December 19, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly invoking the Kremlin’s pre-invasion pseudo-historical rhetoric to cast himself as a modern Russian tsar and framing the invasion of Ukraine as a historically justified imperial reconquest

Institute for the Study of War

Putin addressed the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium on December 19 and largely reiterated boilerplate Kremlin rhetoric on the war in Ukraine by blaming NATO and the collective West for encroaching on Russia’s borders and exculpated himself for issues faced by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine by deflecting the blame towards the Russian MoD bureaucracy. Putin additionally lauded Russian battlefield operations and Russia’s defense industrial base’s net output in 2023, furthering several of his standard talking points. Putin once again invoked the concept of “compatriots abroad” when discussing residents in “southeastern Ukraine” who, he asserted, have historical, cultural, and linguistic attachments to Russia, in order to justify the invasion of Ukraine on ideological grounds. ISW previously assessed that Putin rhetorically contextualized Russia’s maximalist objectives in Ukraine within a wider framing of Russian “sovereignty” at Putin’s “Direct Line” event on December 14. Putin notably claimed that while Russia is the sole guarantor of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russia will also not interfere in “territorial disputes” in western Ukraine, where he claimed that many residents want to return to either Poland, Romania, or Hungary, concluding that “history will put everything in its place.”

Putin’s claim that Russia can be the only true guarantor of Ukraine’s sovereignty is not a new narrative. In a 2021 essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin similarly claimed that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible precisely in partnership with Russia.” In the same essay, Putin also utilized a pseudo-historical framework of Ukraine’s and Russia’s relationship that essentially defines the lands of modern, sovereign Ukraine as either part of Malorossiya (Little Russia), Novorossiya (New Russia), or fragments of other historical empires. This essay dismissed Ukraine’s historical claim to its own sociocultural development, historical sovereignty, and territorial integrity, which the Russian Federation formally recognized and, indeed, guaranteed, in 1994. During the December 19 Collegium Address, Putin further engaged with this pseudo-historical framing to suggest that western Ukraine is also not truly Ukrainian and claimed that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin “gave it away” to Ukraine from pieces of Poland, Romania, and Hungary following the Second World War. Putin baselessly claimed that people living in western Ukraine want to return to their “historical homeland,” suggesting that western Ukraine could feasibly return to 17th-century conceptions of state borders and become parts of Poland, Romania, or Hungary. This statement suggests that Putin is selectively weaponizing facets of Eastern and Central European history as they suit his ideological line to further rhetorically strip Ukraine of its internationally recognized sovereignty.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly invoking the Kremlin’s pre-invasion pseudo-historical rhetoric to cast himself as a modern Russian tsar and framing the invasion of Ukraine as a historically justified imperial reconquest.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated during the Russian MoD Collegium on December 19 that the Russian MoD will prioritize continuing the war in Ukraine and training newly formed units and formations in 2024, while also reiterating threats against Finland and the wider NATO alliance.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an end of the year press conference on December 19 during which he commented on Russia’s continued unwillingness to negotiate, his confidence in future Western aid provisions, Ukrainian domestic weapons production, and possible future mobilization in Ukraine.
  • Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin discussed Russian and Chinese economic cooperation and bilateral relations with Chinese Premier Li Quang in Beijing on December 19.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances northeast of Kupyansk, north of Bakhmut, and southwest of Avdiivka, and continued positional meeting engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that the Russian military intends to recruit up to 745,000 contract personnel by the end of 2024 at the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Collegium on December 19.
  • Russian authorities continued attempts to use military conscription in occupied Ukraine to augment force generation efforts and legitimize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

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