Though it seems hardly the stuff to get under Vladimir Putin’s skin, a new law in Ukraine protecting the rights of minorities had the Russian president riled up enough to suggest that Ukraine’s sovereignty is subject to a Russian veto.
The Ukrainian law, which took effect last Friday, was designed to show that the central government is responsible for protecting the legal and cultural rights of Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks, three minorities that also happen to reside in Crimea. Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014. In Putin’s eyes, that makes them Russian citizens.
After its approval by the Ukrainian legislature, Putin not only protested the law but delivered a 5,000-word written manifesto in which he asserted Ukraine exists as a state due only to Russian tolerance.
“There is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people,” he said. “They are one with the Russians. The state of Ukraine is an artificial creation, a fluke of history that should be grateful to Russia for allowing it to exist.”
He added: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
Putin’s essay, published on his presidential website, is an extended version of his long-held view that Ukraine and Russia were separated in error when the Soviet Union fell.
He recited a long version of Ukrainian-Russian ties over 1,000 years. It concluded that “brotherly” relations were broken by Lenin’s Bolsheviks who, at the inception of the Soviet Union, made Ukraine a republic of the USSR – with a right to secede. “One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed,” Putin said.
But the statement also raised the rhetorical temperature at a time of increasing tensions. Over the summer, the Russian army closed in on Ukraine’s eastern border. NATO and Ukrainian troops have engaged in joint exercises. And pro-Russian rebels, supported by Moscow, periodically skirmish with Ukraine’s army in the east.
Seven years after Russia annexed Crimea, the region remains firmly in Russia’s hands and Putin shows no sign of ever giving it up. He hinted he may take more. “I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kyiv simply does not need the Donbass,” he said of the eastern region, which is already under the control of pro-Moscow forces.
If that pronouncement lacked the fearsome agitation of Adolph Hitler’s 1938 demand that Czechoslovakia surrender the German-populated Sudetenland to him – “My patience is now at an end,” said the Fuhrer – it nonetheless contained elements of menace.