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'The Rules Be Damned': Translating Vladimir Putin on Ukraine

NBC News asks a Russia expert to “translate” the Russian leader’s latest remarks on Ukraine.
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Now more than ever, the world is watching what Vladimir Putin has to say. But his words sometimes have only a casual relationship with reality. The true meaning of the Russian president lies beneath the surface.

So when Putin held his annual call-in show on Thursday — broadcast in Ukraine after armed men took over a television tower there — NBC News asked a Russia expert to interpret what Putin really meant.

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a nonprofit policy research organization, provided the following “translations.”

On who’s causing trouble in eastern Ukraine

Putin: “It’s all nonsense. There are no kinds of Russian units in eastern Ukraine. No special forces, no instructors. They are all local citizens.”

Translation: “Whoever is taking actions on the ground in eastern Ukraine, it’s not your (the West’s) concern. They have a right to be there and are acting on behalf of the local people who are too scared of Banderist thugs from Kiev to defend themselves.”

On what happens next in eastern Ukraine

Putin: “We do not know exactly what’s the situation in the South-East. But we definitely know that we have to do everything to help these people to protect their rights and decide on their fate. This is what we are going to fight for. I am reminding that the Federal Assembly gave me the right to send to deploy troops to the territory of Ukraine. But I sincerely hope I will not have to use this right, and we will use political and diplomatic means to resolve all the critical issues in Ukraine today.

Translation: “Russia expects to have a deciding voice in the new political shape of Ukraine, specifically the creation of a loose federation or confederation. If it looks like Kiev or anyone else will block that from happening, then we would be prepared to use other means, including military intervention, to secure our interests in Ukraine.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session with the nation in Moscow, on April 17, 2014.ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / AFP - Getty Images

On the history of Ukraine

Putin: “The South-East of Ukraine used to be Russian at the times of czars. They were given to Ukraine as a result of territory losses. So the territories went to Ukraine, but the people stayed there. … So the people from the South-East are rightfully asking for guarantees for fair elections so that Kiev does not send their oligarchs there again.”

Translation: “Southeast Ukraine is rightfully Russian territory. As long as the Kiev government refuses to take cues from Moscow and instead cozies up to the EU, the U.S. and NATO, they cannot be allowed to hold this territory. A fair election would be one in which Russia and pro-Russian voters in eastern Ukraine have a veto over the outcome.”

On Russia, Crimea and NATO

Putin: “Our decision on Crimea was partly due to … considerations that if we do nothing, then at some point, guided by the same principles, NATO will drag Ukraine in and they will say: It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

Translation: “NATO has been surrounding and encircling Russia in the post-Soviet space using the same playbook of phony excuses for two decades. Ukraine is a red line. As in Moldova and Georgia, we need to create new facts on the ground that remind NATO why these countries can never be part of an anti-Russian alliance.

On the use of force

Putin: “The point is not only about the events in Crimea. Let us remember what was happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other regions of the world. Someone was trying to make the world unipolar, and they had an illusion that everything can only be resolved by force.”

Translation: “We tried to play by your (the West’s) rules, but you abuse and manipulate them to suit your naked political interests. You seek regime change to favor Washington and use any excuse to justify it even when it is done in violation of basic international law. You did it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and are trying to do it in Syria. We won’t let you do it in Ukraine and in fact now it’s our turn to advance naked national interests, the rules be damned.”