An independent Ukraine is for

Vladimir Putin

what the Treaty of Versailles was for

Hitler

—a historical injustice imposed on a defeated nation at its moment of greatest weakness, to be reversed as soon as circumstances allow.

This is what I have gleaned from a remarkable article Mr. Putin published in July. As Russia puts more troops on its border with Ukraine and President

Biden

conducts emergency talks with President Putin, it is essential that the administration and the American people understand the threat.

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Mr. Putin’s master narrative rests on his interpretation of more than 1,000 years of Russian history, from which he derives a conclusion: Russians and Ukrainians are “one people—a single whole,” speaking variants of one language, professing a common faith, sharing a common culture, whose separation results from a divide-and-rule strategy pursued for centuries by Russia’s enemies. He attributes the idea of the Ukrainian people as a separate nation to 19th century “Polish elites” and Malorussian (“Little Russian”) intellectuals, a theory concocted with “no historical basis” and subsequently adopted by Austro-Hungarian authorities for their own purposes before World War I.

Of particular relevance is Mr. Putin’s account of the tumultuous years after the Soviet Union was established. In 1918, he says, the Donetsk and nearby regions proclaimed themselves a Soviet republic and asked to be incorporated into Soviet Russia.

Vladimir Lenin

refused to do so and ordered the representatives of what is now southeastern Ukraine to affiliate with Soviet Ukraine.

In Mr. Putin’s view, this was far from the worst error Lenin and the Bolsheviks made. In 1922 Lenin established the U.S.S.R. as a federation of equal republics, each of which enjoyed the right (at least in theory) to secede. By doing so, Mr. Putin charges, the Bolshevik government “planted in our statehood the most dangerous time bomb,” which eventually exploded.

Even worse, he claims, the Bolsheviks paired their formal arrangement with a “localization policy” that fostered the development of Ukrainian culture, language and identity, often imposed on people who did not see themselves as Ukrainian. This policy encouraged the idea of three separate Slavic peoples—Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian—instead of a single Russian nation. In the next two decades, moreover, Soviet authorities forcibly incorporated additional territories into Ukraine over the protests of inhabitants. Therefore, Russia’s president concludes, “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era.”

The Bolsheviks, he contends, “treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out national states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts.” The result, Mr. Putin writes: “Russia was robbed.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, picking up speed after Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in 2004 and 2005, Mr. Putin charges, Russia’s enemies in the West have conspired with right-wing and neo-Nazi Ukrainians to create an “anti-Russia project” whose purpose is to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. Although the two countries are “natural complementary economic partners” that have long developed as a “single economic system,” the West has used loans and grants to cut Ukraine off from Russia and subordinate it to foreign economic interests.

After what Mr. Putin labels a “coup” in 2014 that led to the removal of a pro-Russian government, Ukraine’s new government signed an association agreement with the European Union that deepened Ukraine’s anti-Russian orientation, “inevitably” provoking “civil war” in the Donetsk region. Worse still from the Russian president’s perspective: the deployment of Western military advisers, infrastructure and weapons on Ukrainian soil.

In his annual address to the nation in 2005, Mr. Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. But he doesn’t wish to re-establish the Soviet Union. He wants to restore Russia as a great power based on the reunification of the “triune” Russian people—Great Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian. Only thus can he reverse what he styled in 2005 the “genuine tragedy” of the Soviet Union’s demise, when “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

The “true sovereignty of Ukraine,” Mr. Putin insists, is possible “only in partnership with Russia.” The question is what this partnership would mean in practice. Mr. Biden can’t give Russia’s president a pledge that Ukraine will never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Nor will the EU promise that its association with Ukraine will never ripen into full membership.

Mr. Putin can’t achieve his aims through peaceful means. He must soon decide whether he wants to expand his military involvement in the Donetsk into a wider war.

Main Street (04/27/20): A new generation is getting a hard lesson that Communists are real, as are the lies and violence necessary to keep them in power. Images: KeystoneSTF//AFP/Getty Composite: Mark Kelly

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