Zelensky praises achievements, while Putin says Russians learned to live in harsh conditions

1 January 2022, 10:00 AM

Every year on Dec. 31, as the clock hands slip closer to midnight, residents of the former Soviet Republics grab glasses of sparkling wine and glue their eyes to their TV screens as their presidents deliver their annual New Year’s addresses. 

People in Ukraine and Russia had even more of a reason to observe this tradition at the end of 2021, as Russia massed more than 120,000 troops near Ukrainian borders, threatening to invade if the West does not provide guarantees Ukraine will never join NATO.

So with the fate of Ukraine hanging in the balance, no two Ukrainian or Russian presidents have ever given such important New Year speeches.

Video of day

NV analyzed both Ukrainian President Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s addresses –here’s what they had to say:

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers his annual New Year speech for 2021 (UKR)

Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukraine’s president has already taken the art of the New Year’s speech and to a new level. Since being elected in 2019, Zelensky has turned the end-of-the-year speech into a well-scripted show, with more people being involved in it every year.

This year he invited Ukrainian top athletes, healthcare workers, law enforcers, soldiers, teachers, writers and poets, family members of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar political prisoners currently held in Crimea and the non-government-controlled parts of the Donbas, to join him at a huge festive table in Mariinsky Palace in central Kyiv.

The Ukrainian president spoke for 20 minutes. He started his speech by saying he wanted to mention the extraordinary Ukrainians who contribute to the country’s wellbeing every day. His words were illustrated by short clips of different professionals at their workplaces.

Between cracking jokes, Zelensky, recalled Ukraine’s victories in 2021 in diplomacy, infrastructure, and agriculture. He noted the triumph of Ukraine's military intelligence during the evacuation from Afghanistan, and bragged about how he had managed to scare Ukraine’s oligarchs.

Ironically, at the same time, the Ukrainian oligarch-owned TV channels edited his speech significantly. TV channel Priyamyi, tied to former Ukrainian president and oligarch Petro Poroshenko, showed Poroshenko’s New Year’s address at midnight and broadcast Zelensky only afterwards.

Zelensky mentioned the country’s remarkable results in sports, such as the 98 medals Ukraine’s team brought back from the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. He also praised Ukraine’s national soccer team for its respectable run in the Euro 2020 European soccer championship.

“Our players did not disappoint us; they are among the top eight best teams of Europe, and they only lost to England because they didn’t want to spoil Ukraine’s relations with a strategic partner,” Zelensky joked.

Ukraine’s president also talked about Ukrainian healthcare workers, who vaccinated millions of Ukrainians against COVID-19 this year. He thanked the brave Ukrainian doctors, who stayed in front-line towns and villages of the war-torn Donbas and continue working despite constant shelling.

Almost 100,000 Ukrainians have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemics in 2020.

He also thanked the Ukrainian servicemen and servicewomen who have been defending Ukraine from Russian aggression. Since startin in 2014, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken the lives of more than 15,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

“Those Ukrainian soldiers are the heroes of Ukraine, who have been protecting our borders for eight years on the battlefields, in the sea, in the sky, and even in the enemy’s rear,” Zelensky said.

During his speech, Zelensky called for unity during challenging times, and expressed gratitude to all Ukrainians who have been doing their jobs well, and through this helping Ukraine to exist and develop. He said Ukrainians have been learning to unite to help each other.

“We’re learning to respect ourselves and aren’t just waiting for the world would solve our problems,” the Ukrainian president said.

Zelensky said everyone was trying to intimidate Ukrainians in 2021. Oligarchs, who, as he said, are scared by his so-called deoligarchization bill, tried to scare people from inside the country, promising them a cold winter due to a lack of fuel.

Meanwhile, the Russians have tried to intimidate Ukrainians from beyond the border. “However, those hostile armies outside our borders do not scare us, because we have quite a decent army of our own that protects us from our side of the border,” Zelensky said.

 Zelensky promised he would brag a bit in his address, and he did. He mentioned the Big Construction program – an ambitious infrastructure project he initiated to build roads, bridges, airports, and hospitals all across Ukraine.

While Zelensky calls it “the program of Ukraine’s president,” he has spent about UAH 100 billion of taxpayers’ money on it every year since it started in 2019. Big Construction has indeed produced thousands of kilometers of new roads, hundreds of reconstructed public buildings, and several airports. But it has been surrounded by corruption scandals from the very beginning, when the Ukrainian government decided to transfer most of the UAH 65 billion from the Ukrainian emergency COVID-19 fund for the construction of roads in June 2020.

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Zelensky did not mention the faltering fight against corruption in his New Year’s address, or any other failures of Ukraine’s government, except one – the fact that he had not managed to fulfill one of his main electoral promises: to end the war in the Donbas.

“Unfortunately the war in our east hasn’t ended yet, but that is still my main goal,” Zelensky said.

“I wish all of us to stay safe and healthy, to stay together. I wish our neighbors would come to visit with a bottle (of vodka) and tasty treat, not with the weapons and without knocking,” he added, referring to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual New Year's address to the Russian people on Dec. 31 (RBC)

Vladimir Putin

In contrast to Zelensky, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat all alone in his New Year’s address. He chose a classic old backdrop – the walls of the Kremlin – and was wearing a black coat that looked so tight that Russians in social media suggested he had a bulletproof vest on underneath.

Putin spoke for only six minutes, and his speech was short but not sweet: He said Russians have faced numerous challenges in 2021 and had learned how to live in harsh conditions.

“Together we kept fighting the dangerous pandemic that invaded all continents and refuses to go away,” Putin said, expressing his condolence to the relatives of the estimated 300,000 Russians who have lost their lives to COVID-19 (according to figures on the World Health Organization website).

Russia’s response to COVID-19 was chaotic, with the government banning all Western vaccines in the country, forcing Russians to vaccinate only with the domestically produced Sputnik-V. Such an approach, as well as Russians’ distrust of the vaccines, have brought Russia to fifth in the world among the most affected countries by COVID in 2021.

Putin did not say whether he was going to invade Ukraine in 2022, and he only obliquely mentioned the Kremlin’s ongoing tensions with the West.

“We have been firmly standing for our national interests, for the safety and security of our country and its citizens,” he said.

Putin also claimed the Russian government had managed to restore the economy and prepare it for growth in the future.

However, the Kremlin leader placed responsibility for the current state of Russia firmly on the shoulders of its citizens, saying: “We had a lot of unsolved problems, but I can say we passed this year with dignity. The main contribution was made by you – the citizens of Russia. This is the result of your everyday hard work.”

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