Seven months into Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, amid mounting evidence of Russian battlefield losses, Putin announced his country’s latest annexation of four territories. In a rambling speech that alternately sought legitimacy for the annexations in the UN Charter and railed against Western colonialism and transgender rights, the enigmatic Russian leader revealed a great deal about his views of international law, justice, and morality.
Some of the points Putin raised in the speech, paired with glimpses of his evolving rhetoric from the past two decades, shed insight into lessons that can be drawn between his worldview, his actions on the battlefields of Ukraine, and what he sees as a shifting geopolitical landscape.
And given his apparent readiness to resort to nuclear weapons to bolster his views, these lessons bear scrutiny.
Lesson 1. Putin Has Always Wanted to Revive Russia’s Great-Power Status But Has Grown Disillusioned With International Cooperation and Justice
With respect to Russia’s geopolitical position, early into his presidency, Putin expressed now-barely recognizable optimism about Moscow’s willingness to embrace democratic ideals and participate meaningfully in the global community.
In 2003, he spoke to these aspirations in a national address to Russia’s Federal Assembly (emphasis added):
We must … focus all our decisions and all our action on ensuring that in a not too far off future, Russia will take its recognized place among the ranks of the truly strong, economically advanced and influential nations. … Russia must become and will become a country with a flourishing civil society and stable democracy, a country that fully guarantees human rights and civil and political freedoms. … Through [the aforementioned democratic ideals, along with economic freedoms, property rights, and military coordination with allies], we will create the conditions for people to enjoy a decent life and enable Russia to take its place as an equal in the community of most developed nations.
And in a 2002 press conference, he even indicated his view that Ukraine was welcome to join NATO:
I am absolutely convinced that Ukraine will not shy away from the processes of expanding interaction with NATO and the Western allies as a whole. Ukraine has its own relations with NATO; there is the Ukraine-NATO Council. At the end of the day the decision [ed: on whether Ukraine will join NATO] is to be taken by NATO and Ukraine. It is a matter for those two partners.
But over the years, a series of international and regional events undermined his faith that Western nations were truly open to cooperation.
In 2003, Putin vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq but remained optimistic at the time that the United Nations could pave the way toward peace. Citing what he saw as the increasingly “cruel” and “lingering character” of the Western military operations, and the casualties and destruction he said were fueling a humanitarian crisis, Putin told Russian lawmakers: “In such conditions … the only right decision would be an immediate end to the hostilities and a return to the process of political settlement within the framework of the UN Security Council.”
By 2011, as another Western-led coalition invaded another sovereign nation — Libya, this time with the blessing of the UN Security Council, as Russia, led by then-relatively-pro-Western placeholder president Dmitri Medvedev, had abstained from exercising its veto power — Putin made clear that his earlier faith in the international justice structure had faltered. “What troubles me is not the fact of military intervention itself — I am concerned by the ease with which decisions to use force are taken in international affairs. … This is becoming a persistent tendency in U.S. policy,” he said at the time, as quoted by Reuters, adding: “During the Clinton era they bombed Belgrade, Bush sent forces into Afghanistan, then under an invented, false pretext they sent forces into Iraq, liquidated the entire Iraqi leadership — even children in Saddam Hussein’s family died.”
He then railed against Western powers for pushing regime change in violation of the principle of sovereignty, saying that the lack of “Danish-style democracies” in the region surrounding Libya “basically corresponds with the mentality of the people, as well as long-standing practice,” as quoted by The New York Times.
The early aughts also brought a number of rude awakenings for Putin closer to home. In 2003, Georgia’s Rose Revolution shifted Tbilisi out of Moscow’s orbit. Then in 2004, several countries within the former Soviet sphere of influence become NATO members, including Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In turn, Putin’s views toward NATO expansion become far more negative, and he began sounding the alarm over the safety of Russians whom he says face abuse in former Soviet countries/satellites. Also in 2004, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution led to the rise of pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, spurring Putin to accuse the West of orchestrating color revolutions in a bid to destabilize/weaken Russia. Over the past two decades, Putin’s stances in both of these areas has hardened, ultimately shaping his view that Western Hegemony is a malevolent force driven to destroy Russia.
Lesson 2. This Disillusionment Has Contributed to Putin’s Belief that the West is Hypocritical, Decadent, and Abuses International Law to Advance Its Own Interests
Over the course of his presidency, Putin has championed what he sees as traditional Russian values, the impact of which has spanned from homophobic legislation to the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In a 2013 press conference, Putin spoke to this point, saying:
Society falls apart without [traditional] values. Clearly, we must come back to them, understand their importance and move forward on the basis of these values. … The point of conservatism is not that it obstructs movement forward and upward, but that it prevents the movement backward and downward. That, in my opinion, is a very good formula, and it is the formula that I propose. … Russia is a country with a very profound ancient culture, and if we want to feel strong and grow with confidence, we must draw on this culture and these traditions, and not just focus on the future.
And with increasing frequency, he has accused the West of weaponizing its own values as a means of interfering with the autonomy of countries in the former Soviet space.
In a 2021 meeting with the heads of security agencies from across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Putin referred to “new, hybrid threats our countries face,” which he defined as fueled by Western values:
What causes these threats is primarily the fact that the United States and its allies persist in their attempts to export, may I say, their Western values, or totalitarian-liberal values, as I call them, in order to influence our countries into changing our domestic and foreign policy.
Also that year, in a speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club, a Putin-led think-tank discussion forum, the Russian leader compared Western progressive values to early Bolshevik thought, saying: “Looking at what is happening in a number of Western countries, we are amazed to see the domestic practices, which we, fortunately, have left, I hope, in the distant past,” and then fleshing out his views on Russian conservatism.
This conservative approach is not about an ignorant traditionalism, a fear of change, or a restraining game, much less about withdrawing into our own shell. It is primarily about reliance on a time-tested tradition, the preservation and growth of the population, a realistic assessment of oneself and others, a precise alignment of priorities, a correlation of necessity and possibility, a prudent formulation of goals, and a fundamental rejection of extremism as a method. And frankly, in the impending period of global reconstruction, which may take quite long, with its final design being uncertain, moderate conservatism is the most reasonable line of conduct, as far as I see it. … Again, for us in Russia, these are not some speculative postulates, but lessons from our difficult and sometimes tragic history. The cost of ill-conceived social experiments is sometimes beyond estimation. Such actions can destroy not only the material, but also the spiritual foundations of human existence, leaving behind moral wreckage where nothing can be built to replace it for a long time.
Putin’s wariness of what he sees as Western moral decadence and his suspicions that the West cynically relies on international law as a tool to advance its own interests converged last week as he sought to justify his latest Ukrainian annexations:
The West does not have any moral right to weigh in, or even utter a word about freedom of democracy. It does not and it never did. … Western elites not only deny national sovereignty and international law. Their hegemony has pronounced features of totalitarianism, despotism, and apartheid. They brazenly divide the world into their vassals – the so-called civilized countries – and all the rest, who, according to the designs of today’s Western racists, should be added to the list of barbarians and savages. False labels like ‘rogue country’ or ‘authoritarian regime’ are already available, and are used to stigmatize entire nations and states, which is nothing new. There is nothing new in this: deep down, the Western elites have remained the same colonizers. They discriminate and divide peoples into the top tier and the rest.
He also lashed out against myriad progressive Western values, which he suggested will lead to “extinction,” saying:
Do we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, ‘parent number one, parent number two and parent number three’ (they have completely lost it!) instead of mother and father? Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children? This is all unacceptable to us. We have a different future of our own.
Over the years, a once measured wariness of progressive values had boiled over by last week’s speech into accusations of Satanism:
Let me repeat that the dictatorship of the Western elites targets all societies, including the citizens of Western countries themselves. This is a challenge to all. This complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a ‘religion in reverse’ – pure Satanism. Exposing false messiahs, Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ These poisonous fruits are already obvious to people, and not only in our country but also in all countries, including many people in the West itself.
An early attitude that Conservative values simply made more sense has escalated into full-throated rhetoric of Russian good versus Western evil, making clear Putin’s view that his geopolitical difficulties with the West have taken an ideological and perhaps even existential turn.
Lesson 3. Putin Has Always Feared the Loss of Russia’s Influence Over Ukraine
In his book All the Kremlin’s: Men Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Zygar wrote that since the early 2000s, Putin has often said, “We need to deal with Ukraine or we’ll lose it,” adding that early into his presidential tenure, he took ownership over the “Ukrainian vector,” as he felt no one else in the Kremlin could be entrusted with Moscow’s fragile relationship with Kyiv in the early post-Soviet era.
His view of both the inextricable link between Russia and Ukraine, and his belief that Ukraine was essentially a Russian province rather than a state, came into sharper focus in the early aughts. In a 2005 address, Putin famously lamented: “we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” In 2008, he told then-US President George Bush on the sidelines of a NATO summit, “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us,” as quoted in the book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy.
In a 2019 interview, he told Oliver Stone that Russians and Ukrainians were “one nation,” and “one people,” explaining: “This is the same world sharing the same history, same religion, traditions, and a wide range of ties, close family ties among them.”
This rhetoric came to a head in March 2022, days after Russia launched its invasion, when Putin told members of the Russian Security Council:
I will never abandon my conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation, even though some people in Ukraine have been intimidated, many have been duped by nationalist Nazi propaganda, and some have consciously decided to become followers of Bandera and other Nazi accomplices, who fought on Hitler’s side during the Great Patriotic War.
His early openness to respecting Ukrainian independence even to the extent of NATO membership has given way to a determination that Ukraine has never been independent, and in fact, that it constitutes a critical national interest.
Lesson 4. Putin’s Wariness of Western Hegemony and Fear of Losing Influence in Ukraine Fueled Russia’s 2014 Annexation of Crimea
As was the case with the latest annexations, Crimea was annexed in 2014 on the ostensible basis of a rushed referendum overseen by Russian forces. In that case, rather than launching a full-scale invasion, Russian soldiers had flooded the region after the Maidan Revolution propelled Kyiv closer to the West. As the home base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Crimea had always been a strategically critical location for Russian forces.
The referendum aimed to lend the annexation a veneer of legitimacy, but one that Putin knew the international community would see through. Accordingly, he was quick to justify his actions in the context of international law’s malleability, as evidenced by what he saw as a post-Cold War era of victor’s justice in the international justice arena.
In a 2014 speech before the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin said:
The Cold War ended, but it did not end with the signing of a peace treaty with clear and transparent agreements on respecting existing rules or creating new rules and standards. This created the impression that the so-called ‘victors’ in the Cold War had decided to pressure events and reshape the world to suit their own needs and interests. If the existing system of international relations, international law and the checks and balances in place got in the way of these aims, this system was declared worthless, outdated and in need of immediate demolition. … We have entered a period of differing interpretations and deliberate silences in world politics. International law has been forced to retreat over and over by the onslaught of legal nihilism. Objectivity and justice have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Arbitrary interpretations and biased assessments have replaced legal norms. At the same time, total control of the global mass media has made it possible when desired to portray white as black and black as white.
In many ways, this would continue to provide the framework for Russia’s compliance with international law. In Putin’s view, international law and justice are flexible concepts, open to interpretation. What’s more, he has made clear Russia’s specific motivation not to comply with the status quo.
Lesson 5. Russia’s Latest Annexations Show It Has Cemented This Putin-Specific View of International Law — An Uncomfortable Truth When Nuclear Weapons Are Concerned
As with Crimea, Russia’s decision to absorb Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, was augmented with rapidly orchestrated referendums to give the exercises the appearance of legitimacy. This emboldened Putin to justify the annexations on the basis of the internationally protected right to self-determination.
But unlike past referendums that have been more broadly accepted by the international community, such as the 2011 independence referendum in South Sudan, international observers from recognized bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems were not invited to monitor these ones. A peculiar bevy of international Putin supporters was invited instead, according to local news reports. Under heavy military supervision, and in the absence of a transparent protocol, Russian media announced staggering results in favor of joining Russia, from 87% in Kherson to more than 99% in Donetsk.
The US State Department swiftly protested, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stating:
The Kremlin’s sham referenda are a futile effort to mask what amounts to a further attempt at a land grab in Ukraine. To be clear: the results were orchestrated in Moscow and do not reflect the will of the people of Ukraine. … This spectacle conducted by Russia’s proxies is illegitimate and violates international law. It is an affront to the principles of international peace and security.
But as with the Crimea annexation, Putin was ready to stand his ground. His disregard for Western morality and his belief that international law can be used by morally-wanting nations as a tool to manipulate foreign policy objectives combined in his annexation speech to dismiss Western interpretations of international law.
We have never agreed to and will never agree to such political nationalism and racism [perpetuated by what he sees as the values and colonial tendencies of Western elites]. What else, if not racism, is the Russophobia being spread around the world? What, if not racism, is the West’s dogmatic conviction that its civilization and neoliberal culture is an indisputable model for the entire world to follow?
In practice, this perspective creates something of a blank canvas with which to interpret international law to suit his own purposes. And he did so, leveraging his belief that Ukraine and Russia are essentially one people and one nation, along with Article 1 of the UN Charter, to justify his annexations:
It is undoubtedly their right, an inherent right sealed in Article 1 of the UN Charter, which directly states the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. I repeat, it is an inherent right of the people. It is based on our historical affinity, and it is that right that led generations of our predecessors, those who built and defended Russia for centuries since the period of Ancient Rus, to victory.
His reference to Article 1 is revealing. The article largely focuses on the imperatives of international peace and security, and his invocation of it comes amid his own country’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country that has resulted in mounting civilian casualties.
The article states (emphasis added):
The Purposes of the United Nations are:
To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
Ultimately, Putin dismisses Western references to international law by indicating that Western hegemony and values combine to manipulate foreign policy and interfere with the internal affairs of foreign nations. A man who once urged a US-led coalition not to invade Iraq, and to let the United Nations pave the way to a peaceful settlement, now ignores the provisions that dominate Article 1 of the UN Charter calling for international peace and security. A man who justified his 2014 annexation of a Ukrainian region with reference to the malleability and susceptibility to abuse of international law now brazenly picks and chooses the provisions of international law he is willing to apply to a situation. He zeroes in on a provision related to “self-determination” and claims that hastily organized referendums occurring in Russian-occupied territories indicate that this was an expression of such. And he chooses his words with an eye to minimizing the military brutality of his strategies to argue that Russia is acting within its rights under international law.
Putin’s disillusionment with the international systems of justice, vehement opposition to Western values, and deep-rooted will to maintain control of Ukraine at all costs have combined to fuel his own weaponization of international law. And this fact is all the more concerning in light of his access to — and apparent readiness to deploy — nuclear weapons.