In his first address to the leaders of the world’s largest economies since the Ukraine-Russia conflict began in 2022, the Russian president called for leaders to “stop the tragedy” occurring in the neighbouring country.
After some leaders said they were shocked by the Russian “aggression” in Ukraine, Putin replied: “Yes, of course, military actions are always a tragedy.
“And of course, we should think about how to stop this tragedy. By the way, Russia has never refused peace talks with Ukraine.”
Why was this comment so surprising?
Putin’s remarks omit his own role in starting the conflict.
Back in February 2022, after weeks of growing aggression and building up troops near the Ukrainian border, the Russian president ordered his forces into Ukraine.
He claimed it was important to “demilitarise” the country, and made baseless neo-Nazi allegations about the Ukrainian government to justify the invasion.
It was part of what he dubbed the “special military operation” – he has only referred to the 21-month long fight as a “war” sparingly.
So it was also pretty surprising when Putin used the word “war” to describe the conflict in Ukraine during his G20 meeting.
He said: “I understand that this war, and the death of people, cannot but shock.”
Who did Putin blame for the war, then?
Putin pivoted the G20′s attention to pre-war tensions, by claiming Ukraine had been persecuting people in the east of its country.
This is a reference to the separatist movement which started to gain traction in eastern Ukraine after Ukraine’s 2013 Maidan Revolution and Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.
According to the UN, approximately 14,000 people were killed in the subsequent conflict as Russian-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces.
Putin also pivoted the conversation towards the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, saying: “And the extermination of the civilian population in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip today, is not shocking?”
The Russian president has positioned himself as a potential mediator in the Middle East conflict since it broke out last month.
What else did Putin’s comments reveal?
Putin’s remarks were correct in that there really is a tragedy still unfolding in Ukraine – it’s Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War 2.
The UN Human Rights Office said on Tuesday that more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since Russia invaded, although the real toll is expected to be “significantly higher”.
According to Reuters, Danielle Bell from the head of the UN monitoring mission, said the “severe human cost” in Ukraine right now is “painful to fathom.”
Russia has been accused of targeting civilian structures in Ukraine too, although Moscow has denied this.
Ukraine has also only agreed to peace negotiations if Russia agrees to hand back all of the Ukrainian land (one fifth of its total land mass) it has illegally annexed since 2014 – which includes the peninsula of Crimea.
But Putin claims this area now belongs to Russia.
He also broke international law by illegally annexing four other regions in eastern Ukraine in September 2022.
Putin’s words also come after a senior Russian official said Moscow could not co-exist with the current government in Ukraine.
Why was Putin’s appearance at the virtual summit a surprise?
He did visit Iran back in July and ventured to Belarus last December, but has steered clear of any NATO country since February 2022 – so his virtual appearance at the summit was a big deal.
He sent his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to the last two G20 meetings in India and Indonesia, and has not attended a summit meeting in person since 2019.