Richmond World Affairs Council

Putin’s Russia, Part II: Ukraine

So Russia is sliding into economic decline, but why does political support for Putin remain high amidst the economic downturn?

To truly understand the average Russian’s mindset, we have to examine the historical,  political, and social frameworks that have shaped the their way of life and observing the world.
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Ukraine
Historically, Russia has viewed—and continues to view—Ukraine as “Little Russia” because the two regions share deep ties. Prior to gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine was a territory of Soviet and Tsarist Russia. During the Middle Ages, Ukraine became divided along its Dnieper River. All land that lay on the Dnieper River’s left bank, Eastern Ukraine, became a part of Russia’s creeping expansion while the right bank came under the control of the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth.
Since its early days, Russia’s neighbor has served as a site for Slavic expansion. When Russian Slavs attempted to escape Mongolian rule in Russia, they migrated across the border to Ukraine. Similarly, many Russians were relocated by the Soviet government to Ukraine (especially Eastern Ukraine) to develop the Soviet economy. Once Ukraine fell under the direct control of Russia during the Tsarist and Soviet periods, ties between the two regions deepened as Ukrainians began to intermingle with Russian immigrants and assimilate the Russian culture. Nowhere was this effect felt as prominently as in Eastern Ukraine, the bordering region between Russia and the rest of Ukraine.
Over the years, Eastern Ukraine has become inextricably tied with Russia. Its people nowadays are an indistinguishable blend of Ukrainian and Russian blood, the result of centuries of intermarriage. The Ukrainian language is a derivative of the Russian language, but in Eastern Ukraine, Russian speech is just as commonplace as Ukrainian. Eastern Ukraine was an important industrial center for Russia during the Soviet era, and the economic ties have persisted to today as Russia continues to be Ukraine’s most important economic partner. Given this history, it’s no surprise that Eastern Ukraine is largely pro-Russian, far more so than its western counterpart, Western Ukraine (and Crimea, a traditionally Russian territory up until the 1950s, where more than half of its population is ethnically Russian, is even more so).

So, given their history, Russia and Ukraine are (almost) like family, right?

This is the brotherly—and somewhat imperialistic—attitude expressed by your average Russian today. Even Putin has described Ukrainians as his kin. Both Putin and the Russian people desire to restore Russia to its former days of glory, when the country was at the height of its powerful sprawling empire—and for that, “Little Russia,” as Ukraine is affectionately called in Russia, is a necessary component. For this aim, Putin is set to defend Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Ukraine, even if it means drowning millions and millions of rubles in aiding the rebel war for secession in Eastern Ukraine and supporting Crimea’s weak economy.
Despite the economic costs Russia and its people have suffered because of the country’s involvement in Ukraine, domestic nationalistic sentiments towards “Little Russia” have helped Putin maintain popular support for Russia’s role in the Ukraine Crisis without endangering his political legitimacy at home. Instead, his foreign policy agenda has increased Russians’ support for him .

But why does Putin think Russia’s sphere of influence is threatened when Ukraine and Russia share close economic and cultural ties?

Russia is insecure of encroaching US and EU expansion into former Russian territories of Eastern Europe.  This is partly the reason why there’s a rising “Anti-Western” attitude among the Russian people, leaving, in its wake, strengthened support for the man who is willing to go head to head with these countries.
-Shrina Patel
REFERENCES to learn more about the Ukraine-Russia relationship:
Calamur, Krishnadev. “Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia.” NPR. February 21, 2014. Accessed July 30, 2015.
Schmemann, Serge. “Ukraine and the Perils of Division.” The New York Times. February 26, 2014. Accessed July 30, 2015.