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Russian president Vladimir Putin marches behind two goosestepping soldiers carrying a large wreath
Shackled to a vision of a ‘glorious past’: Russian president Vladimir Putin celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, February 23 2024. EPA-EFE/Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Vladimir Putin has never understood why Ukrainians want to control their own destiny

Ten years ago, Ukraine looked to the democratic world like a faraway place. But this was just before Ukraine’s “Euromaidan” protests toppled the country’s pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, paving the way for the election of a pro-western president, Petro Poroshenko.

As scholar of east European studies Peter Vermeersch has put it, whereas Ukraine was once seen as “the western edge of eastern Europe”, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022, the country has transformed in the eyes of the world into “the eastern edge of western Europe”. It was a transformation that had taken place not least because of the popular will of much of the Ukrainian people.

In 2003, Leonid Kuchma, who was then acting president of Ukraine, published a book called Ukraine is not Russia. With his choice of title, Kuchma – a person with an exemplary Soviet background as a former member of the central committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine – sent a powerful message about the divergence between otherwise “brotherly” nations.

What Kuchma had in mind, among other things, was the different political culture among Ukraine’s people. This became especially clear during and after the Euromaidan.

When the Russians invaded Donbas in 2014 in response to the overturning of their puppet president, hundreds (if not thousands) of ordinary people voluntarily joined up to fight for their country – many before the armed forces were actually formally deployed. They formed combat units, appointed commanders from among themselves and even procured weapons independently.

This process has gone even further since 2022. Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, told me: “In the last 150 years, it has been solely the state’s task to prepare and support armies on the battlefield. However, since the first day of this war, Ukrainians have willingly shifted much of this burden onto their shoulders.”

Ukraine’s democratic ideals

According to the World Values Survey (WVS) – a global research project conducted by social sciences in more than 90 countries which explores the social and political impact of people’s changing values and beliefs – in 2020, 42.8% of Ukrainians said the importance of democracy was absolute. The corresponding number in Russia was 23.5%. Meanwhile, only 17.4% of Ukrainians believed that obedience to their leaders was the essential characteristic of democracy. In Russia that figure was 27.1%.

Ukrainians tend to be more politically active than Russians. According to an earlier survey by WVS which measured attitudes between 2010 and 2014, only 14.8% of Ukrainians said they had never participated in any peaceful demonstrations (this figure was recorded in 2011, before the Euromaidan protests). By comparison this figure in Russia was 51.7%.

The WVS findings are indirectly confirmed by a survey conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center. Pew found that 51% of Ukrainians supported the post-Soviet switch to a multi-party system, while 47% approved of a market economy, compared with 43% and 38% respectively in Russia.

A man looks at pictures of people in a memorial to the Euromaidan protests of 2014 in Kyiv.
Yearning for democracy: a memorial in Kyiv to the Ukrainians who died during the Euromaidan protests of 2014. EPA-EFE/Stepan Franko

Ukrainians also thought that an independent judiciary (81%) and free media (63%) were essential for democracy. These findings were broadly in line with the western European median at 87% and 67% respectively.

But they were significantly different from attitudes in Russia where 63% supported the idea of an independent judiciary and 38% held a free media to be a key feature of democracy.

Putin’s blind spot

The Russian president’s insistence that Ukrainians and Russians are essentially the same people flies in the face of these differing values. According to Putin’s logic, the citizens of Ukraine should respect authority and respond to strong leadership.

He seems to argue that the Euromaidan would not have happened without interference from the west. This is borne out by his speech to the Russian people on February 21 2022, on the eve of the invasion, when he characterised the Euromaidan protests as a “coup d'etat” engineered by the west and bankrolled by the US.

Putin seems unable to accept that Ukrainians can think and behave differently when it comes to how they want to be governed. Instead, he reiterates that Ukraine was usurped by western-backed Russophobe extremists. In his reasoning their rule is temporary and should be regarded as illegitimate.

He insists that Russians, as representatives the “same people”, have a moral right to remove the “unnatural” regime connived at by the west and imposed on Ukraine and install a pro-Kremlin government.

Deluded invasion

Putin’s original plan in February 2022 was for the Russian invasion to topple the Ukrainian government in a matter of days. As Roman Solchanyk – an authority on Ukraine-Russia relations based at Harvard – has written, Putin did not anticipate fierce resistance from alleged “compatriots” whom Russians arrived to “liberate” from “Nazi filth”.

In his 2022 eve-of-invasion speech, Putin declared that the “wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine” was “the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity … the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another”. It was clear he did not want to learn the lesson on divergences of Russian and Ukrainian identities from the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan.

Putin continues to deny that Ukrainians demonstrate a greater appreciation of liberty and democracy than Russians. Instead, he chooses to believe that the war “was unleashed by the west and its satellites” who nurtured anti-Russian elites in Ukraine.

Two years on, it is clear from the way they have fought that Ukrainians are motivated to fight because their political activism in 2014 had won them a chance for a different future. Russians, meanwhile, are fighting because they follow their leader in his flawed vision of restoring the past.

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