Russian Rhetoric Ahead of Attack Against Ukraine: Deny, Deflect, Mislead

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As Russia amassed troops on the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and other Russian officials repeatedly denied that their country had plans to invade Ukraine. They blamed the U.S., Ukraine and others for the tension, insisting that Russia is a “peaceful country” and that it is “not going to attack anyone.”

A man outside his destroyed building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on Feb. 24, 2022, after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images.

That, of course, was proven false when Russia launched a full-scale invasion against Ukraine on Feb. 24 — two days after Russian tanks rolled into eastern Ukraine on a “peace-keeping” mission. “This is a terrible day for Ukraine and a dark day for Europe,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a Feb. 24 tweet.

Here we round up some of the statements Putin, Peskov and others made during a monthslong misinformation campaign leading up to Russia’s planned invasion of Ukraine.

2021

Nov. 12 – Peskov described media reports of Moscow’s plans to invade Ukraine as a “hollow and unfounded attempt to incite tensions.” “Russia doesn’t threaten anyone. The movement of troops on our territory shouldn’t be a cause for anyone’s concern,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

Nov. 21 – “This hysteria is being artificially whipped up. We are being accused of some kind of unusual military activity on our territory by those who have brought in their armed forces from across the ocean,” Peskov said on Russian state TV. “That is, the United States of America. It’s not really logical or polite.”

Nov. 22 – In a report headlined “Kremlin: Russia is not going to attack anyone,” Pravda quotes Peskov as telling reporters: “Russia does not harbor any aggressive plans. It is completely wrong to say the opposite, and it is completely wrong to associate any movement of the Russian Armed Forces across the territory of our country with such plans. This is not true.”

Nov. 26 – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed he had evidence proving Russia is plotting a coup against him and his government. Peskov denied Russia’s involvement. “Russia has never had any plans to take part. Russia generally never engages in such matters,” Peskov said.

Nov. 28 – Russian officials accused the United States of waging a propaganda campaign. “Russia has never hatched, is not hatching and will never hatch any plans to attack anyone,” Peskov said. “Russia is a peaceful country, which is interested in good relations with its neighbors.”

Dec. 1 – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the use of diplomacy to settle the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, parts of which have been controlled by pro-Russian forces. Blinken warned that Russia could use the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for invading Ukraine. “The Russian playbook is to claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along,” Blinken said.

Dec. 2 – In a conference call with reporters, Peskov justified the massive buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border by accusing Ukraine of planning to use force to reclaim separatist regions in eastern Ukraine — a claim that Ukraine has denied. “The probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high,” Peskov said. (On Feb. 22, Putin recognized two separatist territories in eastern Ukraine as independent states and sent Russian troops into the Donbas region of Ukraine — the first step in what became a full-scale invasion two days later.)

Dec. 3 – A U.S. intelligence report warns that Russia is planning an attack on Ukraine in early 2022 with up to 175,000 troops, according to the Washington Post.  At the time, Russia had about 70,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, the intelligence report said.

Dec. 11 – In an interview on Greek TV, Peskov denied that Russian was planning to attack Ukraine, claiming that it was moving its forces in response to U.S. and Ukraine military movements. When asked if Russia was planning to attack Ukraine, Peskov said: “No, the problem is very simple. Russia is moving its forces within its territory and we can move our forces in any direction we want and closer to the areas that could pose a threat [and currently] we see US warplanes landing in Ukraine and US military equipment approaching our borders.”

Dec. 12 – In a video on state TV, Peskov denied that Russia is to blame for the mounting concerns about Ukraine’s fate. “The current … tensions and so on are being created to further demonize Russia and cast it as a potential aggressor,” Peskov said.

Dec. 31 – After a 50-minute phone call between Biden and Putin, a Kremlin aide told the New York Times that Putin was uncomfortable with NATO encroachment in the region and that Russia would “conduct itself as the United States would behave if offensive weapons were near the United States.”

2022

Jan. 11 – A day after the U.S. urged Russia to pull back its troops during talks in Geneva, Russian troops and tanks engaged in live-fire military exercises near the Ukrainian border. Peskov wasn’t optimistic that the talks would be successful. “We will not be satisfied with the endless dragging out of this process,” he said.

In a press conference after the Geneva talks, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia had no intent to invade Ukraine. “Essentially it is said that Russia wants to trade its, quote-unquote, threat against Ukraine for more flexibility on the part of U.S. and the West,” Ryabkov said. “This is not the case because we have no intention to invade Ukraine. And thus, there is nothing to trade with.”

“We have told our colleagues that we have no plans to attack,” Ryabkov said. “All combat training for the troops is carried out on our national territory and there is no reason to fear an escalation scenario in this regard.”

Jan. 16 – Ukraine said it had evidence that Russia was behind a massive cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites. In a CNN interview, Peskov dismissed the attack as a “dangerous coincidence.” He said, “So we are nearly accustomed to the fact that Ukrainians are blaming everything on Russia, even their bad weather in their country.” (The U.S. later attributed additional cyberattacks against Ukraine in early February to Russia.)

Jan. 19 – In a press conference, Biden said he expects Putin to order an invasion of Ukraine. “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said. Biden added that he doesn’t think Putin wants “any full-blown war,” but “[d]o I think he’ll test the West, test the United States and NATO as significantly as he can? Yes, I think he will. But I think he’ll pay a serious and dear price for it that he doesn’t think now will cost him what it’s going to cost him. And I think he will regret having done it.”

That day, Ryabkov again insisted Russia was only engaging in military training exercises and did not intend to invade Ukraine. “There is no risk of a large-scale war to start to unfold in Europe,” he told CNN. “We do not want and will not take any action of aggressive character. We will not attack, strike, invade, quote unquote, whatever Ukraine.”

Jan. 24 – At a daily briefing in Moscow, Peskov accused Ukraine of preparing for a military offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, and blamed the U.S. and NATO for escalating tensions. “In general, we state and would like to draw your attention to the fact that the escalation of tension is carried out through information actions and concrete actions taken by the United States of America and NATO,” Peskov said. “Speaking about information actions, I mean the information hysteria that we are witnessing. It is generously framed by a huge amount of false information, just lies — I mean those very fakes.”

Jan. 28 – In a radio interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “There won’t be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want a war. But we won’t let our interests be rudely trampled on and ignored.”

Feb. 3 – In response to Russia’s 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine, Biden ordered 2,000 U.S.-based troops to NATO members Poland and Germany. In response, Peskov blamed the U.S. for “escalating tensions” in Europe, saying Russian concerns about NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe are “absolutely justified.”

Feb. 12 – After another unfruitful phone call between Biden and Putin, U.S. officials warned that a Russian attack on Ukraine could come at any time. A Kremlin aide accused the West of creating “hysteria.” “The Americans are artificially inflating the hysteria around the so-called planned Russian invasion,” Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters after the call between Biden and Putin. “The preconditions for possible provocative actions of the Ukrainian armed forces are being created alongside these allegations.”

Feb. 15 – Following talks with the German chancellor, Putin told the press there had been a “partial withdrawal of troops from the area of our military exercises.” “Yes, a decision has been made to pull out part of the troops,” he said. “What will Russia do next? Russia will act according to plan. What is the plan? The plan is based on the actual situation on the ground. Who can say how the actual situation will develop? Nobody at this point. There are other parties to consider. But it is our intention and resolve to reach agreement with our partners on the matters we put on the table, by diplomatic means. These matters are well known: with respect to Russia’s security, it is the non-expansion of NATO and the withdrawal of the bloc’s military infrastructure to the 1997 positions, and non-deployment of missile strike systems near our borders. I think everything is clear.”

Feb. 18 – Despite Kremlin insistence that it did not intend to invade, Biden said in a press conference, “We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week — in the coming days. We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.  … As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that.”

Feb. 21 – In a lengthy address to the Russian people, Putin laid out his case for ordering troops into the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and left open the possibility of military attack on Ukraine. “I would like to be clear and straightforward: In the current circumstances, when our proposals for an equal dialogue on fundamental issues have actually remained unanswered by the United States and NATO, when the level of threats to our country has increased significantly, Russia has every right to respond in order to ensure its security,” Putin said. “That is exactly what we will do.”

Feb. 22 – Russian tanks enter Ukraine’s Donbas region on what Russian officials described as a peace-keeping mission.

Feb. 23 – Answering questions from the media, Putin condemned the West for supplying weapons to Ukraine and said, “Therefore, the most important point is the demilitarisation, to a certain extent, of today’s Ukraine because it is the only factor that can be objectively controlled, monitored and responded to.” Putin also accused Ukraine of harboring “nuclear ambitions,” which he said is “totally unacceptable.” (The Washington Post Fact Checker called this accusation “sheer fantasy.”)

Feb. 24 – Russia launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In a conference call with reporters, Peskov said it was “unacceptable” to describe Russia as an occupying force in Ukraine — despite Russia’s widespread attacks against Ukraine’s cities and military bases.


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