aslund63_Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images_putin call-in Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images

Putin’s Dangerous Ukraine Narrative

Russian President Vladimir Putin has lately been going to great lengths to highlight the historical linkages between his country and Ukraine. In denying that Ukraine has any right to independence, Putin is setting the stage for war.

STOCKHOLM – Russian President Vladimir Putin is obsessed with Ukraine – or, rather, with pretending that Ukraine doesn’t exist. In his annual call-in show on June 30, he claimed that “Ukrainians and Russians are a single people.” He then published an article aimed at justifying that “conviction,” by tracing the two countries’ shared history. It is a masterclass in disinformation – and one step short of a declaration of war.

Putin begins his tale in Ancient Rus, where Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were united by one language and – after the “baptism of Russia” into the Orthodox religion – one faith until the fifteenth century. Even amid fragmentation, Putin writes, the people perceived Russia as their shared motherland.

According to this narrative, the Polish-Russian War of 1605-18 was, for the people, “liberating.” Ukrainians were “reunited” with the rest of the Russian Orthodox people, forming “little Russia,” and the word “Ukraine” was used to mean something like “on the frontier.”

In Putin’s story, the creation of Novorossiya in 1764 and the expansion of the Russian Empire also reflected the will of the people. “The integration of the western Russian lands into the common state was not only the result of political and diplomatic decisions; it took place on the basis of common faith and cultural traditions” and “linguistic affinity.”

General Alexander Suvorov, who overcame tremendous resistance to secure Russia’s expanded borders, would surely disagree. But Putin suggests that the shared language – separated only by “regional linguistic features and dialects” – all but nullifies the possibility that Ukraine could have developed its own culture. For example, while Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, wrote poems in Ukrainian, he wrote prose mainly in Russian.

Similarly, Nikolai Gogol – born in the Poltava Governorate of Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire – was a “patriot of Russia,” and wrote in the Russian language. “How can this heritage be divided between Russia and Ukraine?”

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Later, Putin condemns the “harsh Polonization” that was carried out during the interwar period, when the Poles suppressed “local culture and traditions.” He then credits the Bolsheviks for “developing and strengthening” Ukrainian “culture, language, and identity” through their policy of Ukrainization.

The problem, Putin continues, is that “Ukrainization was often imposed on those who did not consider themselves Ukrainian.” The Russification of Ukrainians – which far exceeds anything the Poles did – goes unmentioned.

Putin also presents the Soviet Union as the savior of Ukrainian reunification. “In 1939, lands that had previously been seized by Poland were returned to the USSR. Their main part was given to Soviet Ukraine.” This is a bizarre depiction of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviets and Nazi Germany. Yet Putin shamelessly concludes that “contemporary Ukraine was fully created by the Soviet epoch.”

Putin does have his disagreements with the Bolsheviks, beyond their apparently excessive Ukrainization. His problem is not with, say, the Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. (Putin avoids mentioning Stalin at all, and says modern Ukrainian leaders are “rewriting history” when they present the “common tragedy of collectivization and famine” as a genocide.)

Rather, Putin takes issue with the way the Bolsheviks treated the Russian nation: “as an inexhaustible material for social experiments.” Their dreams of “world revolution” and the abolition of nation-states led them arbitrarily to “cut borders” and give away “generous” territorial gifts. “Russia was actually robbed.”

Yet, even as the world condemns the “crimes of the Soviet regime,” it does not regard the actions of the Bolsheviks to “tear away” historical territories – such as Crimea – from Russia as criminal acts. And Putin knows why: “this led to the weakening of Russia,” so our “ill-wishers are satisfied with it.”

Putin returns to the ill-wishers, but first he has a thing or two to say about economics. “Ukraine and Russia have been developing as a single economic system for decades and centuries,” achieving a “depth of cooperation” 30 years ago that today’s European Union would envy. For example, from 1991 to 2013, he claims – not particularly credibly – that Russian gas subsidies saved Ukraine more than $82 billion for its budget. He fails to mention the subservience Ukraine’s leaders had to offer in return.

“Such a close relationship can…increase the potential of both countries,” Putin writes. Yet the truth is that those decades of engagement left both economies underdeveloped. No matter: Putin blames Ukraine’s “deindustrialization and economic degradation” on its efforts to separate itself from Russia since 2014.

Russia always treated Ukraine “with great love,” Putin declares. That’s not quite how I would describe imposing severe trade sanctions on a country in turmoil, as Russia did to Ukraine when President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin crony, was ousted in 2014. Nor is it an apt representation of shooting down a passenger plane, as Russian forces did in July of that year, killing 298 people.

Yet, according to Putin’s narrative, Ukrainian elites “squandered the achievements of many generations,” justifying their country’s independence “by denying its past.” And they have been urged along by none other than the EU and the United States – the apparent villains of modern Ukraine’s story, who are engaged in a comprehensive “anti-Russia” project.

This echoes Putin’s claim during the call-in show: “The main issues concerning Ukraine’s functioning are not decided in Kyiv, but in Washington and, partly, in Berlin and Paris.” In Putin’s view, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s acceptance of “the full external management of his country” renders any attempt to meet with him futile.

Nonetheless, Putin says in his article, “Russia is open for dialogue with Ukraine.” But, for such a dialogue to work, Ukraine must be representing its “own national interest,” rather than attempting to “serve foreign interests.” Of course, in Putin’s view, Ukraine’s only national interest must be to unite with Russia.

Make no mistake: by denying Ukraine’s right to independence, Putin is setting the stage for war. The West must quickly decide what it is willing to do to prevent it.

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