The speech was expected to be about Ukraine, where Russia’s military is struggling seven months into its invasion and where Moscow is claiming four partially occupied regions as its own in a land grab condemned by Kyiv and the West.
However, the bulk of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nationally televised address from the Kremlin’s opulent St. George’s Hall on September 30 was devoted to a vitriolic attack on the United States and its allies.
Before an audience of ruling elites — both chambers of parliament, regional governors, security and military officials, and others — Putin portrayed the country as defiant in the throes of an existential conflict with a “satanic” enemy bent on destroying Russia, its culture, and what he called its “traditional values.”
He all but ignored the actual conflict that he dramatically escalated in February by launching a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, as well as the battlefield setbacks that pose a serious challenge to his ambitions.
“Western elites deny not only national sovereignty and international law; their hegemony has the pronounced character of totalitarianism, despotism, and apartheid,” Putin asserted. “They brazenly divide the world into their vassals, into so-called civilized countries and everyone else who, according to today’s Western racists, must join the ranks of barbarians and savages.”
It was “the most anti-American speech that Vladimir Putin has ever made,” Yelena Chernenko, a well-known journalist for the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, said in a post on Twitter.
Putin’s aggrieved but triumphant tone contrasted with the stark reality of how the war in Ukraine is going for the Russian armed forces.
Russia may have suffered as many as 80,000 casualties since February 24, Western intelligence officials estimate, a substantial loss that was what spurred Putin to order a military mobilization last week.
That order, which officially envisions as many as 300,000 new troops being sent to Ukraine, set off protests in many regions that rarely see public demonstrations.
It also sparked an exodus of working-age and military-age men, as well as women, who are fleeing Russia for neighboring countries. By one estimate, as many as 260,000 people have fled since Putin ordered the mobilization on September 21.
On the battlefield, meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have waged a stunning counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, liberating swaths of territory earlier this month and overcoming sizable Russian troop numbers.
That momentum has continued. Hours before Putin’s speech, Ukrainian forces were reported to have nearly encircled the strategic town of Lyman in the northern part of the Donetsk region, potentially trapping a sizable number of Russian troops.
If Lyman is recaptured, that will allow Ukrainian forces to control a key set of crossroads and threaten more Russian supply lines, including potentially the town of Lysychansk, which Ukraine withdrew from in late June amid a Russian onslaught.
Putin’s speech came before he signed agreements that, in Moscow’s eyes, make Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions part of Russia. The move followed Kremlin-orchestrated referendums denounced by Kyiv and the West as a sham.
Russia does not control the regions in their entirety, and fierce fighting is ongoing in many areas.
“Russia’s annexation announcement stands in sharp contrast to the military reality on the ground, as Russian forces face envelopment at Lyman,” U.S.-based military analyst Michael Kofman wrote on Twitter. “There’s a good chance it will be followed by another defeat and the collapse of that pocket.”
Ukraine’s advances — in Kharkiv and to a lesser degree in the southern Kherson region — have been due to improved Ukrainian tactics and deliveries of powerful Western weaponry that have disrupted Russian supply lines and command tactics in the field.
Amid the setbacks, Putin has frequently cast what the Kremlin officially calls a “special military operation” as a war against the West.
Putin, of course, is known for diatribes against Washington and the West over his 23 years as president and prime minister.
In February 2007, at the annual Munich Security Conference, he lambasted Western nations for expanding NATO into formerly Soviet bloc countries and accused the United States of trying to build a “unipolar world.”
Later that same year, at ceremonies marking the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, he likened U.S. foreign policy to that of Hitler’s Third Reich.
The Munich speech, however, was “just baby talk compared to what has been said in the Kremlin today,” Chernenko wrote.
Putin’s September 30 speech “mainly focused on the West, and he really poured on all the ‘isms’ that he could in the great tradition of Soviet rhetoric,” Ukrainian analyst Oleh Saakyan told Current Time, citing Putin’s accusations of “imperialism, colonialism, racism, Russophobia,” and more.
Putin used the “demonization of the West as a justification for his actions,” Saakyan said.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin and a political consultant who now lives outside of Russia, wrote that “the only substantive thing in today’s address” was Putin’s call on Ukraine to stop fighting and hold talks,” a proposal that is all the more unlikely following Russia’s attempted annexation of the four regions.
“Putin is not fighting against Ukraine or even against NATO. He’s fighting against reality,” Gallyamov wrote on Facebook.
Putin, who also spoke briefly at a celebratory concert on Red Square after the Kremlin ceremony, devoted almost no time in his speech to the situation on the ground.
Ignoring the fact that Russia controls only parts of the four regions and that its moves to annex them have been widely denounced as an illegitimate act of aggression, he presented their status as a fait accompli, as he did when Moscow occupied and seized Crimea in 2014.
“What has happened with [the four Ukrainian regions] is now done, finished. Russia will not give them up…. We will protect our lands with every means at our disposal,” he said, echoing a series of thinly veiled threats that Russia could use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances.
Despite what he called “loose talk” by Putin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the speech that the United States has not seen Russia take any action that suggests it is “contemplating the use of nuclear weapons.”
Putin spent most of his time slamming the United States and its allies, which he alleged are bent on destroying Russia and its culture.
“I want to tell you what our people are fighting for,” he said, before launching into a historical litany of indictments against the West that referenced crimes of the colonial era, the global slave trade, the Opium Wars, the U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan, the “militarily unjustified” U.S. and British bombing of German cities during World War II, and the war in Vietnam.
“They want to turn us into a colony, a collection of soulless robots,” he said without evidence. “Our thought and philosophy are a threat to them, and therefore they attack our philosophers.”
The reference to attacking “our philosophers” may have been a reference to an August 21 car bombing outside of Moscow that killed the daughter of far-right Russian publicist and self-proclaimed philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Without evidence, some Kremlin allies have blamed the bombing on Kyiv and the West.
Praise from the rabidly anti-Western Dugin was a telling measure of the tenor of Putin’s speech: In a Telegram post, Dugin called it “a fundamental declaration of war against the modern West and the modern world as a whole,” and “a manifesto of tradition.”
Tatyana Stanovaya, a Russian political scientist who runs a consulting firm called R.Politik, said Russia’s elite — politicians, business leaders, intellectuals — have largely been supportive, albeit with “informal grumbling and gloomy expectations.”
That’s changed as the war has worsened for Russia — and as Putin’s rhetoric has darkened.
“Putin is ready to go to the end, threatening to send everyone to paradise if Russia is not allowed to win as he deems sufficient,” Stanovaya, who is now based in France, wrote in a commentary published prior to Putin’s speech, referring to his nuclear rumblings.
“The elites are still demonstrating their willingness to go with Putin against Ukraine, but their belief in the inevitability of victory is melting,” she wrote. “And without victory, there is a fork in the road: either a defeat that means the collapse of Putin’s regime with all the ensuing risks to the ruling elite, or a nuclear argument that carries a universal threat to physical survival.”