Traditionally, imperial powers sending their armies into foreign countries for purposes of conquest issued explanatory manifestoes to the invaded peoples and to their own. The Kremlin issued the equivalent of such a manifesto in the form of four lengthy television broadcasts on the eve of reinvading Ukraine on February 24. In this case, however, the message also conveys Russia’s geopolitical agenda in Ukraine as a cautionary note to the West.
On February 21, a session of Russia’s Security Council offered a multi-actor performance in front of the cameras, with Russia’s top 20 officials taking turns to rationalize the impending military intervention in Ukraine (Rossiya 24 TV, Kremlin.ru, February 21). On the same day, President Vladimir Putin delivered an address to his country and Ukraine, following up with another address, coupled with an interview, on February 24 (Rossiya 24 TV, Kremlin.ru, February 21, 24).
All four statements have concocted a Russian casus belli against Ukraine, mainly for internal Russian consumption; and they combined this with threats and appeals addressed to varying elements within Ukrainian society.
– The Euromaidan. Moscow regards the 2014 Euromaidan as contemporary Ukraine’s original sin because it switched the country’s orientation away from Russia. The Maidan was an “anti-constitutional, armed coup d’état,” one that “climaxed with a coup d’état supported by the United States embassy in Kyiv… The radicals then persecuted and terrorized those who opposed the anti-constitutional coup.” “The authorities then betrayed the people’s real economic, social, cultural interests, they exchanged Ukraine’s real sovereignty for all kinds of speculations with nationalism,” Putin stated. In this view, the 2014 event continues to determine the Ukrainian government’s policies to date.
– Zelenskyy’s ‘Regime.’ The Kremlin treats Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the current government and parliament as the direct successors to the 2014 Euromaidan. “Presidents, parliaments keep changing, but what does not change is the character of the regime that seized power in Kyiv, which is nothing but the progeny of the 2014 coup, Putin declared. “The Neo-Nazi, Banderovite regime in Kyiv is a genocidal phenomenon” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added.
The Kremlin speaks as if the current Ukrainian leadership came to power in 2014, not in its own right through the 2019 elections. Since Moscow contested the post-2014 government’s legitimacy almost to the point of denial (“junta,” “Nazi”), it conveniently extends its anathema to the post-2019 government. For the moment, Moscow hints at military intervention for regime change; but it may well calculate to entice Zelenskyy into a bargain for regime preservation after defeating him militarily.
– Political Forces in Ukraine. The Kremlin regards most of Ukraine’s political forces as unreliable if not outright anti-Russian. Putin charged, “The Ukrainian authorities from the very beginning, from their very first steps, started building their statehood by denying everything that had united us.” “Certain oligarchic-controlled parties had paid lip service to good relations with Russia […] and came to power thanks to voters who shared such aspirations, including millions in the southeast. But once those politicians came to power, they abandoned their promises and betrayed their voters.” According to Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) chair Valentina Matvienko, “The growth of extreme nationalism took the form of Russophobia and neo-Nazism… The nationalists and those political forces that supported them pushed Ukraine into the abyss of civil war.”
Apparently, Moscow sees at this stage only a narrow pool of reliable political allies in Ukraine. None of the Kremlin’s invasion-accompanying statements mention Viktor Medvedchuk and his pro-Putin party directly.
– Russian Proprietary Attitude to Ukraine. “To us,” Putin asserted, “Ukraine is not merely a neighboring country. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, spiritual-religious (dukhovnoye) space […] people linked to us by blood and family ties.” “Ukraine means the ancient Russian territories in the southwest.”
The four-part invasion manifesto stops short of repeating Putin’s categorical view that the Ukrainian nation does not exist as such. In one of her interventions, Matvienko (native to Ukraine) candidly offered a once-popular Soviet view of the relationship between these identities: “Russian, Russian-speaking, Ukrainian, what is the difference?”
– Russophobic Ukraine. Ukraine’s current authorities continue the “policy of de-russification and forced assimilation.” “People who regard themselves as Russian are being given to understand that they are foreign.” “The Russian language is being evicted from all public spheres,” Putin alleged. His foreign ministry head, Lavrov, echoed, “The Kyiv regime […] is practically banning the Russian language. We [however] are sending a strong signal to the Russian World [Russkiy Mir]. We cannot simply look on with indifference as our compatriots, fellow-citizens are being abused.”
The invasion manifesto stops short of calling for official bilingualism in a reordered Ukraine after a successful Russian invasion.
– Ukraine as a US/Western Anti-Russia Project. The West “uses Ukraine as a tool in its confrontation with Russia,” the Kremlin leader stated. And according to Matvienko, “The West needs this conflict as an anti-Russia project.” “The West is trying to cause these two brotherly Slavic people to clash with each other.” The head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), Viktor Zolotov, contended, “We do not share a border with Ukraine. We border here on the Americans, they are the masters in this country, all the others are vassals.” Finally, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev declared, “The United States organized this conflict in Ukraine, just as they organized the conflict in Georgia in 2008, when we made that decision [military intervention, recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia].”
– Ukraine under Foreign Management. According to Putin, the US embassy in Kyiv and Western-funded organizations determine personnel appointments in the Ukrainian government, state companies, prosecutor’s office, and the high courts. “Ukraine has descended to the level of a colony, with a marionette regime,” the Russian president thundered. A pervasive talking point has it that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is “taking ownership” (osvoyenie) of Ukraine’s territory.
– Ukraine as a Composite Artifact. Soviet founders Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khruschev gave Ukraine “generous presents” at Russia’s expense, “tearing away parts of Russia’s own historical territories” and “handing them over [to Ukraine] along with the population of historic Russia,” such as “the lands of Prichernomorie [Black Sea and Azov Sea coasts], without which Ukraine would lose access to the sea,” Putin said. The Kremlin hints at the possibility of dividing up Ukraine along linguistic or ethnic lines (see EDM, February 24).
– Oligarchs versus the People. “Ukraine’s oligarchic power has adopted the so-called Western civilizational choice, not in order to improve the lot of the people, but to bring geopolitical services to Russia’s rival powers, and so to keep the billions of dollars stolen from Ukrainians and hidden in Western banks,” Putin said.
This looks like a military invasion with a social message designed to win popular sympathies. Russia promoted a radical de-oligarchization in Donetsk and Luhansk after 2014, and it might go after Ukrainian oligarchs in the event of a temporary occupation of parts of Ukraine’s territory—if Russia wins this unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.