During a televised speech on February 21, President Vladimir Putin addressed the people of Russia and Ukraine to, in his words, “explain” the reasons for Russia’s response to the “critical, acute situation” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The same day, Putin formally recognized two sections of Donbas that have been controlled by Russia-backed separatists as “independent states” and ordered Russian troops into Ukraine, prompting worldwide condemnation.
Putin dedicated roughly half of his hour-long address February 21 to the history of Ukraine, Russia and the Soviet Union. In sum, he claimed Ukraine has always been a Russian region, and exists now as a sovereign nation only because the former Soviet Union’s Communist leaders made the “mistake” of giving Kyiv the constitutional right to secede.
“So, I'll start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely and completely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia,” he said.
The speech also veered into other areas with misleading statements, disinformation and omissions about NATO expansion in Europe, Ukraine’s political system, the country’s treatment of Russians and religion, and its nuclear capability. Polygraph.info will address those topics in other fact checks.
As far as Ukraine’s history goes, Putin ignored some chapters, particularly Russia’s brutal treatment of Ukraine under the Soviets. Moreover, in his sweeping rejection of Ukraine’s statehood, Putin blatantly ignored Russia’s past treaties and agreements supporting its political independence and territorial integrity. He also made bellicose threats against Kyiv and leveled exaggerated charges of corruption and state failure.
“Putin’s speech was a hateful rant, full of historical nonsense,” one critic, Mark Kramer, the director of the Cold War Studies Project at the Harvard University Davis Center, told Polygraph.info.
Manfred Quiring, a German political analyst, journalist and author of bestselling books on Soviet and Russian history, accused Putin of “selectively using historical artifacts to lend a semblance of legitimacy to his aggressive policy of conquest.”
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Paul Adams wrote: “Much of Vladimir Putin's speech about Ukraine sounded like a fever dream. A nightmarish vision of a country economically crippled, utterly corrupt, bent on developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and ungrateful for all the generous attention lavished on it by Russia since independence.”
Ukraine survived several devastating wars and occupations before it became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century.
Putin did not look back that far or mention the history of Ukraine’s struggle for independence. Ukrainians fought against the Soviet rule in 1917 and declared independence in 1918, but eastern Ukraine fell to the Soviets' Red Army while western Ukraine became part of Poland. The Soviet Union reoccupied western Ukraine before WWII under a treaty Moscow signed with Nazi Germany.
Putin ignored the fact that more than 93% of Ukrainians voted for independence from Russia in 1991 after Ukraine, along with Belarus and Russia, signed the Belovezha accord, declaring that “the USSR ceases to exist as a subject of international law and as a geopolitical reality.” Under that treaty, the former Soviet republics pledged to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Instead, Putin pledged in his speech to “rectify” the mistakes of Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader of Russia’s 1917 revolution, and Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who succeeded Lenin.
While criticizing Lenin and Stalin for the “freedoms” they supposedly granted to Kyiv, thus eventually allowing the “creation” of a sovereign Ukraine, Putin did not delve into the Soviet Union’s harsh treatment of Ukraine. That included the Red Terror under Lenin, Stalin’s repressions, and the Holodomor, a deadly famine under Soviet state planning that ravaged Ukraine’s population.
The Red Terror in Ukraine took place during the Russian Civil War in 1919 and involved mass executions of imprisoned bourgeoisie. Thousands were killed in Odessa and Kyiv. Mass executions by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks in Crimea took place the following year, with an estimated 50,000 persons, mostly civilians, shot or hanged.
A famine swept the Soviet Union from 1931-34, starving to death millions, mostly Ukrainians. It began under Stalin’s decree collectivizing farming, which created vast food shortages. Parts of Stalin’s decree exclusively targeted Ukraine, an agricultural breadbasket. The Soviets aimed to stop Kyiv from breaking away from the USSR amid a series of anti-Moscow rebellions. The Holodomor (meaning “hunger” and “extermination” in Ukrainian) lasted from 1932-33, and the human cost was devastating.
According to Britannica:
“That autumn  the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside. Farms, villages, and whole towns in Ukraine were placed on blacklists and prevented from receiving food. Peasants were forbidden to leave the Ukrainian republic in search of food. Despite growing starvation, food requisitions were increased and aid was not provided in sufficient quantities…
“The result of Stalin’s campaign was a catastrophe. In spring 1933 death rates in Ukraine spiked. Between 1931 and 1934 at least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the U.S.S.R. Among them, according to a study conducted by a team of Ukrainian demographers, were at least 3.9 million Ukrainians. Police archives contain multiple descriptions of instances of cannibalism as well as lawlessness, theft, and lynching. Mass graves were dug across the countryside. Hunger also affected the urban population, though many were able to survive thanks to ration cards. Still, in Ukraine’s largest cities, corpses could be seen on the street.”
In his speech, Putin pinned the blame for Ukraine’s independence not only on Lenin and Stalin, but on subsequent Soviet leaders, and on a schism within the Soviet Communist Party that resulted in sovereignty rights for the Soviet republics in 1989.
“Was it not obvious what such formulations and decisions would lead to?” Putin asks rhetorically. “Two years before the collapse of the USSR, this fate was actually a foregone conclusion.”
“The historical, strategic mistakes of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, the leadership of the CPSU, made at different times in state building, economic and national policy, led to the disintegration of our united country,” he said. “The collapse of historical Russia under the name of the USSR is on their conscience.”
Except that’s not the whole story.
Quiring noted that Putin essentially dismissed a series of post-Soviet diplomatic agreements affecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, including the Paris Charter, which pledged to protect the political independence of states; the Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine and other former Soviet republics gave up nuclear weapons for territorial protection; and other Russian-Ukrainian friendship treaties.
Russia remains a signatory to these agreements, and Putin’s actions against Ukraine violate Moscow’s obligations. Yet, the Kremlin insists that it is Kyiv and the West that are violating international law, not Russia.
According to Quiring, Putin’s criticism of his Communist and Soviet predecessors “only serves one purpose: He denounces an ‘excess of autonomy’ within the Soviet Union as a ‘time bomb’ that brought about the end of the multinational empire in 1991. Putin wants to correct this ‘mistake,’ not necessarily in the form of a Soviet Union 2.0. Putin prefers the (pre-Russian revolution) Tsarist Empire as a model.”
By 2013, Ukraine was moving closer to the European Union. When pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych blocked a draft EU association agreement, it triggered the so-called Maidan protests, named after a square in Kyiv. Bloody riots followed, and Yanukovych was forced to flee to Russia from what he and the Kremlin have since characterized as a coup. Those events, in turn, triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea the following year and its military support for pro-Russian activists in Donbas region, where conflict has killed an estimated 14,000 people.
“Maidan did not bring Ukraine closer to democracy and progress,” Putin said. "Having carried out a coup d’etat, the nationalists and those political forces that supported them finally brought the situation to a standstill, pushed Ukraine into the abyss of civil war. Eight years after those events, the country is split. Ukraine is experiencing an acute socioeconomic crisis.”
Putin described Ukraine as a “failed state” that is “ravaged by poverty and corruption” and “facing economic and political collapse,” while its “peoples suffer from the genocide” committed by its “Nazi regime,” which “terrorizes dissent.”
Here again, the facts show otherwise. Since Maidan, Russia is the country that has intervened militarily in Donbas and Crimea, first falsely portraying it as a “civil war,” and now portraying it as a peacekeeping mission by Russian troops. Russia’s 2014 interventions in Ukraine were widely condemned as violations of international law, as has the ongoing action in Donbas.
As to Ukraine’s health as a democratic republic, no state is perfect. Ukraine was ranked 122nd of 180 countries on Transparency International’s most recent corruption perceptions index, while Russia's ranking was worse (136th).
Freedom House, a nonpartisan group that ranks the progress or decline of countries every year on civil and political rights, consistently scores Ukraine far better than Russia – more than twice as free. In its most recent annual report, Freedom House wrote:
“Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent. Rampant corruption facilitates shifting links among bureaucrats and organized crime groups.”