Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday told a 12-year-old girl that Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine was sparked by the “tragedy” in the Donbas, a region in Ukraine’s east.
The episode gives a glimpse of how the Russian leader is selling the war to the Russian public amid heavy sanctions on Moscow, widespread criticism that Moscow has committed war crimes in Ukraine and a series of military disappointments — most notably the sinking of the Moskva by Ukrainian missiles.
Russia has also taken a number of steps to crack down on independent media within its borders as it seeks to craft a false narrative that it invaded Ukraine to put down “Nazis.”
The episode with the 12-year-old girl and Putin came during a meeting of the Supervisory Board of the Russia – Country of Opportunities platform. It is unclear whether it was staged. The incident was reported by the Russian state news agency Tass.
The girl told Putin that she moved to the Russian city of Sevastopol from Luhanks, a region inside the Donbas, eight years ago. She said much has changed in Luhansk since she left, and Putin replied things changed “but for the worse because bombardments, artillery strikes and combat operations” in the past eight years.
“But it was the tragedy taking place in Donbas, including in the Luhansk People’s Republic, that forced and simply compelled Russia to start this military operation that everyone knows well about today,” Putin said, according to Tass.
Putin has called his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine and rescuing ethnic Russians and innocent Ukrainians from a puppet regime of the west. People in Russia who have called the conflict a war instead of the preferred “special military operation” can and have been punished.
The Donbas includes Luhanks and Donetsk, two ethnically Russian-speaking regions that Putin declared independent before launching a full-scale military assault on his neighboring country.
The Russian leader has accused Ukraine of “Russophobia” and said ethnic Russians are specifically being killed in the Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting a rebellion against Ukrainian troops since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Putin’s claims of genocide in the Donbas are being contested at the International Court of Justice, with Ukrainian officials arguing it was used as a false pre-text to invade their country.
After failing to capture the capitol of Kyiv, Russian troops regrouped and launched a new offensive in the Donbas, the industrial heartland of Ukraine. Russia is aiming for a more concentrated assault and a more achievable victory.
While Russia has pointed the finger at Ukraine, Russian troops have been accused of war crimes for the brutal siege of the port city of Mariupol and mass executions in the city of Bucha near Kyiv.
On Wednesday, Putin only told the little girl that Russian troops were there to save the people in the Donbas.
“This operation primarily pursues the goal of helping people living in Donbas, our people living in Donbas,” Putin said, according to Tass.