Russian Attempts at Primacy in the Near Abroad

Putin’s Op-ed Portrays a Strongman Hung-up on Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin answers journalists' questions about his article titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" in Saint Petersburg on July 13, 2021. (Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Once in a while Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will pen an article and share with the world what’s on his mind. In 2013 he published an op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the American public, cautioning them against America’s potential intervention in Syria. In the ensuing years Russia itself intervened heavily in Syria and continues to back the Assad regime. Moscow still argues the US has no place carrying out any operations in Syria and has positioned itself as a clear and present danger to US strategic interests there. Back in June of this year he published an article in German newspaper Die Zeit, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and urging Europe to cooperate with Russia going forward, claiming: “Our common and indisputable goal is to ensure continental security without dividing lines, a common space of equal cooperation and universal development in the name of the prosperity of Europe and the world as a whole.”

In these articles Putin aims to essentially rewrite portions of history, and presents narratives important to Russia’s vision of itself as a rightful major player on the global stage. In his Die Zeit article, he refers to the 2014 Euromaidan events in Ukraine as a US-organized coup, and labels Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea a “withdrawal of Crimea.” He argues: “Moreover, many countries were put before the artificial choice of being either with the collective West or with Russia. In fact, it was an ultimatum. The Ukrainian tragedy of 2014 is an example of the consequences that this aggressive policy has led to. Europe actively supported the unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine. This was where it all started. Why was it necessary to do this? Then incumbent president Yanukovych had already accepted all the demands of the opposition. Why did the USA organize the coup and the European countries weak-heartedly support it, provoking a split within Ukraine and the withdrawal of Crimea?”

"Ukraine"
Ukrainian students hold a giant EU flag during a protest rally in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on November 22, 2013. Jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on November 22 urged supporters to take to the streets in protest at the government's scrapping of a plan to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. (YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images)

Now, another article by Putin, published both in Russian and Ukrainian, is giving us a glimpse into his likely plans with Ukraine’s Donbas region, and reminds us that Putin is permanently hung up on Ukraine. The July 12th op-ed style piece is entitled “on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” Vladimir Putin devotes a whopping 42 paragraphs to his own summary of the history of Russian and Ukrainian peoples, describing them as one nation and arriving at a conclusion that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era.”

“We know and remember well that it was shaped – for a significant part – on the lands of historical Russia. To make sure of that, it is enough to look at the boundaries of the lands reunited with the Russian state in the 17th century and the territory of the Ukrainian SSR when it left the Soviet Union.”

“The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out national states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts. It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. We can disagree about minor details, background and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.”

What can only be described as a long, emotional diatribe about evil external forces that did everything to take Ukraine away from Russia, brings the reader to the post-Soviet era, claiming that “step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia. Inevitably, there came a time when the concept of ‘Ukraine is not Russia’ was no longer an option. There was a need for the ‘anti-Russia’ concept which we will never accept.”

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Ukrainian nationalists gather by a statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko on the 7th anniversary of the 2014 Odessa clashes between pro- and anti-Euromaidan activists and the Trade Unions House fire. Forty-eight people died and 240 were injured in Odessa on May 2, 2014. (Photo by Arkhip Vereshchagin\TASS via Getty Images)

According to Putin it all culminated with the events of Euromaidan in 2014, where in a peaceful protest the people of Ukraine overthrew its Russia-backed government after President Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union: “The legitimate public discontent, caused by acute socio-economic problems, mistakes, and inconsistent actions of the authorities of the time, was simply cynically exploited. Western countries directly interfered in Ukraine's internal affairs and supported the coup. Radical nationalist groups served as its battering ram. Their slogans, ideology, and blatant aggressive Russophobia have to a large extent become defining elements of state policy in Ukraine.” He further adds that “The coup d'état and the subsequent actions of the Kiev authorities inevitably provoked confrontation and civil war. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that the total number of victims in the conflict in Donbas has exceeded 13,000. Among them are the elderly and children. These are terrible, irreparable losses.” There is no mention of the fact that Russia is directly involved in the conflict in Donbas, arming and supporting the separatists, and that the war would not have sustained for over seven years without Russia’s avid participation.

What’s most alarming in the article, is Putin’s assertion that the Ukrainian government is not committed to solving the conflict and making compromises with the separatists. “Kiev simply does not need Donbas. Why? Because, firstly, the inhabitants of these regions will never accept the order that they have tried and are trying to impose by force, blockade and threats. And secondly, the outcome of both Minsk‑1 and Minsk‑2 which give a real chance to peacefully restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine by coming to an agreement directly with the DPR and LPR with Russia, Germany and France as mediators, contradicts the entire logic of the anti-Russia project. And it can only be sustained by the constant cultivation of the image of an internal and external enemy. And I would add – under the protection and control of the Western powers.”

The rest of the narrative is essentially setting the stage for Moscow to choose from an array of excuses to explain why it feels compelled to take any form of decisive action in the future in order to “fix” the situation in Ukraine, because “We are facing the creation of a climate of fear in Ukrainian society, aggressive rhetoric, indulging neo-Nazis and militarizing the country. Along with that we are witnessing not just complete dependence but direct external control, including the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ‘development’ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure. It is no coincidence that the aforementioned flagrant law on ‘indigenous peoples’ was adopted under the cover of large-scale NATO exercises in Ukraine. … This is also a disguise for the takeover of the rest of the Ukrainian economy and the exploitation of its natural resources. The sale of agricultural land is not far off, and it is obvious who will buy it up. From time to time, Ukraine is indeed given financial resources and loans, but under their own conditions and pursuing their own interests, with preferences and benefits for Western companies.”

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"Ukrainian President"
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) visits a frontline in Donbass, Ukraine on June 09, 2021. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the article Putin regularly speaks of the “Western authors of the anti-Russia project” and claims they have now “set up the Ukrainian political system in such a way that presidents, members of parliament and ministers would change but the attitude of separation from and enmity with Russia would remain. Reaching peace was the main election slogan of the incumbent president. He came to power with this. The promises turned out to be lies. Nothing has changed. And in some ways the situation in Ukraine and around Donbas has even degenerated. … In the anti-Russia project, there is no place either for a sovereign Ukraine or for the political forces that are trying to defend its real independence. Those who talk about reconciliation in Ukrainian society, about dialogue, about finding a way out of the current impasse are labelled as ‘pro-Russian’ agents.”

Human rights reports from Russian-occupied territories in the region (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea), and especially from Crimea, document terrible human rights violations and environments of fear and intimidation under Russian authorities. The way Vladimir Putin describes the alleged dire human rights situation in the rest of Ukraine, in his alternative reality narrative, is quite reminiscent of those reports about Russian rule in Crimea:

“Again, for many people in Ukraine, the anti-Russia project is simply unacceptable. And there are millions of such people. But they are not allowed to raise their heads. They have had their legal opportunity to defend their point of view in fact taken away from them. They are intimidated, driven underground. Not only are they persecuted for their convictions, for the spoken word, for the open expression of their position, but they are also killed. Murderers, as a rule, go unpunished.”

The article gives a clear picture of Putin’s ambitions with Ukraine. One, he wants the world to share Russia’s view of the recent historical events and their aftermath – Ukraine is not under attack by Russia, it is not occupied by Russia, Russia is not the enemy. All perceptions of Russia as an enemy are a result of a well-orchestrated Western project to plant and spread anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine. Two, he has worked hard to present to the Russian people a Ukraine that is not independent nor autonomous, and now he wants to promote that alternative reality to the rest of the world, and particularly to Ukrainians themselves. His version of Ukraine today is essentially a crumbling shell of a country occupied by the West. Its government is a mere group of puppets controlled by the West keen on abusing Ukraine’s economic potential and energy resources while promoting neo-Nazi sentiments and actively “militarizing” the country. Three, Putin is incredibly ambitious about Russia’s entitlements in Ukraine, and it is clear there will be no conflict settlement in Donbas unless it comes with a guarantee of Russian primacy over the rest of Ukraine:

“Russia is open to dialogue with Ukraine and ready to discuss the most complex issues. But it is important for us to understand that our partner is defending its national interests but not serving someone else's, and is not a tool in someone else's hands to fight against us. We respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect Ukrainians' desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous.”

“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families.”

"Putin"
A painting depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin on a train on display during an exhibition of paintings by Ukrainian artist Tatyana Ponomarenko-Leverash at the offices of the Russian State Duma; focused on Donbass and Syria, the exhibition is titled "The Future begins in the Past; Russia - the World; Syria; Donbass". (Photo by Marat Abulkhatin\TASS via Getty Images)

The article has rightfully worried some experts, some of whom see it as Putin’s intellectual justification of upcoming plans to annex Donbas. Putin’s spokesperson during a recent press conference declined to comment. President Zelenskiy of Ukraine resorted to his usual humor when commenting on the article, saying he is envious that Putin has so much time on his hands to write such a detailed article, adding that Putin’s claims about the “brotherly ties between Russia and Ukraine “looks more like Cain and Abel”. Zelenskiy has been seeking a summit with Putin in hopes of resolving the ongoing conflict in Donbas, but has not yet succeeded. As Putin explains in his article, he does not see the current Ukrainian government as independent, nor does he believe it represents Ukraine’s best interests, therefore no dialogue can be possible.

If this article is any indication, and it should be seen as such, more Russian aggression and meddling in Ukraine should be expected. While the West may seek to find ways to thaw its relations with Moscow, at least slightly, and find areas of collaboration, Putin’s Russia unapologetically seeks to double down on its investments to secure and widen its gains towards achieving primacy in its near abroad, and especially in Ukraine.

Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.

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