In January, I wrote that I hoped that the Russians and Ukrainians could come to a peaceful settlement that would “guarantee Ukrainian integrity and Russian security interests.” This was not to be.
As Russian forces literally rip Ukraine to pieces with murderous missile and artillery strikes, assaulting civilian targets while killing thousands of men, women, and children, it is crucial to place in historical context this unwarranted onslaught on an independent nation with no aggressive intentions toward its eastern neighbor. The military strategy is the same one Putin used in Syria and Chechnya, and is likely a violation of the laws of war.
First, President Vladimir Putin has long proclaimed that Ukraine is not an independent country; that Ukrainians are Russian; and that its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was ill-considered and unwise. He has asserted Ukraine was always part of Russia, whether in the Russian Empire from the time of Emperor Peter the Great or through the Soviet era, a period of over 250 years.
Indeed, the origins of modern Russia can be traced to Kievan Rus, a loose confederation of states that encompassed Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia from the ninth century to its demise 300 years later. This is why Putin claims “ownership” of Ukraine, and perhaps Belarus as well.
But there is more. Putin is wrong on this score. Russia, and then the Soviet Union, has colonized Ukraine, much like nations in the West colonized parts of South America, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
Putin has also claimed that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis, and his so-called special military operation is designed to de-Nazify the country. That is a myth: Its Jewish president just signed into law a bill outlawing anti-Semitism, and some 150 scholars of World War II, the Holocaust, and genocide recently signed a letter debunking the claim.
Second, from the ninth to the late 15th century, Kiev, or in today’s modern parlance Kyiv, as the capital of Kievan Rus declined after the Mongols burned the city to the ground in the 13th century. The capital moved to Moscow. The first to hold the title “tsar” (derived from Caesar), Ivan III, also known as Ivan the Great, reigned from 1462 to 1505. He ruthlessly expanded the territory, restoring the power of the Russians over the Mongols.
One of his successors, Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible, who reigned from 1547 to 1575, was more brutal in suppressing his people and continuing imperial expansion. (Ivan III would have had the moniker “the Terrible,” except Ivan IV was worse).
Third, by the late 14th century, clerics of the Orthodox Church proclaimed Moscow the “Third (and final) Rome” in a line of great empires from the Roman to the Byzantine. This messianic view meant, according to historian Stephen Kotkin, Russia expanded “at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass.” Three great “fleeting moments,” he says, account for Russia’s momentary ascendancy: the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725) and the first to use the title “emperor, Alexander I’s victory over Napoleon in 1812, and Stalin’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
Kotkin argues that “these high-water marks aside, however, Russia has almost always been a relatively weak great power.” The Third Rome ideal was bunk, as was its progeny, 19th century Pan-Slavism, designed to unite all the Slavic peoples under its control, or when Russia became the fount of the Communist International in the 20th.
But Russia’s ambitions have never equaled its capabilities. It lost the Crimean War in 1856, the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, World War I in 1917, which led to its eventual collapse into Communism that year, and the Cold War in 1991.
Fourth, these developments have not stopped Putin from believing in Russia’s special mission. He wants to restore not just the Soviet but the old tsarist Russian Empire. His first step is the seizure of Ukraine by annihilating it. He has proved his cruel despotism: He makes decisions by himself, with little or no input from anyone except those who tell him what he wants to hear, like that Ukraine would be a military pushover that would take only a few days.
But fifth, Ukraine has demonstrated that it is a nation with its own cultural and political history separating it from Russia, subject to Russian colonization. While this colonization has been brutal, it has not been as destructive as the pulverizing wallop of Russian missiles and artillery.
No one can predict what Putin would do should he believe he has failed to achieve the resurrection of the empire. The use of chemical or biological weapons? Tactical nuclear weapons? Even tactical nuclear devices are still highly destructive. Putin has weaponized poison before in Syria, and against anti-Putin activists like Alexei Navalny, now in a Russian prison on trumped-up charges.
The war has only hardened Ukrainian nationhood. Putin’s forces may well defeat Ukraine, but its people will never capitulate to Russia without a drawn-out, bloody insurgency.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, years ago earned a master’s degree in Russian history from the University of California, Berkeley, and studied Soviet content analysis at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.