By most accounts, Tucker Carlson’s two-hour-long interview with President Putin was a dud. Carlson, the most prominent critic of the United States’s handling of the Russo-Ukraine War, has enjoyed years of favorable reception in Russia, including a red-carpet tour of Moscow. The most important aspect of the interview was not that anything new was said, but that it highlighted the President’s fundamental belief that informs the war. That there is no such thing as a Ukrainian; all so-called “Ukrainians” are simply Russians who have developed a false national consciousness, cultivated by the enemies of Russia over hundreds of years to undermine Slavic unity. At most, Ukrainian is a regional dialect, analogous to a Southern or New England accent.  

Putin has reiterated these themes in essays and speeches over the last few years. In its most simplified form, Putin’s history goes as such. After Kievan Rus, the primordial state of the Eastern Slavs, was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century the once-united Russian people were split in two. The western part fell under the influence of Poland, Lithuania, and Roman Catholicism, resulting in the “corrupted” Ukrainian identity while the “true” strain in the East became Russified. Over the succeeding centuries, as Russia moved west, “reclaiming” previously lost lands, her enemies like Poland, Austria-Hungary, and Germany continued to cultivate this false Ukrainian identity to divide the Russian people.

Coupled with the siege mentality that developed after 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, leaving Russia the only Orthodox (i.e. true Christian) power left, any move that asserted a separate identity among the “little Russians” was seen as a conspiracy to undermine Russia. Then, after the Russian Revolution, Lenin inexplicably decided to divide Russia again by creating a separate Ukrainian Republic alongside Russia within the Soviet Union. Given that Lenin being an agent of Imperial Germany was a common theme in White Propaganda during the Civil War (Putin is a great admirer of the anti-Bolshevik White movement) even this could be twisted into Ukraine only existing because of Russia’s enemies.  

Putin then engages in the usual doublespeak when discussing Ukraine saying that he would support an “independent” Ukraine even though he spent the last hour deriding the very idea of a separate Ukrainian identity. Of course, this new Ukraine would have to accept the loss of not just the current oblasts annexed by Russia, but likely all the lands of the historical Tsarist’s Novorossiya Governorate. Some like State Council member and Former President Dimitry Medvedev do not even bother with the façade. One former advisor to Putin minced no words about the “solution” to the Ukrainian issue: “Coercion by force into fraternal relations is the only method that has historically proven effective in the Ukrainian direction. I don’t think any other one will be invented.” 

Simplistic and one-sided as this history may be, it informs the views of not just Putin, but wide swaths of Russian political history and thought. Putin’s two greatest political heroes, the Third Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911) and General Anton Denikn (1872-1947) both championed Greater Russian nationalism. Anti-Ukrainian sentiment was espoused by Peter Struve, one of the country’s greatest political philosophers. Philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev in 1918, while acknowledging some local differences, nonetheless condemned Ukrainian nationalism as great an enemy to Russia as Bolshevism. 

The first to infringe on Russia’s claims to Ukraine have been the Ukrainians, who committed apostasy from the people of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, casting aside the dominant Russian language in the name of a Little Russian dialect, to divide up Russia. They are proving thus victorious the spirits of particularism, of provincialism, of separatism. These spirits, these little devils are destroying Russia and Russian culture the same, as is the big devil of internationalism. There is being denied from various ends the existence of Russia, of the Russian people, of the Russian idea. The Russian aspect is being replaced by partial and particularistic definitions… it is crushed from above by the abstract monstrosity of the Internationale, and from below by the egoistically-shallow national self-assertions. 

This view of Ukrainian nationalism and Communist internationalism as twin threats and dangers to Russia mirrors what Russian leaders now say about Western social liberalism, displaying the remarkable continuity in Russian thought. 

Even most Bolsheviks had misgivings about Lenin’s push for a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Privately, Lenin thought little of the Ukrainian national movement but believed humoring it would help stabilize the region. Solzhenitsyn, who was half-Ukrainian and supported its independence, believed that the lands that Russia has annexed since 2014 rightfully belonged to them. As one writer put it: 

Russia views Russian speakers as “compatriots” and Russians (Russkii) can be defined as either ethnic Russians or three eastern Slavs: Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Therefore… [Russian Nationalists] have always viewed Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine as wrongly included in…Ukraine and Russian speakers living there are viewed as “Russians.” 

Archbishop Gudziak, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) leader, in his call for continuing US aid, argued that the war between Russia and Ukraine began not two but ten years ago with the seizure of Crimea. However, one could go even further and say that this is a war that has been waged for over a century, starting with the Russian occupation of Galicia, the western region of Ukraine, during the First World War.  

For decades the Austrian Habsburgs patronized what is now called the UGCC, a body within the Roman Catholic Church, which was crucial in forming a Ukrainian national identity, culturally uplifting the masses, and championing education for the peasants. This in turn instilled a strong sense of loyalty to the Hapsburgs in Ukraine. In contrast, the Russian state stamped out the UGCC within its own borders, suppressed the Ukrainian language, and repeatedly asserted that Austrian-controlled Galicia was rightfully Russian. During his interview with Carlson, Putin said that the Austrian general staff supported Ukrainianization as a weapon against Russia. 

 After routing the Austrian army in the opening months of the Great War, Russian forces immediately began the process of Russification. The Ukrainian language was outlawed and all papers had to refer to the inhabitants as Russians. Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky, head of the UGCC, was arrested and deported to Russia. Suppression of the UGCC was a central aspect of the occupation with priests beaten and killed while churches were turned over to the Orthodox church. 

  The same pattern would repeat itself over the next hundred years. Both the Reds and Whites ruthlessly suppressed Ukrainian nationalism during the Russian Civil War, with the Bolsheviks accusing Ukrainian nationalists of being tools of the Entente. Only after his third conquest of Ukraine did Lenin push for a more tolerant administration of “national communism,” a form of Marxism with some recognition of national identity. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, the UGCC was immediately targeted for harassment. Despite initial moderation in the spring of 1940, the Soviets clamped down on Ukrainian nationalism. When the Soviets returned in 1944-1945 the process continued with a brutal war waged against Ukrainian guerrillas and the outlawing/forced “union” of the UGCC and Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC, but for the Ukrainians living in the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary) with the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the 2014 conflict harassment of the UGCC is a regular occurrence in lands occupied by Russian/pro-Russian forces.  

With the war entering its third year with no end in sight, policymakers must be realists when it comes to the reality of this war. While discussions should certainly be held regarding aid for Ukraine policy, critics must also acknowledge the Weltanschauung of Putin and his inner circle. This is not simply a war for “lost” territories, but a fight to unify the Russian people and destroy an “artificial” nation that the West uses to undermine the Russian people. Catholic “realists” should reflect upon “the Church of Martyrs” that is UGCC and if they are willing to leave them to the mercy of Putin. While the circumstances differ, like his predecessors Putin, to quote Tsar Nicholas II, believes “There is no Galicia [Ukraine], rather a Great Russia to the Carpathians.” With such statements and history, why should any Ukrainian leader believe a word Putin says? It is one thing to negotiate with someone who believes you are evil; it is another with someone who believes you are not even real.