Attempting to refute the spreading claim that Russian soldiers wounded in Ukraine were receiving only $100 in compensation (the official line is that they receive $28,000), Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t miss the opportunity to return to his latest favorite theme.
“Russians and Ukrainians are one nation,” Putin told a meeting of his Security Council last Thursday. “I will never give that up.”
On that last point at least, Putin is telling the truth. He really won’t give it up. The belief that Ukrainian nationhood is a false construct imposed upon Russia by an expansionist west lies at the root of Moscow’s devastating campaign to crush its neighbor.
To Jews and Israelis, this sort of eliminationist program should be very familiar. For decades, Arab nationalists and Islamists have been saying much the same about Israel — that the Jewish state is both a false construct and a beachhead for various global conspiracies, and that it has no sovereign legitimacy, despite being a member state of the United Nations. According to Article 20 of the Palestinian National Covenant, “Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”
The best that can be said about this formulation is that it politely avoids the crude anti-Semitic language that has typically accompanied this message when it appears in Arab discourse. But make no mistake: These words drive an armored tank through historical truth, and their purpose is not only to question the legitimacy of Israel but the right of its citizens to reside as free women and men in that part of the world. Whatever the “true conception of statehood” might be, it doesn’t apply to Zionism.
Putin has adopted much the same approach towards Ukraine. While Russian troops attempt to pulverize Ukrainian cities that are packed with civilians, like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson, Putin provides the ideological justification for the slaughter by insisting that Ukraine and its people truly belong to Russia.
It would be a mistake to think that these assertions about Ukraine being Russian property were an afterthought, or a hasty justification for the invasion once it began. Putin has put a great deal of thought into these views and he has expressed them on several occasions. In July 2021, he even published a lengthy essay titled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
As Andrew Wilson, a scholar at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London pointed out, the essay was emblematic of Putin’s obsession with Ukraine as a “fake” nation. “He is apparently having historical files delivered so he can ‘study’ the Ukrainian question more, indicating that there may be even more essays to come,” Wilson wrote at the time. “The whole topic is clearly a personal idée fixe for him: back in July 2013, and before the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine that followed during the subsequent year, he gave a speech in Kyiv stating that all of Ukraine was historical Russia.”
According to Putin, the historical record proves indisputably that Ukraine is Russian and that its people have traditionally looked to Moscow. Strikingly for any Jewish readers, in his lengthy discussion of the struggle between Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-17th century, Putin wrote warmly of the “Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky”—the Cossack military commander whose murderous bands slaughtered thousands of Jews in the 1650s in his bid to eradicate the Jewish presence from Ukraine. That Khmelnytsky inflicted this trauma on Jews—until the Holocaust, regarded as the most horrific episode of Jewish persecution—went unmentioned in Putin’s essay. Instead, he praised Khmelnytsky for expressing loyalty to the Tsar of the time, Alexis, which he argued demonstrated that “the Cossacks referred to and defined themselves as Russian Orthodox people.”
The “myth” of Ukrainian nationhood remained in circulation, nevertheless, and was supposedly given an important fillip when the USSR was formally created in 1922. While it may seem implausible to claim that the Soviet Union lit the fuse of Ukrainian independence, Putin did so anyway, rounding on the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in the process. It was Lenin, the USSR’s founder, who enabled Ukrainian independence, said Putin, by including a clause in the Soviet constitution allowing the USSR’s republics to secede. The constitution’s authors thus “planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the leading role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was gone, the party itself collapsing from within,” Putin wrote. “A ‘parade of sovereignties’ followed,” he then added, clearly disparaging not just Ukraine’s independence, but that of other former Soviet republics like Georgia and Lithuania.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Jewish refusenik who went on to become the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, famously argued that legitimate criticism of Israel could be distinguished from anti-Semitic invective by the application of the “3Ds” test: delegitimization (no legal or historical basis for Israel’s existence), demonization (such as comparing Israeli policy with that of the Nazis) and double standards (expecting Israel to demonstrate standards of behavior demanded of no other state). In the case of Ukraine, Putin has applied all three.
He has ridiculed Ukrainian independence as a trojan horse for a NATO takeover of the country, writing that the “Western authors of the anti-Russia project set up the Ukrainian political system in such a way that presidents, members of parliament and ministers would change, but the attitude of separation from and enmity with Russia would remain.” He has cast Ukrainian leaders, including the country’s Jewish president—Volodymyr Zelensky—as “Nazis” and “drug addicts.” And he has brutally denied Ukrainians their right of national self-determination, conveniently forgetting Russian support for nationalist and separatist movements around the world, not least the Palestinians.
When applied to Israel, these ideas led to a series of wars aimed at annihilating the Jewish state, eventually producing the BDS campaign when it became evident that Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield. In Ukraine, sadly, that last point has yet to be proved. The republic is not just immersed in a political struggle but is now fighting for its very survival. Just as a “world without Israel,” in the words of Iranian regime propaganda, is undesirable and unthinkable, so is a world without Ukraine.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.