Putin kept Russia and the world waiting hours for a speech that never happened.
It felt like a possible turning point in Moscow’s seven-month war against Ukraine: President Vladimir V. Putin, with Russia reeling from losses on the battlefield, was going to make a prime-time address to the nation.
Russian state media figures breathlessly touted the upcoming speech for several hours Tuesday. Rumors swirled that he could announce some sort of escalation of the war, as he had threatened in a news conference last week.
And then … they declared it was postponed.
“Are you waiting?” Margarita Simonyan, the editor of the state-run television network RT, wrote on Telegram at 9:37 p.m. Moscow time on Tuesday.
“Go to bed,” she wrote 42 minutes later.
There was no official explanation from the Kremlin about why the speech was delayed — or even that it had been planned at all. But coming on a day when Russia’s occupation authorities in four Ukrainian regions announced “referendums” starting Friday on joining Russia, the back-and-forth telegraphed the breakneck speed — and apparent improvisation — with which the Kremlin is plotting out its next moves.
The referendums, analysts say, would be a prelude to annexation of the territory by Russia — at which point Moscow could declare it would treat any further attacks on those regions, parts of which are still controlled by Ukraine, as an attack on Russia itself, and threaten nuclear retaliation.
In addition, Russian Parliament on Tuesday passed a law that introduced the concepts of “mobilization” and “martial law” into Russia’s criminal code — further stoking speculation that Mr. Putin could officially declare war and a nationwide draft.
“People who can’t organize a speech undertook to organize a mobilization,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, posted on Twitter in a jab at the Kremlin.
By late Tuesday evening in Moscow, some of the Russian media figures who had said that Mr. Putin’s speech was coming said it would now come on Wednesday instead.
“Get up by around 8,” Dmitri Smirnov, a pro-Kremlin journalist who covers Mr. Putin, cryptically wrote.
Analysts left open the possibility that the Kremlin had still not decided what, exactly, Mr. Putin would say. But some suggested that the delay could mean an escalation of the war.
“The longer the announced appearance of President Putin is delayed, the more serious the announcements in it will be,” a pro-Kremlin analyst who appears frequently on state television, Sergei Markov, posted on Telegram.