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ISW: Putin attempts to reframe Russia as victim in unprovoked war against Ukraine

09 Feb, 2024
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ISW: Putin attempts to reframe Russia as victim in unprovoked war against Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to use an interview with American media personality Tucker Carlson published on February 8 to present to a wider Western audience a long-standing Kremlin information operation that falsely asserts that Russia is interested in a negotiated end to its war in Ukraine.

Putin illustrated throughout the interview that Russia has no interest in meaningful or legitimate negotiations, however, and that Putin still seeks to destroy Ukraine as a state. Putin also displayed his overarching hostility towards the West and falsely accused the West of forcing Russia to attack Ukraine. Putin repeatedly stressed that Russia is open to negotiations in order to falsely frame Russia as a reasonable actor and “Western ruling elites” as the main obstruction to a negotiation.

Putin also repeatedly reiterated a Russian information operation alleging that Western officials coerced Ukraine to reject an agreement favorable to Russia during negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul in March 2022.

Western leaders, in fact, offered to help President Volodymyr Zelensky escape Kyiv in the days immediately following the invasion, and Zelensky responded that he needed “ammunition, not a ride.”

The Kremlin routinely frames the West as the only meaningful negotiating party in Ukraine as part of its effort to gain Western acceptance of its premise that Ukraine has no independent agency in order to secure concessions from the West on Ukraine’s behalf that undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and destroy Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The Kremlin has periodically intensified this information operation feigning interest in negotiations to seize on actual Western interest in a negotiated settlement to undermine Western support for Ukraine and degrade Western efforts to send more security assistance to Ukraine.

Putin and the Kremlin have intensified rhetoric in recent weeks indicating that Russia continues to pursue maximalist objectives in Ukraine that ISW assesses would amount to full Ukrainian and Western capitulation.

ISW continues to assess that Putin’s negotiating position has not changed: He still seeks the destruction of Ukraine and seeks to use an armistice to set favorable condition for the Russian military to launch a subsequent more successful war against Ukraine. 

Putin also attempted to use the interview to absurdly reframe Russia as the wronged party and not the initiator of Russia’s unprovoked war of conquest against UkrainePutin falsely claimed that Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” started the war in Ukraine in 2014 and that Russia’s full-scale invasion is an attempt to bring that war to an end.

Putin repeated tired Russian rhetoric presenting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas in 2014 and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as a defensive campaign aimed at protecting Russian people and the Russia nation. This ongoing information operation is meant to obfuscate the obvious fact that Russia launched a war of aggression against its neighbor in 2022 in order to confuse Western memories of what actually happened. Putin’s revisionism also aims to bolster long-standing Kremlin narratives justifying his maximalist goals in Ukraine.

Putin falsely claimed that a US-backed “coup” in Ukraine in 2014 forced Russia to invade Crimea and begin military operations in Donbas in 2014.

Putin falsely claimed that Ukraine initiated a military operation in the Donbas starting in 2014 and that Ukraine failed to implement the Minsk Agreements establishing the armistice that Putin broke in February 2022. Putin accused NATO of exploiting Ukraine in order to build military bases in Ukraine under the guise of training the Ukrainian military. There have not been and still are no NATO military bases in Ukraine. These narratives are aimed at buttressing Putin’s long-standing calls for Ukraine’s “demilitarization,” which are likely aimed at stripping Ukraine of the means to defend itself and allowing Russia to impose its will upon Ukraine through force whenever the Kremlin so chooses. Putin also reiterated that one of Russia’s war aims is to “denazify” Ukraine. Putin defined “denazification” as the prohibition of all neo-Nazi movements in Ukraine and the removal of people who support Nazi ideology. Putin specifically highlighted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as an alleged supporter of Nazi ideology, further indication that Putin’s calls for Ukraine's “denazification” are in fact demands for the removal of the current elected Ukrainian government and its replacement with one acceptable to the Kremlin, as ISW has long assessed.

Putin continued to call for Ukrainian “neutrality”  and argued that Russia cannot trust any NATO statements about the alliance not allowing Ukraine to become a member.

Putin continued to claim that NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Declaration, which promised Ukraine and Georgia paths to membership but took no concrete steps towards opening such paths, violated Ukraine’s 1991 Declaration of Independence that declared that Ukraine is a neutral state. The Russian Federation, however, had committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” which include Crimea and Donbas, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for Ukraine’s return of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia.

The Budapest Memorandum guarantees Ukraine all sovereign rights, which include the right for Ukraine to choose its own alignment.

Putin reiterated long-standing Russian information operations to deny the existence of Ukrainian statehood and identity. Putin claimed that Ukrainians fundamentally do not exist as a nation and that Ukrainians are truly Russians whom various political actors reinvented as Ukrainians to erode Russia’s ability to control Russia’s borderlands with other Eastern and Central European powers. Putin rewrote centuries of history to this effect. Putin has routinely denied Ukrainian sovereignty, statehood, and identity in order to frame Russia’s full-scale invasion as an attempt to return historically Russian lands to Russia and as a humanitarian effort to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers whom Russia calls “compatriots abroad.”

Putin has also regularly and intentionally misused the definition of “ethnic Russian” to erroneously include Ukrainians in order to promote the larger concept of the wider Russian World (Russkiy Mir) to justify Russia’s maximalist claims over Ukraine and its people and its larger imperialist ambitions. 

None of Putin’s rewriting of history justifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The borders of every state in the world have changed over time. International law, which Putin claims to seek to uphold, requires the recognition by all states of each other’s sovereign rights in their territories as recognized by other sovereign states. The Russian Federation has explicitly recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over its current international borders twice—in 1991 and in 1994. Accepting Putin’s argument for Russia’s right to redesign Ukraine’s borders to his liking by force is an invitation to all powerful states with historical grievances to attack and seize the lands of their neighbors that they covet.

Putin consistently framed NATO’s expansion and existence as threatening to Russia and any future Russian- and Chinese-led global order.

Putin claimed that world affairs develop according to “inherent laws” that have not changed throughout history wherein a country grows and becomes large and powerful before leaving the international stage without the prestige it once had. Putin implicitly analogized the current Western-led world order with the Mongol and Roman empires, which he presented as examples of hegemonic powers that were eventually conquered by other rising powers. Putin stated that while it took several hundreds of years for the Roman Empire to fall apart, current processes of change are happening at a faster rate. Putin is increasingly invoking a purposefully broad, vague, and pseudo-realist conception of Russian sovereignty to normalize wars of conquest and justify Russian goals to impose Putin’s will in Ukraine and beyond.

Putin has long made demands of NATO that would recreate the alliance into a structure that could not resist future Russian military aggression, whether that be campaigns of conquest or efforts to establish Russian control over countries the Kremlin deems to be within Russia’s sphere of influence.

The Odessa Journal

The Odessa Journal

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