“Ukraine has always aspired to liberty; but being surrounded by Muscovy, the dominions of the Grand Seignior, and Poland, it has been obliged to choose a protector, and consequently a master, in one of these three states. The Ukranians at first put themselves under the protection of the Poles who treated them with great severity. They afterwards submitted to the Russians who governed them with despotic sway.”
Voltaire – History of Charles XII (1721)
The Russian onslaught rages on, with missiles falling on the cities of Vinnytsia, Kramatorsk, Mykolaiv, Dnipro, Bakhmut and many others. These names stay with us for a brief moment, they enter and leave our heads as the reports flow on. Thus follows another shopping mall, another residential area, another red blur next to a baby carrier, leaving little to the imagination as to what the East faces daily. As we enter the fifth month of the 72 hour “special military operation”, the purpose of these attacks is clear: to cause as much death and terror as possible, rushing the capitulation of Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. Since February 24th, over 17 thousand Russian attacks were directed at civilians. Only 300 hit military targets. Maybe there’s an alternate dimension where one is brave enough to call this terrorism. Perhaps if Russia wasn’t a nuclear power, or if Russia didn’t possess a permanent seat on the Security Council, inherited from the empire that, alongside Belarus and Ukraine, it destroyed from within in 1991.
Let us, at first, entertain the possibility of a Russian victory in Ukraine. What would follow would be this country’s “denazification”. Or, as revealed on an accidentally published article on the website RIA Novosti, two days after the invasion began: the “resolution of the Ukrainian question”. While the West-bound propaganda consists in morose sermons against Kyiv’s Nazi hordes and NATO’s territorial expansion, gladly regurgitated by useful idiots on both extremes of the political spectrum, one accidental click was enough to expose that the pseudo-tsar had no clothes, only two days after his most valorous campaign. Inebriated on an illusion of grandeur that compels him to carve his name next to History’s great conquerors, Vladimir Putin sees himself as the new Peter, the Great. The collector of lands, the avenger of the catastrophe of the 90s. Therefore, Western complains, sanctions, Russian casualties quickly swept away through mobile crematoria, the death and suffering of the Ukrainians, all of this are mere sacrifices to endure in the name of the ultimate prize: the return of the Empire and the reunification of the three peoples – Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians – happily under the Kremlin’s boot. No part of this is news, but some shock is understandable. At a certain distance, with enough time, deaths turn into statistics and imperial brutality becomes normalized. Naturally, the details of the history and politics of both Russia and Ukraine are too complex to be credibly condensed in a short article. However, that shouldn’t stop an attempt to understand the motives behind Europe’s first large scale war since World War II.
A thousand years ago, in 988, the Great Prince of the Kyivan Rus’, Vladimir, converted himself and his subjects to Christianity. In return, he was granted in marriage the hand of the sister of Basil II, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Christianization of Kyiv set the stage for profound cultural and religious ties between this kingdom and Constantinople. It is from this event that Putin, another Vladimir, conjures a historical narrative to justify a sort of “union” between the aforementioned three Slavic peoples. Through a five-thousand-word essay published in 2021, one can comprehend the mindset that led to the atrocities in Bucha: a tyrant’s obsession in cementing his legacy as the rebuilder of the Russian Empire. Putin builds upon the irredentist thesis of the Triune Nation, according to which Russia is composed by three sub-nations – Great Russia (Velikorossiya, Russia), Little Russia (Malorossiya, Ukraine) and White Russia (Belorossiya, Belarus). In 1547, Ivan IV of Moscow was crowned as “Tsar of All Russia” and this theory started gaining traction in the 17th century, with the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between Russia, Prussia and Austria. While most of the actual Ukraine became under Russian control, the westmost region of Galicia was incorporated in the Habsburg Empire. This allowed more autonomy for its Ukrainian population, both due to the territory’s extreme poverty and the need to counter the influence of Polish minorities.
On the other hand, this “union of peoples” in practice consisted in Russia’s imperial and colonial dominion over the remaining two. Just like we see today in the occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, an impressive effort has been made to suppress Ukrainian language and culture over the last 4 centuries. Some examples follow. In 1720, Peter the Great forbade the publishing of books in Ukrainian and subjected them to government censorship in the following year. Nine years later, Peter II made Russian the official government language and ordered the rewriting of all documentation previously issued in Ukrainian. Catherine the Great banned the Ukrainian language in the historic Kyiv-Mohlya college and, in 1764, began the “russification” of Finland, Ukraine and the Baltics. Thus, Russian became the mandatory language in all the Empire’s churches and all Ukrainian-speaking schools were banned. In 1847, two years after its foundation, Russia dismantled the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a secret political society led by Ukrainian revivalists like Nikolay Kostomarov, Mikhailo Hrushevski, Pantaleimon Kulish and the poet Taras Shevshenko. The Valuev Circular of 1863 forbade many religious and educational publications, affirming that “a singular Little Russian language never existed, does not exist and shall never exist”. These policies of suppression perpetuated until the final days of the monarchy, with Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. After a brief experience as an independent state between 1918 and 1921, Ukraine was forcibly incorporated in the recently consolidated Soviet Union. Again, its cultural autonomy was seen as a threat by the Kremlin. While Lenin promoted a period of cultural liberalization from 1923 onwards, the rise of Stalin gave way to renewed, massive repression. Holodomor, the Soviet-led hunger policy implemented between 1932 and 1933, sought the obliteration of the farmers that opposed collectivization, of the autocephalous Orthodox Church and of Ukrainian political and cultural elites, to be replaced by non-Ukrainians.
The invasion of Ukraine is, therefore, the logical conclusion of the putinist propaganda machine’s effort to drown Russia’s population in a sea of deception. A lot is said about “Russian interests”, but as historian Nikolay Koposov writes, Russia as a country, as a set of human beings, does not possess the needed “subjectivity” to define common interests. In other words, by controlling the flow of information and maintaining a sort of state cult based in the fabulation of History, Putin actively seeks to dilute the very concept of truth and claims for himself the right to speak in his nation’s name. What is today defined as “putinism” is merely an amalgam of narratives of historical greatness, hand-picked to legitimize Vladimir Putin and his clique of oligarchs. As previously stated, Putin’s ethno-nationalism takes its roots in the Kyivan Rus’ and Prince Vladimir’s conversion, but where does that leave Nazism and “denazification”? For that, we need to expand upon Russia’s state-run victory cult. As explained by journalist Kamil Galeev, the Soviet failure in establishing the classless society foretold by Marx and Engels – despite Khrushchev’s prediction that it would be reached by the 1960s – led that Brezhnev relocated his regime’s legitimacy in its victory over Nazi Germany. The chaos of the 1990s allowed Putin’s rise and his reappropriation of the victory cult. Once again, the future was sacrificed on the altar of an idyllic past, in which Glorious Mother Russia single-handedly saved the world from the great evil of Nazism. One can, thusly, ignore the USSR’s role in rebuilding the postwar German war machine and its active collaboration with Hitler until 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. One can also ignore the 160 million dollars provided by the American Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union. One can, lastly, justify the darker aspects of the occupation of Eastern Europe during the Cold War, like the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or the 1961 Prague Spring. After all, why should these countries complain? They should be thankful for the Russian people’s heroism during the Great Patriotic War.
Special emphasis on “Russian”, for the soldiers of the remaining Soviet Republics (including Ukraine) and the myriad of ethnic minorities that fought and died during the war very conveniently stop mattering. This is crucial in two ways. First, while the West insists on giving a platform only to the inhabitants of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most Russian casualties in Ukraine come from peripheric regions, like Dagestan in the Caucasus or Buryatia next to Mongolia. Data from the independent Russian organization Mediazona show that, of the almost four thousand soldiers dead since the conflict began, 207 come from Dagestan, 164 from Buryatia and 125 and 120 from Volgograd and Krasnodar respectively, also from the Caucasus. Moscow and Saint Petersburg, in turn, only show 8 and 26 casualties. This disproportionality stems from a larger population growth in these regions (contrasting with the steep decline felt by Russia over the last three decades), their low wages and quality of life, as young men without any future perspectives look to the army for opportunity. Second, since the victory cult makes any and all action taken by the Kremlin legitimate, logic follows that it also grants them the right to designate all their enemies as “Nazis”. Volodymyr Zelensky leads a far-right Nazi regime. Him being a native Russian speaker of Jewish descent is irrelevant, for Hitler himself shared Jewish blood. At least, according to Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister. Only by understanding and accepting the Russian concept of Nazi – he who refuses the Kremlin’s imperial, infallible will – is this absurdity justifiable.
Let Putin’s intentions be clear: the eradication of Ukraine as a political and cultural entity separate from Moscow and Russia’s reaffirmation as a geopolitical superpower through military means. In practice, this implies the return of the right of conquest, reversing the tendency of International Law during the 20th century of direct opposition towards this principle. As of now, the best examples of recent wars of conquest had been the invasion and annexation of Portuguese Timor by Indonesia, in 1975, and of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990. In both cases, strong international pressure led to the frustration of both projects. As Ukraine is concerned, its fate would depend on Russia’s capability in controlling its over 600 000 square kilometers of territory. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and “separatist” uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk, one of the favorite topics of Russian state propaganda has been the hypothetical partition or annexation of Ukraine, whether it should be contained to Galicia or partially incorporated through imperialist daydreams like Novorossiya (name given to a strip of land in southern Ukraine, during Catherine’s reign) or Malorossiya (a “federation”, proposed in 2017 by Alexandr Zakharchenko, the previous leader of the Donetsk puppet republic, comprising all of Ukraine sans Crimea).
At the same time, the illusion that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict will not go beyond the borders of both states is starting to crumble. The Russian blockade of the Black Sea ports, in the words of the executive director of the World Food Program, risks becoming “a declaration of war to global food security. Ten days after its closing due to maintenance reasons, the very controversial pipeline Nord Stream 1 resumed its flow of natural gas to Europe. However, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, were forced to state the obvious and prepare for the worst. If, in fact, the tap is ever closed for good, the most obvious consequences shall be an intensification of European dependence both of fossil fuels and of autocracies such as the Gulf states or Azerbaijan, to counter the incoming energetic earthquake, as well as renewed political polarization and rising appeals to give in to the Kremlin’s blackmail, creating dents in the international collaboration around the military and economic aid provided to Kyiv. Then, peace in our time would follow, just like Czechoslovakia felt after Munich. “Peace” would then spread to Taiwan, coveted by mainland China, and possibly to Moldova and even to NATO allies like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
All these scenarios however, all of them, depend entirely on the Atlantic Alliance’s inaction. In no way is a nuclear conflict with apocalyptical results for all mankind desirable, still it is wrong to assume that the West already exhausted all its options to deal with an ever more aggressive Russia. As Dan Altman points out on Foreign Affairs, the United States overcame the Cold War’s bigger crises – the 1948 Berlin blockade and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – by taking risks without directly crossing any red lines. The same should be applied to the invasion of Ukraine. In this logic, all arbitrary restrictions to the sending of conventional arms to Ukraine should be lifted, economic sanctions (especially in the energy and finance sectors) should be tightened and, in Altman’s view, soldiers and veterans should be encouraged and equipped to form voluntary corps to fight under the Ukrainian sigil and command structure. To conclude, Vladimir Putin presents himself as an example of political realism distilled to its most barbarous aspect, a gangster that violates all international norms and treaties at will. What he respects, as one of his bigger political opponents, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, states, is strength. The expansion of NATO, constrained by Russia’s false entitlement to its own sphere of influence, was materialized by the eventual entry of Sweden and Finland. Since Putin loves making up historical motives for military aggression, why haven’t bombs fallen on Helsinki, a former Russian city, or Stockholm, Peter’s nemesis in the Great Northern War, like they have on Ukraine? The answer is clear, these countries willingly rejected Russian posturing and NATO answered the call. The West showed strength and Russia folded. Unlike with Ukraine, where Macron and Schulz publicly called for Putin not to be humiliated. As the war rages on and as we all should know by now, this line of thinking is what is seen by Russia as a provocation and as an invite for future escalation.