Putin’s Ukraine rhetoric driven by distorted view of neighbour

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  • Vladimir Putin
    Vladimir Putin
    President of Russia

Analysis: Russian president believes it his 'duty’ to reverse Kyiv’s path towards west


Even as Vladimir Putin has built up an invasion force on his borders, he has repeated a refrain that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, bemoaning a “fraternal” conflict that he himself has provoked.

As Putin speaks on Tuesday with Joe Biden, western analysts have likened his focus on Kyiv to an “obsession” while Russians have said Putin believes it his “duty” to reverse Ukraine’s path towards the west.

Putin has threatened a broader war in Ukraine over Nato enlargement, demanding “legal guarantees” to ensure Ukraine does not join the military alliance or become a kind of “unofficial” member hosting troops or defence infrastructure.

Related: US says it will send troops to eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

But that fear has gone hand-in-hand with chauvinistic bluster that indicates Moscow has a distorted view of modern Ukraine and the goals it wants to achieve there.

“Russia fundamentally misunderstands Ukraine and its nature,” said Pavlo Klimkin, the former Ukrainian foreign minister. “Russia has been continually trying to prove that Ukraine is a sort of failed state, that Ukraine has no statehood, no history, no language, no religion. It’s a kind of separate reality.”

In June, Putin published an article in which he doubled down on a public claim that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people”, saying the formation of an ethnically Ukrainian state hostile to Moscow was “comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us”.

Analysts in Washington were alarmed by the rhetoric because it came shortly after Russia had engineered its first troop build-up, causing a war scare in April. Eugene Rumer and Andrew S Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment called Putin’s text a “historical, political, and security predicate for invading it – if and when that ever became necessary.”

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In Moscow, Putin’s 5,000-word essay is not seen simply as an empty treatise, but a window into the mind of a leader seeking historical arguments in his conflict with the west.

“I know that this article was very much his idea, his wish to prepare this and he was personally very deeply involved in this text,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Moscow foreign policy analyst.

For Putin, the issue of an independent Ukraine that could potentially serve as even an informal ally of Nato on Russia’s border has become a true “red line”, he said.

“I think he sees it as his duty as president not to leave this problem for the next leadership,” said Lukyanov.

That Putin himself is responsible for that political change, by annexing Crimea and then launching a proxy war in east Ukraine that has left 13,000 dead, does not appear to have factored into his thinking.

Some close advisers are even more hawkish than Putin. Nikolai Patrushev, a former intelligence officer who now heads the Kremlin’s security council, has represented Russia during meetings with the CIA director, William Burns. In recent remarks, he called Ukraine a “protectorate” and warned of a potential of an “outburst of tensions so strong that millions of Ukrainians will flee to seek refuge in other places”.’

But even if the Kremlin bluster is just a smokescreen for Russian power politics, Kremlin officials have indicated that they think they can merely conclude agreements over Kyiv’s head or manage public opinion through friendly elites. Direct engagement with the administration of Volodymyr Zelenskiy has virtually ceased.

“The key problem is that Russia denies Ukraine any agency,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow and manager of the Ukraine forum in the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House. “They genuinely believe that Ukraine is a kind of puppet state … That’s why I believe the situation is so dangerous because Putin is demanding something that Biden cannot give.”

For instance, Moscow has said Biden should force Kyiv to negotiate directly with Russian-backed separatist governments as agreed to in a 2015 peace deal. But both sides have violated that deal and public opinion in Ukraine strongly opposes direct negotiations with forces viewed as Russian proxies. The demand is a non-starter.

Putin’s anger over Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, in which a pro-western government replaced that of Viktor Yanukovych, has become intertwined with other historical grievances, specifically the accession of former Soviet countries into Nato in 2004.

Putin does believe in his rhetoric about Ukrainian statehood, said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm, but is primarily focused on the perceived security threats posed by Nato.

“In my view, if he begins a military operation against Ukraine … it won’t be for him to try to reclaim what he considers Russian [land],” she said. “It will be to stake out territory where he believes there could be Nato missiles.”

For many Russians, Ukraine remains a blind spot that is viewed primarily as a junior partner.

“They view Ukraine as their little brother and they have a subconscious fear that the little brother will achieve more than the older,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former speechwriter for Putin.

And Putin’s rhetoric has convinced many that he is among them.

“He still believes Ukraine is a kind of conspiracy, a kind of aberration,” said Klimkin. “It’s all about Slavic unity, about trying to get Ukraine away from Russia. And I believe it’s all sitting deep in his mind, which you can read from his very different statements.”

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