What’s on Putin’s Mind?

Ultimatums to United States and NATO

On July 12, 2021, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin published a 6,900-word article in an online Russian government Presidential News Events release entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

Saint Vladimir, Viking Prince of the Kievan Rus. Wikimedia photo.

Russia now has over 120,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and on December 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry gave the U.S. and NATO what are essentially “non-negotiable” ultimatums regarding Ukraine and the provocative anti-Russian NATO membership of 14 East European nations. Sweden and Finland were given stern warnings that joining or aiding NATO could have serious consequences. Talks were held with the U.S. in Geneva on January 10, 2022, and with a gathering of NATO, U.S. and Ukrainian officials in Brussels on January 12. At this point, nothing has been resolved, and Russian news releases are not comforting,


According to NBC News, unidentified U.S. intelligence sources have indicated Russian agents in Ukraine are planning a false-flag operation to rationalize a Russian invasion of Ukraine. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki repeated this charge on January 14, claiming Russia “is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion.” One unidentified source claimed that “cyberwarfare” might be involved in such an attack.


False-flag events have been especially common over the last 200 years of warfare and politics and are designed to disguise the real aggressor and confuse the facts and issues. They are often used to divert blame, arouse public opinion against enemies, drive a wedge between allies, or create confusion, distraction, and division within a targeted nation.  Two historical examples are the Reichstag Fire resulting in Nazi dominance in German politics in 1933, and the German invasion of Poland in 1939.  There are also many examples in U.S. history from 1861 to 2022.


According to Global Firepower, for 2022, the Russian Federation has the second most powerful military force in the world, second only to the United States. China is third but rising fast.  With a population of 142 million, ninth largest in the world, Russa has 1,350,000 military personnel. It has nearly 4,200 total aircraft, 1,500 combat aircraft, and 543 attack helicopters. Its land forces have over 12,400 tanks, 30,000 armored vehicles, 14,000 artillery pieces, and 3,400 rocket projectors, by far the most formidably equipped Army in the world. It has 605 naval vessels, of which 112 are major surface combat ships, 70 are submarines, and one is an aircraft carrier.  It has by far the largest nuclear weapons stockpile in the world. It personnel are well trained, tough, and highly motivated.


Global Firepower ranks Ukraine number 22 out of 140 nations in military strength. With a population of over 44 million, Ukraine has 500,000 military personnel.  Its Army has 2,600 tanks, 12,300 armored vehicles, 3,100 artillery pieces, and 490 rocket projectors. Ukraine’s Air Force has 318 total aircraft, 98 combat aircraft, and 34 attack helicopters. Ukraine’s ground and air forces are much smaller than Russia’s but in armor, artillery, and attack aircraft can hit far above their overall ranking weight. Its Navy has only 34 ships, of which only two are major combat surface ships, and 13 are patrol boats.


Obviously, Russia is far stronger overall than Ukraine alone, but the Ukrainian Army is strong enough to make invasion very costly for the Russians. Such a sting might have too high a cost to Russia and Putin militarily, economically, and politically to justify even a clear victory.


Putin’s July 2021 essay emphasizes that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are tied together by common history, language, religion, and culture, going back to the ancient Kievan Rus that thrived from about 840 to 1240 AD.  [These were primarily a mixture of Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic tribes also mixed with and influenced by Swedish Vikings, said to have come from Roslagen on the eastern coast of Sweden.]  The dominant language of all was Old East Slavic, and their capital was Kiev, now in Ukraine. The capitol of Russia was later moved to Moscow in the late 13th century to avoid vulnerability to invasion by the Tatar and Mongol “Golden Horde” from Asia.


Saint Vladimir (956-1015), who ruled both in Kiev and Novgorod in Russia was the first Rus leader to convert to Christianity, and the Russian Orthodox Church became a dominant influence in the Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus until the Communist Revolution years of 1917 to 1923. Following the fall of the USSR and Communist rule in 1991, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox faith recovered at an astonishing rate. According to a 2017 Pew Survey, 73 percent of Russian adults identify as Christian. Almost all of these, 71 percent, are Orthodox. A 2018 survey in Ukraine found 72 percent are believers and 65 percent are Orthodox.  Moreover, 57 percent of Russians say being Orthodox is an important part of being truly Russian. Fifty-one percent of Ukrainians believe being Orthodox is an important part of being Ukrainian.   Russia has a significant Muslim population of six percent, Ukraine has slightly more than one percent, but Muslims are six percent in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region of Ukraine bordering Russia.


According to a 2019 Pew Survey about 17 percent of Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This is about the same as the 17 percent of Ukrainians whose native language is Russian. Loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate is most common in Eastern Ukraine, especially the Donbas region.


Crimea had been part of the Russian Empire since 1783 and became a Russian Oblast under Lenin and Stalin. It was given to the Ukrainian SSR for political reasons in 1954 but taken back by the Russian Federation in the 2014 Crimean crisis. Crimea’s population was and still is predominantly Russian at 65 percent. Ukrainians are only 15 percent, and Muslim Tatars are 12 percent.  Fifty-eight percent of the population is Russian Orthodox.


The Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine consists of the Oblasts (states) of Donetsk and Luhansk. Thirty-eight percent of the population are ethnic Russians, and Russian is the native and first language of about 75 percent. About 51 percent identify as Russian Orthodox, and a total of 65 percent identify as Christians. Ukrainian Army conflict with Donbas “separatist” forces has resulted in 13,000 deaths since 2014. About half of the Donbas population is under effective control of the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk and Luhansk governments. The actual political preferences of the citizens are unknown, but they can probably field about 45,000 pro-Russian troops in the event of Russian annexation of Donbas.


Putin has been an enthusiastic supporter of Russian Orthodox Christianity in particular and looks at Orthodox Christianity as a common bond of faith and culture between Russia and Ukraine and Belarus. He speaks of a triune Russian people comprising Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians.   Moreover, other Orthodox nations and minorities have tended to look to Russia for support. Even the Old Church Slavonic of these churches is both a linguistic and cultural link.


Putin also points to the similarity of Ukrainian and Belarusian to Russian, comparing the difference between Ukrainian and Russian to the difference between the Central and Northern dialects of Italian.  Here to, language is a key link to other Slavic nations in Europe, especially in the Balkans, who have often looked to Russia for help. In his essay, Putin not only confirms he is a Russian nationalist but also somewhat of a Slavic nationalist.


Much of Russian tradition and culture today is still linked to the great trauma and sacrifice of World War II. Putin reminds his readers of the millions of Ukrainians who fought and bled in the Great Patriotic War to protect their common Motherland from the ravages and brutality of the Nazis. Over 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers were recognized as Heroes of the Soviet Union. “To forget this heroism would betray our grandfathers, mothers, and fathers.” He also points out that the biographies of Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Communist Party and Soviet Union for almost 30 years, were most closely associated with Ukraine.


Ukraine is still one of Russia’s top three trading partners, and Putin believes Russian and Ukrainian future prosperity must be closely linked.  He laments that before 1991 Russian and Ukrainian economic cooperation was much better but has now deteriorated considerably with Ukraine distancing itself from Russian influence. Ukraine is now the poorest nation in Europe. Sadly, in the view of many Europeans, Ukraine has also become the most corrupt country in Europe.


Putin further laments that the West’s “anti-Russian project” has hemmed in Russia and hurt Ukraine as well. He also reminds his readers that millions of those born in Ukraine now live in Russia and are held as “our own close people.”


Finally, Putin makes a direct appeal to Ukraine:


“We respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect the Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe, and prosperous.”


“I am confident that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human, and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements, and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”


“…And I will say one thing—Russia has never been and will never be “anti-Ukraine—And what Ukraine will be—it is up to its citizens.”


What is on Putin’s mind? Putin has a sense of mission to make the dream of an old empire into a new and greater empire united in common faith, culture, prosperity, and mutual defense. It might be called “Make Triune Russia great again. Ukraine is an important part of that trinity. An expanding NATO and alienated Ukraine are anathema to that dream. Savaging Ukraine, however, would savage the dream. Hopefully, Putin will consider the wisdom of an ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

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