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The Week In Russia: 'A Specific Disorder Of The Mind'

A demonstrator takes part in a rally demanding "no capitulation" to Russia in Kyiv on December 8, 2019.
A demonstrator takes part in a rally demanding "no capitulation" to Russia in Kyiv on December 8, 2019.

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President Vladimir Putin suggested that Russia and Ukraine should unite, seeming to ignore the six-year war and gloss over Kremlin actions that make even the notion of substantial cooperation seem highly improbable for the foreseeable future. Days later, Putin's former point man on Ukraine unleashed a provocative diatribe in which he claimed that country does not exist. He also suggested Putin should be permitted to serve two more terms.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

What War?

At some point in the not-so-distant past, the idea might have seemed unremarkable: Russia and Ukraine should join forces or even unite, because "any integration" of the two countries would "increase our competitive edge" and create a "global rival for both Europe and the world."

But when Russian President Vladimir Putin used Episode 2 in a series of slickly packaged interviews with state news agency TASS to call for such cozy ties -- repeating his assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people" -- there was a thunderous herd of elephants in the room: Six years of bitter enmity, prompted in large part by Moscow's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and its ample support for separatists in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas since April 2014.

Putin barely mentioned the war -- pretending, for example, that he did not know what the interviewer was referring to when he asked whether there was a chance that he could come to an agreement with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

"About what?" he quipped, going on eventually to say that, yes, there is a chance for peace, but to blame Zelenskiy and Kyiv for the lack progress in that direction since the two leaders met for the first time, in Paris in December, to discuss efforts to end the conflict.

He made no mention of Crimea at all, in an interview segment formally titled Putin On Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin: "War? What war?"
Russian President Vladimir Putin: "War? What war?"

Instead of the past six years, or even the nearly 30 years since Ukraine -- and Russia -- gained independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin focused repeatedly on centuries long ago, as far back as the 11th and beyond.

While asserting that Russians and Ukrainians were "one and the same," he hit on several notions certain to anger many of the latter and few of the former -- including that very one as well as others, such as that Ukrainians were people who lived "all around" Russia's edges.

While he suggested that Ukrainians' own self-identity and sense of independence from Russia should be respected, he also suggested that those very qualities were largely the work of outsiders seeking to separate Russians and Ukrainians in order to "divide and conquer."

Way Back When

Among the culprits, according to Putin's history lesson: Poland around the 16th century, the Austro-Hungarian spy agency ahead of World War I, and the European Union today, which he suggested is less interested in Ukraine as a nation than in deliveries of timber from the forests of the Carpathians.

It's not hard to understand why Putin would avoid mention of Crimea and give the war in eastern Ukraine short shrift.

Crimea is presumably left out in order to make the point that in Putin's eyes, it is not Ukraine, and that its status will not be at stake in any possible agreement with Kyiv, the West, or both to ease tensions over eastern Ukraine.

Treating the war in the Donbas almost as if were hardly even a part of the long history of relations between Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, fits into the Kremlin's assertion that it is not really involved in what Moscow calls an internal Ukrainian conflict.

That claim, of course, is widely rejected in the West -- in part due to a large and growing body of evidence showing that Russia has sent troops, arms, and support of all kinds to the separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The International Criminal Court has ruled that the war is "an international armed conflict" between Russia and Ukraine.

A child poses for a picture with Russian servicemen during a demonstration of military equipment and hardware on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on February 23.
A child poses for a picture with Russian servicemen during a demonstration of military equipment and hardware on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on February 23.

And on March 9, three Russians and a Ukrainian will go on trial on murder charges in The Hague -- in absentia, almost certainly -- for their alleged roles in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, near the start of the war, killing all 298 people aboard. Dutch-led investigators say it was shot down by a missile battery brought in from Russia.

But if few believe Russia's claims about Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and if the chances for reconciliation with Ukraine -- let alone integration, unification, union, or association, as the words he used can be translated -- are slim to none for now, what is the point of Putin's remarks? Why say things that are more likely to inflame tensions then to ease them?

'Nothing To See Here'

Some observers said his remarks had little real meaning.

"He has been saying this for years now. It's just his worldview, not a policy goal anymore, it used to be in 2012-2014," Moscow-based foreign-policy analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote on Facebook. "Gone now. Nothing to see here."

Others, though, thought there was something to see: a threat.

"Putin is staking his future -- under whatever leadership title he adopts -- on the 'integration' of Ukraine into Russia," Twitter user GorseFires Collectif said in a post.

Another post on the same account said that Putin's interview segment "spells, at least, a continuation of Russia's 'hybrid' war against Ukraine. And Putin's fixation on 'integration' of Ukraine into Russia would seem to presage more trouble -- more war -- coming down the track."

"An open threat to a free and independent Ukraine," is how foreign-policy analyst Ulrich Speck described it.

If you're looking for reassurance that such concerns are overblown, here's some advice: Don't read the transcript of the first public remarks made by Vladislav Surkov, the longtime Putin aide who was his point man on Ukraine until his dismissal, since the decree on his dismissal was published on February 18.

Forced Brotherhood

In an interview dripping with disdain real or feigned -- hard to tell with someone whose every word seems calculated but the sum of the equation unclear -- Surkov pronounced that "there is no Ukraine," only "Ukrainian-ness," which he described as "a specific disorder of the mind."

Ukraine might exist in the future, he allowed, but "what its borders will be, and even, maybe, how many Ukraines there will be, these are open questions. And one way or another, Russia will have to participate in resolving these issues."

And he suggested that Russia should use "forceful coercion" to corral Ukraine into "brotherly relations" with Moscow.

"With Surkov as Putin's main advisor on #Ukraine, little wonder that Kremlin policy over past 6 years has done more than anything else to forge Ukrainian national identity, push Ukraine away from #Russia and toward West, and broaden Ukrainian public support for joining NATO," tweeted Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

While no longer in charge of relations with Ukraine, Vladisalv Surkov (left), still seems to be of one mind with Vladimir Putin.
While no longer in charge of relations with Ukraine, Vladisalv Surkov (left), still seems to be of one mind with Vladimir Putin.

Of course, Surkov is out of the Kremlin now, and some see his departure as a sign that Russia's policy, or its approach, is changing. Others don't, or are waiting for concrete signs of such a change.

Surkov's departure makes another comment from his interview more difficult to assign to a specific place in the constellation of hints, evidence, claims, and propaganda about Putin's plans for 2024, when he is barred from running for a third straight term by the constitution. Putin is in the midst of changing the constitution in ways that that are widely seen as an effort to give him as many options as possible to continue to hold as much power as he wants post-2024.

How Many More Times?

One of the most specific alterations he has suggested is to remove the word "consecutive" from the clause on term limits, meaning that no president could serve more than two terms total, period.

So that would make Putin's fourth and current term his last, right?

Probably -- but possibly not. Because if substantial changes in the constitution cause the clock to be reset on Putin's presidential terms, he would be handed a clean slate and the opportunity to run for another six-year term in 2024 -- and again in 2030.

Vladimir Putin, here to stay?
Vladimir Putin, here to stay?

Others have raised this possibility, and Surkov – the man behind many of Putin's domestic political moves in his first two terms, in 2000-2008 -- brought it out again. He said that if the powers of the president were adjusted, then "legal logic dictates" that any terms started before the change should not count.

Following Surkov's interview, lawmakers involved in shepherding the constitutional changes though parliament made comments that suggested that the changes would not mean Putin could start from scratch and run again in 2024 -- but did not quite rule it out.

Of course, Putin or his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, could make a clear statement that would end discussion of the issue. But they have not done so, suggesting that Putin may want to keep it as an option -- or just keep people guessing.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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