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Fact-checking Putin's Victory Day speech

Roman Goncharenko | Tatjana Schweizer | Joscha Weber
May 9, 2022

A nuclear threat from Ukraine? A Ukrainian invasion of Crimea? Ukrainian neo-Nazis? Russian President Vladimir Putin's May 9 speech contained new and familiar accusations amid the war in Ukraine. Most of them are false.

Putin waving in Moscow next to a military officer
Vladimir Putin's Victory Day speech in Moscow attracted a lot of international attention amid the war in Ukraine — with the Russian leader making new accusations against the WestImage: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

On the occasion of the annual military parade on Moscow's Red Square, Russian President Vladimir Putin leveled serious allegations against Ukraine and the West. DW Fact Check examines some of the key statements from Putin's speech on May 9.

Ukrainian nuclear weapons?

Claim: "In Kyiv, they announced a possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. The NATO bloc has begun active military development of the territories bordering us," Putin said in his speech.

DW Fact Check: False. Putin is likely referring to a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Munich Security Conference last February. In it, Zelenskyy mentions the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which ensures that the sovereignty and national borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are respected vis-à-vis the signatory states that include the US, UK and Russia.

In exchange, Ukraine handed over its nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union to Russia or partially destroyed them. However, the treaty does not contain concrete security guarantees — contrary to what Zelenskyy claimed during his Munich speech in early 2022.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 violated Ukrainian sovereignty, Zelenskyy hinted in Munich that he would withdraw from the agreement. Such a withdrawal, however, would be relatively inconsequential.

The Budapest Memorandum, for example, does not even prohibit Kyiv from seeking nuclear weapons again. Only the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Ukraine signed in 1994 following the Budapest Memorandum, prohibits the proliferation of radioactive, weapons-grade material. Even if the memorandum were to be revoked, Ukraine would continue to be bound by the ban due to the treaty. However, there is no evidence to date that suggests Kyiv is proactively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

Putin's reference to a new NATO military infrastructure near the Russian border is also misleading. While the military alliance has increased its presence in Eastern Europe, it is doing so in compliance with the terms of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which Russia accepted. 

Bill Clinton and Russia's Yeltsin signing documents
Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) and his US counterpart Bill Clinton (right) signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Budapest in December 1994Image: David Brauchli/AP Photo/picture alliance

No evidence of an imminent 'invasion' of Crimea by Ukraine

Claim: Russia is carrying out a pre-emptive "military operation" against Ukraine, according to Putin. Ukraine, he said, had openly prepared for a new "punitive operation in the Donbas" and an "invasion" of Russian "historical territories, including Crimea." NATO countries would have supplied Ukraine with state-of-the-art weapons, Putin added.

DW fact check: False.

The Ukrainian leadership has stressed several times that it is seeking a diplomatic and not a military solution to the conflict in the Donbas, including through President Zelenskyy at the Munich Security Conference shortly before the war's outbreak.

When Russia massed its troops along the Ukrainian border in the autumn of 2021, there were no signs of an imminent Ukrainian offensive. This is also true for annexed Crimea. Since 2014, Russia has turned the peninsula into a de facto military fortress and equipped it with state-of-the-art weapons. These include new warships with cruise missiles, S-400 air defense systems and Sukhoi Su-35S fighter jets. The Ukrainian armed forces do not have such weapons and are heavily outnumbered by Russian troops in Crimea.

Against this backdrop, Kyiv also sought a diplomatic solution. In 2021, the first summit of the so-called "Crimea Platform," a diplomatic initiative by Kyiv aimed at bringing the fate of the annexed peninsula and reported human rights violations criticized by the UN, such as the persecution of Crimean Tatars, into greater international focus.

Some NATO members have indeed supplied Ukraine with modern weapons such as anti-tank missiles, but initially in limited supply. It was only immediately before the Russian invasion at the end of February 2022 that deliveries were intensified. Heavy weapons such as infantry fighting vehicles and howitzers were sent only after the war's outbreak.

Victory Day in Russia: What was the most important message from Putin's speech?

Putin's historical references are also applied incorrectly. At the beginning of his speech, Russia's president justified deploying his army in the Donbas region with three historical events: the Russian uprising against Polish intervention in the early 17th century; a battle near Moscow during Napoleon's Russian campaign; and the war against Nazi Germany. In all three cases, however, Russia, or the Soviet Union, was attacked from the outside. Ukraine did not attack Russia, but Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

That the territories mentioned are "historical territories" of Russia is also incorrect: Under international law, both Crimea and the territories in the Donbas belong to Ukraine. A UN resolution of 2020 stated that the General Assembly condemned the annexation of Crimea and that it would not be recognized. Even Russia had recognized the borders of its neighboring country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Renewed neo-Nazi accusations toward Ukraine

Claim: Putin again made the accusation that "neo-Nazis" were steering Ukraine, with whom a clash would be "inevitable." Later in the speech, he spoke of civilians in the Donbas who "died as a result of reckless shelling and barbaric attacks by neo-Nazis."

DW Fact Check: False.

Equating Ukraine with "neo-Nazis" is a claim repeated again and again by Putin, his government, as well as the Russian state media which, however, is false. Even at the beginning of the war, Putin spoke of the alleged need for the "denazification" of Ukraine, a term used to describe the victorious Allied powers' policies for Nazi Germany after World War II.

But the comparison between Nazi Germany until 1945 and the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine in the present is obviously misplaced. A totalitarian system does not exist in Ukraine, nor are there far-right forces in power.

In the last parliamentary elections in 2019, a united front of far-right parties got just 2.15% percent of the vote (election results are in Ukrainian).  In an interview with DW, Ulrich Schmid, a professor of Russian culture and society at the Swiss University of St. Gallen who researches nationalism in Eastern Europe, called  Putin's narrative "a perfidious insinuation." There are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, he said, "but in Russia itself there are at least as many far-right groups as in Ukraine."

Azov steel plant Mariupol
Members of Ukraine's Azov batallion have been trapped in Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant amid Russia's advanceImage: Pavel Klimov/REUTERS

And this position has broad scholarly consensus: In a statement, more than 300 historians and scholars labeled the alleged necessary "denazification" of Ukraine as "propaganda." The signatories of the letter, published in the Jewish Journal, concluded: "This rhetoric is factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the millions of victims of Nazism..."

To be clear, right-wing, nationalist groups participated in the 2014 Euromaidan protests and there were — and still are — radical nationalist members within the notorious Azov battalion fighting Russian invaders in the east of the country. But the bottom line is this: There is no dominant right-wing extremist in power in Ukraine. And the neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine is no greater than the neo-Nazi problem in other European countries. Putin's reasoning, therefore, is incorrect.

a tank in military parade in Moscow
Show of strength: Russia's military parade on May 9 in Moscow marked Victory DayImage: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Misleading portrayal of the dialogue between Russia and NATO

Claim: "Last December, we proposed to conclude an agreement on security guarantees. Russia called on the West to engage in an honest dialogue, to find reasonable compromise solutions, to take into account mutual interests. All in vain. NATO countries didn't want to hear us, which means that they actually had quite different plans."

DW Fact Check: Misleading.

President Vladimir Putin is referring to a list of demands that Russia handed over to NATO on

December 17, 2021, in the run-up to the war in Ukraine. It included eight demands that NATO countries and Russia should agree on to avoid conflict.

The main points were an end to NATO's eastward expansion and to withdraw NATO forces to pre-1997 positions, which would mean withdrawing the military units from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltics and several Balkan states.

In addition, Moscow demanded that the Western alliance should refrain from military activities in Russia's neighboring states, specifically mentioning Ukraine. 

Many Western observers considered some of the demands to be incompatible with NATO's principles. For example, the free choice of membership is a right of every sovereign state, stipulated in Article 10 of the NATO treaty. Moreover, Russia's neighboring states are not legally barred from joining NATO. Russia had recognized this basic principle in the CSCE Helsinki Final Act in 1975, in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, and in the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997.

NATO delivered a response letter in late January, followed by a separate response from US officials on January 26. Several days later, the previously secret NATO letter was leaked and published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Though rejecting, in principle, a membership freeze, NATO agreed to Russia's demand that communication channels between Moscow and Western capitals should be improved. NATO and Russia's "mutual presence" in Brussels and Moscow respectively could also be reestablished.

NATO also offered Putin talks on arms control, disarmament and transparency in military exercises. New agreements could be included in the Vienna Document adopted in 2011 and contribute to easing tensions. In return, however, NATO demanded a withdrawal of Russian troops from territory in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.

Putin's account of the dialogue between Russia and NATO in the run-up to the war in Ukraine is one-sided and misleading.

This article was originally written in German.

Joscha Weber Bonn 9577
Joscha Weber Editor and fact-checker focusing on separating facts from fiction and uncovering disinformation.@joschaweber
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