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Putin’s warning to the West: Moscow sees Ukraine as part of ‘Russian world’ & this is meant to be taken seriously by outsiders

“I consider the wall that in recent years has gone up between Russia and Ukraine, between what are in essence two parts of a single historical and spiritual space, to be a great common misfortune, a tragedy.” With these words, Putin laid out his version of Russian-Ukrainian history in a long article published on the Kremlin website earlier this week.

For Putin, those living across both nations are “one people,” whose “spiritual, human, and civilisational links were formed over centuries.” The president went on to say that “our kinship has been passed on from generation to generation. It’s in our hearts… in the blood ties uniting millions of our families.”

The idea that Ukrainians are part of this single family is a red flag to a bull for nationalists in the country. As one furious reaction published in the Kyiv Post put it, “Putin’s claim is more propaganda than history. Russian and Ukrainians have historically been distinct. Russia has for centuries promoted the myth that the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are one nation, with Moscow at its heart.” According to the piece, “the theory has been used to entrench Russian imperialism and undermine the Ukrainian and Belarusian national identities.” 

Clearly, Putin thinks otherwise, doubling down on earlier statements he has made in the face of that kind of criticism. In his long exposition of Russian and Ukrainian history, he lays out the case that Kiev and Moscow are united through centuries of shared political and cultural ties. Along the way, Putin blasts the current authorities in the neighbouring nation for their policies, laying much of the blame for the divisions between Russia and Ukraine on Western powers, both in the past and today.

This is not Putin’s first historical treatise. Last year, for instance, he published an article about the origins of the Second World War. One has to wonder why he bothers. It’s not as if that many people really care about all the ins and outs of Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s relationship with ancient Muscovy, for instance. Why focus on history rather on the problems of today?

One explanation is that Putin is targeting domestic voters in advance of September’s elections to the national parliament. This, however, doesn’t explain why Putin published his latest piece in the Ukrainian language as well as Russian. It is clear that the Russian leader has an audience outside of Russia’s borders in mind as much as the one inside them.

Thus, in his article Putin emphasises his belief, that “the ‘anti-Russia’ project is simply unacceptable to many in Ukraine – and there are millions of such people.” The problem, says Putin, is that this group is “being intimidated, driven into the underground.” The article therefore perhaps represents an attempt to go over the heads of the Ukrainian government to appeal directly to these millions of ordinary Ukrainians who Putin thinks will be sympathetic to his narrative.

Beyond that, it represents the growing importance of the historical battlefield in Eastern European politics.

Be it the Soviet famine of 1932-33, know as the “Holodomor” by Ukrainians, the circumstances that led to the Second World War, or – going back even deeper into the mists of time – the furthest origins of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, interpretations of history have a decidedly political hue. Politicians on all sides believe that whoever controls the historical narrative will gain a decisive advantage over his or her opponents. Putin’s article shows that he has no intention of abandoning this battlefield to others.

Whether Putin’s detailed account of anthropology and the movement of peoples is accurate is a matter best left to professional historians. No doubt their opinions will vary. History is rarely clear cut. More important is what Putin’s narrative of a joint Russian-Ukrainian heritage means for politics today. In this regard, a few key points emerge from his article.

The first relates to the West. The Russian leader blames outside powers for dividing Russia and Ukraine. Historically, the guilty parties were Poland and Austria. Today, it is the West more generally. Ukraine has become “a protectorate, under the control of Western powers,” writes Putin. Again, whether Putin is right or wrong is by the by. What matters is that he sees the West as acting in a malign fashion. This does not suggest that he is likely to be swayed by Western pressure.

The second point relates to the ongoing war in the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. Putin puts the blame for the conflict firmly on the government that took power after the 2014 Maidan and on its policy of “forcible assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state.” Kiev refuses to end the war, Putin claims, because it is necessary to justify a nationalist project that seeks to define Ukraine as the “anti-Russia.” Extreme nationalists were “waiting for their chance” to purge Donbass, whose population were justified in fighting to “defend their homes.”

The third point concerns Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To some degree it could be seen as justifying complaints that Putin’s “one people” rhetoric enables Russian imperialism. Soviet nationalities policies, that transferred territory from one national republic to another, meant that “Russia was robbed,” says Putin. “We will never allow our historical territories… to be used against our country,” he adds.

The use of the word “our” is revealing, as it suggests that Putin regards certain parts of Ukraine as rightfully Russian. He avoids making a direct territorial claim, and indeed reiterates his support for the 2015 Minsk II agreement that if fulfilled would see Donbass reintegrated into Ukraine. But coming on top of his rhetorical support for separatism in the region, there is a clear message here. Putin sees eastern Ukraine as part of the Russian world, and believes that if Moscow abandons Donbass it will be subjected to a genocidal attack.

Consequently, anybody who thinks that Putin will ever succumb to Western pressure and throw Donbass to the tender mercies of the Kiev government and its forces is almost certainly mistaken.

Beyond that, though, there is a deeper message. If Ukraine tries to resolve the problem of Donbass by force, Russia won’t feel constrained by issues of Kiev’s self-declared territorial sovereignty. Because, deep down, the Kremlin doesn’t believe that the territories in question are truly Ukrainian.

Putin didn’t write this article because he considers it a trivial matter. Clearly, it’s something close to his heart.

Consequently, one must conclude that he is not likely to back down on issues pertaining to Ukraine. The article also contains a hidden warning. It isn’t one that leaders in Kiev or the West will like. It is, however, one that they would do well to heed.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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