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Leonid Bershidsky

Why Ukraine Lives Rent-Free in Putin’s Head

In a lengthy, tortured article, he just spelled out his destabilizing fixation on how “Russia was essentially robbed” of its neighbor. 

You can’t quit me, bro. 

You can’t quit me, bro. 

Photographer: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

Ukraine may rarely be on the front pages anymore, but it remains one of the world’s most important countries, its domestic struggles echoing far and wide (remember the second Trump impeachment? It won’t be the last such echo). The main reason for that importance is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s painful Ukraine fixation; as Peter Dickinson pointed out in a recent essay for the Atlantic Council, Putin started a whole new Cold War because of it.

Now Putin, who has largely resisted the literary, autobiographical, philosophical and other writerly temptations to which so many of his Russian predecessors and political colleagues have succumbed, has attempted to explain the obsession in one of his longest published pieces of writing:  a 5,328-word opus on Ukraine’s  shared history with Russia. Brought out in both Russian and Ukrainian, it is, as Putin said in subsequent answers to questions from his own press service, “a little more than an article”; a psychologist might call it an attempt to work through a still-smarting trauma, a Russia- or Ukraine-watcher would see in it an ominous attempt to justify further aggression, a student of propaganda might interpret it as an attempt to talk to Ukrainians over the heads of Ukraine’s elite and media. It contains all these facets and more; unsurprisingly, it is a deeply conflicted, tortured work.