Russian President Vladimir Putin railed against the West in his long-delayed state-of-the-nation address – a speech that was expected to set the tone for the year ahead and shed light on how the Kremlin sees its bogged-down war in Ukraine.
Mr Putin has frequently justified his invasion of Ukraine by accusing western countries of threatening Russia.
They say nothing could be further from the truth, saying Moscow’s forces attacked Ukraine unprovoked.
“It’s they who have started the war and we are using force to end it,” Mr Putin said in a speech in front of politicians, state officials and soldiers who have fought in Ukraine on Tuesday.
While the Constitution says the president should deliver the speech annually, Mr Putin never gave one in 2022 as his troops rolled into Ukraine and suffered repeated setbacks.
This year’s address comes days before the war’s first anniversary on Friday.
Before the speech, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian leader would focus on the “special military operation” in Ukraine, as Moscow calls it, and Russia’s economy and social issues. Many observers also expected the speech to address Moscow’s fallout with the West.
And Mr Putin began with strong words for those countries.
The West is aware “it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield” so it launches “aggressive information attacks” by “misconstruing historical facts” attacking Russian culture, religion and values, Mr Putin said in the speech broadcast by all state TV channels.
Citing another justification he has used for the war, Mr Putin claimed his forces are protecting civilians in regions of Ukraine that Moscow has since illegally annexed.
“We are defending people’s lives, our home,” he said. “And the West is striving for an unlimited domination.”
Underscoring the anticipation, some state TV channels put out a countdown for the event, while Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti said the address may be “historic”.
The Kremlin this year barred media from “unfriendly” countries, including the US, UK and those in the EU.
Mr Peskov said journalists from those nations would be able to cover the speech by watching the broadcast.
Senior Russian politician and leader of the nationalist LDPR party, Leonid Slutsky, was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying Mr Putin will set priorities “that will deprive our enemies of the hope to defeat Russia, weaken it or try to subdue it to their neo-colonial leadership”.
Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya said the address “was expected to be very hawkish, aimed at defiantly breaking off relations with the West.” In the wake of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv on Monday, “additional edits can be made to make it even harsher”.
Mr Peskov told reporters the speech’s delay was down to Mr Putin’s “work schedule” – but Russian media reports linked it to the multiple setbacks Russian forces have suffered on the battlefield in Ukraine.
The Russian president had postponed the state-of-the-nation address before; in 2017 the speech was rescheduled for early 2018.
Last year, the Kremlin also cancelled two other big annual events — Mr Putin’s press conference and a highly scripted phone-in marathon where people ask the President questions.
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