06 June 2023
Ukraine War, a historical perspective

Ukraine War, a historical perspective

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is its latest ploy to attempt to control the former republics of the Soviet Union.

History is written all over the Ukraine war, and its conclusion will no doubt create more history, which will be studied for years and perhaps decades, according to Serhii Plokhy, perhaps the world’s leading professor of Ukrainian history.

Vladimir Putin wrote an essay on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians during the COVID-19 lockdowns. He believes that Ukrainians don’t exist as a people and shouldn’t exist as a nation. Thus, a key part of Putin’s justification for the war is to unite Ukrainians with Russians. He wanted to liberate the poor Ukrainians who were captured by evil forces, by Nazis and nationalists led by Ukrainian President Zelensky. Putin is simply weaponising history.

Although the Ukraine war is far from over, it seems clear that Ukraine will survive as an independent state, even if it cannot retain and regain all its territory. This would mean defeat for Putin’s Russia and its ambitions. Indeed, since World War 2, there has not been one single example of a great power winning a war against a rising nation – imperial powers like the UK, France, and Portugal have lost virtually all their colonies.

Origins of Ukrainian nationalism

Putin and many Russians trace their origins to the Kievan Rus, a medieval empire with its capital in Kyiv, the present-day capital of Ukraine. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin erected a statue in the very centre of Moscow of his namesake, Prince Volodymyr, who ruled in Kyiv. But Volodymyr was a Viking, and Kievan Rus was one of those polities created by Vikings all over Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be the equivalent of France and Britain invading Rome on the basis that they are the true descendants of the Roman empire!

Putin thought that his Ukrainian brothers and sisters would welcome Russian troops with flowers, since they are allegedly one and the same people. But this did not happen. One of the astonishing things about this war is that Russian troops have disproportionately killed Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity.

The origin of modern Ukrainian nationalism goes back to the Russian Empire of the 19th century. According to the dominant view in the Empire, a big Russian nation consisted of three tribes, great Russians, or today’s Russians, little Russians or Ukrainians, and White Russians or Belarusians. Although they all spoke somewhat different languages, they were all Russians, the big political Russian nation.

While the revolution of 1917 is called the Russian revolution, it was more properly the Revolution in the Russian Empire. Indeed, it was a social and political revolution. It brought an end to the old Russian Empire and its notion of a big Russian nation, and saw the creation of the Soviet Union.

Thus, Ukrainians and Belarusians were recognised as separate Soviet republics, even if they did not have much real political independence. The Revolution brought to power the Communist Party, which had the ambition of world revolution – including the possibility that the US would become one of the Soviet Socialist Republics.

But Putin is upset by Lenin’s reforms, and blames him for the creation of an independent Ukraine. Putin’s ideas go back to the Russian Empire and its imperial modes of thinking, not the Soviet Union. Putin is forever misusing history. World War 2 ultimately proved a great boon for the Soviet Union, as the Red Army ran over central Europe. Thus, Stalin was able to transform countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania into a Soviet sphere of influence of communist states.

Collapse of the Soviet Union and efforts to control post-Soviet space

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the loss of the Central European satellites rattled Russian elites. Russia lost lots of territory and its geopolitical status. Ukraine and other former republics of the Soviet Union became independent. However, this did not stop Boris Yelstin from trying to retain control of the former Soviet republics, even if Russia could no longer afford the subsidies of Soviet times.

In the Russian mind, independence of former Soviet republics was conditional on being allied with Russia, and not joining the West. Thus, an organisation, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), was created to maintain Russian influence and geopolitical control over the post-Soviet space. But there were immediately growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the largest republic in terms of population and economy, because Ukraine looked at the CIS as an institution to assure a civilised divorce.

When Putin became President in 2000, he realised that the CIS was not effective. He developed the Eurasian Economic Union, for which a treaty was signed on 29 May 2014 by the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, and came into force on 1 January 2015. But Putin’s initiatives are a mere continuation of Yeltsin’s mission to ensure Russian control over the post-Soviet space. Plokhy quite rightly argues that Ukraine’s drift towards the West, especially the EU, was a more likely motivation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than NATO. An Association Agreement with the EU prevented Ukraine’s participation in the Eurasian Economic Union, while at that point NATO membership for Ukraine was no longer on the horizon.

Ukraine’s democratic political trajectory

A significant development since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 has been its different trajectory from Russia. While the collapse of the Soviet Union was a great loss for the Russian elite, for Ukrainians it was a liberation and an opportunity to chart their own future. True statehood and independence gave them a sense of optimism. As Russia took a more authoritarian turn under Putin, Ukraine’s burgeoning democracy was reflected in the popular uprising known as the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013/14. In contrast to Russia, Ukraine has a vibrant civil society. At the time of the Orange Revolution, President Leonid Kuchma wrote the book, “Ukraine is not Russia”, with the Kremlin as his target audience.

Ukraine’s democracy may have many shortcomings, but it is classed a “hybrid regime” by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2022 Democracy Index, with a ranking of 87th out of the 167 countries covered. It has relatively high scores for political participation, electoral process and pluralism, and political culture components. Ukraine is one of the very few post-Soviet states to maintain a functional democracy. In sharp contrast, the EIU ranks authoritarian Russia 146th. Indeed, the evidence shows that civic nationalism is driving Ukraine’s resistance to Russia, meaning the country’s shared democratic values, rather than ethnic identity based on language or religion.

Plokhy addresses the perennial issue of the role of the US and NATO in this conflict. One important reality is that, following its independence, the US pressured Ukraine to return to Russia the nuclear arsenal that it inherited from the Soviet Union. In exchange, Russia, the UK and the US signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum consisting of a series of political assurances whereby the signatory states commit to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”. But the meaning of the security assurances was left ambiguous.

Despite giving up its nuclear shield, Ukraine was denied a firm invitation to join NATO in 2008. France and Germany buckled to Russian pressure, leaving Ukraine exposed to Russian invasion, which in reality began in 2014 in Crimea and the Donbas. In sum, Yelstin’s promises in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum turned out worthless in the hands of Putin. This highlights why the expansion of NATO has been more driven by Central European countries and their fear of Russia, than American pushiness. And it obviously casts severe doubts on the value of any potential promises made by Russia in the context of a resolution of the Ukraine war.

Disintegration of the Russian empire

From a historical perspective, the Russian invasion of Ukraine must be seen as a part of the story of the disintegration of the Russian empire – like the disintegration of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, Portuguese and other empires before it. But the Russian political elite have great difficulty in accepting this, in adjusting to the reality of a post-imperial world, where nations have the right to choose their own destiny. It harbours a nostalgia for past greatness which easily inspires revanchism.

As history shows, the disintegration of empires can take decades, even centuries, but is an inevitable process. Any Western efforts to placate or appease Russia to bring an end to this war will only delay this disintegration process, and cause even greater pain for all involved.

We don’t know how the war will end, and all kinds of nightmare scenarios, including nuclear war, are possible. But Plokhy’s confidence that Ukraine will survive as a state is plausible – and as he argues, this will represent a victory for the Ukrainian state and people. And one ironic consequence of Russia’s invasion is that once the war is over, Kyiv will join the military alliance.


This article by John West was first published by Unravel on 6 June 2023.
Tags: asia, ukraine war

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