Putin is rewriting history to justify his threats to Ukraine

“Specifically, much of Russia’s political positioning to launch an incursion into Ukrainian territory is based on Putin’s claim that Ukraine — like Russia, a former Soviet state — is an extension of Russia, the “little brother” that has been led astray by the West andmust be reincorporated into the family. Thus, he sees Ukraine’s increasing westward turn as a provocation, by both Ukraine and NATO.

In reality, however, Ukraine has long been distinct from Russia, experts told Vox, and Putin’s current mythologizing of the Russia-Ukraine relationship fits a pattern of falsehoods designed to reconstitute imperial glory, and more importantly, to shield Putin from the threat of democracy in former Soviet republics — and possibly in Russia itself.

That fear informs the potential conflict brewing along the Ukrainian border, Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, told Vox via email.

“It looks like Putin is committed to preventing the deepening cooperation between Ukraine and the US/the West,” Snegovaya said, “which he views as Russia losing Ukraine.”

Snegovaya points to a 2021 essay by Putin, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” as an example of his thinking.

In the essay, Putin called the two nations “essentially the same historical and spiritual space,” tracing his notion of a shared history back more than a thousand years. That assertion, though, elides a long history of differences between the two countries, and even more significantly, flies in the face of current Ukrainian attitudes, which favor membership in both NATO and the EU, (though neither is likely in the near future).”

Putin’s argument, as he lays it out in his 2021 essay, hinges on the idea that both nations descend from an early princedom called Kyivan Rus, which encompassed some of modern-day Ukraine and stretched north into the Baltic countries. But the historical ties between that entity and what was then Muscovy — part of modern-day Russia — aren’t particularly significant, and the idea that modern Russia evolved from Kyivan Rus doesn’t carry much weight, Jensen said.”

“Ukraine, for its part, is distinct from Russia in many ways and has been influenced by a number of different cultures, including by Central European countries in the west, and present-day Greece and Turkey in the south. Over the centuries Ukraine was also conquered by a number of different groups, including the Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, and Swedes, as well as, eventually, the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine the Great.”

“Although Ukraine had been part of the Russian empire at various points in history, Soviet propaganda cemented the idea, at least in older generations of Ukrainians, that their country was intertwined with the Soviet Union, and indeed was “Little Russia,” as Volodymyr Kravchenko explains in Harvard’s journal of Ukrainian studies, though in reality Ukrainian nationalism existed in some form throughout the 20th century.

In the present day, Putin’s insistence that Russia and Ukraine are historically and “spiritually” the same country allows him to push another narrative — that Ukraine’s openness to joining NATO and increasing alliances with the US and European countries is both a betrayal and somehow disingenuous, a sinister plot to tear the two nations apart.” 

“The Budapest agreement saw Ukraine hand over its nuclear weapons to Russia for disposal in exchange for security assurances from the Kremlin, the US, and the UK. Under that agreement, the US assured Ukraine not only that it would respect the country’s borders and sovereignty, but also that it would respond should Russia not abide by the agreement.

Later, the Orange Revolution in 2004 — in which the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, lost a closely monitored election held after protests against Yanukovych’s attempt to steal the initial presidential election — marked a turning point in Ukrainian politics, away from Russia and toward democratic institutions. While Yanukovych did eventually come to power in 2010, Ukrainian society had made a decisive break with the past by that point, and pro-democracy reforms in response to the 2004 protests contributed to Yanukovych’s downfall in 2014.

Then, the Euromaidan revolution, which began after Yanukovych backed out of a trade agreement with the EU in 2013, eventually forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia the following year. According to Peter Dickinson, writing for the Atlantic Council, both the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan “underlined Ukraine’s European choice and cemented the country’s rejection of a Russian reunion.””


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