historical reasons, Latvia, like Ukraine, has a direct traffic route to Moscow.
Is the gap of more than 100 kilometers really worth using force for this?
Moreover, after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO together, but Putin ignored it, saying that as long as NATO did not deploy military forces in the two countries, Russia would not take any action. General problems in Ukraine, because neither Finland nor Sweden has a territorial dispute with Russia, "from the point of view of Finland's or Sweden's NATO membership, there is nothing that would bother us".
The picture shows, in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2022, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Scholz attend a NATO summit on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
This response is, of course, tautology.
The "territorial dispute" between Ukraine and Russia began with the Crimea incident in 2014, and Russia's rationale for annexing Crimea is often packaged by the West's violation of its commitment to "NATO's eastward expansion."
In this narrative, since NATO's eastward expansion is the cause of territorial disputes, of course territorial disputes cannot turn around and become the reason for NATO's eastward expansion to plague Russia.
Moreover, from the perspective of military deployment, the potential threat to Russia from Finland and Sweden's joining NATO is likely to be greater than Ukraine's joining NATO.
Finland and Sweden are also far superior in terms of armament and military quality to Ukraine. After the two countries join, the Baltic Sea will become like an inland sea of NATO. St. Petersburg’s sea outlet is in danger of being blocked at any time, and Finland and Russia have a land route of nearly 1,340 kilometers. The border is directly adjacent to Murmansk (Murmansk) in northwestern Russia and the North Sea Fleet on the Kola Peninsula (Kola Peninsula), which is the main force for its nuclear submarine force deterrence.
It can be seen that the potential security threat of "NATO's eastward expansion" itself is a long-term defense concern of Russia, but it does not seem to be the immediate cause of Putin's decision to go to war.
Compared with any form of NATO's eastward expansion, those who worry about it seem to be particularly focused on the possibility of "Ukraine joining NATO", and what is involved is not purely security considerations, otherwise Putin's rationale for Finland and Sweden joining NATO The reaction should be greater.
The Russian army has launched an offensive on three fronts in early 2023: the Svatove-Kreminna (Svatove-Kreminna) front, Bakhmut (Bakhmut) and Vuhledar (Vuhledar) in Luhansk Oblast.
In fact, Putin's actions against Ukraine have often created opportunities for NATO's "further eastward expansion" in recent years.
For example, after the Crimea incident, NATO violated the 1997 agreement with Russia in 2016 and stationed troops from other NATO countries in Poland and the three Baltic countries in the name of "Enhanced Forward Presence" to implement the so-called "Tripwire strategy"; between 2022 when Russia invades the Ukrainian border and then invades, NATO has also greatly increased its deployment along the east and is ready to welcome Finland and Sweden.
Paradoxically, as Ukraine used more and more NATO-style European and American military aid during the war, Ukraine has almost become a "quasi" NATO country even if it is not a NATO country in name.
From this perspective, if Putin's march is to prevent NATO from expanding eastward, the result will undoubtedly be counterproductive.
The cause of national unification of Russia and Ukraine?
Putin's "special treatment" for the potential threat of "Ukraine joining NATO" actually stems from his understanding of the "historical unity" of the Russian and Ukrainian nations.
In July 2021, Putin published a long article entitled "The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", using historical events to try to demonstrate that "Russians and Ukrainians are the same nation" and belong to "the same history and spirit". field".
He traced the origin of the two races to Vladimir the Great, the first Kievan Rus who was baptized into Christianity in the 10th century AD, and Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century. Bohdan Khmelnytsky's decision to side with Poland and Moscow between its powerful neighbors is seen as a historical event in which Ukrainians "identify themselves as a Russian Orthodox nation".
In 2016, Putin unveiled a statue of Grand Duke Vladimir I in Moscow.
In the article, while Putin asserts that he respects "Ukrainian language and traditions," he says that "true Ukrainian sovereignty can only be possible in partnership with Russia."
He specifically referred to the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the 19th century under what is now the Austro-Hungarian Empire in western Ukraine, criticizing it as a "historically unfounded" political tool, and comparing it to today's Ukraine, which is marked by Brexit and its independence from Russia. Identities other than Russia have been compared, referring to a plan to turn Ukraine into an "anti-Moscow Russia".
Today, a year after the start of the war, Putin still uses this view of history as his justification for continuing the war.
In his State of the Union address on February 21, "protecting the people of our historic land" was the first reason Putin used to support his launch of "special military operations".
The second reason is the threat to Russia from the eastward expansion of the United States and NATO.
Regarding Ukrainian nationalism, Putin reiterated: "In our time, they started to transform Ukraine into an 'anti-Russia', and this is not a new project... [The] Austria-Hungary and Poland [in the 19th century] had already conceived this thing, It is used to deprive Russia of the historic land known today as Ukraine.” Putin believes that the Ukrainian people do not agree with this set of Ukrainian nationalism that is split from Russia. “We are not fighting the Ukrainian people... The Ukrainian people have become hostage of the Kiev regime and Western meddler.”
Compared with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, "Ukraine's joining NATO" is fundamentally different for Putin.
The former is only a matter of geopolitics and military security, while the latter is a tear within the Russian nation and a trap of the West to "use Russia to control Russia".
Therefore, Putin's decision to march into Ukraine was not simply to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, but to "rescue" Ukraine from "anti-Russian" Ukrainian nationalism. "De-Nazification" (note: Nazism has become synonymous with "anti-Russian" in the Russian narrative).
Of course, Putin has always underestimated the power and popularity of Ukrainian nationalism, which has led to today's stalemate.
The narrative of the unity of Russian-Ukrainian national history has long been questioned in the historian circle.
Zenon Kohut, a Ukrainian-Canadian scholar who studies Ukrainian history, carefully traced the source of this narrative of national unity in a paper published in 2001. The original understanding of Kiev by the Tsarist regime in Moscow was only a historical and religious one. Separation of individuals is not the unity of "Kiev and Moscow belong to Russia" today, and Kiev is at best a transit point where the legitimacy of the Tsar's power comes from the Eastern Roman Empire.
It was not until the 17th century that Ukraine was geopolitically subordinated to Moscow that the clergy in Kiev regarded Russia and Ukraine as the same unit in terms of dynasty, religion, and race, and referred to Ukraine as "Little Russia".
This set of national historical narratives was not fully formed until the middle of the 19th century.
While Ukrainians in the same period also developed an alternative narrative of Ukraine's independent political and social status, it was subsequently almost completely overshadowed by the story of Russian-Ukrainian national unity.
Ukrainian nationalism, which is independent of Russia, gradually became mainstream after 2014. After the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2022, "de-Russification" has become an almost unanimous consensus among the Ukrainian people.
From this perspective, Putin's attempt to "set things right" for Ukrainian nationalism has backfired.
Although today, judging from his State of the Union address, Putin’s perception of Ukraine has not changed from a year ago, but the reality on the battlefield has determined that Putin’s original war intentions are no longer the decisive factor in the direction of the war.
Just as Mearsheimer, a realist, cannot deny today, Ukrainian nationalism has become a "force multiplier" factor to stop the Russian military, and Putin's goal of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and maintaining its neutral status has also degenerated into only seeking Turn Ukraine into a non-functioning "rump state".
In order to prevent Ukraine from formally joining NATO and to suppress Ukrainian nationalism, this kind of war that Putin originally thought could be solved quickly can only continue until neither party is willing to consume it anymore.
As the saying goes, "War always has its logic." Today's situation was not what Putin expected a year ago, and its future development is not within his control.
When did Russia invade Ukraine?
On February 24, 2022, the Russian army rushed to Kiev in the name of "special military operations", intending to quickly take the Ukrainian capital.
In the early morning of that day, the Russian army invaded Ukraine in four directions from the east, south, north, and northeast.
What about the war casualties of the Russia-Ukraine war?
According to a new Norwegian estimate, the total number of casualties of the Russian army is about 180,000, and that of the Ukrainian army is 100,000.
Other Western sources mention losses of around 150,000 on each side.
In addition, tens of thousands of civilians were killed or injured by the flames of war. The United Nations reported that more than 7,000 civilians were confirmed dead and more than 13,000 were injured.
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