6 ways Russia views Ukraine and why each should worry the West

Putin says Ukraine was ‘created by Russia.’ Here are the arguments he makes to undermine Ukrainian statehood.

Since President Biden’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis, Russian officials have dug in deeper: blaming NATO for the confrontation, dismissing Ukraine as a puppet state of the West and ruling out a pullback of Russian forces massed near Ukraine’s border.

Putin even compared Ukraine’s fight against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to genocide.

It all suggests that — even if Putin heeds Biden’s warnings — the current tensions in the region will look a lot like future tensions: with Russian troops staying along the Ukraine border and all that brings, including regular scares about possible attacks.

Here are six ways Russia views Ukraine. All are barriers to a swift resolution.

1. A chance to redo the end of the Cold War

Putin’s main presidential focus has been rebuilding Russia as a strong authoritarian state, projecting power in the Middle East and Africa — but, above all, in its self-proclaimed “sphere of influence” in former Soviet states.

In blistering remarks Monday, Putin blamed Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union’s first leader, for giving Soviet republics the right to secede, thereby — under Putin’s explanation — paving the way for Ukrainian independence decades later.

He asserted, incorrectly, that Moscow gave Ukraine the right to break off from the Soviet Union “without any terms and conditions.” In fact, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to leave the Soviet Union in a democratic referendum in 1991.

Angered over Ukraine’s 2014 revolution — which ousted a pro-Russian government for a Western-leaning one — Putin swiftly annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing conflict that has claimed nearly 14,000 lives.

It has pushed Ukraine further toward the West. A November poll by the Rating Group Ukraine agency showed 62 percent of Ukrainians want to join the European Union and 58 percent want membership in NATO — a move that Putin has called a “red line.” A survey in December by the same pollsters found 72 percent consider Russia a hostile power.

Putin, who claims that Western governments and organizations exert undue influence over Ukraine, now sees his crucial task as returning Ukraine to Russia’s fold.

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How Russia views Ukraine 2
Map of Ukraine showing separatist-controlled areas and Crimea. (Laris Karklis)

2. ‘You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state’

Putin made the comment to President George W. Bush at a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, when Bush pushed hopes by Ukraine and Georgia of joining NATO. At the time Putin threatened to encourage the secession of Crimea and eastern Ukraine if Ukraine joined, warning that it would “cease to exist as a state.”

Russian officials and state media propagandists often promote the view of Ukraine as a less-than-sovereign, structurally unviable country, not entitled to make its own alliances.

In a 5,000-word treatise on Ukraine published in July, Putin wrote that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

That theme coursed through Putin’s speech Monday. The Russian leader asserted that Ukraine “never had stable traditions of real statehood” and that oligarchs and Western institutions effectively run the country.

3. Russia’s security buffer

Russia has long pursued a security buffer of pliable neighbors, seen as its rightful “sphere of influence.” Russia’s need for a security buffer is ingrained after successive invasions from Europe over the past centuries, said Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Efforts by rivals — NATO chief among them — to sell arms or form diplomatic and military alliances in Russia’s perceived sphere are seen as trespass.

“Two bones need soft tissue between them,” Vladislav Surkov, a former Putin aide, told the Financial Times in June, referring to Russia and NATO. He added, “The geopolitical gravity of both will sever Ukraine.”

Until that happens, Surkov predicted an endless fight for Ukraine: “It may die down, it may flare up, but it will continue, inevitably.”

In 2014 after annexing Crimea, Putin first called for a “a new Yalta,” referencing the deal at the end of World War II when Allied leaders carved the world into spheres of influence.

In recent talks with Western countries, Russia has demanded that Ukraine be barred from ever joining NATO. Putin believes there is a “real threat” that a NATO-allied Ukraine would try to retake Crimea and the eastern breakaway republics by force, igniting a conflict between NATO and Russia in the process, he said Monday.

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In Russia’s ideal scenario, a geopolitical compromise would see its influence over Ukraine restored — or at least Kyiv forced to accept neutrality.

4. ‘One Russia’

After Putin’s long essay this past summer extolling the “historical unity” of Russia and Ukraine as “one people,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, retorted that Putin’s fraternal relations were “more like Cain and Abel.”

Putin often speaks of a “One Russia,” meaning Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — or “Big Russia” and “Little Russia,” Russia being the “big” and Ukraine the “little.” He argued in 2009: “No one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us. They have always been the business of Russia itself.”

People in Moscow walk in front of the coat of arms of the former Soviet Union on Dec. 6. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
The coat of arms of the former Soviet Union, in Moscow in December. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

This view highlights the common ancestry shared by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in the medieval state of Kyivan Rus. Putin’s claim that the West divided these tightly bound Slavic brothers offends many Ukrainians who see it as devaluing the country’s two post-Soviet revolutions (2004 to 2005 and 2014) against Russian dominance.

His summer essay likened the formation of an ethnic Ukrainian state, hostile to Russia, to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”

Moscow portrays Russian speakers in Ukraine as needing its protection, issuing passports to more than 800,000 of them in two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine that form part of the Donbas. In September, thousands of them were bused to Russia to vote in parliamentary elections.

The passports offer a potential pretext for military intervention to “defend” Russian citizens. Russia on Monday accused Kyiv of “genocide” in eastern Ukraine, repeating an unfounded claim that had stirred fears in Western capitals of Kremlin-backed false-flag operations to justify an invasion.

5. ‘Exporting chaos’ — to solve your problems at home

A Russian nightmare: Ukraine as a strong, stable, Western-leaning democracy, where corruption is thwarted, civil society thrives and elections work.

A free, thriving democracy next door might inspire Russians to question their own system, where you can be jailed for a retweet, a protest sign, journalism or a comedy skit — and where Putin never loses power.

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That’s why Russian state TV anchors ridicule Ukraine as a failing, divided state, heavily influenced by “Nazis.”

“Exporting chaos is nothing new,” Surkov, the former Putin aide, wrote in a November article on the pro-Kremlin website Aktualnye Kommentarii, giving Russia’s Crimea annexation as “a vivid example” of how to unite the country. “Dividing is a synonym of chaos.”

6. Echoes of Russia’s imperial history

Russia’s longest ruler, Ivan III, was called the “gatherer of Russian lands” by quadrupling Russian territory in his 65-year reign, which ended in the early 16th century.

Russia lost its Soviet empire 30 years ago. Russia has moved on from its weakness in the 1990s, argued Russian foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, “but the West’s mind-set hasn’t moved on.”

Ukraine looms large in this equation. Moscow thinks it is time to ditch the idea that “countries can choose their alliances as though it is nobody else’s business, which was never part of traditional geopolitics,” he wrote on the Russian Global Affairs website. “This approach is no longer working.”

Six ways Russia views Ukraine - and why each should worry the West
Ukrainian military personnel attend a rehearsal for a ceremony to hand over tanks, armored personnel carriers and military vehicles to the Ukrainian armed Forces in Kyiv on Dec. 6. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Russia now sees the chance to expand its clout, believing the United States is in decline as a force to shape global policies.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in December that Putin was using military threats to “force NATO to choose certain paths and, most worryingly, the desire to divide Europe into spheres of influence.”

Wrote Surkov, “Russia will expand not because it is good, and not because it is bad, but because it is physics.”

Putin on Tuesday denied that he harbored ambitions to re-create an empire.

“We were expecting speculation on the subject and claims that Russia sought to rebuild an empire within imperial borders,” he said, meeting Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Kremlin. “This is absolutely wrong.”

But a day earlier, in his televised address, Putin blamed Lenin and his allies for “separating, severing what is historically Russian land.”

“I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” he said. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”

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