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Putin emerges as a winner in Washington's Ukraine turmoil

Moscow(CNN) US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's announcement of a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Tuesday has set the stage for an intensely partisan fight in Washington.

Regardless of the outcome, one clear winner seems to be emerging from scandal over Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky that is engulfing the administration: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin thus far has refrained from commenting on the Beltway political crisis. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesperson, said Tuesday Moscow was simply "observing another series of internal American political frictions," almost as if he were describing a new season of "House of Cards."

But Putin is not a passive observer in the Ukraine drama. At the center of the political storm in Washington is a major allegation: That Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless it opened an investigation into Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and his son.

We now know that Trump ordered a hold on nearly $400 million of military and security aid to Ukraine roughly one week before a call with Zelensky.

While we can't read Putin's mind, we can safely guess that the news of a possible postponement on military assistance to Ukraine must have been welcome.

"They are definitely [thinking] open the champagne, for them it is the best way to drive a wedge in our unique and I really mean unique, bipartisan support for Ukraine," former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told CNN. "The US for all the past five years has been the most important ally, not only in the sense of military aid, not only in the sense of pressure and sanctions but fundamentally leading the international community, so now the Russians should be crazy happy about it."

For starters, it's worth remembering that Putin is on the opposite side of a proxy conflict with Zelensky. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and has backed separatist rebels in the Donbas region of Ukraine's east.

The burst of patriotic fervor that accompanied the annexation of Crimea gave Putin a massive popularity boost. And the so-called Crimea "reunification" appeared to be part of a larger project for the Kremlin leader: Counteracting the breakup of the Soviet Union, something Putin has called the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

On many occasions, Putin has made it clear he does not consider Ukraine to be a legitimate state.

The independent Ukraine that appeared on the map in 1991 emerged from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the USSR. The Ukrainian SSR was one of the main battlefields of World War II. Its western and southern boundary was expanded after the war to include portions of prewar Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland. In 1954, Soviet leadership transferred Crimea from Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR, an internal boundary shift that would have fateful consequences for independent Ukraine.

In a June interview with American film director Oliver Stone, Putin said he thought the reunion of Russia and Ukraine was "inevitable."

And, in a lengthy historical digression, Putin talked in imperial terms about Ukrainian identity.

"For example, I believe that Russians and Ukrainians are actually one people," Putin said.

"One people, two nations?" responded Stone.

"One nation, in fact," said Putin. "These lands that are now the core of Ukraine, joined Russia, there were just three regions -- Kiev, the Kiev region, northern and southern regions -- nobody thought themselves to be anything but Russians, because it was all based on religious affiliation," he said. "They were all Orthodox and they considered themselves Russians. They did not want to be part of the Catholic world, where Poland was dragging them."

What Putin failed to mention, however, is that Ukraine now has the experience of more than a quarter of a century of statehood that has solidified a new national identity. Many of the soldiers who are fighting against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine speak Russian. Zelensky, Ukraine's new president, shot to fame in a primarily Russian-language TV comedy. Their choice of language does not make them any less Ukrainian.

That linguistic complexity, in part, explains Ukrainian sensitivity about how the country is described and named.

For instance, there's the nagging issue of the term traditionally used in English to describe the historic territory known as "the Ukraine." Ukrainians insist that "the" diminishes their country's status as an independent state called Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Russian do not have definite articles, but Ukrainians also insist on a point of grammar to reflect the same distinction: They use the preposition "в" to say "in Ukraine" -- в Україні in Ukrainian, в Украине in Russian.

Even the transliteration of Zelensky's name in English is a matter of politics. His administration declared the preferred transliteration of his name to be the more precise Zelenskyy. But he also uses the transliteration Zelenskiy on his official Instagram account. Both are more rigorously Ukrainian transliterations. (CNN uses the simplified transliteration "Zelensky").

And, of course, the fact that the Ukraine scandal in Washington centers around corruption must also be music to Putin's ears.

Ukraine has struggled -- as have most post-Soviet states -- with the corrosive legacy of totalitarian rule. The country is still plagued with official corruption and a weak tradition of rule of law.

The debate in Washington -- which casts Ukraine as a corrupt, dysfunctional place -- allows Moscow to play up a favorite official theme: Ukraine's shift away from the Russia orbit has led only to chaos, poverty, and conflict.

Never mind that Ukraine -- unlike Putin's Russia -- recently has seen peaceful handover of power to a new president. For Putin, the Ukraine mess in the US is another chance to remind a Russian audience that there is no alternative to his form of authoritarian rule.

With reporting by CNN's Matthew Chance in Kiev.
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