Photo Ukraine map
By Gordon M. Hahn

An unconfirmed myth that at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest Russian President Vladimir Putin told the US President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a state.” This has become part of legend, coming into higher demand since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis last year. It was last mentioned in The National on August 17th. (Stephen Blackewell, “Putin is prepared to alienate the West to suit his agenda,” The National, 17 August 2014, www.thenational.ae/putin-is-prepared-to-alienate-the-west-to-suit-his-agenda).

The original claim that Putin made such a statement was published in the Russian media, citing an unidentified source. Thus, Time reported in May 2009 that, “In April 2008, a source told Russia’s Kommersant newspaper how Putin described Ukraine to George Bush at a NATO meeting in Bucharest: ‘You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us’” (Time, 25 May 2009, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1900838,00.html).

The original Kommersant article covered Putin’s comments in a speech at a closed NATO-Russia Council meeting held after the general meeting on April 5th.  Putin was not invited to speak at the general meeting and thus did not attend. Then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushenko was invited to speak and did so. The original Kommersant article cites an unidentified “source in the delegation of one of the NATO countries” as its documentation of Putin’s remark. The section covering Putin’s alleged statement reads: “Turning to Bush, he (Putin) said: ‘You do understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? A part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but a part, a significant (part) was given as a gift from us.’ And here he (Putin) very transparently implied that if Ukraine is all the same accepted into NATO, (then) this state will simply cease its existence. That is, he (Putin) in fact threatened that Russia can begin to tear away Crimea and Eastern Ukraine” (Olga Allyonova, Yelena Geda, and Vladimir Novikov, “Blok NATO razosholsya na blokpakety,” Kommersant, 7 April 2008, www.kommersant.ru/doc/877224). To reiterate, the claim that Putin said this comes from an unidentified source who was in the delegation of an unidentified NATO member-state. There is no claim in the article that the authors sought corroboration from another source.

On the day after the Kommersant publication, the claim went global at least in the Western press. For example, The Moscow Times published an article signed ‘Unknown’ under the title “Putin Hints at Splitting Up Ukraine,” in which it related as fact the conjecture from the undisclosed source. The Moscow Times referred to the source as “an unidentified foreign delegate” (‘of a NATO country’ was left out) and quickly promoted him in the next sentence to “diplomat.” The relevant section of the article reads:

“President Vladimir Putin hinted at last week’s NATO summit in Romania that Russia would work to break up Ukraine, should the former Soviet republic join the military alliance, Kommersant reported Monday. Putin ‘lost his temper’ at the NATO-Russia Council in Bucharest during Friday’s discussions of Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, Kommersant cited an unidentified foreign delegate to the summit as saying. ‘Do you understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state!’ Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush at the closed meeting, the diplomat told Kommersant. After saying most of Ukraine’s territory was ‘given away’ by Russia, Putin said that if Ukraine joined NATO it would cease to exist as a state, the diplomat said. Putin threatened to encourage the secession of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where anti-NATO and pro-Moscow sentiment is strong, the diplomat said, Kommersant reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who accompanied Putin at the summit, said Monday he did not hear Putin’s purported remarks about Ukraine and could not confirm the report.” (Unknown, “Putin Hints at Splitting Up Ukraine,” Moscow Times, 8 April 2008, www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/putin-hints-at-splitting-up-ukraine/361701.html). Thus, MT broke up Putin’s sentences as reported by the ‘diplomat’ and inserted presuppositions from which inferences would be made in order to give the statement a more sinister veneer, with Putin appearing to directly threaten that Russian actions would aim to dismember Ukraine.

Equally as interesting is that MT sought to corroborate the source’s information only with Putin’s presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov and not with other members of NATO member-state’s delegations present at the speech. Peskov “said Monday he did not hear Putin’s purported remarks about Ukraine and could not confirm the report,” MT reported (“Putin Hints at Splitting Up Ukraine,” Moscow Times, 8 April 2008, www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/putin-hints-at-splitting-up-ukraine/361701.html).

As far as I am able to confirm, Putin has never refuted the claim in the Kommersant report. Niether Bush nor anyone else has confirmed or denied the report.

Therefore, these reports might have been part of a strategic communication (stratcomm) or propaganda operation. Since most reporters and news writers do not read or speak Russian, they would be forced to rely on the MT version of the event and so it has been repeated many times without an effort to corroborate.

If you are wondering whether stratcomm ops are relevant to the present Ukraine crisis, you might look at a recent event involving Radek Sikorski. In October of last year Sikorski was caught lying about the very same Ukraine. In a Politico article, Ben Judah joyously reported that Sikorski told him in an interview that in a meeting with Polish President Donald Tusk, Putin had proposed Poland and Russia divide Ukraine between themselves – ala the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This fit nicely into the ‘Russia as the USSR of today’ narrative. Soon Tusk said that no such conversation took place, and Sikorski was forced to retract his words. He had been once been a leading candidate for the position of NATO Secretary General.

To conclude, it is very likely that Sikorki was Kommersant’s ‘unidentified member of a delegation of a NATO member-country’ in 2008, that his claim regarding Putin’s ‘Ukraine is not even a state’ remark was false, and that he was carrying out a stratcomm op to discredit Putin and heighten urgency regarding Georgia’s and Ukraine’s entries into NATO.