Russian president Vladimir Putin’s six-thousand-word article on Ukraine lays the ideological groundwork for a possible future war with Ukraine. A Russian military incursion or another form of security action against Ukraine would lead to the biggest crisis in relations between the West and Russia since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and would have unforeseen consequences for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, and Central-Eastern Europe.
Ukraine is not Moldova or Georgia where Russian forces intervened in the early 1990s and 2008, respectively. It is a huge country in terms of territory. Tiraspol and South Ossetia are close to Chisinau and Tbilisi whereas Donetsk is 750 km from Kyiv. Invading and then subduing Ukraine would be practically impossible and take at least half of the Russian army which would be more than unwelcome would meet organized partisan resistance in each Ukrainian region.
It took Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who had just won World War II, a decade to defeat the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the best organized partisan force in Europe which fought in western Ukraine and then, when its personnel were captured, in the Gulag until the mid-1950s. In 2014 Ukraine’s numerous volunteers turned the tide of the war and were in the process of defeating the Donbas separatists which forced Russia to supply anti-aircraft missiles, one of which—a Buk—shot down commercial airliner MH 17 in July 2014 killing 298 passengers and crew. Russia then invaded Ukraine in August 2014.
A war with Ukraine would destroy the myth Putin has fed to the Russian people of a “civil war” taking place in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea has always been popular in Russia where it is supported by eighty-five percent of the population because Crimea and Sevastopol have a high degree of symbolism in Russian historical mythology. A war with Ukraine over “New Russia,” a term Putin revived in 2014 but everybody—including Russians—had forgotten will be unpopular inside Russia. Unlike Ukrainians, most Russians continue to believe Ukrainians are a “brotherly people.” Therefore, a war with Ukraine could have unforeseen consequences for Putin’s regime and rising discontent would be used by the opposition.
Putin has not learned from the failures of his two incursions into Ukraine in 2003 towards the island of Tuzla and 2014 in the so-called “New Russia” of eastern-southern Ukraine. A stable three-quarters of Ukrainians believe the conflict taking place in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is a war between Russia and Ukraine. Russians, who don’t have the media freedom found in Ukraine, are fed the lie a “civil war” is taking place between “fascists,” and Russian speakers.
This could not be further from the truth because the Kremlin’s mythology and stereotypes of Ukraine cannot comprehend the very concept of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriotism. In 2014, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians in south-eastern Ukraine opposed Putin’s “New Russia” project. Russian-speaking Ukrainians are at the forefront in fighting for Ukraine in the Donbas and regions such as Dnipropetrovsk (a largely Russian-speaking region in Eastern Ukraine) have the highest casualty figures. All the two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees are Russian speakers from the Donbas. Putin’s military aggression against Ukraine is hurting and killing Russian speakers the most, not defending them, and turning them away from Russia. Two-thirds of Ukrainians no longer see Russians as a “brotherly people,” including fifty-two percent and forty-six percent in Ukraine’s south and east respectively.
Putin’s views on the “artificiality” of Ukraine, Ukrainians as a branch of the pan-Russian nation, and Ukrainian as a dialect of the Russian language show the stagnation in Putin’s worldview from Soviet to Tsarist. Putin has revived the late nineteenth-century great power nationalist view that Austrians and Poles created a ‘fictional’ Ukrainian nation to divide the “Russian people.” Russian leaders do not believe “artificial” Ukrainians have agency and they must, therefore, be acting on behalf of Western governments, especially the United States and EU. As in the USSR when the KGB viewed dissidents as being controlled by Western secret services, the Kremlin believes countries such as Ukraine seeking an independent existence outside the Russian World must be doing so at the prodding of the West.
The Soviet Union recognized a Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian language. Stalin insisted Ukraine and Belarus, in addition, to the USSR, be given seats at the UN. Putin’s claim that Ukraine is an “artificial” Soviet construct is applicable to all fifteen Soviet republics, including the Russian Federation. If, as Putin believes, republics should have left the USSR with only the territories they entered in 1922 the Russian Federation would have to also give back lands to Germany, Finland, Japan, Mongolia, and yes also to Ukraine. Large areas settled by Ukrainians, such as the Kuban region of the Northern Caucasus, or where Ukrainians were in a majority were included in the Russian Soviet Federative Soviet Republic (SFSR). Ukrainian leaders could use history to make similar territorial claims towards Russia.
Putin has said that “we know and remember that to all intents and purposes [Ukraine] was created at the expense of historical Russia.” There is little question that this statement includes an indirect territorial claim to “New Russia” which Putin first raised in his speech to the 2008 NATO-Russia Council at the Bucharest NATO summit. Then, and on many occasions since, Putin has denied the legitimacy of its eastern-southern regions as belonging to Ukraine and has defined the people living there as “Russians.”
In the Kremlin, there is an adamant belief that in 2014 in the Euromaidan Revolution, western Ukrainian “fascists” came to power in an “illegal putsch” and have ruled the country ever since at the behest of the Western masters. They have pursued anti-Russian policies and turned Ukraine into an ‘anti-Russian project’ and Western puppet state. “Russians” in “New Russia” and “Malorossiya,” or Little Russia, desire to live in the Russia World but are being repressed by these “fascists” who continue to rule Ukraine. This mythical view of Ukraine became even more out of touch with reality after Jewish Russian-speaking Eastern-Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected in April 2019. In the summer of that year, Ukraine was the only country in the world outside of Israel with a Jewish president and Jewish prime minister.
That this has nothing to do with reality is irrelevant because, as Putin’s article shows, this is what is believed in Moscow. “Russians” in “New Russia” and Malorossiya’ are waiting for liberation from western Ukrainian ‘fascists’ so they can take their place in the Russian World. Ominously, Putin’s 2021 article is to be studied by soldiers in the Russian armed forces.
Putin is likely to initiate military or another form of hard security action against Ukraine for four reasons. The first is that Putin adamantly believes “New Russia” is “Russian” land which Ukraine has forfeited after Ukrainian nationalists came to power in the Euromaidan Revolution and transformed Ukraine into an “anti-Russian project” or puppet state with Western masters. Ukraine’s very existence as an independent country outside the Russian World is viewed by the Kremlin as evidence of the existence of an “anti-Russian project.”
Lost on Western analysts and policymakers is that Putin’s views are not new and have been long held by Russian elites. As long ago as August 1991, just ahead of the USSR disintegration, President Boris Yeltsin’s press secretary warned that Ukraine’s borders would be only recognized if it remained within the USSR. In the 1990s this was transformed into Ukraine continuing to remain within the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and under Putin in the Russian World. Russia made territorial claims towards Crimea throughout the twenty-two years prior to the 2014 crisis.
The second is Putin’s goal of entering Russian history as the “gatherer of Russian lands” would be a failure if he lost Ukraine forever. This idea germinated during his term as prime minister and was implemented with the assistance of Ukrainian oligarch and politician Viktor Medvedchuk after Putin’s re-election in 2012. Politics is personal for Putin and Zelensky’s decision to bring treason charges against Medvedchuk, whose daughter has Putin as her godfather, is viewed as an attack on Russia’s interests in Ukraine. There cannot be a Russian World without Ukraine, as Kyiv is the “Mother of Russian cities” and “Kievan Russia” is the birthplace of the “Russian people.”
The third factor is Russian control over “New Russia,” in whatever form, would deny Ukraine access to the Black Sea in the same manner as Putin has already denied Ukraine access to the Azov Sea by building a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Russia would act sooner rather than later to thwart Ukrainian attempts, with U.S. and British assistance, to re-build the Ukrainian navy which was stolen and destroyed in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.
Russia has several options it could pursue. These include an incursion into the Kherson region to take control of water supplies to Crimea, blocking shipping from Odesa and Mykolayiv in the Black Sea west of Crimea or using Transnistria, a breakaway region from Moldova with a large Russian-speaking population, as a base to foment separatism in the Odesa region. Loss of control over its southern land and sea would prove Putin’s thesis that Ukraine is an “artificial” construct and unable to exist as a viable entity outside the Russian World.