On February 20, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an interview to TASS, where he responded in depth to 20 questions posed by his interviewer, Andrei Vandenko. One of these questions concerned Russia's relations with the Ukraine. In the interview, Putin made many controversial statements about the historical relations between the two countries. Inter alia he claimed that Russians and Ukrainians were one people and this unity had been fractured by foreign powers, who sought to pull the countries apart in order to gain a competitive advantage. A union between Russia and Ukraine would obviously strengthen both countries. These foreign powers were aided and abetted by Ukrainian leaders, who used power to line their pockets and then fobbed off the citizens with Russophobic rhetoric.
Naturally, these comments provoked a heated response in Ukraine from the country's current and former leadership. In Russia they also aroused debate with pro-Putin pundits defending the president's remarks, while liberal commentators challenged the remarks and the direction they portended. Below is the segment from the interview dealing with Ukraine and the responses that it elicited:
Putin plays 20 questions (Source: Online47.ru)
The TASS Interview
Vladimir Putin: Ukrainians [with an accent on the first a] were the people who lived on the frontiers of the Russian state. There were Ukrainians in Pskov; Ukrainians were the people who defended the southern frontiers from attacks by the Crimean khan. Ukrainians were in the Urals. Ukrainians were everywhere. We had no language differences.
Moreover, around the same time, before the 14th and 15th centuries, even those people, the east Slavs, who lived in the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – both in Muscovy and in Poland – were called Russians. The first language differences appeared much later…
Andrei Vandenko: History is history, but now we are talking about the present day.
Vladimir Putin: To talk about today or tomorrow we need to know history, need to know who we are, where do we come from, what unites us.
What unites us is…
Andrei Vandenko: Now many things divide us.
Vladimir Putin: Many things divide us. But we should not forget about things that unite us. And should not destroy what we have. For example, the Church. Why did one need to destroy the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church?
You know that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is in fact fully autonomous; it has been fully autonomous before, including in terms of the election of hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate has never had any influence on the election of hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In fact, it has always been independent, completely. There has been only spiritual unity and mentioning. The Patriarch of Moscow has been mentioned, recalled all the time in churches. That's it! It has been the only thing uniting the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. But they needed to cut the cords that bind. Why?
You say people do not understand. They simply do not know it. If they know, they will understand better. They should be told that. Why should one be embarrassed? Is it insulting for people?
Some time passed. As a result of people sharing the border with the Catholic world, with Europe, a community of people feeling to some extent independent from the Russian State began to emerge. How should we feel about that? I have already said: we should respect that. But we should not forget about our shared community.
Moreover, in the modern world our joint efforts give us huge competitive advantages. And, vice versa, division makes us weaker.
The Ukrainian factor was specifically played out on the eve of World War I by the Austrian special service. Why? It is well-known – to divide and rule. Absolutely clear.
Nevertheless, if it happened this way, and a big part of the Ukrainian population got a sense of their own national identity and so on, we should respect that. We should proceed from the reality but not forget who we are and where we come from.
By the way, the fathers of the Ukrainian nationalism, they never spoke about the urgent need to break up with Russia. Strange as it may seem, but their major works of the 19th century say that Ukraine is: a) multinational and should be a federal state, and b) should build good relations with Russia.
Today’s nationalists seem to have forgotten that. I will tell you why they have forgotten that. You know why? Because the interests of the Ukrainian people are not the main issue on their agenda.
How can it be the interest of the Ukrainian people if the break-up with Russia has led to loss of space engineering, shipbuilding, aircraft engineering and engine manufacturing; it is virtually the deindustrialization of the country that is happening. How can it be among interests?
The World Bank demands to stop cross-subsidizing. What's good in it? Or, they make them export round wood from the Carpathians. Soon the Carpathians will turn bald.
Why do this if, by joining efforts, we increase our competitive advantages manifold? Why lose it? Why throw everything away, what for?
Because the Ukrainian leaders or those who got power pursued their self-interests. And what were they? It was not even to earn more by robbing the Ukrainian people but to retain what has been plundered before. This was the main objective.
So, where is the ‘dough’? Pardon my French. Where is the money? In foreign banks. What do they need to do for this? Show that they serve those who have this money.
Hence, the only thing they sell is Russophobia. Because some like dividing Ukraine and Russia, they believe it's a very important mission. Because any integration of Russia and Ukraine, along with their capacities and competitive advantages, would lead to the emergence of a rival, a global rival for Europe and the world. No one wants it. That's why they'll do anything to pull us apart. 
Ukrainian Political Leaders Respond
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky was quick to respond to Putin and his office chose the pro-Trump Administration Washington Examiner as the place to reply: “Russian-Ukrainian relations should not be determined by the geopolitical ambitions of individual leaders...These relations are based on the relations of people who live, work, create, and strive for peace nearby on both sides of the border."
Zelensky also defended the decision to form a Ukrainian Church independent of the church in Moscow: "In Ukraine, the church and state are separate...The recent unification of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was a decision exclusively of the people, initiated by the congregation, according to the rules of the church and legalized by the church document, the Tomos."
Zelensky's predecessor Petro Poroshenko, who was on the receiving end of Putin's barbs gave as good as he got: "And his [Putin's] goal is to take not only Ukrainian land, but also the Ukrainian soul. In order to make sure that peace with Ukraine is not included in his plans, do not look into his eyes. Just listen to what he says."
Poroshenko in a topical comparison called Putin "a worse danger than the Coronavirus and therefore I advise the [Ukrainian] authorities not to remain silent.
Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov sought to make sense of Putin's comments without causing a diplomatic incident. Asked by journalists what Putin meant when he said that Russia and Ukraine are being “pulled apart” to prevent unification, Peskov responded: "The head of state had in mind a circle of countries that have consistently sought to ensure that relations between Russia and Ukraine are maintained in their current deplorable state." At the same time, Peskov emphasized that he did not want to name these countries specifically.
Others were less reticent about naming the trouble-makers who spoiled relations between Moscow and Kiev. Leonid Slutsky, who chairs the Duma's International Affairs Committee tweeted:
"The reason for Zelensky’s objections to 'geopolitical ambitions' in relations with Russia is simple: Ukraine since 2014 has become a pawn in the US geopolitical game. And the longer Kiev will "trade in Russophobia", the more it will miss out on a joint competitive advantage in tandem with the Russian Federation.
Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies, also blamed the Americans: "“Of course, this in fact is what happened, the West, and in particular the USA, played a major role for many years by funding and actively working with youth towards creating an atmosphere to estrange Ukraine from Russia and cause separation. Yes, this is a strategic goal – to prevent rapprochement, but on the contrary, to exploit Ukraine. And the way you can exploit Ukraine - is by fostering nationalist, anti-Russian sentiment, in Ukraine. This was successfully done and and still continues to work. “
The West adopted a divide and rule policy because like Putin it realized that Russia and Ukraine acting in unison was a game changer: “The West is not interested in this combination of efforts, coordination, and active cooperation, since, in a certain sense, Ukraine, actively cooperating with Russia in various fields, of course, strengthens Russia's potential in some areas and creates additional competitive advantages in world markets. This applies to space and weapons and much more."
Viktor Mironenko, head of the Center for Ukrainian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe, argued that Putin was merely voicing an objective opinion that was shared by Western experts: "Our president is not original, before him this idea was expressed quite a long time ago by a well-known Sovietologist who was well versed in our situation. His name was Zbigniew Brzezinski. And then he said bluntly that the point is not that Russia without Ukraine will be weaker, but the fact is that Russia without Ukraine is a different country. And in this regard, I think, both he and Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] were absolutely right. ” 
Liberal Russians Voice Understanding For The Ukrainian Position
Journalist Nicolai Svanidze, interviewed by Alexei Narishkin on the Echo of Moscow radio station accused Putin of mustering only the historical facts that fortified his position while disregarding less convenient facts. There was no dominant Russian culture and there were many tribes and linguistic groups. As for the bad state of relations with Kiev, Svanidze believed Russia was mainly to blame:
"'And how do you feel about the relationship [between Russia and Ukraine] being messed up.' Naturally the answer is: 'I feel bad about it' But where does this bad relationship derive from? Bad relations ensued since the annexation of Crimea. It is difficult to expect from the country from which you take a piece ... Crimea belonged to Ukraine - now it belongs to Russia. And it’s hard after such a ... to expect that Ukraine will react to this normally and will love you like its own kin.
" The vast majority of modern Ukrainians not only had no idea about the 'subversive activities of the Austrian General Staff' and the work of the founding fathers of Ukrainian nationalism, but also exhibited an exceptionally benign and in many cases truly brotherly attitude to Russia. This attitude was torn to shreds not by Austrian spies and Bandera nationalists, but by the Kremlin's master, who stole the Crimea and unleashed a bloody massacre in the Donbass, which claimed the lives of more than 13 thousand Ukrainians, crippled the lives of more than 30 thousand inhabitants of Ukraine, and turned several million people into refugees."
"...The strategic goal of Vladimir Putin is the unification of Russia and Ukraine...
"Although in recent years Putin has regularly spoken out about Russians and Ukrainians, about the so-called “single people”, about relations between the two countries, nevertheless, until yesterday, it seems, he has never yet so openly formulated his main strategic goal. Now it’s not just Sevastopol and Crimea, not some Lugandonia, not even New Russia and the Black Sea region, now it’s the unification of Russia and all of Ukraine."
Andrey Illarianov (Source: Inosim.ru)
 Kremlin.ru, February 21, 2020.
 Washingtonexaminer.com, February 22, 2020.
 Iz.ru, February 21, 2020.
 Strana.ua, February 22, 2020.
 Mk.ru, February 21,2020; Rosbalt.ru, February 21, 2020.
 Twitter.com/l_Slutsky, February 22, 2020.
 Gazeta.ru, February 21, 2020.
 Gazeta.ru, February 21, 2020.
 Echo.msk,ru, February 21, 2020.
 Echo.msk,ru, February 22, 2020.