Putin’s article on “The Historical Union of Russians and Ukrainians” should not be interpreted as an attempt at stoking controversy with the Ukrainian elite, or even as a comprehensive article about Russian policy in general. This article was aimed at a very specific audience, and is entirely focused on Ukraine, which means that, just as the Kremlin has already stated, the ideas contained in it are not meant to be applied to the other former Soviet republics.
This time, Putin has gone right over the heads of the Ukrainian elite, addressing the members of Ukrainian society who are less-than thrilled with their country’s current social and economic conditions or the strategies being pursued by the current authorities, including cultural and language policies. Attempts at building Ukrainian statehood based on Ukrainian nationalist values is understandably irritating to the ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine, as well as a large swathe of Ukrainians living in the central and eastern regions and in Transcarpathia. How many people fall into this category, and how many of them are willing to listen to Putin is a separate question, and it is likely that he is exaggerating his own influence and potential audience in Ukraine. Nonetheless, large numbers of such people do exist.
What is Putin aiming to do with this article?
- To provoke Ukrainian nationalists into a response by demanding further attacks on the Russian language and the rights of those who are not fully ready to share all the values of modern Ukrainian statehood (for example, in the pantheon of heroes in Ukrainian nationalism). This increases tensions in Ukrainian society and will make it more difficult for Ukraine to become a strong, stable, democratic and European state. Putin wreaks havoc wherever he goes, and in that regard, his article does an excellent job of exactly that, by adding fuel to an already-smoldering fire.
- To blackmail the Ukrainian political elite with direct appeals to Ukrainians with a de facto call to fight their own government and shift toward Russia and its proxies in Ukraine. Putin makes a direct reference to Viktor Medvedchuk as the only opposition leader capable of lifting Ukraine out of its current quagmire. Speaking broadly, Medvedchuk’s problems may even be the main driving force motivating both this article and Putin’s recent activities involving Ukraine in the first place. For him, this is a very personal matter, given his ties to the Russian President.
- To give Russian claims to Ukraine the veneer of a positive and coherent political program capable of uniting at least part of Ukrainian society. It is important to note that Putin never actually denies the existence of Ukraine or the Ukrainian language. He simply believes that as things stand today, Ukraine is wrong. “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possibly only in partnership with Russia,” he writes, in what may be the most important idea of the entire article. Putin sees no point in talking to the current Ukrainian elite, who he considers to be non-self-governing pawns under the thumb of the West. His ultimate goal is to orchestrate a crisis in Ukrainian statehood, and build a new, pro-Russian, anti-Western Ukraine on its ashes. At the very least, he hopes to exacerbate the turmoil and use Ukraine as an example of what awaits any country that dares stand up to Russia and befriend the West.
And what does Putin offer the sectors of Ukrainian society he is addressing?
- Soviet nostalgia. In Russia, the Putin regime relies on much of Russian society’s nostalgia for the USSR, and he is trying to reach people of a similar mindset in Ukraine. There are certainly many such people in Ukraine, particularly older residents in the central and eastern regions. Putin’s article, which is a retelling of a familiar interpretation of history they have known since childhood- albeit with a few adjustments- is likely to speak to them.
- Anti-Western pseudo-traditionalism. This is closely related to the point above, but expands on Putin’s potential audience in Ukraine, at the expense of those who do not share the values of modern Western society. There are many of them in Ukraine, and the current authorities’ unconditionally pro-Western stance is completely alien to them. They feel much more drawn to the concerns of the Orthodox Church and the issues presented in the article, as well as Putin’s statements and speeches.
- A partnership with Russia. Despite the fact that to both Ukraine’s political elite and its nationalists, even discussing the matter is absurd, the fact is that not all of Ukrainian society shares their anti-Russian sentiment or is particularly concerned with who owns Crimea. In essence, Putin hints that if Ukraine gives up its pro-Western policies and stops demanding the return of Crimea, Russia will be a lucrative economic partner, traditional economic ties will be reborn, and everyone’s quality of life will improve. Obviously, this is a utopian view, but against a backdrop of many Ukrainians feeling unmoored in their own country today, many of them are susceptible to believing these ideas.
Ukraine’s social and economic problems, along with the authorities’ confused ideological policies mentioned above are Putin’s main allies in Ukraine today. The fact that Russia itself does not have much to brag about in these areas is of little import to Putin’s target audience- from their perspective, the socioeconomic situation in Ukraine appears worse than that in Russia, and they are comparing their lives not with reality, but with what they hear from the ubiquitous Russian and pro-Russia propaganda that they consume.
- Minimize the controversy surrounding the article and especially the issue of whether or not Ukrainians and Russians are one people. Ukrainian society is far from monolithic, and there is indeed a part of it that might consider themselves to be one people with Russians and Belarusians. Constantly being told that this is not the case will only irritate them and drive them further into Putin’s embrace. Besides, there can be no denying of the many family and personal ties between Russians and Ukrainians. It would be more effective to respond to Putin with a different line of thinking, using the example of Austria and Germany- though they speak the same language and are, by Putin’s definition, “one people”, Austrians and Germans live in different countries without any problems, and the key to peace and prosperity is recognizing one another’s borders and sovereignty, and that a shared language and culture do not create a need for political unification, especially on the terms of the larger of the two countries.
- The West needs to be more persistent in demanding that the Ukrainian elite distance themselves from some of the more odious figures of Ukrainian nationalism and its ideas that make part of Ukraine’s population feel like outcasts and potential victims. This would take away one of the Kremlin’s most effective trump cards when working with some sectors of Ukrainian society.
- Language and cultural issues. Many Ukrainian politicians are already voicing that the Russian Federation does not own the Russian language. This may be a highly effective method of resisting the Kremlin’s aggression. Instead of rejecting Russian culture and the Russian language, Ukraine might proclaim it all to be part of its own culture, thereby strengthening loyalty to the modern Ukrainian state, not only among ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine, but also among its citizens who feel comfortable in both languages.
To summarize: Putin’s article is written with a specific audience in mind, and he has no interest in the opinions of Ukrainian elites- in fact, creating controversy around the article serves no purpose other than to feed into Putin’s tactics. What’s more, it solves some of his problems in Russia as well, once again dragging the debate on Ukraine onto the domestic political agenda, which, on the eve of elections, is only a benefit to Putin. For this reason, the best reaction to the article would be to ignore it, take stock of the problems he is trying to exploit, and attempt to find a way to resolve them.