What Ukraine means to Putin

Aman Shirgaokar

March 11, 2022

As Russia continues to invade Ukraine, with little sign of backing down, it’s important to ask the question: why?

The invasion of Ukraine has devastated the Ukrainian people and is already taking a tremendous toll on the Russian economy and ordinary people’s lives. As the West rallies against Putin, the costs to Russia, both economically and in terms of its international reputation will be enduring.

Inflation is forecast to reach 20 per cent this year, GDP is forecast to drop 8 per cent, and the World Bank has warned Russia is ‘mightily close’  to defaulting on debt payments for the first time since 1917. Meanwhile, the cultural boycott of Russia continues apace.

Putin must know the scale of damage he is inflicting on his country, yet he continues his assault on the sovereign nation. Ukraine is of strategic importance to Russia, but his claim to the country runs far deeper.

Last year in July, the Kremlin released an essay by Putin himself, entitled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. This gives us an insight into Putin’s interpretation of history. However spurious his narrative may be, it is essential to understanding the motivations behind the man, and the sentimental, even romantic, yearning that underscores his desire to occupy Ukraine.

He makes some startling claims. One, for example, is that “Kiev (sic) simply does not need Donbas” because “the inhabitants of these regions will never accept the order that they have tried and are trying to impose by force, blockade and threats”.

With Donbas now under Russian control, and Putin having recognised the People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, his words have translated directly into action – it’s clear Putin has long believed Ukraine is there for the taking.

Putin repeatedly references the close cultural and historical ties between Russians and Ukrainians, referring to them as “one people”. He tells a history, albeit with questionable accuracy, of the two countries starting in the “Ancient Rus”, a medieval civilisation around the 9th century centred around modern-day Kyiv, and continuing throughout the centuries.

He notes that in 1686, part of modern-day Ukraine was ceded to Russia from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and became known as “Malorossia” (Little Russia) – which sounds as endearing as it does condescending – but allows Putin to present Ukraine as somewhat of a younger sibling to Russia. He speaks of their “common faith, shared cultural tradition, and… language similarity”, as the basis for his attachment to Ukrainian territory.

One claim he makes is that the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” and that the Russian Federation helped “Ukraine to establish itself as an independent country”. Against this, he sees NATO’s expansion as a “disguise for the take-over of the Ukrainian economy”. These paranoid ramblings help explain Putin’s obsessive desire for Ukraine to return to Russia’s orbit – and the efforts he will go to stamp his legacy “as a gatherer of Russian lands”.

We know that the Russian leader sees foreign countries as encouraging an “anti-Russian concept”. And the more that Putin feels that Ukraine is being pulled away from him, and that Russia is being alienated by the West, the more likely he is to attempt to side with the West’s adversaries, namely China with their common opposition to NATO expansion. Any attempt to achieve a diplomatic resolution will have to consider this reality.

His writing finishes on a very sentimental note: “Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people”. Putin concludes that Russia will never be “anti-Ukraine” and that what happens next is for Ukrainian citizens to decide. History will tell a very different story.

Published nearly seven months before the invasion of Ukraine, this essay lays out Putin’s religious belief that Russia and Ukraine must be brought back together – the belief underlying his great endeavour over the past months. However, the invasion, which seems like a Hail Mary and the final act in the theatre piece that has been Putin’s reign, may end up tearing the countries further apart than the West ever did.


Written by Aman Shirgaokar

Aman is an intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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