There are various ways to interpret Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lengthy article “on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” as his story is titled. But to cut through the clutter of the nearly 7,000-word English version of Mr. Putin’s history lesson on Ukrainians and Russians constituting “a single whole,” and after having read the piece in its entirety, one thing strikes us as plainly evident. Mr. Putin is scared.
Mr. Putin is not scared of Ukraine’s comparatively fledgling military power, nor is he scared that the countries of Europe will eventually accede to granting Ukraine membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union. With regard to Ukraine, he is also not afraid of the United States because he knows that, unless he did something truly egregious, the people of the United States are unwilling to wage war with Russia over Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
But the Russian president is scared precisely because the average Ukrainian has demonstrated repeatedly – and in many cases at great personal risk – a hunger and passion for a freedom that simply does not, and likely will never, exist in Mr. Putin’s Russia. Moreover, the Russian president fears that there are shades of that same hunger present within Russia’s borders, which is why he so ruthlessly seeks to quash dissent, a free press and anyone who displays even the smallest hint of threatening his autocratic rule. He is not only afraid of people who hunger to live in a free society, but he believes such societies are weak and will ultimately fail precisely because they are free, which to him means that they are unruly and disobedient.
Mr. Putin’s treatise on the common history of the people of Ukraine and Russia covers significant ground, going all the way back to the 9th century, and he notes that “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe.” He discusses and analyzes nearly all of the major developments that occurred in the region from Ancient Rus up until the present day, covering a broad swath of significant events of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. He talks a lot about unity and discord. Yet with so much ground covered, the topic of freedom comes up not once. Not a single time. Mr. Putin is rightly terrified by Ukrainians because the great majority of them roundly reject his concept of the Russian World and have shown repeatedly that they will chart their own course together, as a society of millions of free, independent citizens.
When discussing Ukraine, Mr. Putin and his supporters around the world focus their attention on stories of anti-Semitism, Nazi collaborators, or contemporary neo-Nazis, among various other topics. But the evidence over the past 30 years is clear: Ukrainians have taken great steps – admittedly both backward and forward – to build a more democratic society. They have shown through multiple revolutions that, when necessary, they will hold their elected officials accountable. Mr. Putin is not frightened that Ukraine will move west to Europe. Rather, he is terrified that the hunger for freedom found in Ukraine will instead move east and spread throughout Russia. He is right to be afraid.