As Russian President Vladimir Putin Ordained troopsDivide into 2 Rebel-held Regions in eastern Ukraine late Monday night, recognizing the regions as independent, he returned to a familiar argument that the Kremlin has pushed for years: that Ukraine’s claim to statehood is entirely baseless. In a televised address to the nation, Putin explicitly denied that Ukraine had ever had “real statehood,” and said the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.”
Putin’s speech, which went on for nearly an hour, was a new twist in the long-running battle to define Ukraine’s place in the world. Putin made it clearer than ever that Ukraine was intrinsically Russian and that three decades of its existence as a country-state were chaotic. He also said that the Soviet Union’s mistakes have led to Ukraine’s survival. He made similar arguments in An Essay published last summer.)
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Putin presented his view of Ukrainian history in the speech. Putin started his speech by declaring that Ukraine today was the creation of Vladimir Lenin. He created the Soviet Republic of Ukraine from Russian land. Putin said that Joseph Stalin supplemented Ukrainian lands with lands from other eastern European countries following the Second World War, and that his successor Nikita Khrushchev “took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and gave it to Ukraine” in 1954. Putin said that these decisions were “worse than a mistake,” and went on to criticize Ukraine for “mindlessly emulating foreign models” after its 1991 independence.
But Western analysts say that Putin’s remarks are a mischaracterization of history intended to justify Russian claims over Ukraine.
Russian statehood of Ukraine is repressed
Although the history of both countries is interrelated, Ukrainians were quick to highlight that Kyiv was built hundreds of centuries earlier than Moscow. They also point out that Ukraine maintains its own unique language and customs.
“Part of the reason that Ukraine has never had stable statehood is because of Russia,” says David Patrikarakos, an author of two books about foreign affairs and non-resident fellow at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He says that Putin deliberately ignored the long history of Ukrainian nationalism, including the country’s war of independence against the Soviets that began in 1917, and its resistance to Soviet rule after World War II. “There has been a strong impulse of Ukrainian nationalism for at least the last century, and [of] the Russians just slapping them down militarily,” Patrikarakos says. “And that’s continuing today.”
Ukraine’s path to independence
Ukraine became independent in 1991 after an election in which 92.3% of the voters declared that they preferred the country be free from the Soviet Union. The question of what Ukraine should look like as a country has been controversial. Although support for independence was overwhelming in 1991, it did not conceal a large divide between Ukraine’s east and west, which share a border to Russia. In this area, the Russian cultural-linguistic and linguistic influence was stronger than it has ever been.
2013: Ukrainian nationalists unified in protest against proRussian President Viktor YanukovychThe situation eventually led to him fleeing the country. They were arrested. Maidan Revolution, as the protests were called, offered an updated version of Ukrainian nationalism—one oriented toward Europe and democratic values, instead of Russia’s political system, though they glossed over the antisemitic history of Ukraine’s nationalist movement. The protesters disagreed with the Kremlin’s reading of Ukrainian history, viewing the Soviet era as more of a hostile occupation than a cohesive union between brotherly states.
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However, as Ukraine has been a major geopolitical hotspot in recent years the polarization of Ukraine has increased. At the height Euromaidan protests, 2014, around 50% of Ukrainians polled did not agree with them. Even though around 45% of respondents said they agreed with the demonstrations, 58%A majority of Ukrainians would like to join the E.U. Today, 21 percent of Ukrainians support joining the E.U. Polls show support among Ukrainians for joining the NATO alliance was typically lower than 50% between 2014 and 2016, but has risen along with Russian aggression–with 64% of Ukrainians expressing support for the idea in a January 2022 Poll.
Given that context, Patrikarakos argues that Putin’s speech should not be viewed as an effort to convince Ukrainians of the benefits of Moscow’s patronage, but instead as an assertion of Putin’s increasingly bullish worldview. “What he’s saying is something far wider: Ukraine is not a legitimate state. Ukraine is Russia. It should never have existed as anything else,” Patrikarakos says. He suggests that it could be a warning sign for any future military actions. “If you do not accept the idea of Ukraine, then you clearly by implication do not accept the idea of Georgia, the Baltic States, Moldova and everything else.”