MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s address to the nation usually is rather anodyne and backed with a soothing view of a snowy Kremlin. This year, with soldiers in the background, he lashed out at the West and Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine cast a long shadow as Russia entered 2023. Cities curtailed festivities and fireworks. Moscow announced special performances for soldiers’ children featuring the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. An exiled Russian news outlet unearthed a video of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, now the Ukrainian president despised by the Kremlin, telling jokes on a Russian state television station's New Year’s show just a decade ago.
Putin, in a nine-minute video shown on TV as each Russian time zone region counted down the final minutes of 2022 on Saturday, denounced the West for aggression and accused the countries of trying to use the conflict in Ukraine to undermine Russia.
“It was a year of difficult, necessary decisions, the most important steps toward gaining full sovereignty of Russia and powerful consolidation of our society,” he said, echoing his repeated contention that Moscow had no choice but to send troops into Ukraine because it threatened Russia’s security.
“The West lied about peace, but was preparing for aggression, and today it admits it openly, no longer embarrassed. And they cynically use Ukraine and its people to weaken and split Russia,” Putin said. “We have never allowed anyone and will not allow anyone to do this."
The Kremlin has muzzled any criticism of its actions in Ukraine, shut independent media outlets and criminalized the spread of any information that differs from the official view — including diverging from calling the campaign a special military operation. But the government has faced increasingly vocal criticism from Russian hardliners, who have denounced the president as weak and indecisive and called for ramping up strikes on Ukraine.
Russia has justified the conflict by saying that Ukraine persecuted Russian speakers in the eastern Donbas region, which had been partly under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Ukraine and the West says these accusations are untrue.
“For years, the Western elites hypocritically assured all of us of their peaceful intentions, including the resolution of the most difficult conflict in the Donbas,” Putin said.
Western countries have imposed wide sanctions against Russia, and many foreign companies pulled out of the country or froze operations after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.
“This year, a real sanctions war was declared on us. Those who started it expected the complete destruction of our industry, finances, and transport. This did not happen, because together we created a reliable margin of safety,” Putin said.
Despite such reassurances, New Year’s celebrations this year were toned down, with the usual fireworks and concert on Red Square canceled.
Some of Moscow’s elaborate holiday lighting displays made cryptic reference to the conflict. At the entrance to Gorky Park stand large lighted letters of V, Z and O – symbols that the Russian military have used from the first days of the military operation to identify themselves.
“Will it make me a patriot and go to the front against my Slavic brothers? No, it will not,” park visitor Vladimir Ivaniy said.
Moscow also announced plans to hold special pageant performances for the children of soldiers serving in Ukraine.
The Russian news outlet Meduza, declared a foreign agent in Russia and which now operates from Latvia, on Saturday posted a video of Zelenskyy, who was a hugely popular comedian before becoming Ukraine’s president in 2019, performing in a New Year’s Day show on Russian state television in 2013.
Zelenskyy jokes that the inexpensive sparkling wine Sovietskoe Shampanskoye, a popular tipple on New Year’s, is in the record books as a paradox because “the drink exists but the country doesn’t.”
Adding to the irony, the show’s host was Maxim Galkin, a comedian who fled the country in 2022 after criticizing the military operation in Ukraine.
Elise Morton contributed to this report from London.