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Putin begins major speech to Russian elite them on Ukraine war

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President Vladimir Putin has accused the West of starting the war in Ukraine and trying to turn it into a global conflict against Russia in a bid to gain ‘limitless power’ in his annual state-of-the-nation address.

‘We were doing everything possible to solve this problem peacefully, negotiating a peaceful way out of this difficult conflict, but behind our backs a very different scenario was being prepared,’ Putin told lawmakers from Russia’s parliament.

He said he was addressing them ‘at a time which we all know is a difficult, watershed moment for our country, a time of cardinal, irreversible changes around the world, the most important historic events that will shape the future of our country and our people,’ and vowed to ‘systematically’ continue with the offensive in Ukraine.

His speech comes days before the war in Ukraine passes the one-year mark on Friday. Putin ordered his forces into the country on February 24, 2022 in what he calls a ‘special military operation’ instead of a war.

Since then, tens of thousands of men have been killed, and Putin, 70, now says Russia is locked in an existential battle with an arrogant West which he claims – without evidence – wants to carve up Russia and steal its vast natural resources.

The West and Ukraine reject that narrative, and say NATO expansion eastwards is no justification for what they say is an imperial-style land grab doomed to failure. It was Russia that was the aggressor and who attacked Ukraine unprovoked, they say.

Vladimir Putin told Russia's elite 'we did everything possible to resolve the conflict in Ukraine peacefully, but that the West prepared differently' as he began his state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday (pictured)

Vladimir Putin told Russia’s elite ‘we did everything possible to resolve the conflict in Ukraine peacefully, but that the West prepared differently’ as he began his state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday (pictured)

Pictured: Russian lawmakers wait for Putin to appear on stage ahead of his state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday

Pictured: Russian lawmakers wait for Putin to appear on stage ahead of his state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on an outdoor screen on the facade of a building delivering his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on February 21, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on an outdoor screen on the facade of a building delivering his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on February 21, 2023

Putin levelled several accusations at the Western world. He said Ukraine’s allies were trying to change the conflict into a global one, were trying to divide Russia society, and that they were engaging it a ‘witch hunt’ against Russia.

Flanked by four Russian tricolour flags on either side of him, Putin also vowed Russia would press on with the invasion – which the Kremlin had expected to last a matter of days culminating in the overthrow of Kyiv’s government.

‘Step by step we will carefully and systematically solve the aims that face us,’ he said.

The West, Putin said, had let the genie out of the bottle in a host of regions across the world by sowing chaos and war.

‘The people of Ukraine themselves have become hostages of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, who have actually occupied this country in a political, military, and economic sense,’ Putin said. Defeating Russia, he said, was impossible.

The West is aware that ‘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, Putin claimed.

Citing another justification he has used for the war, 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.’

Putin framed fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region between Kyiv’s forces and Russian-backed separatists as a fight for freedom. Fighting there has been on-going since 2014, and has been used by Putin as justification to launch the larger offensive.

‘Starting from 2014, the Donbas has been fighting [for the] right to live in one’s one land and speak its native language, fighting without surrender in the environment of constant threats and hatred that was coming from the Kyiv regime,’ he said.

‘Meanwhile, and you know it very well, we were doing everything possible, really everything possible, to settle that problem by peaceful means,’ he claimed.

‘We were patiently negotiating about a peaceful exit from that hardest conflict but behind our back, quite a different scenario was being prepared, the promises of Western leaders, their assurances about their adherence to peace turned out as a fraud. A cruel lie. They were just playing for time.’ 

The Russian despot also said that he understood how difficult it was for relatives of Russian soldiers who had died fighting in Ukraine, and said he would provide them ‘targeted support’ with a new special fund. Britain’s MoD has estimated that there have been as many as 200,000 dead or wounded Russian soldiers in the last year.

‘We all understand, I understand how unbearably hard it is now for the wives, sons, daughters of fallen soldiers, their parents, who raised worthy defenders of the Fatherland,’ Putin told lawmakers.

He asked the audience, which included lawmakers, soldiers, spy chiefs and state company bosses, to stand to remember those who had lost their lives in the war.

Russian state TV website goes down during Putin speech 

Russian state media websites broadcasting President Vladimir Putin’s address to the country’s two houses of parliaments on Tuesday suffered an outage during his speech.

Reuters journalists in multiple locations were unable to access the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) website or the Smotrim live-streaming platform for periods during the speech.

A message on the VGTRK website said that ‘technical works were being carried out’ while the Smotrim website was not loading.

Shortly before the speech started, state TV channels had broadcast a segment on the technical preparations that go into broadcasting the speech, saying the live stream would be carried across all major Russian TV channels.

The state-run RIA Novosti news agency said the outage was the result of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the reason for the outages.

Reporting by Reuters

Reports from Russia suggest state employees and students have been ordered to attend a nationalistic concert after the speech, held at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, while signs have popped up around the city proclaiming that ‘Russia’s border does not end anywhere’ and telling people to ‘watch and listen’. 

Putin’s armoured motorcade was spotted heading to the Kremlin at around 1am local time, with traffic stopped in central Moscow to make way. There was no official explanation for Putin’s late night dash to the Kremlin ahead of the speech. 

While the Constitution mandates that the president deliver the speech annually, Putin never gave one in 2022, as his troops suffered repeated setbacks.

Underscoring the anticipation ahead of time, some state TV channels put out a countdown for the event starting Monday, and Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti on Tuesday morning said the address may be ‘historic.’

The Kremlin this year has barred media from ‘unfriendly’ countries, the list of which includes the US, the UK and those in the EU.

The invasion is by far the biggest bet by a Kremlin chief since at least the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union – and a gamble Western leaders such as Biden say he must lose.

Russian forces have suffered three major battlefield reversals since the war began but still control around one fifth of Ukraine. Russia is currently trying to secure full control of two eastern provinces forming Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region. 

It has sent thousands of conscripts into Ukraine for a winter offensive but has secured only scant gains so far in assaults in frozen trenches up and down the eastern front in recent weeks.

Kyiv and the West see it as a push to give Putin victories to trumpet a year after he launched Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two.

Attendees wait for the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia February 21, 2023

Attendees wait for the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia February 21, 2023

A family watches a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address in Moscow on February 21

A family watches a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address in Moscow on February 21

A woman drinks a tea watching Russian President Vladimir Putin address to the Federal Assembly, at her home in Moscow, Russia, 21 February 2023

A woman drinks a tea watching Russian President Vladimir Putin address to the Federal Assembly, at her home in Moscow, Russia, 21 February 2023

Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) officers stand guard behind metal barriers set on Red Square prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address, in central Moscow on February 21, 2023

Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) officers stand guard behind metal barriers set on Red Square prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address, in central Moscow on February 21, 2023

Police officers block streets outside the Gostiny Dvor conference centre prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address, in central Moscow on February 21

Police officers block streets outside the Gostiny Dvor conference centre prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address, in central Moscow on February 21

Meanwhile, many are understood to have fled Russia ahead of Putin’s speech. 

Flights from Russia to foreign destinations soared in price overnight amid fears on an expansion of mobilisation and even a full declaration of war.

Pro-Kremlin Hardliners, such as TV propagandist Margarita Simonyan, head of RT state broadcaster, spoke ominously of ‘anticipating jubilation’ ahead of the speech.

Yet fearful men were exiting the country in a last minute dash. There was an earlier exodus last autumn when Putin announced a ‘partial mobilisation’.

Opposition blogger Maxim Katz, 38, said: ‘The cheapest direct flight from Moscow to Yerevan [Armenia’s capital] is $650 [£540] – five times the regular price.

‘Every pre-planned speech by Putin over the past year has been akin to a professional holiday for hoteliers, real estate agents, cab drivers, and airlines in the post-Soviet Republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

‘We don’t know how many people took a one-way journey. Estimates range from half a million to two million,’ Katz said on his channel.

The Glasgow-educated political activist, now exiled, with 1.68 million YouTube subscribers, said: ‘We can say for certain that a million people nationwide are ready to go at a minute’s notice.’ Across Russia, ‘people live with one foot out of the door.’  

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War has said ahead of the speech that Putin was ‘unlikely to announce measures for further escalation of the war in Ukraine, major new Russian mobilisation initiatives, or any other significant policy’ in the speech, which is delivered to the legislature and televised on national channels. 

However, Belarus said on Tuesday that there was a significant grouping of Ukrainian troops massed near its border and warned that this posed a threat to its security – after warning that it would not get involved in the war unless it was attacked.

The country’s defence ministry also announced that it planned to hold more than 150 joint military exercises with Russia in 2023, and that it would take ‘adequate measures’ to respond to any military provocations.

‘At present, a significant grouping of the Ukrainian army is concentrated in the immediate vicinity of the Belarusian-Ukrainian section of the state border,’ the ministry said in a post on Telegram. ‘The probability of armed provocations, which can escalate into border incidents, has been high for a long time.’

Speaking last week, Alexander Lukashenko said: ‘I am ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus only in one case: if at least one soldier sets foot in Belarus to kill my people.’

Putin's speech came a day after US President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, in which he walked through the city with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky

Putin’s speech came a day after US President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, in which he walked through the city with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky

Reports from Russia suggest state employees and students have been ordered to attend a nationalistic concert after the speech, held at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium. Similar concerts have been held at the stadium in the past. Pictured: Putin attends an event at the Moscow stadium in March 2022, a month after the invasion began

Reports from Russia suggest state employees and students have been ordered to attend a nationalistic concert after the speech, held at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium. Similar concerts have been held at the stadium in the past. Pictured: Putin attends an event at the Moscow stadium in March 2022, a month after the invasion began

Biden will also make a speech a few hours later in Poland, which promises to offer a starkly differing take on Russia’s invasion. He met Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday – pledging fresh arms deliveries and ‘unwavering’ support.

With Putin and Biden engaged in a war of words, China has tried to position itself as peacekeeper, saying that it feared the invasion could ‘spiral out of control’ in comments that appeared to be a dig at the US over its military support of Ukraine. 

Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi of consequences should his country wade in to the ongoing conflict by supplying arms to Russia. Beijing hit back, denying that it would do so.

As the rhetoric between Ukraine’s western allies and Russia has escalated, China has worked to position itself as a potential peacekeeper in the conflict.

Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Monday called for a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war during a stopover in Hungary ahead of a visit to Moscow for talks.

Ukraine says any diplomatic solution requires the withdrawal of Russian forces from its territory, including Crimea – which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

‘China is deeply worried that the Ukraine conflict will continue to escalate or even spiral out of control,’ China’s foreign minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday in a speech at a forum held at the foreign ministry.

‘We urge certain countries to immediately stop fuelling the fire,’ he said in comments that appeared to be directed at the United States, adding that they must ‘stop hyping up ‘today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan”.

China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion or atrocities against Ukrainian civilians and strongly criticized Western economic sanctions against Moscow. In deference to Moscow, it has yet to describe the conflict as an invasion.

China and Russia have aligned their foreign policies to oppose the US and, weeks before the Ukraine invasion, their leaders declared a partnership with ‘no limits.’

China also says Russia was provoked into using military force by NATO’s eastward expansion. Despite that, Qin reiterated China’s claim that it has ‘always taken an objective and impartial stance based on the merits of the issue.’

Ukraine expects to receive large supplies of Western weaponry in coming months that will help it mount a planned counteroffensive. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces claimed to have inflicted huge casualties while repelling attacking Russian forces.

While Biden was in Kyiv, the State Department announced a further $460 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine, including $450 million worth of artillery ammunition, anti-armour systems and air defence radars, and $10 million for energy infrastructure. 

Biden travelled to Ukraine’s capital by overnight train from Poland, arriving after roughly 10 hours at 8 a.m. on Monday, before returning there the same way.

‘One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,’ Biden said at the Mariinsky Palace, the Ukrainian president’s official residence, on Monday.

And on Tuesday, from Warsaw’s historic Royal Castle, Biden will ‘make it clear that the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine… for as long as it takes’, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

‘You’ll hear messages in the president’s speech that will certainly resonate with the American people, certainly will resonate with our allies and partners, without question resonate with the Polish people,’ Kirby said of the Warsaw address.

‘And I would suspect that you’ll hear him messaging Mr Putin as well, as well as the Russian people.’ 

The president arrived late on Monday in Warsaw, where he is scheduled to meet Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, along with other leaders of countries on NATO’s eastern flank, the following day.

He will also speak by phone with the leaders of Britain, France and Italy, the White House has said. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due in Washington on March 3.

Biden, in his trademark aviator sunglasses, and President Volodymyr Zelensky, in green battle fatigues, walked side-by-side to a gold-domed cathedral in Kyiv on a bright winter Monday morning pierced by the sound of air raid sirens.

‘When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong,’ Biden said.

Russia is currently trying to secure full control of two eastern provinces forming Ukraine's Donbas industrial region. Pictured: Ukrainian soldiers ride atop a tank in the frontline in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on February 20

Russia is currently trying to secure full control of two eastern provinces forming Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region. Pictured: Ukrainian soldiers ride atop a tank in the frontline in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on February 20

‘The cost that Ukraine has had to pay is extraordinarily high. Sacrifices have been far too great. … We know that there will be difficult days and weeks and years ahead.’

Outside the cathedral, burned-out Russian tanks stand as a symbol of Moscow’s failed assault on the capital at the outset of its invasion, which began on Feb. 24. Its forces swiftly reached Kyiv’s ramparts – only to be turned back by unexpectedly fierce resistance.

Since then, Russia’s war has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides, cities have been reduced to rubble, and millions of refugees have fled. Russia says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, while the West has pledged tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Kyiv.

‘This visit of the U.S. president to Ukraine, the first for 15 years, is the most important visit in the entire history of Ukraine-U.S. relations,’ Zelensky said.

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