Vladimir Putin has consistently explained his intervention in Ukraine by citing his concern for the security of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers and Russian citizens living there. This has caused the leaders of other neighboring countries with sizable Russian-speaking populations to shudder. It has also given rise to many jokes about the Russian-speaking and passport-carrying populations of Israel and New York calling on Putin to send troops to protect them.
The understanding behind all the jokes is: Obviously, Russian speakers and Russian citizens in Ukraine are, in the eyes of the Kremlin, significantly different from those in Brooklyn or Ashdod. They may not be living in Russia, but they are not exactly living abroad either. In the 24 years since Russia declared itself a sovereign state, it has failed to start thinking of itself as a post-imperial state. It is through the filter of the victories, losses and insults of its imperial past that Russia views Ukraine – and Putin has described this view in ample detail.
In a speech in parliament on March 18, Putin accused the Bolsheviks of having drawn arbitrary borders between the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Russia – and then, in 1954, of giving Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to Ukraine. He conveniently omitted the fact that, at the same time, lands that had been Ukrainian were handed to the Soviet Russian republic – and remain a part of Russia today.
More important, Putin clearly indicated he believes that borders drawn even earlier – right after the revolution of 1917 – can and should be redrawn. In other words, he positions contemporary Russia as the heir to the Russian Empire as it was constituted under the czars.
A month later, speaking to the public via his annual, highly scripted phone-in hotline, Putin brought other countries into this scenario, saying, “Parts of today’s territories were in Czechoslovakia, parts in Hungary, parts in Austria, parts in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, parts in Poland.” The message here: Look, borders can and have been redrawn – come on, Europe, let’s just divide Ukraine between us. We’ve done it before.
Putin sees no such country as Ukraine. He sees lands that are rightfully Russian, lands that can be claimed by Western European countries, and then maybe they can discuss what to do with the rest. When Putin made his apparently conciliatory remarks on Wednesday, he hardly contradicted himself: The important message was that the fate of Ukraine can and should be decided in Putin’s negotiations with European leaders, held in the Kremlin, as his meeting with Swiss president Didier Burkhalter was that day.
And if Europe does not want to take part in the carving, Russia will act alone. Eastern Ukraine may come to resemble Transnistria, which is formally a part of Moldova but is ruled by a separatist pro-Moscow government, or South Ossetia, which unilaterally seceded from Georgia with Moscow’s aid in 2008, or Crimea, which was simply taken. Indeed, Russia has developed an entire repertoire of annexations.
And what happens after Ukraine? There are other countries that were once conquered by the czars and later lost. After all, who says Finland has a right to exist?
The writer is a Russian American journalist and the author of “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”