Putin’s Ukraine Doctrine: in captivity stereotypes
University of Alberta, Edmonton
The two heads of the eagle on Russia’s coat of arms, said to face both East and West, seem today to be pulling to the past and to the future, history and geography. In Eastern Europe, geography is in constant battle with history, never more so than today as Russia tests its new/old political doctrine in Ukraine.
President Putin held a telethon on April 17 designed to highlight his Ukraine policy following on his annexation of Crimea. Performing supporting roles at this stage-managed ceremony were representatives of the Russian opposition and Western analysts, members of the Valdai Club. I hope those in attendance won’t take offense, but they were a sorry spectacle.
President Putin’s well-prepared improvisations include historical and geographical references to Ukraine. According to Putin, Ukraine is a long-suffering land, a part of Russia that was separated from it by the intrigues of the insidious West. Ukrainians and Russians are one people who share a special familial relationship beyond the bounds of international law. Ukraine is mostly a question of geography, perceived an extension of the ‘Holy Rus’’ sacred realm. Thus for Putin, the existence of an independent Ukraine is nonsensical because a single people should live within one state.
Russian President, with his black-and-white picture of the world, leaves no room for the nuances. He fails to understand, for example, that there is a difference between the Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Russians. Putin identifies people living in the eastern and south regions of Ukraine sometimes as “Ukrainians’, “Russians”, “Russian speakers”, “native people”, “Ukrainian citizens”, and “our brothers.” However, two the most important categories, such as “Russian-speaking Ukrainians” and “Soviet people” are not mentioned.
Such an attitude founds its roots in the Russian nationalist doctrine which, unlike western variants, prizes its religious foundation. The term “Rus’” refers to the east Slavs, a common Orthodox community, and ancient historical legacy. The term “Russia” is an updated version of the religious-based medieval doctrine. It adds to “Rus’” certain elements of secular culture, in particular the Russian language. The intellectual foundations of Russian nationalism, with origins in the pre-modern era, survive today from the times of the Russian Empire. In this conception, Russians are all those who are Orthodox, who speak Russian (no matter where they live), and who feel their difference from the West.
The whole territory of Ukraine is perceived by Putin in terms of an eternal East-West confrontation. According to him, Ukrainians in the western part of the country have been deeply corrupted by western (foreign) influence. They secretly suffer from a deep sense of inferiority, which they strive to overcome through aggressive nationalism. The innocent and peaceful Russian people of south-eastern Ukraine seek to defend themselves against this, turning for help to brotherly Russia, which asserts its sacred right to protect its brethren by any means, including armed force.
Putin’s mental geography of Ukraine is also confused. He refers to “southeastern Ukraine,” a term that emerged after the dissolution of the USSR to describe the predominantly Russian-speaking regions that vote for Soviet-type policies. Southeastern Ukraine is in fact composed of several historical regions that developed at different times and have different historical experiences, ethnic compositions, and political traditions. The Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk) emerged in the era of industrialization and differs from the southern regions Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson and Mykolayiv that took shape a century earlier under Katherine II; both of them differ from the Kharkiv region, founded in the middle of the 17th century as part of the Sloboda Ukraine region.
Putin invokes the name novorossiya, “New Russia,” coined during the reign of Katherine II. He mistakenly includes to the region the city Kharkiv, located in northern Ukraine, and Novorossiysk city in the Krasnodarskii kraj. He is right that the above-mentioned areas were not part of Ukraine in tsarist times but neglects to add that in the Russian Empire, “Ukraine” was never a separate administrative region. There was the Sloboda-Ukrainian province, centered in Kharkiv, the Little Russian province centered in Poltava, and the South-Western region located at the right bank of the Dnieper river, but the territory of modern Ukraine was repeatedly divided between various administrative units, following the direction of Russian expansion and domestic policy.
Notable in Putin’s statements on Ukraine is the virtual absence of Soviet history. This is no accident. Today’s Ukraine and Russia are products of contradictory Leninist and Stalinist nation-building policies. The first and more innovative variation was aimed at creating a new Soviet nation and allowed local nationalisms as a temporary compromise, except for Russian. The second was based on the domination of Russian nationalism of the imperial type over all other national movements. Clearly, Putin’s vision of the reorganization of the Russian imperial space is closer to Stalin’s doctrine.
Putin cannot understand why the Soviet leadership established Ukraine with its present borders. At the KGB academy, didn’t they teach the works of Marx and Lenin, which condemned Russia’s chauvinism and imperialism? Communist leaders aimed to counter-balance Ukrainian nationalism with “proletarian” Russian-speaking Donbas. Putin follows the same logic but instead of admit it he subscribes to the Whites movement leaders’ vision of Ukraine as “one indivisible Rus’”. Didn’t he teach the Soviet textbooks to learn that the Whites were beaten precisely because of their outdated, nationalistic vision of the Russian Empire?
No less notable in Putin’s doctrine is the negation of the Russian liberal, pro-European historical legacy. For him, Russian contemporary intellectual dissidents are successors to Russian Leninists: they are all “revolutionaries” inspired and supported by the jealous West. It seems like Pushkin’s definition of the Romanov’s pro-European czars as “revolutionaries” remains unknown for Russian President. Putin is hardly comparable with Peter the Great, and not only in terms of stature. Putin seems to belong to the conservative tradition of Russian fundamentalists rather than pro-Western reformists. Thus the whole Russian western legacy is interpreted in terms of conspirology, as something artificial, imposed from the outside which, in turn, doesn’t prevent Putin from claiming European identity for Russia.
It seems like Putin’s “Ukrainian doctrine” is merely a conglomeration of nationalistic stereotypes subordinated to the real geopolitics. There is nothing original here. Putin’s ideas on the history and geography of Ukraine can be found in the works of Russian Orthodox nationalists of the second half of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Katkov and Danilevsky to Ulyanov and now, Dugin. What their doctrines have in common is a deeply ingrained inferiority complex towards the West, which, following Putin’s interpretation of the western part of Ukraine, can be overcome through aggressive nationalism…
Ukrainian politicians should put aside history and embrace contemporary Ukraine as a new phenomenon, open to interpretation. Ukraine as a civic nation can liberate itself from stereotypes of the past, the kind that hinder Russia’s development. By re-interpreting the western-oriented elements of Russia’s historical legacy condemned by the Russian leadership, Ukraine has an opportunity to create a new, more “usable past” that can appeal to its Russian-speaking citizens and confirm them as Russian-speaking Ukrainians.