By massing troops near Ukraine, the Kremlin has signaled one core conviction: Russia cares more about the fate of its southwestern neighbor than the West ever will.
In speeches, interviews and lengthy articles, President Vladimir V. Putin and his close associates have telegraphed a singular fixation on the former Soviet republic. The Kremlin thesis goes that Ukrainians are “one people” with Russians, living in a failing state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.
Ukrainians, who ousted a Russia-friendly president in 2014 and are increasingly in favor of binding their country to Western institutions, would largely beg to differ. But Mr. Putin’s conviction finds a receptive ear among many Russians, who see themselves as linked intimately with Ukraine by generations of linguistic, cultural, economic, political and family ties.
Russians often view Kyiv, now the Ukrainian capital and once the center of the medieval Kyivan Rus, as the birthplace of their nation. Well-known Russian-language writers, such as Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov, came from Ukraine, as did the Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Ukrainian is Ukraine’s official language, but Russian — which is closely related — is still widely spoken. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, now speaks Ukrainian in public but first gained fame as a Russian-language comedian who performed across the former Soviet Union.
Millions of Russians and Ukrainians have family members in one another’s countries, in part a product of migration during the Soviet era, when Ukraine was an industrial powerhouse. For instance, Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader imprisoned earlier this year, spent childhood summers in Ukraine, the birthplace of his father. While he is a critic of Mr. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, Mr. Navalny in 2014 said he disagreed with Ukrainians “to whom it is a matter of principle to prove that we are different peoples.”
“I don’t see any difference between Russians and Ukrainians, none at all,” he said in a radio interview then.
To Mr. Putin — and many other Russians — the conflict with Ukraine is about a hurt national psyche, a historical injustice to be set right. One of his former advisers, Gleb O. Pavlovsky, in an interview described the Kremlin’s view of Ukraine as a “trauma wrapped in a trauma” — the dissolution of the Soviet Union coupled with the separation of a nation Russians long viewed as simply an extension of their own.
But to many Ukrainians, Mr. Putin’s appeal to a shared history is little but a hollow attempt to appropriate the country’s own heritage and justify territorial ambitions.
“They stole our past,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a pro-Western think tank in Kyiv. “Now they’re trying to steal our future.”