In his July 12, 2021, article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Vladimir Putin provides a thorough, yet slanted, account of Ukrainian/Russian relations.
I discovered this article in a comment made by Erik Reich, DC to the story by Lauren Elizabeth, “What’s Going to Happen to Eastern Europe? Tensions continue to rise, and diplomacy seems to be spiraling,” published on January 24, 2022. In addition to expressing concern for her relatives in Slovakia, Lauren Elizabeth concluded that the current crisis in Ukraine is an example of “Yet another nation filled with people being reduced to nothing more than a piece on the geopolitical chessboard in the match between the United States and Russia.” I would argue that the situation is more complicated than that. If Ukraine was merely a Russian pawn, Putin would be willing to risk losing it to the West. Instead, Putin has proven his determination to regain control of this wayward former republic.
A Divided Ukraine
Russia desperately needs a buffer zone from the West. Unfortunately for Putin, Ukraine is a nation divided between ethnic Ukrainians in the north and west who desire an alliance with the West and a large population of ethnic Russians who predominantly live in the south and east and want close ties or reunification with Mother Russia. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, presidential administrations have vacillated between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions, while corruption on both sides has left the nation impoverished.
Russians and Ukrainians are not the same.
In his lengthy article, Putin declares that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and condemns the “harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians.” This was true to some extent over a thousand years ago, when Kiev was the capital of the Russian people (Kievan Rus) from 882-1240. However, over the centuries, as the language splintered so did the population. Putin explains that Ukraine means “periphery” in Russian, as it made up the borderlands of the Russian and Soviet empires. Historically, Russia treated Ukraine as a backwater region – as a servant rather than a brother. Clearly, Putin is determined that Ukraine remains Russia’s borderland or buffer against the West.
Ethnic Ukrainians do not want to be in a position where they have to obey Russian commands ever again.
During my time in both countries, I observed deep animosity between the two groups. Putin said the Ukrainians “began to mythologize and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us, and refer to the period when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as an occupation.” Putin vaguely refers to the “crimes of the Soviet regime,” and later specifies “the common tragedy of collectivization and famine of the early 1930s was portrayed as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.” By calling it a “common tragedy,” Putin is gaslighting his Russian and Ukrainian readers who have been denied the truth of their own history. The Holodomor aka the Terror Famine occurred during the winter of 1932-33, when Stalin removed grain resources from Ukraine, leaving almost 4 million Ukrainians to starve to death. This genocide was excluded from Russian history books. In 2002, when I was living in Ukraine as part of a student/teacher-exchange program hosted by the U.S. State Department, I shared the story of the Terror Famine with a class of high school students. They starred back at me with blank expressions, while their three teachers who were listening to my lecture in the back of the classroom were whispering amongst themselves. It was a bizarre experience at the time. After class, the teachers called me aside and asked me how I knew this story, which they heard their grandparents recount when they were children. I explained that it was common knowledge, and I presented them with the world history textbook I brought as a gift, which included this dark chapter in Russian/Ukrainian history that had been deliberately hidden from both peoples.
Putin Always Places Russia First
Putin expressed anger that in Ukraine, “Russian language was cut out of the educational process.” Payback is a bitch. Historically, the Russian government actively suppressed the Ukrainian language at least 60 times. All textbooks in Ukraine were printed in Russian, and the Ukrainian language was kept alive in the homes of the Ukrainian people.
There is no love between the Russian and Ukrainian people.
While in Ukraine for three weeks, most of the time I lived in the home of an upper class Ukrainian family in Odessa, where the father worked as a dentist. He was proud of his Ukrainian heritage and insisted that the family exclusively speak Ukrainian at home. He was thrilled that Ukraine was no longer a part of the Soviet Union. Odessa, however, is mostly a Russian city that was built as Russia’s warm-water port during the reign of Catherine the Great. Today, the population is diverse and overall accepting of all ethnicities. Many of my students stayed with Russian families on the exchange. Six months later, I took a different group of students to Vladimir, Russia. When I told my Russian host family how great Ukrainian bread was (honestly, it is the tastiest I have ever had), she turned sour and said, “The Ukrainians can have their bread, they are dependent on Russian gas to heat their homes.” Ouch! I was mindful not to bring up Ukraine again on that trip.
People are labeled in Ukraine.
Personal identification documents in Ukraine list your nationality. A Ukrainian teacher that I became close to was of Jewish ancestry and her husband was Ukrainian. When her son was born, she officially identified him as Ukrainian on his documents so that he would have better opportunities in life. Traditionally, Judaism follows matrilineal descent; wherein children born to a Jewish mother are Jewish no matter the religion of the father. While in Odessa, everyone was cordial, but everyone knew who was Ukrainian, who was Russian, and who was Jewish.
Putin likes to blame the Ukrainians.
In his article, Putin expressed anger that the Russian rebels in Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) were referred to as “separatists and terrorists.” He falsely states that the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol “made their historic choice” to break from Ukraine and contends that the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk are simply doing the same. Putin blames the current fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk on Ukraine peddling “Russophobia” and contends that Ukraine’s goal is to “attract the attention of external patrons and masters by all means.” Putin even blamed Ukraine for the failure of the Minsk Agreements that attempted to negotiate an end to the violence in Donbas, rather than take responsibility for Russia’s numerous violations of the ceasefire.
Putin likes to accuse pro-Western factions as Nazis.
During the May 2, 2014, clash between pro-government and pro-Russian separatists in Odessa, the pro-Russian rioters took refuge in the Trade Unions Office where the Interior Ministry was located. The building caught on fire likely because of a Molotov Cocktail and 42 died in the fire or trying to escape it by jumping out windows. Earlier that day, six people from both sides died during shootouts on city streets. During the fire, pro-government rioters assisted the police in trying to rescue people from the fire. Addressing the matter, Putin said, “Ukrainian neo-Nazis burned people alive making a new Khatyn (an entire village in Belarus massacred by the Nazis in 1943) out of it.” Putin threatened that the same will be done to the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk.
What game is the U.S. playing in this conflict?
In his comment to Lauren Elizabeth’s article, Erik Reich contends that the U.S. does not want “to diffuse” the Ukrainian situation, noting that “a strong Russian threat gives moribund NATO a reason to draw a few more breaths after decades of Afghanistan boondoggles. Putin can stick it to us whether he invades or not, a kick in the nuts for our breaking faith with Russian over the alliance’s eastward expansion when the Russians were down, Putin still hasn’t gotten over that.” Is Biden’s aggressive rhetoric – stating that a Russian invasion is imminent – and his marshalling of U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to counter Putin’s assembly of 100,000+ troops along the Ukrainian border an attempt to amp up the prestige of NATO, which took a hit during the Trump regime and fractured even more following America’s troublesome withdrawal from Afghanistan? Possibly. A pissing match between Putin and Biden is clearly happening, while Ukrainian President Zelensky keeps begging Biden to tone down his message.
Shades of Gray
Media pundits are painting this standoff in solely black and white terms when the picture is more complicated. Many Republicans are vocally siding with Russia by acknowledging Russia’s desire for a Ukrainian buffer and pointing out Russia’s commitment to the ethnic Russian population in eastern and southern Ukraine. Liberals seem ready to die on this hill. If the Russians invade Ukraine, the wrath of the United States will be unleashed on the assets of Vladimir Putin. So this is it? It was okay for Russia to invade Georgia in 2008 when South Ossetia and Abkhazia wanted to break away. It was okay when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. And it was okay when Russia’s “little green men” took up arms alongside the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk and Russian tanks crossed into Donbas to support the separatists countless times since 2014. But now that 100,000 troops are surrounding Ukraine, we are pledging to protect the sovereignty of a non-NATO country? I can’t wait to see how it all pans out.