20 years under Putin: a timeline

On July 12, an article by Vladimir Putin titled “On the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians” was published on the Kremlin’s website. According to Mykola Vorobiov, Ukrainian journalist and Johns Hopkins University research scholar, this article not only highlights Putin’s territorial claims to Ukraine and neighboring countries, but also presents a serious challenge to the entire Western world.


July 13, 2021: Vladimir Putin holds a Q&A following the publication of his article “On the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Photo: kremlin.ru.


In his essay, Putin touched upon historical aspects of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, drew some parallels with current developments, and attempted to outline the future of the bilateral dynamics.

Even though Putin called his work “analytical and based on historical facts, events, and documents,” there is not a single source link in his text. The article immediately prompted tumultuous discussions among Russian and Ukrainian historians, some of whom pointed to Putin’s “high school mistakes,” “manipulations,” and “phobias” revealed in the piece. 

Here’s one of the many episodes of Russian-Ukrainian history that Putin neglected to mention in his article: Speaking about Moscow’s rise to power among the Old Russian territories, he reminded his readers about the 1654 letter written to Moscow by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky, who had led the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ rebellion against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth on territory that then belonged to Ukraine. The Russian president notes that Khmelnitskythanked Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov for being “willing to take the entire Zaporozhian army and the entire Russian Christian world into his powerful and high Tsar’s arms.” It was in 1654 when, after the exhausting seven-year war against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, Khmelnitsky and Tsar Alexei signed the Pereyaslav Agreement outlining the terms of the union between the Zaporozhian Army and the Moscow Tsardom (Editor’s note: Russian Tsardom, according to Russian sources).

The Pereyaslav Agreement did not envision a submission to Moscow—only making Ukraine Moscow’s protectorate, while preserving “Ukraine’s sovereignty almost entirely,” including independence of its military forces formed by the Cossacks. Tsar Alexei vowed to provide military aid to his Zaporozhian allies and not interfere in their domestic affairs. The treaty did not even last two years. 

In 1656, over the course of the Russian-Polish war (1654–1667), which started mainly due to Polish discontentment over the hetman’s acceptance of the Moscow protectorate, the Tsarist government called the Truce of Vilna with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The truce terms ignored Ukrainian interests: the hetman’s ambassadors were not even invited to the parley, despite the fact that earlier, the Cossack army had taken over some of the Polish territories—present-day Western Ukraine up to Lviv—with the support of the Moscow government and the Swedish allies. Moreover, the truce envisioned the Polacks’ agreement to choose Tsar Alexei as successor to the Polish crown, which was infuriating to Khmelnitsky. Later, following Khmelnitsky’s death, his successor Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky, who was also unhappy with Moscow, established the Treaty of Hadiach with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on September 16, 1658. According to the treaty, the hetmanate joined the commonwealth as a third equal member of the union between Poland and Lithuania. The new formation was supposed to be called “The Great Russian Principality,” but this idea was eventually rejected by the Sejm. 

In response to that, Moscow waged a war, sending the army of the Belgorod waywode  Grigory Romodanovsky to deal with Hetman Vyhovsky, and then additional troops of Prince Alexei Trubetskoy. In April 1659, Trubetskoy besieged the Konotop fortress, which blocked the advance of his troops into the hetmanate. After more than two months of siege, Crimean Tatars came to the Cossacks’ aid, and on July 8 of that year, the allies launched a surprise attack on the Russian armies, inflicting a crushing defeat in what became known as the Battle of Konotop. Clearly, such details don’t fit into the overall message of Putin’s article.

It is evident that the Russian president’s article is not so much an attempt to conduct a historical analysis of the relationship between the two countries as it is a political declaration of his intent regarding Ukraine and its Western allies.

Another problem of the essay, as commentators pointed out, is the “ideological rationalization of the new wave of Russian aggression and attempted attacks on Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.” The Kremlin, however, was quick to rebuke,assuring reporters that no one in Russia doubts Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty on the official level. Nonetheless, in his text Vladimir Putin clearly articulated territorial claims to Kiev: “Therefore, modern Ukraine is fully a product of the Soviet Era. We know and remember that, to a significant degree, it was created with the help of historical Russia… the founders of the USSR, after they themselves have annulled the Treaty of 1922, must return to the same borders that had existed when they joined the Union. As per other territorial gains, they are subject to discussion and negotiation, because the foundation has been annulled.” 

This phrasing implicitly suggests that following the Soviet Union’s collapse, half of Ukraine’s modern territories—including Crimea, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and the former Eastern Poland, which had all been annexed and granted to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic over time after the 1922 Treaty on the Formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, referred to by Putin—should have been relinquished. However, over the same period, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic obtained the Kuril Islands, the Southern Sakhalin, Karelia, Vyborg, and the Kaliningrad region, which means, if we follow Putin’s own logic, all of these should also become “subject to discussion.” 

The article is not the first time Putin has claimed that Russians and Ukrainians are a “unified people.” In 2012, during the election campaign for yet another presidential term, he wrote: “We will strengthen our ‘historical state,’ which we have inherited from our ancestors. A civilization-state, which can organically solve the task of integrating various ethnicities and religions. We have lived together for centuries. Together, we won the most horrible war [World War II]. And we will continue living together. And I just want to say one thing to those who want or try to separate us—don’t hold your breath.” In 2005, during his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of [the 20th] century,” leading to “tens of millions of compatriots finding themselves outside of the country, which became a real tragedy for the Russian people.”

The day after the article published, Putin held a Q&A with the press, highlighting that thousands of people in Ukraine want to restore a relationship with Russia and that some political forces are campaigning for normalization. However, according to the Russian president, “they are given no chance to act on their political plans, they are haphazardly and illegally removed from the political arena.”

In his comment on Putin’s article, president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky briefly noted: “We will be sure to analyze this article in detail as soon as I find the time, and we will read it, if it’s necessary, so that this article finds a response. It’s written in Ukrainian; therefore, we are supposed to respond in some kind of way. We will think about it.” Meanwhile, a few days after publication, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered that Putin’s article be included in the list of required reading for military and political training classes for the Russian army. 

It is evident that the Russian president’s article is not so much an attempt to conduct a historical analysis of the relationship between the two countries as it is a political declaration of his intent regarding Ukraine and its Western allies. It is aimed to mobilize Russian society in the event of a potential war campaign against “external powers.” And since Vladimir Putin doesn’t consider Ukraine a subject in this game, calling it a participant in the “anti-Russia” project, which was supposedly created under the patronship of “Western authors,” the threats of further escalation, including a military scenario, will continue to grow.


Read further: What Putin forgot to mention in his latest article


Translation from Russian: Elizaveta Agarkova.