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Putin justifies Ukraine invasion as a 'special military operation'

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

News of Russian military action came in a video address from Russian President Vladimir Putin early Thursday, and it came as the U.N. Security Council was once again holding an emergency meeting. And here's what the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.N., Sergiy Kyslytsya, said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGIY KYSLYTSYA: It's too late, my dear colleagues, to speak about the escalation - too late. The Russian president declared war on the record.

MARTINEZ: Charles Maynes is in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, near the Ukrainian border, and he joins us now. Charles, so Vladimir Putin announced the attack on Ukraine in a national address. Tell us more about what he said.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. So he went on television just before 6 a.m. here local time. He said, essentially, what the West had been predicting for weeks, that a Russian military campaign against Ukraine had begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So, here, Putin is saying he ordered a special military operation to protect the people in the Donbas, who he argued were being subjected to genocide by the government in Kyiv. And he went on to say that the additional goal of the mission was demilitarization and eventual denazification of Ukraine. Now, Putin's reference to Nazis is part of a wider argument he's made in the past that Ukraine's 2014 revolution, in which protesters overthrew a Moscow-backed government in favor of a pro-European vision for the country - that that instead brought a fascist junta to power, intent on cleansing Ukraine of its Russian-speaking population.

Now, you know, there's really no evidence of that, but Putin called on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their weapons voluntarily and return home rather than fight to protect fascists in the government - and that's in Putin's words - and then he would claim that Russia had no intention of occupying the country. But Putin's language certainly suggests that he has designs on regime change in Kyiv. And I should add that he also warned outside countries from getting involved. He's suggesting that they would face a ferocious Russian response if they did.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned his call for denazification. Can you explore more on how he rationalized this military action?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, he seemed to go out of his way to justify the legal basis for this. He said Russia was coming to the defense of these Donbas statelets that the Kremlin formally recognized earlier this week and to which Moscow has promised security guarantees. And again, in all this talk of fascists, you know, Putin is drawing comparisons between Nazi Germany's invasion of the USSR in World War II and NATO's expansion to Russia's borders. You know, he railed at NATO's triumphalism after the Cold War. He accused the U.S. of trying to destroy Russia from within. And he said it was Ukraine's ambitions now to join the NATO alliance that had brought the threat to Russia's doorstep.

MARTINEZ: All right. So clearly, we're in the early hours of this military action, and then there's the fog of war and propaganda. But, Charles, what are you hearing about the Russian side on the military campaign so far?

MAYNES: Yeah, we heard from Russia's Defense Ministry in a statement. They claimed to have taken out Ukraine's key military infrastructure, including air defense capabilities, and they said they targeted military airfields with precision airstrikes. And it's - they've also said that they're not targeting Ukraine's civilian population, although there are certainly reports to the contrary. You know, also, online footage seems to show Russian ground forces crossing into Ukraine from all directions- the north from Belarus, in the south in annexed Crimea and also in the east, closer to where I am. So I think put another way, this is basically the scenario the U.S. predicted - a Russian invasion force massed around Ukraine in order to move in. And U.S. warnings that Russia always dismissed as hysteria have all proven true.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes. Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.