"Our plans are not to occupy Ukraine, we do not plan to impose ourselves on anyone," said Vladimir Putin after the Russian military strike on Ukraine. Is he saying one thing and meaning another?
Russian military jets are flying over Ukrainian airspace, targeting the country’s military infrastructure, missiles are pounding different cities—from capital Kiev to Kharkiv—and troops have entered Odessa, a Black Sea port-city, according to Moscow and video footage from different sources.
But Vladimir Putin believes it’s not an act of war. "Our plans are not to occupy Ukraine, we do not plan to impose ourselves on anyone," the Russian president said. He also added that if Ukrainian forces want to live further, they need to lay down arms and go home.
All these appear to have some serious contradictions for even the layman.
“His words are known as maskirovka, which means 'disguise' in Russian, a military tactic widely used in the former communist Soviet political language, referring to military deception,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst, who has followed Putin and Russia for years.
“Westerners call it false flag operations,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World. “They deceived the world’s public opinion, saying that ‘We are retreating’, ‘We retreated’ or ‘We will retreat’,” says the political analyst. “But they would not pull back.”
Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and non-resident fellow in the Atlantic Institute, terms Putin’s words “a false statement”.
“He has been saying for months that ‘We don’t want to invade Ukraine and US claims over Russian objectives were examples of hysteria’. And now he has invaded,” Bryza tells TRT World.
“The speech was simply aimed at providing domestic Russian justification for invading Ukraine” because "the invasion is very unpopular among Russians”, who did not expect such an attack on their neighbouring state, according to the former American diplomat.
Bryza also found Putin’s comparison of Ukraine to the Nazis “ridiculous”, saying that it was, in fact, the Russian leader’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, which is similar to Hitler’s tactics to annex Austria called the Anschluss in March 1938, prior to WWII. “Remember that it was Moscow and Berlin that started WWII by attacking Poland in September 1939 simultaneously,” he says.
Some parts of pre-War Poland became parts of current Ukraine after WWII arrangements.
While analysts argue whether the current attack is an act of war or not, “Russians attacked 17 different regions of Ukraine and these explosions people see are true,” Yalinkilicli says. Right now, what they are doing is not a limited operation, going far beyond separatist-held eastern Donbass region, targeting various locations across Ukraine, according to Yalinkilicli.
“Military infrastructure, air defence systems, military airports and the air force in Ukraine were disabled with high-precision weapons,” said a written statement from the Russian Defence Ministry today.
Where will things end
Putin’s elusive language does not suggest any limits over the ongoing Russian operation.
He also starkly warned anyone “who might be tempted to meddle in the ongoing events: whoever tries to stand in our way or create threats for our country … people should know Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history".
Yalinkilicli says Russia wants “to turn the Ukrainian government into a dysfunctional state”.
If the attack turns into a full-fledged war between Russia and Ukraine, it would mark a first between the two nations.
“According to Putin, they are supposed to be one nation,” says Yalinkilicli, who studied Russian history. “Russians think that their history began with Kievan Rus in the 9th century,” he adds, referring to the first Russian state in history.
“The point of Ukraine [for Russians] is its emotional historical resonance and sense of security violated in the event of it becoming a US puppet. So it has an intangible emotional value [for Russians],” says Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University.
“A problem with this conflict is the potential for emotions to take hold. And policymakers in the US and EU are supporting this path,” Simons tells TRT World, indicating that the conflict could get bigger.
While Simons thinks that Moscow is reacting to “the inept attitude and behaviour of the West and this is the primary driving dynamic now”, the professor also believes that Russian emotions might play a big role in the current escalations.
“In part, this is possible as one can visibly see Putin's patience is tested by what he says and how he says it,” the professor says, referring to the Russian president’s tough language, which sometimes resembled the old Tsars of the Russian Empire. “Things are sure getting interesting right now,” he says.
Yalinkilicli also believes that the Kremlin's current approach toward Russian history might play a serious role in the direction of the Ukraine crisis. “Putin and his United Russia Party, alongside the Russian elites, who lead the country, advocate a thousand year-long tradition against a hundred year-long revolution,” he says.
The thousand year-long tradition refers to the years under the rule of Russian tsardom which defended an Orthodox Slavist policy across Eurasian territories. The hundred year-long revolution refers to the period under the communist Soviet Union following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
The current leadership in the Kremlin sees the communist period as “a road accident”, according to Yalinkilicli.
Putin has recently presented a harsh criticism of Bolshevik policies under Vladimir Lenin and other communist leaders like Nikita Khruschev, who ceded territories like the Crimean Peninsula to Kiev to create Ukraine. Putin believes that Russia was “robbed” of its lands due to the political acts of Soviet leaders.
Putin’s assertions toward the communist past might also indicate a definite break-up from the Soviet era in an attempt to glorify the Orthodox-Slavic Russian past and to reclaim old territories of Tsarist Russia.
Realism vs emotions
Simons still believes that “Russia is first and foremost a realist in foreign policy. Yes, definitely Putin is losing patience as the West seems to be treating this like a game.”
Putin himself has previously argued that the West is playing with Russian emotions to force Moscow into a war with Ukraine. “I would guess this is an attempt to shift Russia to a proactive stance on the issue of the respective places and roles of the US and Russia in post-Soviet space,” the professor says, referring to Western pressure over Russia.
But he thinks the Russian advance into Ukraine is “a calculated move”. While he is sure that calculations have been made, “the real question is whether they hold.”
According to Simons, Russia might want to create its own Libya in Ukraine, like the way the US and its allies did to the North African state, enabling anti-Gaddafi forces to claim the country. But since then, Libya has been in a state of civil war while the US did not occupy it.
“Putin does not want to occupy Ukraine but wants to remove sources of threat and then, to leave once [his] aims are met,” he says. But that kind of action might also facilitate the conditions of a civil war in Ukraine like in Libya.
Simons also thinks that Russia does not want to repeat what happened during the 2008 Georgia War in which Moscow defeated the forces of Tbilisi, ensuring the durability of pro-Russian two breakaway states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in the country. But the pro-Western Georgian state survived.
“Not an exact match but the lessons are still clear,” the professor says. “Russians stated two red lines: no NATO membership to either Georgia or Ukraine,” he says.
But despite their intentions, the current escalations with Kiev might create another Georgia in Ukraine. “This is a tango and not a solo dance. Everything doesn't solely depend on Russia, but also on the words and actions of the US, its allies and Ukraine. If they back down on their red line then they will not be in a good geopolitical place,” says Simons.
But by attacking Ukraine, Russians might also end up in an even much worse geopolitical place. “They will have already visited this dilemma for sure, and the current actions speak of the conclusion,” says Simons.