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The Week In Russia: Putin, Ukraine, And 'Phantom Pain'

Several times in recent weeks, Vladimir Putin has sought clearly to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and the nation itself. (file photo)
Several times in recent weeks, Vladimir Putin has sought clearly to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and the nation itself. (file photo)

With a deadly COVID wave setting grim new records almost daily, President Vladimir Putin continued to devote a great deal of attention to the past and future of Russia’s ties with Ukraine, self-publishing a startling article that drew a mixture of derision and deep concern about Moscow’s intentions.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin crackdown on opposition, dissent, and independent media persisted ahead of elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in September.

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

'Destabilizing Fixation'

The pen may or may not be mightier than the sword, but both can be wielded in a threatening way.

Back in March, Moscow began a buildup of military units in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine, raising the specter of a new offensive within or beyond areas of the neighboring country that have been controlled by Russia or forces it backs since 2014.

There were flare-ups of fighting but no major escalation as of yet, and the military moves were seen by many observers as a show of force -- a warning about what might happen if Moscow saw fit and a way of adding to the pressure the seven-year war in the Donbas has exerted on Kyiv and the West.

Since then, Putin has repeatedly used another instrument -- words -- to keep up the pressure. Several times in recent weeks, he has sought clearly to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and the nation itself, asserting that Ukraine and Russians are "one people," dismissing the country of 44 million as a "spawn of the Soviet period," falsely claiming that it is now run by the West, and suggesting that its borders should be subject to negotiation.

The most recent example -- and at more than 5,000 words, the most voluminous by far – was an article published on the Kremlin website on July 12 in Russian, Ukrainian, and later English.

Putin's piece is titled On The Historical Unity Of Russians And Ukrainians, but the subhead of a Bloomberg Opinion column by Leonid Bershidsky does a better job of explaining the gist: "In a lengthy, tortured article," it says, Putin "spelled out his destabilizing fixation on how 'Russia was essentially robbed' of its neighbor."

There are at least two ways of looking at Putin's article, which boil down to “OK, Boomer” and "OK, this is a big deal and a big cause for concern, at least potentially" -- but it's also possible to look at it both those ways, and in other ways as well.

'Completely Deranged'

In the July 13 edition of his podcast In Moscow's Shadows, author and analyst Mark Galeotti wryly suggested that the article was the product of a "midlife crisis" and an example of "one of the pitfalls when you are essentially the autocrat of your state: There's no one really there to say, 'Boss, it's probably not a good idea.'"

History professor Sergey Radchenko took it a step further, or three steps further, describing the article as "over the top," "off the rails," and "completely deranged."

A number of observers took aim at what they indicated were Putin's failings as a historian -- Radchenko and others ​bored holes in his comparisons of the Russia-Ukraine relationship with those between Germany and Austria and the United States and Canada.

"History is a minefield, and Putin, an amateur, boldly steps on every mine ​ as he attempts to tell Ukrainians that their statehood is an accident, their resistance to Russian aggression futile and their fate as a people inextricably tied to Russia's," Bershidsky wrote.

Others, meanwhile, pointed to the high word count and noted that the article could have used a good editor.

In Ukraine, several senior officials and other influential figures have chosen to treat Putin’s article with a combination of mockery, dismissiveness, and disdain.

'Phantom Pain'

"We don’t give a fig what you think about us, our history, and our reality," Mustafa Nayyem, a former lawmaker and a prominent participant in the Euromaidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014, wrote on Telegram. "Just live your own life and stop poisoning it for others."

Mustafa Nayyem (file photo)
Mustafa Nayyem (file photo)

Putin's words were "not an article," Nayyem wrote, "but the phantom pain of an obsessed failure who, out of his own stupidity and greed, has lost a loved one" -- a reference to the Russian aggression that has deeply alienated millions of Ukrainians and severely damaged ties for what analysts say may be decades or more.

Asked about Putin’s article during a visit to Berlin on July 13, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was "envious that the president of such a great power can permit himself to spend so much time [writing] such a volume of detailed work."

But he and Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, who suggested that Russian leaders have been "rewriting history" since tsarist times, also signaled that Moscow's actions helped reveal far more sinister messages beneath the friendly title and assertions of brotherhood.

"It looks more like Cain and Abel," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy’s remarks suggested that while Putin’s article may be risible, it could potentially provoke both laughter and concern.

It was "off the rails" but also "highly disturbing," Radchenko wrote, citing what he said were "new ominous references to the need to protect 'our historical territories.'"

The big question, of course, is whether Putin’s ramble through the past gives any indication of Russia's future actions. Some said it could be a sign of imminent aggressive action, a notion that others dismissed.

"Folks: Vladimir Putin doesn't announce invasions in historical essays. Or any other essays. Or at all," Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, wrote on Twitter.

In 2014, Russia seized control of Crimea by sending troops with unmarked uniforms to the Ukrainian region, securing key facilities, and staging a referendum deemed illegitimate by the UN General Assembly.

No Advance Notice

It was some time before Putin acknowledged that the occupying soldiers dubbed "little green men" were Russian, and Moscow continues to deny direct involvement by its military in the war in the Donbas despite overwhelming evidence.

Observers also pointed out that, while Putin said a lot, he had said most of it before. He had already claimed that the Ukrainian state was a creation of the Soviet Union, and had already suggested that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine should have reverted to the borders that defined it in 1922.

Armed Russian military without identification (so-called "little green men") take up position at an airport in Simferopol during the occupation of Crimea in 2014.
Armed Russian military without identification (so-called "little green men") take up position at an airport in Simferopol during the occupation of Crimea in 2014.

But that assertion may seem astounding enough regardless of how many times it is uttered. It appears aimed to delegitimize the international borders thrust up by the Soviet collapse and, in turn, to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Russia's neighbors from the Baltics and Belarus to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Of course, Russia had already done this by seizing Crimea. But the suggestion that Ukraine has no right to statehood in its current borders goes beyond that, and beyond the war in the Donbas, according to Aleksei Venediktov, the prominent editor in chief of the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy.

"I would draw your attention to one very important detail that is buried in the text and is of fundamental importance: Putin lays out territorial pretensions to Ukraine," Venediktov said. "This is not [just] about Crimea and not [just] about the Donbas."

Both in Russia and abroad, some read Putin's article as a signal that words will be followed by actions -- perhaps very assertive or aggressive ones.

"Putin is beginning to implement a plan that he has...thought through in detail. And that suddenly makes 2021 painfully similar to 2014," political observer Mikhail Rostovsky wrote in the Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, calling the article a "final ultimatum to Ukraine."

Putin's article will now be "the basis of future and current policy of the Russian Federation on Ukraine," Venediktov said in a July 13 interview on the Internet channel Dozhd. "This is a political article aimed at the future – the very near future."

'Frustration, Isolation, Impotence'

Galeotti, however, does not believe Putin is laying the groundwork for a big new offensive against Ukraine. Instead, he said, he may be seeking to justify his position and his past actions -- which, as Nayyem pointed out, have driven Kyiv and the Ukrainian people further away from Russia, not brought them closer.

The article "feels as if it's driven by frustration, by isolation, by impotence, even," Galeotti said on the podcast. "This is really a lengthy attempt to try and justify his attitudes, to try and make him on the right side of history."

"Maybe he’s realized that historically speaking, he is not going to go down as the new tsar who 'regathered all the Russias,'" he said. "If anything, he’s actually going to be the tsar who sees the 'Russias' departing – Ukraine and quite likely, in due course, Belarus."

Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks or months, the sheer repetition of Putin’s claims about Ukraine – now brought together in a manifesto-like document -- may have ramifications in the long run, seeping into the consciousness of officials, at least, and becoming a narrative set in stone.

"Putin gets that writing down his thoughts helps enshrine Putinism,” Maximilian Hess, a political risk analyst, wrote on Twitter, adding that "setting down such things on paper helps make them systematic, stand as axioms that can be returned to by officials [and] politicians in future."

In the article, Putin repeated another assertion he has made repeatedly before: that Lenin and the Bolsheviks planted a "time bomb" beneath the Soviet Union by giving its republics the right to secede -- and that it exploded in what he derisively called a "parade of sovereignties" as the country collapsed 30 years ago.

Since 1991, though, the 15 countries that gained independence have been at peace with one another -- with exceptions including Russia's brief war with Georgia in 2008 and the conflict between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas, which has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014 and still simmers.

Arguably, with his drumbeat of remarks on Ukraine, Putin is planting a new time bomb.

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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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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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