Why Ukraine Lives Rent-Free in Putin’s Head
In a lengthy, tortured article, he just spelled out his destabilizing fixation on how “Russia was essentially robbed” of its neighbor.
Ukraine may rarely be on the front pages anymore, but it remains one of the world’s most important countries, its domestic struggles echoing far and wide (remember the second Trump impeachment? It won’t be the last such echo). The main reason for that importance is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s painful Ukraine fixation; as Peter Dickinson pointed out in a recent essay for the Atlantic Council, Putin started a whole new Cold War because of it.
Now Putin, who has largely resisted the literary, autobiographical, philosophical and other writerly temptations to which so many of his Russian predecessors and political colleagues have succumbed, has attempted to explain the obsession in one of his longest published pieces of writing: a 5,328-word opus on Ukraine’s shared history with Russia. Brought out in both Russian and Ukrainian, it is, as Putin said in subsequent answers to questions from his own press service, “a little more than an article”; a psychologist might call it an attempt to work through a still-smarting trauma, a Russia- or Ukraine-watcher would see in it an ominous attempt to justify further aggression, a student of propaganda might interpret it as an attempt to talk to Ukrainians over the heads of Ukraine’s elite and media. It contains all these facets and more; unsurprisingly, it is a deeply conflicted, tortured work.
The gist of the article is that Ukrainians and Russians started out as one people, speaking the same language, in ancient Rus, a loose confederation of princedoms ruled by descendants of the Scandinavian House of Rurik. They mostly survived as one nation with a common Orthodox Christian faith and a shared culture despite Polish efforts to “Catholicize” Ukraine. Then, when the Russian empire collapsed in the early 20th century, the Bolsheviks — namely Vladimir Lenin, Putin explained — made the mistake of constituting the Soviet Union as a federation of national states with a right to secession rather than drawing these states into Russia as mere autonomous regions, as Josef Stalin suggested. Putin wrote:
The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible fodder for social experiments. They daydreamed about a world revolution, which, in their opinion, would cancel nation states altogether. 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.
Since the “robbery,” according to Putin, Western powers have fostered Ukraine’s national project by using the old Polish and Austrian recipes to pull Ukraine away from its natural partner, Russia:
Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game whose goal is to turn Ukraine into a barrier between Russia and Europe, a bridgehead against Russia. Inevitably, a time came when “Ukraine is not Russia” became an insufficient concept. An “Anti-Russia” was required, something to which we will never acquiesce.
There’s not much here that Putin hasn’t said before — perhaps an assertion here, a taunt there. New to his Ukraine discourse is just a quote from his 1990s political mentor, former St. Petersburg mayor and prominent lawyer Anatoly Sobchak, who once suggested that when the former Soviet republics dissolved the USSR in 1991, they should have left with the territory they brought into the Union in 1922. Russia, of course, had not come with many of its current territories — from Tuva in Eastern Siberia, which became part of Russia in 1944, to Kaliningrad, which passed from Germany to Russia at the 1945 Potsdam Conference; but Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has attempted to deflect this argument by saying Russia never seceded from the Soviet Union and remained its legal successor — an arguable claim given Russia’s 1990 declaration of sovereignty.
Yet despite the absence of new content, Putin’s article is significant because it pulls together all the disparate claims he’s made on the subject and attempts to mold them into a cohesive platform. The contradictions within this edifice immediately became apparent. The attack on the Bolsheviks’ national policy is untypical of Putin’s largely Soviet worldview — he is, after all, the man who brought back Russia’s Soviet-era national anthem and built his regime’s ideological foundations on the Soviet Union’s finest moment, its victory over Nazi Germany, an event on which Putin’s views differ little from those expressed in Soviet history textbooks. But the nationalist tirade — from an immigration-friendly leader who has called nationalism a danger to the state — contradicts Putin’s references, in the same article, to Ukraine’s Soviet pantheon of World War II heroes and his explicit pride in the Soviet Union’s scientific and industrial achievement.
Putin rails against what he sees as Western support for Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and the hero worship of controversial nationalist figures from Ukraine’s past, such as Stepan Bandera, but the entire narrative of the “Anti-Russia project” sounds uncomfortably like Adolf Hitler’s March 15, 1938 speech in Vienna, announcing the Anschluß of Austria. According to the leaders of the “now defeated regime,” Hitler said,
the task of the so-called independence of Austria, grounded in peace agreements and dependent on the mercy of foreign powers, was to impede the construction of a truly great German Reich and thus to block the German people’s path into the future.
The fuehrer, in other words, was proud of defeating a kind of “anti-Germany project,” an attempt by foreign powers to impede the unification of “one people” — the German one. Putin, while repeating that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” doesn’t give that people a name, so you can take your pick of “Soviet,” “Eastern Slav,” “Russian” or whatever other brand of imperial or ethno-nationalist thinking you believe in. But the rhetoric has an unmistakable precedent Putin cannot bring himself to admit as Soviet and nationalist ressentiments boil up in his brain.
History is a minefield, and Putin, an amateur, boldly steps on every mine as he attempts to tell Ukrainians that their statehood is an accident, their resistance to Russian aggression futile and their fate as a people inextricably tied to Russia’s. Whether the message is friendly or hostile is difficult to decipher: On the one hand, there are all the justifications of Russia’s recent territorial grabs, and on the other, assurances that “Russia will never be an ‘anti-Ukraine’”; on the one hand, expressions of concern about Ukraine’s reprisals against local pro-Russian media, but on the other, claims of Western interference that add up to a denial of Ukrainians’ agency and a promise that the pendulum would swing as far in the opposite direction if Ukraine ever found itself in Russia’s orbit again.
In the end, one thing is clear from the article: Putin’s gaze is turned resolutely toward the past. He’s frustrated and unwilling to accept that things no longer work as they once did. But what are Ukrainians to make of that? Many of them just aren’t interested in Putin’s reasons for extending a conflict that has already killed 15,000 people and for holding on to annexed territory with which Ukraine, quite uncontested at the time, left the Soviet Union. They are not touched by his need to explain himself. As Mustafa Nayyem, a former legislator and one of the heroes of Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” wrote on his Telegram channel,
Why so much text to tell us something about ourselves? We don’t care a fig what you think about us, our history and our reality. Just live your own life and stop poisoning it for others.
It’s hard to say whether the Ukrainian audience to which Putin addresses himself actually exists, or whether anyone in Ukraine still considers Ukrainians and Russians “one people”; I haven’t met anyone in Ukraine who holds this view, but perhaps it’s just my bubble. Rather, Putin’s elaborate faux-historical constructs appeal to Ukrainians’ sharply developed sense of the absurd; President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a professional comedian, quipped recently that if Russians and Ukrainians were one people, the blue and yellow flag would fly over the Kremlin and Russia would be using the hryvnia, not the ruble.
Given Russia’s accelerating backslide into a sclerotic, hopeless, Soviet-style authoritarianism, the ever-chaotic, sometimes ungovernable, cheerfully corrupt, hopefully inept, incredibly inventive and creative Ukraine is, with or without Western interference, a kind of anti-Russia. It can’t help it; being Russia is too boring, uncool, unfree to have an upside. So, as Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Gritsak told the website Liga.net,
Our answer to Russia shouldn’t come as words but as actions. As institution-building. Something that Russia cannot even remotely afford. Russia cannot afford open political competition, an opposition, independent courts, an efficient economy. The rest is just nice words to disguise a weak game.
To the rest of the world, however, Putin’s tortured journalism is of more consequence than to Ukrainians. It shows that the Russian leader is unprepared to negotiate with third parties about Ukraine’s fate and direction. He won’t really accept mediation or any set of common rules because he sees himself as carrying out a historical mission — that of preventing “one people” from being torn apart. There’s no reasonable conversation to be had with Putin about the past or the future, if only because he can’t extricate the latter from the former.
Thus, the risk of renewed aggression will always be there while Putin is around, and helping Ukraine in its institution-building will always carry the risk of being subverted or thwarted by hostile Russian action. Anyone who provides such help should understand the true strength of the resistance — and perhaps not expect spectacular results while Putin watches and broods jealously, regretting only that Russia can’t just end everything with a decisive strike.