Putin lauds Russian unity in his New Year’s address as Ukraine war overshadows celebration

By Isaac M December 31, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Russia’s “united society” in his prerecorded New Year’s address to the nation, the country’s state news agencies reported Sunday.

Putin addressed Russians in a video that ran under four minutes long, significantly shorter than the New Year’s speech he gave last year, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. Millions of people were expected to watch the new address when it airs on TV as each Russian time zone region counts down the final minutes of 2023 on Sunday.

The first to see it were residents of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Chukotka region in Russia’s Far East, some nine hours ahead of Moscow.

Returning to tradition after speaking flanked by soldiers last year, Putin delivered his address to the nation against the backdrop of a snowy Kremlin. In remarks carried by RIA Novosti, he described 2023 as a year marked by high levels of unity in Russian society.

“What united us and unites us is the fate of the Fatherland, a deep understanding of the highest significance of the historical stage through which Russia is passing,” the president said. He also lauded Russian citizens’ “solidarity, mercy and fortitude.”

The nearly 2-year-old war in Ukraine was front and center in the address, with Putin directly addressing Russia’s armed forces involved in what the Kremlin has termed its “special military operation” in the neighboring country.

“We are proud of you, you are heroes, you feel the support of the entire people,” the president said. According to state media, he emphasized that Russia would never retreat and asserted there was no force that could divide Russians and stop the country’s development.

The address’ broadcast comes a day after shelling in the center of the Russian border city of Belgorod Saturday killed 24 people, including three children. Another 108 people were wounded, Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said Sunday, making the attack one with the most casualties on Russian soil since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine 22 months ago.

As last year, New Year’s celebrations were toned down in Moscow, with the traditional fireworks and concert on Red Square canceled. After the shelling in Belgorod, local authorities in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok and other places across Russia also canceled their usual New Year’s firework displays.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council and former Russian president, also congratulated Russians on the New Year. In video remarks posted to Telegram, he said that “thoughts and hearts are with those at the front” and that the past year had required “a special stability and unity, and true patriotism” from Russia.

Medvedev also called on Russians to “make 2024 the year of the final defeat of neo-fascism,” repeating Putin’s claims of invading Ukraine to fight “neo-Nazis.” The Holocaust, World War II and Nazism have been important rhetorical tools for Putin in his bid to legitimize Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, but historians see their use as disinformation and a cynical ploy to further his aims.

Analysts are describing 2023 as largely a positive year for Putin.

“It’s been a good year; I would even actually call it a great year” for the Russian leader, said Mathieu Boulegue, a consulting fellow for the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House think tank in London.

Moscow in May won the fight for the bombed-out Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. In june, Putin defused a revolt against him and reasserted his hold on the Kremlin. A Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia started with high hopes but ended in disappointment.

As he enters 2024, Putin is wagering that the West’s support for Ukraine will gradually crumble due to political divisions, war fatigue and other diplomatic demands, such as China’s menacing of Taiwan and war in the Middle East.

Putin is seeking reelection in a March 17 presidential election that he is all but certain to win. Under constitutional reforms he orchestrated, the 71-year-old leader is eligible to seek two more six-year terms after his current term expires, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036.

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