Yesterday, Vladimir Putin said that “we in Russia have always considered that Russians and Ukrainians are one people,” and his press secretary Dmitry Peskov declared that “the problems of the Crimean Tatars as such do not exist,” statements that are completely at variance with reality.
Are there Russians who do not believe that Russians and Ukrainians are separate nations? Yes, but it is simply not the case that Russians have “always” thought so. Throughout the Soviet period, Moscow supported Ukrainian national identity, recognizing that Ukrainians and Russians are two different peoples, with different languages, cultures and traditions.
To say otherwise as Putin did — he added that he personally “thinks” that the two nations are “one people” — is to ignore history and fall into the very trap that he suggested in the next sentence exists: “Of course, extreme nationalism is always harmful and dangerous.”
On the same day, Peskov suggested not only that “the problems of the Crimean Tatars do not exist” but that “there is no division of the residents of Crimean into Tatars and non-Tatars,” a statement equal in absurdity to Putin’s and in fact a contradiction of Putin’s own position as of not long ago.
As Peskov has forgotten or more likely prefers not to remember, it was his boss who issued a decree last year calling for the rehabilitation of the repressed peoples of Crimea, among whom he listed the Crimean Tatars. Consequently, to say that they do not have any separate problems is not only absurd but contrary to Putin’s own line.
Three things are disturbing about these twin statements.
First, it is always worrisome when senior officials in any country issue statements that are so flagrantly at odds with reality, given that however absurd what they say may be, it almost certainly will inform if not drive the policies they pursue.
Second, most people in the West will be inclined to ignore them either as just one more example of the Kremlin’s bombast – the number of such Orwellian statements from the Kremlin is now much past counting – or to say that Putin et al are playing to his base, the favorite excuse of Western diplomats whenever a foreign leader says something outrageous.
And third and the most harmful one, precisely because so few are going address just how wrong Putin and his aide are, ever more Russians will accept their notions, however noxious and wrong, as true and that will make it ever more difficult to overcome the divisions Putin has created by his Anschluss of Crimea and his continuing invasion of Ukraine.