Is Putin Ready to Move Against Ukraine?
Putin offers some of his toughest messaging yet on the ongoing civil conflict in Ukraine’s eastern territories.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has published his hotly-anticipated essay on Ukraine, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The six-thousand-word treatise garnered no shortage of attention in the West, and for good reason: Putin’s comments bear direct if not immediate implications for the ongoing Donbass conflict, which has lasted longer than World War II and claimed thousands of casualties on both sides. But the article carries a deeper set of political connotations that predated Putin by centuries, and may resonate in Russian-Ukrainian relations long after Putin’s presidency.
Putin’s epic opens with a protracted historical exposition, describing the ethnogenesis of the eastern slavic peoples. Present day Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians, notes Putin, are all descendants of Kievan Rus, a loose 9th century federation founded by the Scandinavain-derived Rurik Dynasty. As Putin guides the reader through the Mongol occupation, rivalries between Boyar clans, and the establishment of the Russian Tsardom, a common strand emerges: the peoples who have lived in these lands are inextricably linked by a common faith and language. Russian and Ukrainian are merely dialects of the same underlying language, Putin adds: “Many centuries of fragmentation and living within different states naturally brought about regional language peculiarities, resulting in the emergence of dialects. The vernacular enriched the literary language.”
Putin hastens to add that the attempts to challenge this underlying unity came not from within, but from without: first, by Polish elites thirsting for eastward expansion, and centuries later, by Austro-Hungarian officials seeking to undermine the Russian Imperial war effort in WWI by stoking anti-Russian sentiment in Galicia. The late 1910s disintegration of the Russian Empire briefly left Ukraine at the mercy of German Imperial designs, but it wasn’t long before Poland made its move by supporting nationalist leader Symon Petliura in exchange for territorial rights to Galicia.
Then came what Putin sees as perhaps the greatest betrayal of all: the early Bolsheviks poisoned eastern slavic unity with their policy of “Ukrainization,” foisting a contrived Ukrainian national identity onto people who were essentially Russian. “The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible fodder for social experiments,” he wrote. “So they drew borders at will and handed out generous territorial ‘gifts.’ In the final analysis, it no longer matters what guided the Bolshevik leaders in cutting up the country. One can argue about details, the causes and the logic off certain decisions. One thing is obvious: Russia was essentially robbed.”
With the historical background sorted, Putin arrives at his denouement: the contemporary Western powers have now picked up where the Poles, Austro-Hungarians, and Bolsheviks left off, latching onto old theories of Ukrainian nationhood to turn post-Soviet Ukraine into a kind of “anti-Russia.” Putin notes that these efforts culminated with the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, which placed Kiev under western suzerainty: “In the anti-Russia project, there is no place either for a sovereign Ukraine or for the political forces that are trying to defend its real independence,” he wrote.
Putin then offers some of his toughest messaging yet on the ongoing civil conflict in Ukraine’s eastern territories, going as far as to suggest that “Kiev simply does not need Donbas.” Though it doesn’t quite rise to the level of imminent policy intent, it is difficult to interpret this as anything other than Putin laying the long-term intellectual groundwork for Russia’s potential recognition and absorption of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. This would clearly be a violation of the very same Minsk Protocol that Putin formally wants Ukraine to implement, but his overarching premise appears to be that Kiev could not abide by the Minsk format even if it wanted to. If present-day Ukraine is, as Putin alleges, an “anti-Russia project” directed by the west, why would its leaders—or their supposed western puppeteers—ever agree to a peace settlement that gives the overwhelmingly pro-Russian people of Donetsk and Luhansk a generous autonomy arrangement, robust political representation, and what amounts to a permanent veto over Ukraine’s major foreign policy decisions?
The larger implications for Ukrainian-Russian relations are even starker. “Russia is open to dialogue with Ukraine and ready to discuss the most complex issues,” he wrote. “But it is important for us to understand that our partner is defending its national interests but not serving someone else's, and is not a tool in someone else's hands to fight against us.” As long as Ukraine remains what Putin considers to be an anti-Russian platzdarm, there is nothing more to discuss between Russia and Kiev. Nor is this impasse likely to be solved with a change of government in Ukraine, for Putin’s underlying grievance is not with the Zelensky administration but with the Ukrainian state as it is currently constituted. As far as Putin is concerned, there is only one way in which post-Soviet Ukraine can properly exist: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia… Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”
Russian hardliners and hawkish political commentators have previously suggested that the Kremlin erred in extending diplomatic recognition to the Ukrainian government that emerged in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution. This essay is as close as Putin has gotten to ‘correcting’ that supposed mistake. “We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia,” he insisted, warning “those who will undertake such an attempt” that they “will destroy their own country.” To assess this rhetoric merely as a signal that Moscow is preparing to take a specific military action is to miss the scope of what the Russian President is trying to convey. Putin’s opus is nothing less than an act of moral and political divestment not just from contemporary Ukraine, but from the very possibility of Ukrainian statehood outside the Russian sphere of influence.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.