Putin’s hybrid war in Ukraine is popular at home because millions of Russians continue to insist Ukraine is a manufactured nation artificially separated from Russia
Vladimir Putin is fond of declaring that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’. It is safe to assume he does not mean all Russians are Ukrainians – instead, he is implying that Ukrainians are a component part of a broader Russian identity. He is not alone in this belief. Millions of Russians find it difficult to accept Ukraine as a sovereign state. Almost 25 years after the fall of the USSR, they remain inclined to view their neighbour as a manufactured nation artificially separated from Russia by the injustices of the Soviet collapse. Despite the passing of a quarter of a century since Ukraine declared independence, Russia is still in denial.
Understanding the roots of this ‘Ukraine Denial’ is vital if we are to appreciate why Putin’s hybrid war in Ukraine has proved so popular among Russian audiences. It encourages Russians to view Ukraine as an essentially domestic issue, removing it from the realm of foreign affairs and positioning all international involvement as unwelcome outside interference. When seen from this perspective, Ukrainian patriots become ‘extremists’ and ‘traitors’, while notions of Ukrainian self-determination take on an explicitly anti-Russian tone. In its most virulent form, ‘Ukraine Denial’ embraces the belief that Ukrainian independence itself is part of a fiendish plan to undermine Mother Russia.
Russians ignore post-1991 divergence
The widespread Russian belief that Ukraine is not a proper country finds support in Ukraine’s long history as a captive nation within the borders of competing empires. With no sustained period of independence prior to 1991, Ukraine is indeed among the world’s youngest sovereign nations. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s cultural closeness to Russia, encompassing everything from popular culture and generations of intermarriage to Orthodox religion and Slavic tradition, has also fuelled a sense that the two countries are far more than just neighbours.
These factors make Russia’s ‘Ukraine Denial’ in many ways understandable, but they fail to take the changes of the post-Soviet period into account. An entire generation has now grown up in independent Ukraine. They may still listen to Russian pop music and watch Russian TV shows, but they also have their own perspective on history, their own contemporary reality, and their own sense of identity.
The events of the past two years have served to highlight just how far Russia and Ukraine have diverged since 1991. Despite Kremlin expectations to the contrary, Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the south and east of the country overwhelmingly rejected the clarion call of Putin’s Novorossia (‘New Russia’) imperial project. Instead, an unprecedented wave of patriotism gripped the nation, with millions joining a volunteer army of activists, fundraisers, aid workers and frontline soldiers. As a result, a civic national identity has begun to take shape, replacing outdated notions of ethnic and linguistic Ukrainian identity with a new national idea rooted in the European values of democracy and rule of law married to ancient Ukrainian folklore and Cossack concepts of personal freedom. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Putin’s hybrid war has played a decisive role in Ukraine’s post-Soviet nation-building process. The Kremlin leader has inadvertently become chief architect of his own worst nightmare.
Predictably, there has been little recognition among Russian audiences of Ukraine’s diverging path and accelerated nation-building process. Instead, old stereotypes about a fundamentally Russian Ukraine remain the norm, while Putin continues to repeat his ‘one people’ mantra. With a diplomatic solution to the crisis still proving elusive, Business Ukraine magazine examines the five key myths that underpin Russia’s ‘Ukraine Denial’ complex and fuel the conflict in east Ukraine.
Myth 1: There were no Ukrainians before WWI
The Claim: Ukrainians only appeared in the history books during the tumultuous events of World War I as part of an Austro-Hungarian plot to undermine Tsarist Russia.
The Reality: As a subject people for hundreds of years prior to the twentieth century, Ukrainians where officially known by a variety of imposed administrative terms including ‘Little Russians’ and ‘Ruthenians’. It is absurd to argue that this somehow means they did not exist. On the contrary, the existence of these terms highlights the historic presence of a distinctive Ukrainian national community. Nor is the term ‘Ukrainian’ itself a modern invention – it entered the mainstream in the nineteenth century thanks to romantic nationalists at Kharkiv University and pioneers of literary Ukrainian such as Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko. However, it is much older than this – the first recorded use of the term is in the twelfth century, decades before the foundation of Moscow. Indeed, Russians who put forward the argument of ‘invented Ukrainians’ might want to bear in mind that the term ‘Russian’ itself is a relatively recent invention dating back just three centuries. Ivan the Terrible may be one of the most celebrated figures in Russian history, but he most certainly did not refer to his realm as Russia.
Myth 2: Foreigners to blame for Ukrainian ‘separatism’
The Claim: Ukrainians would be perfectly happy within the Russian sphere of influence if meddling foreigners did not insist on interfering and encouraging them to seek unnatural independence.
The Reality: There is little evidence that modern Ukrainians wish to be part of the Russian sphere of influence. All polls, elections, referendums and surveys since 1990 point to majority support across the country for Ukrainian independence. The December 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence from the USSR is particularly enlightening: a national landslide of over 90% voted for independence, including clear majorities in supposedly pro-Russian regions such as Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea. Reunion with Russia has never enjoyed popular support in post-1991 Ukraine and has remained on the extreme political fringes. Even Ukrainian political parties regarded as staunchly pro-Russian, such as Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, felt it necessary to align themselves publicly with European integration. This does not mean Ukrainians harbor any animosity towards Russia – European integration is simply a far more attractive civilizational choice.
The specific charge that Western intelligence agencies orchestrated Ukraine’s two landmark post-Soviet pro-democracy revolutions relies on little more than innuendo. Both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution where driven by Ukrainian civil society and relied on massive public backing. Without overwhelming popular support, these protest movements would simply have withered away. Rather than engineering regime change, Western support for post-Soviet Ukraine has largely focused on financial backing and institutional support for Ukrainian civil society – empowering Ukrainians to help themselves. In other words, the West ‘interfered’ in Ukraine in the same way social services ‘interfere’ in abusive marriages. Russians who find this objectionable would be better off asking themselves why reunion with Russia has proved so consistently unappealing to post-Soviet Ukrainians, despite the cultural closeness of the two countries.
Myth 3: Half of today’s Ukraine is Russian land
The Claim: the borders of modern-day Ukraine include many historically Russian regions with no links to ethnic Ukrainians. These lands were inexplicably ‘gifted’ to Soviet Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. Vladimir Putin made this claim himself during his landmark spring 2014 ‘Novorossia’ speech that paved the way for the hybrid war in east Ukraine.
The Reality: The borders of today’s Ukraine are extremely close to the borders claimed by the independent Ukrainian state that briefly emerged in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution nearly 100 years ago. Far from being a ‘gift’ from the Bolsheviks, these borders mirrored the ethnic and linguistic breakdown of the population at the time. The Russian Imperial census of 1897 – the last completed under Tsarist rule – identified Ukrainian-speaking majorities in virtually all the regions that would later form today’s Ukraine. There are some notable exceptions: many of the cities in today’s southern and eastern Ukraine have long had Russian-speaking majorities, but these populations have tended to be ethnically diverse rather than Russian-majority, with the predominance of spoken Russian reflecting the language’s status as the imperial tongue in both the Tsarist and Soviet eras. Crucially, these Russian-speaking urban populations continue to live alongside rural Ukrainian-speaking communities with regional roots stretching back generations.
Myth 4: Russian-speaking Ukrainians are Russians
The Claim: Russian-speaking Ukrainians are part of the Russian world and need to be protected against Ukrainian nationalists intent on ethnic cleansing and forced Ukrainianization.
The Reality: The Kremlin has skillfully exploited international ignorance of Ukraine in order to portray Russian-speaking Ukrainians as a distinct and oppressed pro-Russian minority. In reality, language is not an accurate indication of political sympathies in today’s Ukraine, while most Ukrainians enjoy a degree of fluency in both languages. Russian-speaking Ukrainians hailing from the regions targeted for takeover by the Kremlin have actually played a leading role in the resistance to Putin’s hybrid war. Thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainians served as troops in the volunteer battalions that saved Ukraine in 2014, while millions more have been vocal in their rejection of Kremlin claims that they somehow need protection.
The international media has paid much attention to the failure of the Kremlin’s Novorossia project in predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainian metropolises like Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa, but perhaps the most striking example of Russian-speaking Ukrainian pride is Kyiv. The Ukrainian capital city is by far the largest Russian-speaking city in the world outside of Russia itself, yet it remains a staunchly patriotic and pro-European town. Kyiv served as the base for both the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions, providing the majority of protesters as well as endless supplies of food, clothing, accommodation and moral support. Nobody in Ukraine sees the Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriotism of Kyiv as a contradiction, but for some reason this rather obvious fact fails to register with Russian audiences.
Myth 5: Ukraine has always been Russian
The Claim: Ukraine has historically always been part of Russia and Moscow has a legitimate claim to continued control over the country.
The Reality: Few lands on the planet have experienced as many foreign conquerors as Ukraine. The country is the ultimate crossroads of the Eurasian continent. Over the centuries, it has been partially or completely occupied by everyone from the Mongols to the Nazis. Poles, Lithuanians, Habsburgs and Ottomans have all held sway over large parts of the country for extended periods. A generation before Hitler marched east, the German Kaiser’s troops briefly held Ukraine. Russia is just one of these foreign powers. The Russian impact has certainly been profound: many of southern and eastern Ukraine’s major cities where founded by the Tsarist authorities, while millions of Russians settled in Ukraine during the Tsarist and Soviet eras. Nevertheless, the Russian imperial imprint on Ukraine remains part of a much broader inheritance. The history of Ukraine is the story of imperial rivalries on Europe’s eastern border. This bloody and brutal experience has scarred the lands of Ukraine deeply, but it has also created a naturally multicultural environment that defies attempts to label the country as a mere Russian appendage.