February 21, 2023

Putin fails to state specific goals or intentions in Ukraine war

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 21 address to the Russian Federal Assembly did not articulate specific goals or intentions for the war in Ukraine, instead reinforcing several long-standing rhetorical lines in an effort to buy Putin more space and time for a protracted war. Putin claimed that Russia began the “special military operation” in Ukraine a year ago in order to protect people in Russia’s “historical lands,” ensure Russian domestic security, remedy the threat posed by the Ukrainian “neo-Nazi” regime that he claims has been in place since 2014, and protect the people of Donbas. Putin virulently accused the collective West of arming Ukraine and deploying bases and biolabs close to Russian borders, thereby unleashing the war on Russia. Putin falsely analogized the Ukrainian Armed Forces with various Nazi divisions and thanked the Russian Armed Forces for their efforts in fighting the Nazi threat. The emphasis of a significant portion of the speech was on the supposed resilience of the Russian economic, social, and cultural spheres, and Putin made several recommendations for the development of occupied territories of Ukraine. Putin’s speech notably re-engaged with several long-standing Russian information operations regarding the justifications of the war and did not present an inflection in Russia’s rhetorical positioning on the war. Putin could have used this event to articulate new objectives and means for achieving them, such as announcing another formal wave of partial mobilization, redefining the “special military operation” as an official war, or taking additional steps to mobilize the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) in a more concrete way. Instead, Putin said very little of actual substance, likely in order to set continued information conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine by not articulating specific temporal goals and framing the war as existential to the Russian domestic population.

Putin announcement of Russia’s suspension of participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) captured more attention than the relatively boilerplate content of the rest of the speech. Towards the end of his speech, Putin claimed that the collective West has used START to try to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia and that Russia is therefore suspending its participation in START, although Putin did emphasize that suspension is not a full withdrawal. Putin called on the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom to ensure readiness for testing nuclear weapons. Putin may have made this announcement in order to re-introduce nuclear rhetoric into the information space, thereby distracting from the overall lack of substance in the rest of his speech. ISW has previously reported on the Russian use of nuclear rhetoric as an information operation to discourage Ukraine and the West and compensate for Russian battlefield failures. ISW continues to assess that Russia will not employ a nuclear weapon in Ukraine or against NATO, however.

US President Joe Biden gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland on February 21 to reaffirm US and NATO support for Ukraine after his trip to Kyiv. Biden emphasized the unity among NATO countries and stated “our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.” Biden also directly addressed Putin’s February 21 speech stating, “the West was not plotting to attack Russia” and “[Putin] could end this war with a word.”

International journalists reportedly obtained the Kremlin’s classified 2021 strategy document on restoring Russian suzerainty over Belarus through the Union State by 2030. The Kyiv Independent, Yahoo News, and several of their international media partners published an investigative report on February 20 about a classified 17-page Russian strategy document on how the Kremlin seeks to absorb the Belarusian state using the Kremlin-dominated Union State structure by 2030. The journalists did not publish the strategy document to avoid compromising sources they said. While ISW is unable to confirm the existence or contents of this document, the reporters’ findings about the strategy document and its various lines of effort for Belarus’ phased military, political, economic, and cultural integration with Russia through the Union State are consistent with ISW’s long-term research and assessments about the Kremlin’s campaigns and strategic objective to subsume Belarus via the Union State.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 21 address to the Russian Federal Assembly did not articulate specific goals or intentions for the war in Ukraine, instead reinforcing several long-standing rhetorical lines in an effort to buy Putin more space and time for a protracted war.
  • Putin announcement of Russia’s suspension of participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) captured more attention than the relatively boilerplate content of the rest of the speech.
  • US President Joe Biden gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland on February 21 to reaffirm US and NATO support for Ukraine after his trip to Kyiv.
  • Many Russian milbloggers condemned Putin’s failure to use his speech to forward new war aims, outline new measures to support the war, or hold Russian authorities accountable for their many military failures.
  • International journalists reportedly obtained the Kremlin’s classified 2021 strategy document on restoring Russian suzerainty over Belarus through the Union State by 2030.
  • Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Director Wang Yi met in Moscow on February 21 on deepening Sino–Russan cooperation.
  • The Financial Times (FT) reported that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s international companies continue to garner hundreds of millions of dollars in profits despite long-standing Western sanctions.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna. Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a limited counterattack near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued making incremental tactical gains in and around Bakhmut, and continued ground attacks near Avdiivka.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue to reinforce and build fortifications in rear areas in southern Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin may be directing patronage programs between Russian regions and occupied Ukrainian territory to promote socio-economic recovery and infrastructure development.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin further expanded unrealistic promises of benefits for Russian soldiers in his address to the Russian Federal Assembly.
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