Putin Says Ukraine is Part of Russia…but Ukrainians Do Not Agree

Ukraine tank crew practicing maneuvers Feb. 2022 (Getty Images: Sergey Bobok)

Vladimir Putin has massed about 130,000 Russian troops on three sides of Ukraine. Europe seems very close to a major land war, for the first time in over 80 years. Putin has justified his provocative maneuvers, and criticized the West and the Ukrainian government, on several grounds.

Putin has claimed that Ukraine has always been part of Russia and that the Kyiv regime is discriminating against Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The Russian leader also alleges that the Kyiv regime is dominated by fascists, not democrats.

Furthermore, Putin has said, NATO has threatened Russia, by expanding into former Soviet satellites like Poland and Romania. The Russian President has argued that he has to stop Ukraine from joining NATO, because that would create an existential threat for Russia.

Putin is a master of using propaganda and misinformation to achieve his goals. However, the Russian faces some key obstacles as he tries to justify a possible invasion of Ukraine. It’s not just that his claims are false; Ukrainians have become very nationalistic and overwhelmingly anti-Russian. Ironically, Putin bears the responsibility for much of that shift in public opinion.

So far, Putin’s Big Lies are not gaining much traction. The Russian President should realize that if he does invade, he is likely to face a lot of resistance from the Ukrainians. That reality, as well as the threat of harsh sanctions by the US and NATO allies, might give Putin pause as he rattles his sabers (or missiles).

Ukraine is Not Russia

Putin’s claim that Ukraine has been an integral part of Russia for centuries is “a recent imperialist innovation”, according to Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University. Snyder dismisses as a “fantasy” Putin’s notion that the origins of Russian culture stem from medieval Kyiv.

Although the czars acquired control of Ukraine in the 1600s, they did so by force, and Snyder notes that a nationalist movement arose in Ukraine in the early 1800s. The Russians reacted by banning the teaching of Ukrainian and its use as an official language.

And relations between Ukraine and Russia have often been troubled in modern times. Ukrainian kulaks, wealthy peasant farmers, resisted the Communists’ moves to impose collective farming after the Russian revolution in 1917. To subdue the unruly Ukrainians, Josef Stalin ordered the “liquidation” of many kulaks, and he engineered a famine in Ukraine that killed millions.

As a result, many Ukrainians initially welcomed the German invaders in 1940, because they wanted to escape from Stalin’s tyranny and brutality. Many had little desire to defend the Soviet Union, at least at first. (Their attitudes soon changed, as they witnessed and suffered from Nazi atrocities.)

Russian-Speaking but not Russian

Although many Ukrainians do speak Russian as their first language, relatively few are ethnically Russian…which Putin neglects to mention. For the country as a whole, only 17% of the populace is ethnically Russian, based on the 2001 census. We should bear in mind that figure is probably a rough approximation, given the mixing that has occurred in the country over time.

About 80% are ethnic Ukrainians, along with a few other small nationalities. In Crimea and in parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, over half of the population is of Russian origin. But those are relatively small areas, and they are no longer under the control of the Ukrainian government.

In any event, it’s a mistake to assume that a Ukrainian wants to live under Russian rule simply because he speaks Russian. That’s like saying Canadians want to join the U.S. because they speak English and share a similar culture with Americans.

Language Is Not Identity

Here’s a prime example: Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, grew up speaking Russian. Before he became a politician, Zelensky achieved fame with a comedy show on Russian-language TV, and he was popular in Russia as well as Ukraine. In fact, early in his tenure as President, he often used a Russian word instead of the Ukrainian counterpart (he has stopped doing that). But Zelensky is a proud Ukrainian, not a Russian or sympathetic to Putin’s arguments.

The linguistic map of the country is complicated, but broadly speaking, about 70% of the population considers Ukrainian their “primary” language, while 30% say Russian is their mother tongue. That requires some nuance, though. Among adults 18 years or older, 50% mostly speak Ukrainian, 30% speak Russian, and about 20% use both languages frequently.

There is also a huge geographic split, in terms of language, as shown in the map below. Russian is the dominant language in eastern Ukraine, while few people speak it in the western part of the country. The middle section, including Kyiv, the capital, is a mixed bag, linguistically speaking, but Ukrainian is predominant and growing in importance, as attitudes toward Russia harden.

Russian is spoken widely in eastern Ukraine but not in the western part
Language Map of Ukraine (Source: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, outside of the Donbas region, which is controlled by separatists backed by the Kremlin’s troops, many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine have become anti-Russian…because of the war that Putin has waged in Donbas since 2014. About 15,000 Ukrainians have died in that conflict, and the locals primarily blame Putin for their deaths. They may speak Russian, but they live and die Ukrainian.

Putin is Driving Ukrainians Toward the West

Putin’s aggression and bullying have backfired. Over 70% of Ukrainians now consider Russia a hostile country, and 12% see it as an ally, based on a December 2021 poll by Rating Group Ukraine. In a 2012 poll, the numbers were reversed; only 10% of Ukrainians had a “cold” attitude toward Russia, while 60% had a “warm” regard for it.

In 2014, before Putin seized Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, only 34% of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO, while 43% were opposed, based on another poll by Rating Group Ukraine. But by 2017, 46% favored NATO membership, and 53% wanted to join the European Union. Those numbers have probably increased over the last five years. So it’s pretty clear that most Ukrainians would prefer to forge closer ties with the West than with their Russian “brothers”.

Ukraine is Run by Democratic Leaders, Not Fascists

Putin claims that the Kyiv government is dominated by anti-Semitic fascists, but again, the facts get in his way: President Zelensky is Jewish. Volodymyr Groysman, another Jewish politician, served as Prime Minister in 2016–2019 under the previous President, Petro Poroshenko.

Ukraine is a deeply flawed democracy, plagued by corruption, but it is a democracy, with vigorous public debates, protests…and real opposition parties. There is even a pro-Russian party, the Opposition Party Platform. However, that party has little appeal for Ukrainians; only 10–15% of voters support it. That is yet another indicator that few Ukrainians want to return to the tender embrace of Mother Russia.

NATO’s Going to Attack Russia…. Really?

Putin has often spoken angrily about NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has accused the U.S. of plotting to admit Ukraine into NATO so it can move troops and missiles into the country, pointing a dagger at Russia.

This is turning reality on its head. NATO was created in 1949 as a military alliance to protect its members from a (Russian) attack, and its purpose has always been defensive. (The war in Afghanistan was an unexpected detour for most NATO members, who assumed that any fighting would take place in Europe.) No member of NATO has attacked Russia since its formation. Meanwhile, under Putin’s regime Russia has invaded its neighbors Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) and aided a secessionist movement that seized a slice of Moldova.

Putin has been stewing about NATO’s expansion for a long time, and this seems to be a personal issue for him. The former KGB agent is outraged that the Soviet Union lost its ring of satellite states in eastern Europe.

Putin’s Wounded Pride

But the concerns Putin has expressed about NATO’s threat to Russia are either pure propaganda or delusional. This seems to be more about wounded pride rather than any real danger for Russia.

NATO admitted Poland in 1999 — over 20 years ago — and the Baltic countries a few years later. They joined NATO to make sure that the Russian Bear would not trample on them again. They have done nothing to justify any Russian fears of an attack.

The U.S., the principal power behind NATO, has been very circumspect, and has not stationed many troops in former Soviet satellites. Before the current crisis, the U.S. deployed 80,000 troops in all of Europe, with only about 4,000 soldiers in Poland. To put that in context, Russia has a million troops.

Germany, one of the key European powers in NATO, won’t even allow other NATO members to sell German-produced missiles to Ukraine. It’s hard to see modern-day Germany ever agreeing to launch an attack on Russia, instead of just defending itself or another NATO member.

NATO Membership Remains Just a Dream for Ukraine

In hindsight, American politicians and some NATO officials should not have talked openly in the early 2000s about the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. Ukraine should not have amended its constitution in 2014 to include a provision proclaiming its desire to become a NATO member. Those were unnecessary provocations for Russia.

But the U.S. and NATO officials realized their mistake, and they have soft-pedaled the issue for many years. The Ukrainians have recently dialed down their rhetoric on this issue, too. Putin has no objective basis to fear that Ukraine will join NATO sometime soon…or that Russia would be endangered if it did. Putin seems to be using this as a bargaining chip, and there might be some room for compromise on this question.

Ukraine has two very different goals here. The country seeks NATO membership to protect itself against Russian aggression, but the U.S. and other key players like Germany are not willing to send troops to Ukraine. Just as important, though, Ukraine wants to develop more economic integration with the West, particularly since its trade with Russia has been declining.

A Possible Deal…or Armageddon?

A potential compromise with Putin might involve a statement from President Zelensky that Ukraine would defer seeking NATO membership for an unspecified time…and a tacit agreement from Putin that Ukraine could pursue closer economic ties with the West. The price tag might also include a pledge by Kyiv not to apply for EU membership for an unspecified time. That would not really be costly, because admission to that club is already a long shot for Ukraine.

Or Putin might just send in the tanks…and set off a new Cold War, if we are “lucky”, and something even worse, if we are not.




A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.

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Ryan O'Connell

Ryan O'Connell

A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.

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