In late August, Russian President Vladimir Putin once more voiced his opinion that there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian national identity. Speaking at a Kremlin youth camp, the Russian leader told his largely teenage audience, “as far as I am concerned, the Russians and Ukrainians are practically one people.” Putin did not mean that both nationalities are part of some larger Slavic identity – he meant that they are both Russians. In other words, Ukrainians are merely a type of Russian and cannot be regarded in the same light as genuinely foreign nations. During his address, Putin returned to the theme of Ukraine denial on a number of occasions. Most strikingly, he made the historically illiterate claim that ‘all the people who live in today’s Ukraine used to think of themselves as nothing but Russians.’
This refusal to recognize the existence of a separate and independent Ukrainian nation lies at the core of Putin’s entire Ukraine policy and is crucial to understanding why he has been prepared to risk Russia’s global standing in order to prevent Ukraine from breaking away from the Kremlin embrace. It also explains why Russia has been so violent in its intervention in east Ukraine, despite the fact that Putin claims Ukraine is part of the Russian nation itself.
Putin, like most Russians, has never regarded Ukraine as a ‘proper country.’ For the majority of Russians, Ukraine is viewed as essentially an unofficial province of the Russian Federation, which due to some kind of historical accident happens to enjoy a particularly large amount of theoretical autonomy. It is not regarded as a foreign country in the way that Poland, Hungary or even the Baltic States are viewed. Instead, it is a wayward little brother, which must be protected from itself, disciplined and raised in the appropriate Russian manner. The defection of Ukraine is thus viewed as a desperate blow to the very heart of the Russian nation – it is a personal tragedy for all Russians and represents the ultimate rejection. The only way most Russians are able to rationalize this staggering rejection is by blaming outside influences for turning the otherwise loyal and fraternal Ukrainians against their big brother.
This narrative of saving the real Ukraine from treacherous politicians and dastardly foreign agents has been central to the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine. This allows Russia to adopt policies of aggression against Ukraine while claiming to be acting in Ukraine’s best interests. Like a naughty child, Ukraine is seen as not being responsible for its actions and needing Moscow to put it back on the right track. Putin believes that this policy is realistic because he is convinced that the majority of Ukrainians really do consider themselves Russians. He also believes that the Ukrainian sense of national identity is essentially false and limited to pockets of the Ukrainian population. This has long been the official Russian position and dates back to at least the mid 19th century. The traditional Russian view is that any efforts to draw a line between Russian and Ukrainian identities are attempts to undermine the strength and vitality of the Russian nation. Thus Tsarist-era officials banned the Ukrainian language while refusing to even acknowledge its existence – referring instead in census documents and official declarations to ‘the Little Russian Dialect.’
In Soviet times, cultural aspects of the Ukrainian national identity were permitted to enter the public sphere on a limited basis, but only within a broader narrative which stressed the indivisibility of the Slavic fraternity between Ukrainians and Russians. Putin’s worldview was formed in this environment, and he has made little effort to update his perceptions based on the developments of the past 23 post-Soviet years. Instead, he clings to the wishful thinking of fallen empires which wrapped themselves in the banners of Ukraine denial in order to defend the indefensible.
Russia’s chronic Ukraine denial is not entirely inexplicable. Ukraine had almost no history as an independent and sovereign state prior to 1991 and many millions of today’s Ukrainian citizens do indeed self-identify as Russians. However, they do so largely in a cultural sense. There has never been any great demand for a Russian reunion in post-Soviet Ukraine – indeed, no party advocating a return to Russia has ever made any progress anywhere in independent Ukraine, including in Crimea. It is true to say that post-Soviet Ukraine has suffered from a prolonged identity crisis but this has not translated into a desire to return to direct rule from Moscow.
The great irony is that Putin’s aggression has succeeded in pulling the disparate strands on modern Ukrainian society together as never before, providing the population with a unifying message of support for the country’s democratic ambitions. Whereas for much of the post-Soviet period many of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers were alienated by narrow notions of Ukrainian nationalism rooted in ethnology and the Ukrainian language, today’s Ukrainians are united by a desire to resist Russian aggression and avoid a return to the authoritarian model of governance, which the Putin regime offers. The Ukrainian national identity which is emerging as a result is a more inclusive and durable model than that which dominated in previous generations and it is far more firmly anti-Russian than anything which had preceded it. This is Putin’s worst nightmare and it is a nightmare almost entirely of his own making.
ATA Commentary on the Ukrainian Crisis, 17 September 2014.