KYIV, Ukraine — In his address to the Russian nation on Monday, President Vladimir V. Putin backed up his case for codifying the divide between two rebellious Ukrainian territories by saying the very idea of a Ukrainian state was a fiction. .
With the conviction of an authoritarian stripped of all historical nuance, Mr Putin declared that Ukraine was an invention of the Bolshevik revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, who he said had mistakenly endowed Ukraine with a sense of state by allowing it autonomy within the newly created Soviet state.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, specifically Bolshevik and communist Russia,” Putin said. “This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the most sloppy way in relation to Russia – by dividing, tearing away pieces of its own historical territory. “
As a misreading of history, it was extreme even by the standards of Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer who said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Ukraine and Russia share roots that date back to the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, a medieval empire founded by the Vikings in the 9th century.
But the historical reality of Ukraine is complicated, a millennial history of changing religions, borders and peoples. The capital, Kiev, was established hundreds of years before Moscow, and Russians and Ukrainians claim it as the cradle of their modern cultures, religions and languages.
Kyiv was ideally located along the trade routes that developed in the 9th and 10th centuries, and prospered only to see its economic influence wane as trade moved elsewhere. The many conquests by warring factions and Ukraine’s geographical diversity – with agricultural land, forests and a maritime environment on the Black Sea – created a complex fabric of multi-ethnic states.
The history and culture of Russia and Ukraine are indeed intertwined – they share the same Orthodox Christian religion, and their national languages, customs and cuisines are intertwined.
Even so, Ukrainian identity politics and nationalism have been irritants in Russia since the tsarist feudal era that preceded the Russian Revolution. Ukraine is seen by many Russians as their nation’s “little brother” and should behave accordingly.
Eastern Ukraine, which fell under Russian influence much earlier than the west, still has many Russian speakers and followers of Moscow. But the happy brotherhood of nations that Mr. Putin likes to paint, with Ukraine seamlessly integrated into the fabric of a greater Russia, is doubtful.
Parts of modern Ukraine have indeed resided for centuries within the Russian Empire. But other parts to the west fell under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland or Lithuania.
“Putin’s argument today that Ukraine is historically subsumed by Russia is simply not fair,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory organization. While the themes of Mr Putin’s speech were not new to the Russian leader, Mr Kupchan said that “the breadth and vehemence with which he tackled anything related to Ukraine was remarkable “.
The newly created Soviet government under Lenin, which drew so much scorn from Mr Putin on Monday, will eventually crush the nascent independent Ukrainian state. During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian language was banned from schools and its culture was only allowed to exist as a cartoonish caricature of dancing Cossacks in baggy pants.
Mr Putin also claimed on Monday that the myth of Ukraine had been reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev, which had freed Ukraine from the grip of Moscow. It was a weakened Moscow that “gave” Ukraine the right to become independent from the Soviet Union “without any conditions”.
“It’s just madness,” he said.
It was not Moscow that granted Ukraine independence in 1991, but the Ukrainian people, who voted overwhelmingly to leave the Soviet Union in a democratic referendum.
Today, with around 190,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine like a sickle, Mr Putin’s declaration that Ukraine’s very existence as a sovereign state was the result of a historical error threatened to make all the countries once under the rule of Moscow tremble. It also drew expressions of contempt from Ukrainians.
“For a few decades the West has looked for fascism anywhere, but not where it was most,” said Maria Tomak, an activist involved in supporting residents of Crimea, a Ukrainian territory annexed by Mr. Putin in 2014. “Now it’s so obvious it’s burning your eyes. Maybe this will finally make the West sober up about Russia.
It is unclear whether Mr Putin believes his side of the Ukrainian story or whether he has simply concocted a cynical mythology to justify any action he plans next. But his assertion that Ukraine exists only in the context of Russian history and culture is one he deployed at least as early as 2008, when he tried to convince George W. Bush, who had expressed support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO, from the non-existence.
Last summer, Mr Putin published a 5,300-word essay that laid out many of the themes he highlighted in his Monday speech, including the idea that nefarious Western nations had somehow corrupted the Ukraine, distancing it from its rightful place within a larger Russian sphere through what he called a “forced change of identity”.
Few observers, however, believe that historical accuracy is of great importance to Mr Putin as he lays out the rationales for everything he has planned for Ukraine.
“We can be clear that Putin was not trying to engage in a historical debate about the intertwined histories of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples,” said Joshua A. Tucker, professor of political science at the University of New York and Russia expert. Instead, Prof Tucker said, the Russian leader laid the groundwork for the argument “that Ukraine is not currently entitled to the kinds of rights that we associate with sovereign nations”.
“It was a signal that Putin intends to argue that a military intervention in Ukraine would not violate another country’s sovereignty,” he added.
Moscow had pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty as a condition of Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons after the Soviet collapse. But Mr Putin, analysts said, made it clear that this promise meant little to him. In 2014, after protesters ousted a Kremlin-backed government in Kiev, he ordered his army to seize the Crimean peninsula, then unleashed a separatist war that resulted in the de facto loss by Ukraine from two rebel territories to the east.
On Monday, Mr. Putin decided to formalize this separation by recognizing these territories, the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, as independent. Soon after, he ordered troops to enter the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
But Mr. Putin’s efforts to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit have, in many ways, had the opposite effect. In a country that was once ambivalent towards NATO at best, or openly hostile at worst, polls show a solid majority now favor joining the US-led military alliance. .
In Kiev, where Ukrainians were nervously awaiting Mr. Putin’s decision, the reaction to his speech was one of disgust and apprehension.
Kristina Berdynskykh, a prominent political journalist, gathered with colleagues at a bar called Amigos and sat around a phone to watch Mr Putin’s speech, taking turns crying and swearing.
“This is hatred for all of Ukraine and revenge for the country’s move towards EU and NATO and democracy – albeit chaotic, with huge problems, slow reforms and corruption – but where people elect and change power in elections or revolutions,” Ms Berdynskykh said. noted. “The worst dream for an old fool is the two scenarios: fair elections and revolutions.”
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa, Ukraine, Maria Varenikova from Kiev and Rick Gladstone from New York.