In his annual phone-in conversation with Russia’s populace and in follow-up interviews, President Vladimir Putin has expounded at length on Russia’s current policy objectives regarding Ukraine (Interfax, Kremlin.ru, April 16, 17).
Putin’s remarks evidenced both strategic consistency and tactical adjustments necessitated by Ukraine’s ongoing political consolidation. Although Putin’s annual phone-in ritual is always held in the third week of April, the timing holds special relevance for Ukraine this year, amid conjectures that Russia might resume military operations against the country in the spring. Putin’s remarks addressed the bilateral Russia-Ukraine relations, the conflict in Ukraine’s east, and a Russian definition of Ukrainian national identity.
On the level of state-to-state relations, Putin must view the coherence of Ukraine’s leadership across party lines as frustrating his expectations. The Kremlin did attempt to play on factional differences in Kyiv, but those attempts have brought no results. While persisting with destabilization operations, Putin seems resigned to having to deal seriously with Ukraine’s incumbent leadership, an unusually cohesive one by Ukrainian historical standards.
Accordingly, Putin no longer attempts at this time to differentiate between President Petro Poroshenko and an alleged “party of war” in Kyiv. Nor can Moscow any longer identify specific Ukrainian political constituencies as potential allies (other than the secessionist leaders). In his telephone dialogue, Putin took a swipe at Ukraine’s pre-2014 regime as “corrupt” and “oligarchic.” With this, he implicitly disavowed the current Opposition Bloc in Kyiv, a direct descendant of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. During his call-in event, Putin meditated about Ukraine’s political forces: “We are not guided by sympathies or antipathies, we are guided by our country’s interests”; and “The political leadership [in Ukraine] may change from time to time, but the people remain.” He was closely paraphrasing 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, respectively, without attribution in either case.
Putin outlined a basis for “normalization” of Russia-Ukraine relations in general terms for his listeners in Ukraine. He named conflict-resolution in “Donbas” (occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces) at the top of the agenda.
Regarding the reform of Ukraine’s constitution, “it is not for us to impose this or that on Ukraine, but we have the right to express our opinion,” specifically on the “rights and interests of Russian-speaking people” in Ukraine. Next, Russia would reactivate bilateral economic relations with Ukraine, in the mutual interests. Finally, the “Kyiv authorities must treat us as equal partners in all aspects of cooperation”—apparently implying equal status of Russia and the West in terms of Ukraine’s national priorities. Given the European Union’s consent to re-negotiate the EU-Ukraine trade agreement with Russia’s participation as a third party, Putin can now stop short of attacking Ukraine’s European choice for its one-sidedness.
Putin used this phone-in forum to launch into one of his periodic disquisitions about Ukrainian national identity and its relationship with the Russian identity. His message to the public in both countries each time contends that the Ukrainian identity is practically indistinguishable from the Russian one and subsumed to it. Barely conceding that the matter can be debated, but “not now,” Putin told his audience: “The Ukrainians are very close to us. I see no differences at all between Ukrainians and Russians, and I consider on the whole that we [sic] are one people [odin narod].”
Contradicting that part of his message, Putin goes on to argue that “Russians” (russkie) in Ukraine are distinguishable after all from Ukrainians, and in need of special protection of that distinctiveness. He defines Russians in Ukraine in the same infinitely elastic terms in which he had previously defined the “Russian World.” Thus, the Ukrainian government should “observe the legitimate rights of Russians living in Ukraine, and of those who consider themselves Russian regardless of what their personal documents say [as to ethnicity], and the rights of those who consider Russian their native language and Russian culture their native culture, and the rights of those people who feel inseparably bound with Russia.”
Such remarks are intended to affect Ukraine’s internal debates on revising the constitution. Putin’s remarks also presage the tenor of Russian diplomatic demarches in that context. On April 22, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov gratuitously warned Ukraine’s president and government against resorting to “Ukrainization” (Interfax, April 22).
Denying Ukrainians’ national distinctiveness from Russians, while emphasizing Russians’ distinctiveness from Ukrainians, are mutually contradictory theses; but they form two sides of a coherent whole in terms of the Kremlin’s policy. The first thesis seeks to portray Ukraine’s national statehood as unnecessary, unnatural and temporary, ultimately fated for amalgamation with the Russian state. The second thesis, conversely, seeks to claim a “right” of the Russian state to “protect” a potentially infinite gamut of citizens of Ukraine, with droits de regard for Russia in Ukraine, and potentially paving a way for border revisions in line with the Novorossiya and Russian World concepts. Putin himself has stopped using these specific terms publicly since August 2014, but his latest remarks in the phone-in session convey a message with similar content.