Putin, Russia, and Ukraine: Historical Roots of a Tragedy

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Putin, Russia, and Ukraine: Historical Roots of a Tragedy

When Vladimir Putin channeled history in his Feb. 21 speech justifying Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, many Western critics dismissed his remarks as a pack of lies, the ravings of a delusional madman. But things are not always as simple as they seem. While many of the claims Putin made to justify his aggression are dubious, others are not, and it is worth unpacking those to better understand how we arrived at this terrible juncture.

To begin with, despite the long and varied history of Ukrainians as a people, Putin’s assertion that “modern Ukraine” was created by “Bolshevik-Communist Russia” is basically true, as are his aspersions against Vladimir Lenin as the main “creator and architect,” although Putin oddly left out Lenin’s German connections. It is an awkward fact that Lenin first came to the attention of the Central Powers in 1914, when he was agitating amongst Ukrainians in Poronin, near Cracow in what is now Poland but was then Austro-Hungarian territory. He was working for Ukrainian autonomy from the Tsarist empire, which was one of the reasons Germany financed and organized his return to Russia in 1917.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, Lenin appealed to the German high command for a ceasefire and signed (along with Stalin, then commissar of nationalities) a declaration on the rights of the peoples of Russia to self-determination, inviting ethnic minorities, including Ukrainians, to declare independence, as the revolutionary parliament in Kiev/Kyiv or “Rada,” promptly did. The Rada then sent delegates to the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk, who negotiated with the Central Powers on behalf of Ukraine. By signing a peace treaty with the Rada on Feb. 9, 1918, Imperial Germany officially midwifed Ukraine into sovereign existence. Wittingly or unwittingly, Lenin had thus achieved both goals the Germans had in supporting him: ending Russia’s war and prying apart the Russian empire by giving up Ukraine. Small wonder Lenin was denounced as a “German spy,” “Judas,” and “traitor” when he addressed the Soviet Council of People’s Commissars later in February, or that Putin, like most Russian nationalists today, blames Lenin for tearing apart mother Russia.

Of course, there is rich irony in dismissing Ukraine’s claim to nationhood, as Putin does, on grounds that the Bolsheviks were illegitimate, anti-Russian usurpers, for Putin has also famously lambasted the 1991 collapse of the Soviet state they created as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He cannot have it both ways. If the Bolshevik-Communist USSR was an artificial creation not representative of historic “Russia,” then trying to restore its boundaries must be an illegitimate enterprise.

This may explain why Putin has lately taken to invoking Russia’s Tsarist past more fervently than the Soviet period. In his article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” posted on the Kremlin website on July 12, 2021—an article to which Western statesmen should have paid more careful attention—Russia’s president asserted that Russians, Ukrainians, and White Russians or “Belorussians” are all “descendants of ancient Rus.” Ukrainians would object here that Kyiv (as they call it, or Kiev, as the Russians and most of the Western world until recently called it) was the capital of this ancestral Russian state, giving the Ukrainians claim to its legacy. And yet Putin doesn’t really deny this, arguing that a shared heritage is a shared heritage, and that it just “so happened that Moscow became the center of reunification, continuing the tradition of ancient Russian statehood” after the shattering Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

Just as Putin and Russian nationalists insist, some version of Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, even if Ukrainians dispute Russian interpretation of “protection” treaties negotiated in the early Romanov period. After Russia’s first annexation of Crimea in 1783, most of what is now central and eastern Ukraine had been absorbed into the Tsarist empire, where it remained until Imperial Russia’s comeuppance in 1917-1918. And yet to claim, as Putin does, that Ukraine has never really existed as a separate nation other than in 1917-18 and after 1991 is to ignore not just the contested matters of deep Russian history but, more significantly, the turbulent history of Ukraine during the 20th century.

However murky Ukraine’s brief dawn of independence might have been during the chaos of the Russian Civil War—dependent initially on German arms in 1918 to stave off a Bolshevik takeover and then on a series of agreements with Poland in 1920 to push back the Red Army again—it was in the course of her bloody struggle for independence that modern Ukrainians first developed a strong sense of national identity. This oft-contested borderland was occupied by Germany and Austria-Hungary, invaded and re-invaded again by the Bolsheviks’ Red Army, then by the “White” or Volunteer Army which opposed the Reds, by Cossacks who brought terrible anti-Semitic pogroms in their train, then invaded and re-invaded by Poland during the Soviet-Polish war in 1920, before the final Bolshevik expulsion of the “Whites” from Crimea that November. By some estimates, control of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, changed hands 16 times between 1918 and 1921. Putin might argue that this proves Ukraine was not strong enough to become independent, but the wrenching experience of being fought over by outside powers creates a national identity, all the same. The essence of the national character was forged in this terrible period by pox-on-all-your-houses partisans such as Nester Makhno, a kind of Ukrainian T. E. Lawrence, who specialized in ambushing troop trains of whatever army happened to be ravaging his country.

Ukraine suffered still greater horrors in the forced-collectivization nightmare of the early 1930s, now remembered as the “Holodomor” or Terror-Famine. Whether Stalin’s grain-hoarding NKVD kulak-killers starved millions of Ukrainians to death on ethno-genocidal or on ideological grounds can hardly diminish the significance of this terrible human catastrophe for Ukrainians and their burgeoning sense of themselves as a people. 

The history of World War II in Ukraine, after the German invasion of June 1941, was more bloody and painful still. It is true that some (though hardly all) Ukrainians collaborated with the invaders. Even Ukrainians who fought honorably in the Red Army against the Germans, of which there were millions, were sometimes treated differently by the invader after being captured; many were allowed to return to their homes rather than face the terrible privations other Red Army POWs faced in German camps. This selective treatment furnishes the historical basis for Putin’s explosive and hate-filled talk about Ukrainian “Nazism” today, a smear amplified by Russian nationalists online in their incessant chatter about “Ukro-Nazis.” 

However real Ukrainian collaboration might have been in a few cases, such as that of the notorious Stepan Bandera and his followers, it is grotesque to slander all wartime Ukrainians as Nazis by association, and still more grotesque to apply this label to modern Ukrainian patriots. (Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, which makes the Nazi label even more absurd and insulting.) 

The reason some Ukrainians cooperated with the invader in 1941 was that they had suffered terribly under Soviet Communist rule, both during the Civil War and the Holodomor and (lest we forget) in Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s, which claimed still more thousands of innocent lives. It did not mean that Ukrainians shared Nazi racial ideology–to the Nazis, after all, they were racially inferior “Slavs” no less than Russians were. Moreover, much of the wartime collaboration, particularly in western Ukraine, wasn’t with Germans anyway but with Romanian occupying troops, who might have been antipathetic to the Russians, who had invaded their own country in 1940, but who were not Nazis by any plausible definition. 

As if the trauma of civil war, foreign intervention, pogroms from 1918 and 1921, Holodomor in the early 1930s, Terror in the late 1930s, Germano-Romanian invasion, war and genocide after 1941 were not enough, Ukraine faced another half-decade of horrors after being “liberated” by the Red Army in 1944. These new horrors came from ferocious Soviet “anti-partisan” operations directed by Nikita Khrushchev and from another terrible famine in 1946-1947, which killed hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians. Indeed, when the idea of genuine Ukrainian independence emerged in the glasnost years of the late 1980s, it was largely on the basis of shared national suffering and trauma that Ukrainians came together in the movement called Rukh,or “hand,” forming a human chain in 1990 between Kiev and Lvov (also known as Lviv), much as Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians had done the previous year, linking the three Baltic capitals of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn to mark the 50-year anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had snuffed out their countries’ independence. For Putin to dismiss the force of this shared history of trauma in forming a genuine Ukrainian national identity is not just insensitive, but deeply ahistorical. 

Putin is on firmer ground in his invocation of post-Cold War history, as in his complaint in the Feb. 21 speech that the U.S. and its allies had “expanded NATO to the east, moving military infrastructure closer to our borders,” a point Putin emphasized at still greater length on Feb. 24, when he announced the start of military operations against Ukraine. In the latter speech, Putin also reminded Russians that NATO had launched “a bloody military operation against Belgrade” in Mar. 1999, “without the UN Security Council’s sanction but with combat aircraft and missiles used in the heart of Europe.” I was in Moscow when this Kosovo war began, and I can attest that the reaction among many Russians I knew, their sense of rejection and betrayal by an ever-more contemptuous West, was visceral. Whatever the merits of the NATO case against Serbia for cleansing Albanian Muslims from Kosovo, to Russians this looked like a war of aggression against one of their oldest allies.

It was not only Russians and Russian “apologists” who decried NATO expansion, especially after the controversial vow made by then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev in Feb. 1990 that, if Moscow consented to German re-unification, NATO would “not shift one inch eastward from its present position”–a promise Putin highlighted in his Feb. 24 speech. While it is true that Gorbachev, foolishly, did not get this pledge in writing, multiple witnesses have confirmed the “one inch” phrase was uttered, and it is the kind of memorable line which, oft repeated, Russian nationalists like Putin will never forget. There may have been no binding treaty with Russia limiting NATO expansion, but this does not mean that moving ahead was wise. It was not only anti-war doves but experienced Cold Warriors, such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and even the great architect of the “containment doctrine,” George Kennan, who warned loudly in the early 1990s thatto expand NATO would result in “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one” (from The Kennan Diaries, page 659).

But NATO expansion proceeded nonetheless, not merely into the former Soviet-allied Warsaw Pact member countries of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic (1999), followed by Romania and Bulgaria, but also into the Baltic region, where three former Soviet republics abutting Russian territory—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—were admitted in 2004, one year after the U.S. had further offended Moscow by invading Iraq over stout Russian opposition. Today there are no less than 30 members of this wealthy, well-equipped military alliance, four of which border Russia overland, with two more former Soviet republics listed on NATO’s own website as “aspirant countries” who have “declared their aspirations to NATO membership”: Georgia and, yes, Ukraine.

One does not have to be a Russian chauvinist to recognize merit in Putin’s complaint about “the eastward expansion of NATO” over Russian objections. If, as a few Western politicians have dubiously claimed, NATO is not really directed against Russia—we are constantly told, it is a “voluntary defensive alliance” that any country can join—then it is worth asking why Russia was never invited to join it. It is not without interest that Putin mentioned, in his otherwise bellicose speech on Feb. 21, that he asked President Clinton in 2000 whether the United States might see Russia joining NATO one day. Although Clinton seemed amenable at the time, the U.S. delegation reportedly became “very nervous.” Needless to say, no invitation ever followed for Russia to join NATO. Perhaps this was an impossible fantasy, but if so, does it not rather prove Putin’s point that NATO is fundamentally an anti-Russian alliance?

Surely NATO expansion should have stopped at some point, if not with German unification in 1990. Was it wise to push NATO all the way into the Baltic region, turning Russian-held Kaliningrad into a potential nuclear flashpoint, sandwiched between NATO members Poland and Lithuania?  Or to invite Georgia to the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, which helped poison Russia’s relations with Tbilisi prior to the Russo-Georgian war later that year? As for Ukraine, experienced American statesmen, from Kissinger and Kennan to Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, had warned for years that even talking about Ukraine joining NATO might be fatal to peace.

American leaders have done far more than talk. First under President George W. Bush, in the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-5, and then even more brazenly under President Obama and then-Vice President Biden in the overtly U.S.-backed “Euromaidan” revolution, which toppled Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, the U.S. and its allies threw down the gauntlet to Moscow, which responded by annexing Crimea and moving into Lugansk and the Donbass.  Putin’s claims that Ukraine has, since 2014, been carrying out “genocide” against Russian-speakers may be groundless, but his case that the U.S. and its allies have turned Ukraine into a lethally armed catspaw is not. As the leading U.S. realist scholar of international relations, John Mearsheimer, presciently warned in September 2015, “the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”

In the months leading up to the Russian invasion launched on Feb. 24, it appears to be mostly Western fecklessness which has encouraged Putin’s aggression: German politicians signing lucrative pipeline deals with the Kremlin, taking positions on the boards of Russian energy companies, and ratcheting up their abject dependence on Russian energy by shuttering nuclear plants; the Biden administration’s humiliating botch of the withdrawal from Afghanistan; Biden’s hint that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine might not occasion a decisive response; the withdrawal of U.S. diplomatic personnel from Kiev to Lvov, and so on. There has been no shortage of ineptitude in Western capitals, and this has undermined deterrence of Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine. But we also should not forget the larger story of NATO expansion and the U.S.-backed “color revolutions” in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, which have fueled Russian fear, anger, and resentment.  It may be too late to wind the clock back and reverse NATO expansion, but it is never too late to learn the lessons of history. 

Unfortunately, it is the people of Ukraine who are paying the price of Western hubris, just as Mearsheimer warned in 2015. By dangling NATO membership and the mirage of an American security umbrella before them, the U.S. and its allies have unleashed the furies of Russian ressentiment, resulting in a devastating and bloody invasion of Ukraine, even while doing almost nothing to assure the country’s defense. They deserved better from us.

President.gov.ua, Viewsridge, Ahenobarbus Henocied, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons