Debates over language in Ukraine intensified after a 2014 pro-EU revolution knocked Kiev out of Moscow’s orbit – Copyright AFP Javed TANVEER

Dmitri ZAKS

Kiev driving instructor Andriy Atamanyuk does not want to be saved by Vladimir Putin despite the Kremlin chief’s pledge to fight “discrimination” against Russian speakers in Ukraine.

“Never,” said the 48-year-old Ukrainian in Russian. “There is no one to save here. There is no discrimination. This is total nonsense.

The treatment of ethnic Russians – many of whom live in Ukraine’s industrial southeast – has been an obsession for Putin since a pro-EU revolution knocked Kiev out of Moscow’s orbit in 2014.

But the issue has captured attention as Putin attempts to reverse NATO’s post-Soviet expansion, sending more than 100,000 troops to Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Analysts and some Western governments fear Putin is using the language and perceived mistreatment of ethnic Russians as a pretext to launch an all-out war on Ukraine.

Atamanyuk too.

“These language fairy tales are just an excuse to invade,” he said. “There’s nothing for Putin to see here.”

– ‘Native country’ –

Ukrainian became the official language of the former Soviet republic when Mikhail Gorbachev embraced democratic freedoms in 1989.

The collapse of the USSR two years later created economic chaos of such magnitude that politically sensitive issues such as language became trivial in comparison and were pushed aside.

But the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the Moscow-backed revolt in eastern Ukraine that erupted around the same time have stoked patriotic passions and reopened old fault lines.

The Western-backed government in Kyiv has begun rolling out legislation to promote Ukrainian on television and in the streets.

And the Kremlin has begun to complain about the alleged persecution of ethnic Russians by an administration in Kiev which it presents alternately as a puppet of the American government and an offshoot of the neo-Nazis.

Russians “are not recognized as indigenous peoples in what is effectively their homeland,” Putin fumed earlier this month.

– “Hybrid war” –

The latest rules require Russian-language publications to publish Ukrainian editions of similar circulation and content.

The law particularly upsets Putin because it makes an exception for English-language media in Ukraine.

Human Rights Watch said the new law raises “concerns”.

But the New York-based rights group also stressed that “the Ukrainian government has every right to promote its state language and strengthen its national identity.”

Finding the difficult balance of doing this without provoking Putin is something IT entrepreneur and philanthropist Yevgeniy Utkin has been pondering for some time.

Utkin says he speaks Russian “as a matter of principle, because I like it a lot”.

But that didn’t stop him from serving as an adviser to the Ukrainian government or appearing on political talk shows.

“I never – not once – had a single incident related to speaking Russian,” Utkin said.

Yet he fears that any attempt to bolster the Ukrainian language will be seized upon by Putin and provide additional ammunition for the Kremlin media’s relentless attacks on Kyiv.

“Language is just another bullet in Russia’s Hybrid War,” Utkin said. “There is an information war going on in our heads.”

– Putin’s essay –

The Kremlin’s current standoff with the West intensified a few months after Putin penned a 7,000-word essay last July titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

“The formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us,” Putin said in the English version of the text.

The article was widely interpreted as Putin’s defining argument for stripping Ukraine of its independence and subjugating it to the power of the Kremlin.

It has also been set apart by historians as extremely inaccurate.

“Russian propaganda depends on myths and counterfactuals, all twisted in the direction of Russian greatness and innocence,” wrote Yale historian and author Timothy Snyder.

Many leading Ukrainian thinkers believe the two countries have moved too far apart to be joined by force.

“Freedom is now in the DNA of Ukrainians. And the problem is that the Russian elite doesn’t understand that,” Utkin said.

Best-selling Russian-language Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov summed it up along the same lines.

Russians subscribe to a “collective mentality”, he told AFP. “Ukrainians are individuals.”