20 years under Putin: a timeline

Vladimir Putin’s article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” offers the Russian president’s view of the two peoples’ common history, which was not as harmonious as he alleges. Crucially, Putin clearly believes that Ukraine’s identity, its very existence, is the result of power projection and its historical narrative can be changed. This thinking has serious political implications.


In his recent article, Vladimir Putin presented a well-known fact (the both Russia and Ukraine emerged from Kievan Rus’, a medieval Slavic state that existed in mid-9th through mid-12th century), which he then used to interpret the two countries' history according to his political interest. Photo: "The court of the apanage prince" (painting by Apollinary Vasnetsov, 1908).


In July 2021, Vladimir Putin wrote an article titled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” that presented his vision of Ukraine’s past and present. His major point was that Ukrainians and Russians are actually the same people, or at least quite close, and while Ukraine might be an independent country, it should be closer to Russia than to Europe. Putin certainly presented a well-known fact: that both Russia and Ukraine emerged from Kievan Rus’, a medieval Slavic state. And as time progressed, culturally, linguistically and historically, the two nations remained close. In 1653, Ukraine became a part of the Russian state and the unity of the two countries was unshakable.

Outlining these facts, Putin followed the line of thought of Prince Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetskoy (1890–1938), Russian historian and linguist and a founder of Eurasianism. He noted that Russians actually include three groups: Great Russians (velikorossy, or present-day Russians), Small Russians (malorossy, or Ukrainians) and White Russians (belorossy, or Belarusians).

Putin was clearly right to see Ukrainians and Russians as quite close to each other. Still, the Russian president ignored other facts that do not fit into the model of the friendly bilateral relationship he envisioned. Most importantly, he ignored what he himself knows well: the closeness or distance between various nations is often constructed by force. Imperial powers “discover” sameness, whereas weakness or, even more so, disintegration invites a sense of difference. For example, the construction of the “Eurasian” and Soviet identity was directly related to the power projected by the Russian Empire and the USSR. As part of this power, similarities were “discovered” among peoples who belonged to absolutely different cultures, linguistic groups, ethnicities, or races.


“Eurasianism” and the construction of Soviet identity

While Putin implied that Russians and Ukrainians are almost the same, one could ask him if Russians and non-Slavic minorities of the Russian Federation, such as Tatars, are just as similar to each other. In response to this rhetorical question, Putin—and not just he—would assert that, while Tatars might look different from Russians, both peoples, indeed, constitute a holistic entity, simply because Russians and Tatars have lived so long together that they influenced each other to the degree that they have become a quasi-nation, a Eurasian union. Before the USSR collapsed, official Soviet ideologists emphasized the unshakable unity of all ethnicities of the Soviet republics—they were united not just by a common political and economic system, but also by common cultural traits, for they had lived together for centuries. “Eurasianists” elaborated on this notion forcefully.

Eurasianism, a teaching that emerged 100 years ago (in 1920–1921) among Russian émigrés, noted that Russia belonged neither to the West, as imagined by Russian westernizers, nor to the Slavic world, as believed by Slavophiles (the other major trend in 19th-century Russian thought), but to “Eurasia.” According to the Eurasianists’ narrative, Russia was a unique civilization based on the union, or “symbiosis,” between ethnic Russians (and Slavs in general) and Muslims, mostly Turkic by ethnic background. Eurasianists noted that this union lasted for centuries and brought these collective ethnicities closer to one another. Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), one of the leading Russian linguists and a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, was a dedicated Eurasianist. He discovered “Eurasian unity” among the Slavic and Turkic languages within Eurasia, which had influenced each other so much that structurally they became closer to one another than to other Turkic and Slavic languages outside of Eurasian, or Russian/Soviet, space.

While underscoring the similarities between the people of the USSR/Russia, Eurasianists emphasized not only the intrinsic cultural and ethnic similarities, but also the historical circumstances that brought them together. They believed it was the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors who unified the Eurasian space and were responsible for the ethnic and cultural amalgamation of a variety of people inhabiting these lands. In the 13th and 14th centuries, most of the territory of present-day Russia or the former USSR was ruled by the Golden Horde, one piece of the massive Mongol empire whose power created this “Eurasianist” unity. In other words, power was the key to these peoples’ “destiny.” With that in mind, an alternative reading of history could demonstrate a different configuration of Ukraine’s past and its relationship with Russia, which has not been as harmonious as Putin alleges.


Ukraine and Russia could have been well apart

After the disintegration of Kievan Rus’ in the 12th century, several big principalities emerged. One of them, the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, became the cradle of the Great Russian ethnogenesis, with Slavs blending with the native Finno-Ugric tribes. The Galitsko-Volynskoye Principality, with Kiev in the center, would become the nucleus of future Ukraine. Its rulers had actively interacted with the West and some, such as Prince Danilo Romanovich, were even crowned by the pope.

The relationships between the post-Kievan Rus’ principalities were hardly harmonious and were fraught with constant feuds. Vladimir-Suzdal emerged as the strongest among them, mostly due to the migration of the population from the fertile but unsafe south to the northeast, resulting in Kiev losing its prominence and desirability as a seating place for the ambitious prince. The weakness of Galitsko-Volynskoye tempted Vladimir-Suzdal’s princes, and they took over Kiev several times and looted the city thoroughly. There are few historical details as to how it went down, but, despite the two principalities having a common Orthodox faith, churches were not spared, and their treasures were either plundered or brought back to Vladimir. Similarly, despite sharing a common language and ethnicity (albeit these notions played hardly any role in the Middle Ages: similar fights took place in Europe and elsewhere), the loss of life among Kievans was likely significant. 

Differences between the principalities widened following the Mongol invasion of 1237, which was a devastating calamity and not, as Eurasianists claimed, a small “raid” after which Mongols, Tatars, and Slavs lived in a happy “symbiosis.” Many ancient cities in Kievan Rus’, such as Riazan, were obliterated and the populations slaughtered; others, like Kiev, lost most of their residents. Still, most of the western part of the former Kievan state was freed from the Mongol/Tatar overlords much earlier than the rest of Russia and became incorporated into Lithuania and, later, into Rzeczpospolita, a commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. As a result, predominantly Orthodox Ukrainian peasants and nobility were incorporated into a predominantly Catholic state where the Orthodox were often mistreated and/or discriminated against by the Catholic Szlachta (gentry), which inevitably influenced the former. Russia itself could have been Polonized if Rzeczpospolita had been successful in taking over Russia during the so-called Time of Trouble—a period in the late 16th and early 17th centuries marked by dynastic crises, social upheaval, and general chaos.

Ukraine’s absorption into the Russian state was also not as straightforward as the mainstream Russian historiography presents. For a while, Ukrainian elites vacillated between several regional hegemonies, including Russia, Poland, and even the Ottoman Turks. In the 1659 Battle of Konotop, Ukrainian forces joined the Crimean Tatars, the subjects, or vassals, of the Ottomans, in fighting against the Russians and other Ukrainian forces. Eventually, Ukraine gave allegiance to Russia, but this choice was mostly due to a power play: at the time, Russia had emerged victorious after a long war with Poland. But this victory was not predestined, and Rzeczpospolita could have prevailed, which might have resulted in Ukraine coming under Polish cultural influence and possibly even converting to Catholicism. A preview of this can be seen in the appearance of the Uniate Church (Eastern Catholic Church), whose believers preserve Orthodox rituals but, at the same time, recognize the pope as spiritual leader.

Once Russia prevailed in the conflict for domination in Eastern Europe, it expanded not just throughout Ukraine but also absorbed part of Poland. Instead of Polonization, Russification took place in Ukraine. But this process was not purely the result of direct pressure from the Russian state: Russian language and culture spread as attributes of the dominant elite. Similarly, following Great Britain’s conquest of India, millions of Indians accepted English as the language of the dominant power. Had the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917–1920 and not become the Soviet empire, Ukraine’s Ukrainization, Polonization, or even Germanization (had it been taken over by Germany) would have started much earlier. Should Mikhail Gorbachev not have emerged as the Soviet leader in the 1980s (and his ascent to power was not predicted by anyone), and should the USSR have survived, it is likely that the process of Russification (or Sovietization) would have continued on Soviet territory, creating a Russian-speaking people, united by a common Russian culture, who would have constituted the vast majority of Soviets. In a sense, the Soviets could have developed into something similar to the ancient Romans, who, despite ethnic differences, increasingly spoke either Latin or Greek. 

Thus, what are deemed essential traits or objective characteristics of an ally or adversary are often constructs directly connected with power plays. Ukraine’s similarities to and differences from Russia depend on Russia’s power projection, and the historical narrative is thus “edited” to adjust to the present and match the expectations of the dominant power. Putin’s article can be read using his optics.


Implications of Putin’s article

Observers approached Putin’s article differently. Some, for example, argued that Putin did not author the piece: one of his aides did, while he just read the text and provided comments. Others asserted that it was indeed Putin, who was plainly bored and wrote the article simply to entertain himself. Whether he wrote it or not, the article and its ideas should not be taken as Putin’s plan of action or as a form of entertainment. It does, however, offer a glimpse into his views of the past, which have direct political implications.

Putin is pragmatic and Machiavellian. He does not have any drives or goals besides maintaining his power, preserving the status quo, and expanding Russia’s influence. The third element is the most important endeavor for Putin and the Russian elite, who are anxious to restore the prestige enjoyed by the former USSR. As a pragmatic and opportunist leader, Putin has never followed one fixed plan, opting to change his geopolitical stratagem depending on the circumstances.

Early in his tenure, Putin envisaged Russia as an ally of the United States, despite his resentment for the latter’s attempts to emerge as a single hegemonic power. Later, as demonstrated by his 2007 Munich speech, he became disillusioned and adopted a more confrontational approach. Regardless of his newfound assertiveness, Western and Central Europe remained Russia’s most desirable partners. As tensions with Europe inevitably grew, Putin came up with his own pet project—the Eurasian Union, which originally did not show much promise. But continued escalation with the West led to the emergence of a new stratagem—the “Russian world.” Russia’s dealings with Ukraine were incorporated into these designs, and, as Alexei Venediktov, the leading commentator and co-owner of the influential radio station Ekho Moskvy, noted, Putin’s article doesn’t signal that the Russian president plans to conquer Ukraine; he just wants influence.

Still, Putin might want more. His thinking indicates that he believes Ukraine’s identity, its very existence, is the result of power projection. It was this power that constructed the historical narrative, which could be changed. Consequently, he believes that, sooner or later, Ukraine will collapse as an independent state due to economic and political problems. The very fact that Russia finished the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, which would export Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine, could play an important role in Putin’s plans. Nord Stream II would deprive Ukraine of considerable revenue that it now receives in transit fees, and lead to economic and social crises.

Putin’s undermining of the Ukrainian economy and political development would have several implications. First, a pro-Russia regime could emerge in Ukraine. Second, a partition of Ukraine could ensue, and Russia could get a good chunk of mostly Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine. Here Ukraine’s fate would be similar to what happened to Poland in the 18th century, when the country was split by nearby powers and ceased to exist for more than a century. Given the severity of these consequences, Putin’s article should not be seen as an intellectual exercise, but as his vision of possible future actions, and his views on Ukrainian history should thus be taken seriously.