On July 12, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin published “Regarding the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The 12-page article was released in Ukrainian, English and Russian and addresses the historical roots of the East European Slavs, namely Ukrainians, and Russians.
He devotes most of the article to key historical points, which give the impression that Ukraine and Russia were always united by politics, religion and language. In Putin’s view, the West has always sought to create a rift among the brotherly Slavic nations.
While Putin’s article may seem like just a personal address by a world leader, it reveals the mentality with which the Russian leadership has justified its invasion of former Soviet territories and annexation of Crimea. The article could also hint at the beginning of the new stage in the Russia’s war against the West, and subsequently the West.
History as a Justification of Imperialism
The problem with Putin’s article is not its use of history, but his attempt to use history to justify illegal political actions. These two things are different, despite their frequent overlaps. Many nations share histories, but that does not give one a right to invade and annex territories that previously belonged to them. This would mean that, by extension, the modern United Kingdom has a right to claim all of the United States – a territory that rebelled and gained independence in 1776. Russia is itself guilty of taking foreign territories and absorbing it, without regard for the native communities. Peter Eltsov, Associate Professor of International Security Studies at NDU commented:
History of the past is totally irrelevant. For example, what exactly is ‘native Russian land’ which Putin speaks of? He means the land which was taken from native Siberians and Finno-Ugric people? There cannot be one history. All of it is interpreted differently, and Putin chooses to interpret it by stating that Ukrainians are Russian. Not simply Ukrainians, who live in a independent state, who speak Russian.
The article puts into question not just a certain interpretation of history, but the Ukrainian identity itself because, in the past, Ukraine and Russia were “united.” And, consequently, the only acceptable way to go forward is together, under Russia’s wing.
This is further cemented by cherry-picked claims about Ukrainian history.
Of course the president would not be talking about Cossack rule and Bohdan Khmelnystkiy’s liberation of Kyiv, or the western province of Halychyna under King Danylo. Putin omits those facts.
Instead, he trumpets Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s 17th-century plea for Russian military assistance. Putin said: “For the people, [Ukraine’s union with Russia] meant liberation”. Such cherry-picking paints Russia as Ukraine’s savior. The conquest of Ukraine by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an act of evil, because forced Latinization was viewed as mistreatment of the Ukrainians. The Russian conquest of Ukraine was therefore an act of liberation.
But the article omits not only the history of the 17th century, but of the 20th as well. For example, Putin can’t decide whether the Bolsheviks were good or bad. On the one hand, Putin writes:
The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out national states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts. … One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.
On the other hand, this President has countless times expressed his outrage at Ukraine for ‘forgetting its past’ and ‘being ungrateful’ by banning the Communist Party and communist symbols.
That’s why Stalin’s repressions and the Holodomor are completely omitted. The mass graves don’t help Putin’s case.
For Putin, the ultimate “perversion” is the wrongdoings of Western Europe. He writes:
Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia … we are facing the creation of a climate of fear in Ukrainian society … Along with that we are witnessing not just complete dependence but direct external control, including the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ”development“ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure.
If Putin wants to talk history, he should consult Lev Tolstoy. In 1905, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war, Tolstoy said:
What will happen to Russia? Russia? What is Russia? Where is its beginning or its end? Poland? The Baltic Provinces? The Caucasus with all its nationalities? The Kazan Tartars? Ferghana Province? All these are not only not Russia, but all these are foreign nationalities desirous of being freed from the combination which is called Russia. The circumstance that these nationalities are regarded as parts of Russia is an accidental and temporary one, conditioned in the past by a whole series of historical events, principally acts of violence, injustice, and cruelty, whilst in the present this combination is maintained only by the power which spreads over these nationalities.
If one of Russia’s greatest writers and thinkers could question the validity of Russian imperialism, we can see that the president of today’s Russia is in fact no liberator. Putin instead rambles on and on that not only is Ukraine ungrateful for Russia’s sacrifice, but actively participates in an “anti-Russia” plan of action along with its Western sponsors.
One last interesting note, is regarding the origins of the supposed ‘Anti-Russia’ plan. The earliest use of this term dates back to a 2010 article by Stoletiye.ru titled “Georgia will be saved by South African farmers”, in which the author accuses the then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili of trying to realize this plan into action. The term was then revived by a Volodymir Marchenko, a Ukrainian politician and a member of the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, who spoke of himself as a man “fighting for the unity of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.”
However, the source of this term is likely Lev Vershinin. Vershinin, who currently resides in Spain, has been critical of the current and previous government of Ukraine. He supported the “Russian Spring”, and regularly makes posts on his LiveJournal blog under the nickname Putinik1. Vershinin was the first person to reference Poland as the pioneer of the “Anti Russia” plan back in 2012. Putin’s article also traces Poland as the initiator of this idea:
At the same time, the idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians started to form and gain ground among the Polish elite and a part of the Malorussian intelligentsia. Since there was no historical basis – and could not have been any, conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions, which went as far as to claim that the Ukrainians are the true Slavs and the Russians, the Muscovites, are not. Such ”hypotheses“ became increasingly used for political purposes as a tool of rivalry between European states.
What this means is that Putin’s imperialist ideas are not backed by his own thought, but are also fueled by many controversial figures and agencies which have great interest in portraying Ukraine and its people as a collective whose origins lay in being a chess piece of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
The Geopolitical meaning of the article
“Kiev does not need Donbas,” Putin declared, “because, to begin with, the inhabitants of these regions will never accept the order that the West has and is trying to impose its will by force, blockades and threats. And secondly, [cooperation with Moscow] contradicts the entire logic of the anti-Russia project.”
Putin himself views the conflict in Ukraine not simply as a sovereign state choosing its own path, but as a country whose government and people have different ideas as to the path forward. Putin does not support his claim with evidence that “for many people in Ukraine, the anti Russia project is unacceptable.” Opinion polls show that the majority of the Ukrainian population supports joining the EU, and nearly 48% support joining NATO.
That’s why the article is really a warning from Russia about Russia’s interest in Ukrainian internal political affairs. Putin is saying that Russia will never cooperate with a country whose government is bent on thwarting the will of the citizens of Ukraine — whom he believes to be fundamentally pro-Russian. The decision by the Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu to include Putin’s address as part of military-political curriculum should be enough evidence to demonstrate that this proclamation isn’t simply an intimate article dedicated to the Ukrainian people.
Maria Snegovaya, a Russian political analyst from the George Washington University, writes:
“The West must be aware of the aggressive nature of the Putin regime, as well as the fact that no search for a compromise will satisfy Putin because of his worldview. It is clear from the article that Putin sees the current geopolitical situation in a completely different way from Western leaders, and does not recognize the borders of Ukraine. This means possible future attempts at escalation, and the continuation of various hybrid or non-hybrid attempts to influence and limit Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is necessary to prepare for a tougher policy of containing the Kremlin, as well as for a more active integration of Ukraine into Western institutions (including NATO, the EU). This is the only thing that can provide Ukraine with some kind of protection.”
The notion that Vladimir Putin holds any sympathy for Ukraine is a lie. No love can explain the downing of the flight MH17 with 293 people on board, or the more than 13,000 dead Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom were Russian speakers themselves. As Ralf Fuchs writes: “[Putin] is full of contempt for contemporary Ukraine. His article is a cold threat: Ukraine belongs in the Russian orbit. It does not have the freedom to choose its alliances.”
Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence does not need history’s justification, especially from hundreds of years ago. Russia accepted Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, as confirmed by the Budapest Memorandum, which Russia signed.
Russia wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants free rein to bring instability to its neighbors while demanding a seat at the table of Ukraine’s future. Western leaders cannot approach the conflict through the usual diplomatic discourse, but instead should be cautious and recognize that they are dealing with a figure from Russia’s Imperial tradition.