Though it seems hardly the stuff to get under Vladimir Putin’s skin, a new law in Ukraine protecting the rights of minorities had the Russian president riled up enough to suggest that Ukraine’s sovereignty is subject to a Russian veto.
The Ukrainian law, which took effect last Friday, was designed to show that the central government is responsible for protecting the legal and cultural rights of Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks, three minorities that also happen to reside in Crimea. Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014. In Putin’s eyes, that makes them Russian citizens.
After its approval by the Ukrainian legislature, Putin not only protested the law but delivered a 5,000-word written manifesto in which he asserted Ukraine exists as a state due only to Russian tolerance.
“There is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people,” he said. “They are one with the Russians. The state of Ukraine is an artificial creation, a fluke of history that should be grateful to Russia for allowing it to exist.”
He added: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
Putin’s essay, published on his presidential website, is an extended version of his long-held view that Ukraine and Russia were separated in error when the Soviet Union fell.
He recited a long version of Ukrainian-Russian ties over 1,000 years. It concluded that “brotherly” relations were broken by Lenin’s Bolsheviks who, at the inception of the Soviet Union, made Ukraine a republic of the USSR – with a right to secede. “One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed,” Putin said.
But the statement also raised the rhetorical temperature at a time of increasing tensions. Over the summer, the Russian army closed in on Ukraine’s eastern border. NATO and Ukrainian troops have engaged in joint exercises. And pro-Russian rebels, supported by Moscow, periodically skirmish with Ukraine’s army in the east.
Seven years after Russia annexed Crimea, the region remains firmly in Russia’s hands and Putin shows no sign of ever giving it up. He hinted he may take more. “I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kyiv simply does not need the Donbass,” he said of the eastern region, which is already under the control of pro-Moscow forces.
If that pronouncement lacked the fearsome agitation of Adolph Hitler’s 1938 demand that Czechoslovakia surrender the German-populated Sudetenland to him – “My patience is now at an end,” said the Fuhrer – it nonetheless contained elements of menace.
Part of his statement contained a warning to the West, which Putin said was trying to control Ukraine. “We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia,” he wrote. “And to those who will undertake such an attempt I would like to say that, this way, they will destroy their own country.”
Observers in Ukraine and abroad took note. Echoing the bellicose tone, the Russian commentator in the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid wrote: “Putin is beginning to implement a plan that he has … thought through in detail … Putin has delivered his final ultimatum to Ukraine.”
The Russian RBC news website said that Russia’s military was adding Putin’s essay to its patriotic training.
“Putin is setting the stage for war,” warned Swedish economist Anders Aslund, an adviser to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in the 1990s.
Ukraine officials were nonetheless dismissive. “We don’t give a fig what you think about us, our history, and our reality,” said Mustafa Nayyem, a politician who took part in 2014 demonstrations in Kyiv that drove Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power. “Just live your own life and stop poisoning it for others.”
Current President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted sardonically. “I saw some deep work there,” he said of Putin’s treatise. “I can only envy that the president of such a big state can afford to spend so much time on such a volume, such detailed work.”
Ukrainian equanimity runs counter to a harsh reality. Western economic sanctions on a host of Russian officials, pro-Russian Ukrainians, other individuals and their businesses have had no effect.
New US President Joe Biden dismissed Ukraine’s appeal that he treat a Russian-German natural gas pipeline as a threat to US security and try to block its completion. Zelensky expressed “surprise” at Biden’s stand.
For the moment, Ukraine is emphasizing public relations in its effort to pressure Russia into leaving its territory.
Zelensky’s government is preparing an international meeting called the Crimean Platform to protest Russia’s “occupation” of two million Ukrainians. Part of the program will focus on the Tatar minority in Crimea.
Russia disbanded the traditional assembly of Tatars as “extremist” and arrested Tatar activists after they opposed the 2014 annexation. Ukraine’s indigenous peoples’ law was aimed at highlighting repression of the Tatars, which had already been criticized by the European Union in 2016.
The Crimean Platform is scheduled to be held in Kyiv on August 23, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s break with the USSR. Undoubtedly Putin will have something to say about the anniversary, too. As early as 2005 he called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
After Putin’s big treatise, what more is he prepared to do in Ukraine to partially reverse that breakup?
Daniel Williams was a longtime staff foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald. Moscow was among his postings. Currently, he writes about world affairs from Rome.