KIEV, Ukraine – In his address to the Russian nation on Monday, President Vladimir Putin supported his case for codifying the division of two rebel regions of Ukraine by saying that the very idea of a Ukrainian state is an illusion.
Denouncing an unburdened authoritarian with historical nuances, Putin declared Ukraine an invention of the Bolshevik revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, who he said mistakenly gave Ukraine a sense of statehood by allowing it to be autonomous within the newly created Soviet state.
“Modern Ukraine was completely and completely created by Russia, and specifically Bolshevik communist Russia,” Putin said. “This process began practically after the revolution of 1917, and, moreover, Lenin and his comrades did it in a dirty way in relation to Russia – by dividing its own historical lands, tearing it off from its plots.”
As a misreading of history, it was extreme even by the standards of Mr. Putin, the former KGB officer who declared the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Ukraine and Russia share roots going back to the first Slavic state, Kiev Rus Medieval empire founded by the Vikings in the 9th century.
But the historical reality of Ukraine is complex, it is a thousand-year history of changing religions, borders and peoples. The capital, Kiev, was founded hundreds of years before Moscow, and both Russians and Ukrainians claim it as the birthplace of their modern cultures, religion, and language.
Kiev was an idyllic location along the trade routes that developed in the 9th and 10th centuries, thriving only to see its economic influence waning as trade shifted elsewhere. The numerous conquests of warring factions and the diverse geography of Ukraine—with its farmland, forest, and marine environment on the Black Sea—created a complex tapestry of multi-ethnic states.
The history and culture of Russia and Ukraine are already intertwined – they share the same Orthodox Christian religion, and their languages, customs and national cuisine are related.
However, Ukrainian identity politics and nationalism have been a nuisance in Russia since the feudal tsarist times preceding the Russian Revolution. Many Russians view Ukraine as their nation’s “younger brother” and should act accordingly.
Eastern Ukraine, which came under Russian influence much earlier than the West, still includes many Russian-speaking and pro-Moscow people. But the happy fraternity between the countries Putin loves to paint, with Ukraine comfortably placed in the fabric of Greater Russia, is questionable.
It has already established parts of modern Ukraine for centuries within the Russian Empire. But other parts of the West were under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland or Lithuania.
“Putin’s argument today that Ukraine is historically classified by Russia is not correct,” said Cliff Kupchan, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory organization. While the themes of Mr. Putin’s speech were not new to the Russian leader, Mr. Kupchan said, “the breadth and intensity with which he pursued all things Ukrainian was remarkable.”
The newly formed Soviet government under Lenin that aroused much disdain for Mr. Putin on Monday will eventually crush the fledgling independent Ukrainian state. During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian language was excluded from schools and its culture was allowed to exist only as caricatures of Cossacks dancing in puffy pants.
Mr. Putin also argued on Monday that the Ukraine myth was reinforced by the collapsed Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev, which allowed Ukraine to break free from Moscow’s grip. It was weak Moscow that “gave” Ukraine the right to independence from the Soviet Union “without any terms and conditions.”
“It’s just crazy,” he said.
It was not Moscow that granted Ukraine independence in 1991, but the Ukrainian people who voted forcefully to leave the Soviet Union in a democratic referendum.
Now, with an estimated 190,000 Russian soldiers now flanking Ukraine like a scythe, Putin’s declaration that Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign country was the result of a historical blunder threatens to sow chills in all the lands once under Moscow’s control. It also evoked disdainful expressions from the Ukrainians.
“Over the past few decades, the West has been looking for fascism anywhere, but nowhere has it been,” said Maria Tomac, a co-activist in support of people from Crimea, a Ukrainian region annexed by Putin in 2014. It obviously burns the eyes. Perhaps this will finally make the West begin to be careful about Russia.”
It is not clear whether Mr. Putin believes his version of Ukrainian history or whether he has simply concocted satirical myths to justify whatever action he plans next. But his claim that Ukraine exists only in the context of Russian history and culture is what he has publicized at least since 2008, when he tried to persuade George W. Bush, who had expressed support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO, to state the country. lack of.
Last summer, Mr. Putin published a 5,300-word article explaining many of the topics he highlighted in Monday’s speech, including the notion that the infamous Western countries had somehow corrupted Ukraine, pushing it far from its rightful place in the larger Russian sphere of During what he called a “forced change of identity”.
Despite this, few observers believe that historical accuracy is of great importance to Mr. Putin as he makes justifications for everything he plans for Ukraine.
“We can be clear that Putin was not trying to engage in a historical debate about the intertwined histories of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples,” said Joshua A. Tucker, a professor of political science at New York University and an expert on Russia. Instead, Professor Tucker said, the Russian leader was laying the groundwork for the argument that Ukraine is not currently qualified for the kinds of rights we associate with sovereign states.
“It was a sign that Putin intended to argue that military intervention in Ukraine would not infringe on the sovereignty of another country,” he added.
Moscow pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty as a condition for Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But analysts said Putin made it clear that the pledge was of little importance to him. In 2014, after protesters ousted a Kremlin-backed government from power in Kiev, he ordered his army to seize Crimea and then instigated a separatist war that led to Ukraine effectively losing two rebel regions in the east.
On Monday, Mr. Putin moved to formalize this separation by recognizing those lands, the popular republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent. Soon, he ordered the troops to enter the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine.
But Putin’s efforts to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit have, in many ways, had the opposite effect. In a country that was ambivalent about NATO at best, or downright hostile at worst, opinion polls show that a solid majority now favors membership in the US-led military coalition.
In Kiev, where Ukrainians nervously awaited Mr. Putin’s decision, the reaction to his speech was disgust and alarm.
Kristina Berdenskikh, a prominent political journalist, met her colleagues at a bar called Amigos and sat around the phone watching Putin’s speech, alternately crying and swearing.
“It is hatred of the whole of Ukraine and revenge for the country’s movement towards the EU, NATO and democracy – albeit chaotic, with huge problems, slow reforms and corruption – but where people elect and change power in elections or revolutions,” Ms Berdenskikh said. “The worst dream of an old madman is both scenarios: fair elections and revolutions.”
Michael Schwartz reported from Odessa, Ukraine, Maria Varnikova from Kiev and Rick Gladstone from New York.
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