KYIV – Eleven days after Russian President Vladimir Putin held his yearly “direct line” call-in show with ordinary citizens during which he promised to publish an article on Ukraine, he delivered on the pledge and caused a stir on July 12 by calling the two nations “one people.”
He furthermore reiterated what he told then-U.S. President George Bush, Jr., at the sidelines of a NATO summit in April 2008, “that Ukraine is not a country.”
The Russian president’s 7,000-word manifesto (when counted in English) was published on the Kremlin’s website, an uncustomary practice that world leaders usually reserve for inclusion on the opinion sections of print and online media outlets.
It was first published in the Ukrainian and Russian languages, with the English-language version released on July 12.
Some passages contained ominous threats toward Ukraine’s independence amid an ongoing inter-state war that Russia started eight years ago after invading and seizing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and certain parts of the easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
More than 14,000 people have been killed so far, as well as 1.5 million people internally displaced in Europe’s only ongoing shooting war.
“I am convinced that true Ukrainian sovereignty is only possible in partnership with Russia,” Mr. Putin wrote. “After all, we are one people.”
The diatribe was described as “rambling” and riddled “with many [historical] myths” by Peter Dickinson, editor of the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert service.
“[Mr.] Putin issues a number of thinly-veiled threats and repeatedly demonstrates his contempt for Ukrainian statehood,” he wrote.
Ukraine’s statehood is denied in the essay, while Mr. Putin said the current policies in Kyiv are “anti-Russia…which we will never accept.”
Titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Russia’s leader laid claim to much of modern-day Ukrainian lands by stating that they are “entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era, and was to a large extent created at the expense of historical Russian lands.”
In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy compared his Russian counterpart’s assertions of “brotherhood” between “Big Russia” and “Little Russia” to the relationship between Cain and Abel, the fratricidal brothers in the Bible.
Responding to journalists on July 13, Mr. Zelenskyy said that if Ukrainians and Russians are truly “one people,” the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine would be flying over the Kremlin.
He then proceeded to mock the Russian president by expressing facetious envy.
“I can only say I’m jealous that the president of such a great country can afford to spend so much time on such a volume of work,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, effectively trolling the Russian president.
The opinion piece was also criticized by Bloomberg data writer Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who lives in Berlin.
“History is a minefield, and [Mr.] 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,” he wrote.
Mr. Putin’s perpetuation of historical myths is not new and he has consistently maintained that Ukrainians are not a nation.
“The Kremlin misrepresents the region’s history in order to legitimize the idea that Ukraine and Belarus are part of Russia’s ‘natural’ sphere of influence. Yet both countries have stronger European roots than the Kremlin cares to admit,” London-based Chatham House wrote in May in an analysis titled “Myths and Misconceptions in the Debate on Russia.”
Regarding Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed, Chatham House said that Moscow has promoted another myth that the peninsula had always belonged to it.
“Less than 6 percent of Crimea’s written history…belongs to the Russian chapter. Before 2014, Crimea was under Russian control for a total of only 168 years,” the think tank wrote in May.
Pro-Kremlin foreign political observer Mikhail Rostovsky, however, said the Russian president’s essay was “the last ultimatum to Ukraine.” The implicit warning was that Ukraine faces more dire consequences if it doesn’t change its course and obey the Kremlin’s will.
In an article on the Kremlin-friendly Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper on July 12, he elaborated on what he thought Mr. Putin really meant.
“Russia will not accept what happens in Ukraine’s domestic [arena]” and that “Russia was actually robbed” of its territories following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Regarding eastern Ukraine where war rages in an area called the Donbas, “Kyiv no longer needs it,” Mr. Rostovsky wrote.
He concluded his essay with a looming threat.
“We are on the cusp of something big,” Mr. Rostovsky wrote. “We are on the hurdle of possible big shocks. If [Mr.] Zelenskyy and the West that stands behind him do not understand [Mr.] Putin’s signal correctly and do not react accordingly, these big shocks will definitely take place. The Kremlin is consciously going for escalation.”
Ukraine has already received permission from the U.S. to move Washington-supplied Javelin tank-killer weapons toward the front line of combat, the National Interest reported on July 8. Ukraine’s navy on July 15 received the first batch of proven, battle-efficient Bayrakatar Tactical Block drones from Turkey.
Next month, Ukraine celebrates its 30th anniversary of post-Soviet independence, while Russia will hold massive military drills along Ukraine’s state borders the following month.