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Fact-checking Putin’s speech on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the West and referred to Ukraine as “a colony” in a televised address on Feb. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday made a lengthy, often-bitter televised speech as he ordered troops into two pro-Russian separatist regions of eastern Ukraine. His speech contained many dubious claims, both historical and factual. Here’s a guide to some of the more noteworthy statements, using the official translation provided by the Kremlin.

“I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”

Putin tries to minimize Ukraine as a recent creation, an obscure entity that came about after what he described as a struggle between Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin over the contours of a national state. He harshly criticized Lenin for pushing for a confederation of supposedly independent states, which then were able to become independent nations after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The main point of this misleading — and lengthy — history lesson is to diminish Ukraine as anything more than one person’s creation. As Putin put it, “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’” (Actually, an independent Ukrainian state briefly existed after World War I before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union.)

The reality is that Ukrainian culture and language have existed for centuries and a Ukrainian nationalist movement sprang up in the mid-1800s, angering the czars. While parts of what is now Ukraine was part of the Russian empire, the rest of the state was, at various times, under the control of Poland, Lithuania and Austria-Hungary.

Moreover, when Ukrainians were given a choice of remaining with Russia in a 1991 national referendum, 84 percent of eligible voters went to the polls — and more than 90 percent, including many non-Ukrainians, cast ballots for independence.

“I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. … Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.”

Both the Russians and the Ukrainians trace their origins to the former medieval empire of Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic Orthodox state that contained parts of the territories of contemporary Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Volodymyr the Great (958-1015) is considered the founding father of Ukraine — and a statue of him has existed since 1853 in Kyiv. In 2016, Putin erected a statue of Volodymyr the Great next to the Kremlin, claiming he was the founding father of the All Rus state.

How Ukraine became Ukraine, in 7 maps

Ukrainians would argue that Kievan Rus has nothing to with Russia and that Moscow did not even exist then — a point emphasized in a cheeky tweet by the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. When Putin celebrated the statue, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was furious. “In the Kremlin, near the unburied Lenin, they opened a monument to our Kyiv Prince Volodymyr,” he said. “This is a demonstration of attempts of hybrid appropriation of history.”

“According to expert assessments, confirmed by a simple calculation of our energy prices, the subsidized loans Russia provided to Ukraine along with economic and trade preferences, the overall benefit for the Ukrainian budget in the period from 1991 to 2013 amounted to $250 billion.”

Putin offers as his source “expert assessments,” which suggest $250 billion is an exaggerated figure. But there is no doubt that Ukraine at one time benefited from Russia’s policy of “petro-carrots” toward countries that tilted toward the Kremlin. Leonid Kuchma, who led Ukraine from 1994 to 2005, was very Russia-friendly. He even designated Russian as an official language.

“Not surprisingly, these policies were rewarded by the Kremlin with subsidized oil and gas sales. Throughout Kuchma’s time in office, Moscow kept gas prices frozen at about $50 per thousand cubic meters (TCM),” wrote Randall Newnham, political science professor at Pennsylvania State University, in the Journal of Eurasian Studies in 2011. “In fact Kyiv paid far less than even that, because much of the supply was simply given to Ukraine as ‘transit fees’ for gas being sent on to Western Europe. Also, Ukraine was allowed to fall far behind on even the limited payments it did owe, piling up a large debt to Russia.”

Putin shifted course after the Orange Revolution in 2005 led to the defeat of a Russian-leaning candidate. He sharply hiked prices (from $50 to about $235 per TCM) and cutting off gas shipments in 2006 and 2009. Presumably Putin’s accounting does not include the other side of the ledger, in which the country has been punished by Putin’s anger at its shift toward democracy and the West.

“Putin’s claim sounds wildly exaggerated to me," Newnham told The Fact Checker, though saying data is sparse. He noted that from 2004 to 2010, Russian sanctions deeply harmed the Ukrainian economy, with energy prices spiking 500 percent, which he said helped elect a Russian-leaning leader, Viktor Yanukovych. The sanctions eased briefly until Yanukovych was forced out in 2013. “This was of course repeated from 2014 on, which sort of explains the dates Putin uses in the statement you quote,” he said.

“By the end of 1991, the USSR owed some $100 billion to other countries and international funds. Initially, there was this idea that all former Soviet republics will pay back these loans together, in the spirit of solidarity and proportionally to their economic potential. However, Russia undertook to pay back all Soviet debts and delivered on this promise by completing this process in 2017.”

The Soviet Union had borrowed heavily in the 1980s, and then oil prices collapsed. By 1989, the Soviet economy had stalled completely, loans had dried up and a desperate Mikhail Gorbachev pleaded for loans from the West. When the Russian Federation was created, it was relatively debt-free, but after difficult negotiations with other former Soviet republics in 1993, the Kremlin accepted a “zero option” formula in which it acquired all of the assets and liabilities of the former Soviet Union.

That was about $100 billion in external debt and $7.5 billion of usable reserves plus assets such as real estate abroad, stockpiles of precious metals and claims on other countries. “The value of the stockpile of precious metals was rumored to be quite high,” noted a 2003 report on Russia’s debt. As usual, Putin provides just one side of the ledger.

“Radical nationalists took advantage of the justified public discontent and saddled the Maidan protest, escalating it to a coup d’etat in 2014. They also had direct assistance from foreign states. According to reports, the U.S. Embassy provided $1 million a day to support the so-called protest camp on Independence Square in Kyiv.”

When Putin refers to a 2014 coup d’etat, that’s his description of the protests that erupted in Ukraine after Yanukovych refused to sign a political association and free-trade agreement with the European Union. After months of protests, he was impeached and fled the country.

The United States was certainly publicly supportive of pro-Western demonstrators, but we can find no “reports” — except Russian news articles on Putin’s speech — that confirm that the U.S. Embassy provided such astronomical sums to the protesters.

Interestingly, $1 million a day would be a sharp decrease in what the Russians used to claim. In 2014, RT, the Russian propaganda channel, twisted a statement by a State Department official to claim that the United States had spent $5 billion to support the protests. The official, in 2013, had referred to $5 billion in U.S. aid given to Ukraine since it became independent in 1991.

“The United States directly controls the National Agency on Corruption Prevention, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the High Anti-Corruption Court.”

The United States, as part of an international effort to combat corruption in Ukraine, has provided funding to assist corruption-fighting units in the country. But, contrary to Putin’s claim, it does not control these entities.

“Since 2014, a major focus of anti-corruption reforms has been the establishment of three related institutions: the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), an investigative body; the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO); and the High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC),” the congressional Research Service said in a 2021 report. “A fourth anti-corruption institution, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), oversees a system of public disclosure and verification of government officials’ assets and incomes.”

“United States’ assistance and advisory programs support these strategic reform initiatives,” said a joint statement on the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership issued by the White House in September.

In 2016, for instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) granted the Eurasia Foundation a five-year $13 million award for its Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration and Services (TAPAS), a six-year, $30.5 million program, which says it provides “technical assistance and training that enables the government of Ukraine to implement visible and successful reforms in public administration and services to greatly reduce corruption.”

“While the project is managed by Eurasia Foundation, it is delivered in close collaboration with and through local partners,” noted George Ingram, a former USAID administrator, in 2019, describing one aid package. “In Ukraine, the project is staffed almost entirely by Ukrainian nationals who deliver technical assistance directly together with five local Ukrainian organizations. As a result, the project will leave behind considerable local capacity upon completion.”

“As we know, it has already been stated today that Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons, and this is not just bragging.”

This is sheer fantasy. There is no evidence that Ukraine wants to develop nuclear weapons — or that it even has the capacity to do so, given the ruined state of the economy.

There was a cache of more than 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s soil when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That made Ukraine instantly the world’s third biggest nuclear power, with more weapons than Britain, France and China combined. But the country gave up the stockpile for what seemed like a good deal at the time. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Russia, along with the United States and Britain, agreed to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine’s joining the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Now that Russia has essentially ripped up the Budapest Memorandum, some Ukrainians have wondered whether it was a bad bargain. “Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third nuclear capability,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech this month at the Munich Security Conference. “We don’t have that weapon. We also have no security.”

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