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Putin likes to talk about Russians and Ukrainians as ‘one people.’ Here’s the deeper history.

For centuries, Moscow has worried that foreign powers are scheming to separate Ukraine from Russia.

- February 9, 2022

More than seven years after annexing Crimea and occupying eastern Ukraine, Russian forces are again massing along the Ukrainian border. Behind Russia’s demands that Ukraine not join NATO lie Russian leaders’ enduring belief that Ukraine and Ukrainians are inalienable parts of Russia’s own history — and that Western support for Ukraine is just the latest example of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called “deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity.”

When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Putin declared that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” He has often repeated this claim. Western analysts are inclined to dismiss Putin’s depiction of Russo-Ukrainian unity as cheap propaganda or deliberate disinformation.

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Yet the belief that Russians and Ukrainians share a common identity has deep roots in Russia — and in certain quarters, in Ukraine, too — though Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine helped consolidate a shared civic identity among even Russian-speaking Ukrainians. My research suggests how Moscow is consequently prepared to pay a high cost to fulfill its ambition to restore control over its southern neighbor.

Russia and Ukraine have a complex history

In the medieval era, Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, was the center of the Orthodox, East Slavic world that gave birth to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. After Kyiv was razed by Mongol conquerors in 1240, many smaller princedoms competed for primacy in the East Slavic world. By the late 15th century, Moscow had replaced Kyiv as the most prominent East Slavic city and the nucleus of a new empire. Meanwhile, Kyiv and its environs came under Polish-Lithuanian rule.

Much of Ukraine had become a depopulated borderland (in Slavic languages, Ukraina means “borderland”). Like many frontiers, it attracted migrants, the Cossacks, who set up self-governing communities. During the 17th century, the Cossacks became pawns in a geopolitical struggle between Poland, Moscow and the Ottoman Empire — a struggle that Moscow eventually won. Between 1654 and 1795, Moscow/Russia absorbed the bulk of the Ukrainian lands, apart from the westernmost regions of Galicia and Transcarpathia.

Russia saw Ukrainian nationalism as a foreign plot

As the historian Zenon Kohut notes, Moscow’s rulers made “no assertion of ethnic affinity [with Kyiv], nor [was] Kyiv treated as territory lost to Muscovy/Russia” when these lands were under Polish-Lithuanian rule. Later, though, Russian publicists seeking to justify imperial expansion portrayed the absorption of Ukraine as the historic reunification of the East Slavic world, now centered on Moscow. They depicted Ukraine’s inhabitants as “Little Russians,” part of a tripartite “all-Russian” people that also included “Great Russians” and “White Russians” (Belarusians). This view originated in the Russian Orthodox Church, but found its way into the Russian Empire’s educational curriculum thanks to Nikolay Ustryalov, author of the leading history textbook in 19th-century Russia.

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The claim that Ukrainians and Russians were one went hand-in-hand with the belief that Ukrainian nationhood was a foreign invention created to redivide the Russian Empire. Russian officials blamed Poland and Austria — which annexed Galicia and Transcarpathia in the late 18th century — for fomenting Ukrainian nationalism to pull the region’s inhabitants away from their “natural” alignment with Orthodox Moscow.

They pointed to the creation in the Ukrainian lands of a Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, which was subordinate to the pope in Rome, as a tool for undermining Orthodox, and, hence, Russian influence. The emergence of a 19th-century intelligentsia in Galicia calling for the unification and independence of all the Ukrainian lands was depicted as a product of the geopolitical struggle with Austria-Hungary that culminated in World War I.

Fear that foreign powers would use the idea of Ukraine as a weapon persisted after the fall of the Russian Empire. During World War II, German occupation forces aligned with Ukrainian nationalist factions to set up a puppet state in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where these factions participated in ethnic cleansing and provided guards for German concentration camps.

The Kremlin now argues that the West is trying to woo Ukraine away

This long history helps explain why contemporary Russian leaders are so sensitive about Ukraine, which regained its independence in 1991 — at Moscow’s weakest moment, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The European Union and NATO have replaced Poland, the Catholic Church and Austria-Hungary as the villainous schemers who are supposedly trying to separate Ukraine from Russia.

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Putin draws a direct historical line from Poland and Austria’s supposed “anti-Russia project,” through the Nazi occupiers who set up a puppet state, to recent efforts to expand NATO and the E.U. He draws on the work of the Nobel Prize-winning author and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who argued that because “our people came to be divided into three branches [i.e. Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian] by the terrible calamity of the Mongol invasion, and by Polish colonization … the talk of a separate Ukrainian people existing since something like the ninth century … is a recently invented falsehood.”

Moscow portrayed Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests, which led to the ouster of the Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, as part of the West’s “hybrid” offensive to roll back Russian influence. Putin argued that in seeking the incorporation of Ukraine, the E.U. and NATO employed “the old groundwork of the Polish-Austrian ideologists to create an ‘anti-Moscow Russia.’” Russia has cracked down on Ukrainian cultural organizations and the Greek Catholic Church in occupied regions of Ukraine.

Most Ukrainians do not share Putin’s belief in Russo-Ukrainian unity. Still, understanding how and why that belief has endured in Russia is critical to making sense of Moscow’s desire to restore control over Ukraine. Behind the short-term focus on geopolitical issues — such as the role of NATO — lie long-standing beliefs in the common identity of Russians and Ukrainians (and Belarusians), beliefs that will outlast the current crisis.

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Jeffrey Mankoff (@DrJMankoff) is a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, and the author of “Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security” (Yale University Press, 2022). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.