The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted a curious disconnect between the supposed ideological objective of the war and the means used to achieve it. In Russian official discourse of the late Putin era, Ukrainians are seen as part of the Russian people rather than a separate ethnic group. They are to be “liberated” from the small group of “Nazi” nationalists currently ruling Ukraine, itself an artificial entity that was created on lands torn away from Russia. According to this bizarre scenario, Ukrainians eagerly awaited “liberation” and would welcome the Russian troops with flowers. In this picture, the war is a family affair, not unlike saving a wayward younger brother from the influence of a street gang.
However, the Kremlin is conducting its military campaign in Ukraine as anything but a family matter. The level of violence against Ukrainian civilians is extraordinary; Western political leaders now speak of genocide. Many observers have also noticed the disproportionate presence in Ukraine of troops recruited in Russia’s North Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan), as well as distant regions in Asia (Tuva), troops which have little in common ethnically or culturally with Russians, let alone Ukrainians. Their loyalty to Russia is based on their regional leaders’ relationships with Putin, but they are not fighting for the same Russia whose troops Ukrainians were expected to welcome because of their alleged ethnic and religious unity with the Russians. It is, in fact, a Russian empire.
Russia—nation state or empire?
In the previous incarnation of Russia’s empire, it specifically recruited the mountaineers of the North Caucasus to strike fear into the hearts of the tsar’s enemies in World War I. Known semi-officially as the “Savage Division,” this unit was seen as so valuable that Tsar Nicholas II’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, was appointed its commander. Just fifty years earlier, North Caucasian mountaineers put up a glorious fight against the Russian colonizers, but in 1914 they became the crown jewel of the imperial army. By contrast, there could be no Ukrainian units in the Russian army before 1917 because the tsars, just like Putin, refused to see Ukrainians as separate from Russians.
“Russia still has not resolved the fundamental tension between the two facets of its national identity—that of a Russian nation-state and a Russian-led empire.”
There are some important historical lessons here for our understanding of the present Russo-Ukrainian war. First, Russia still has not resolved the fundamental tension between the two facets of its national identity—that of a Russian nation-state and a Russian-led empire . A modern Russian nation failed to develop either under the tsars or under the Bolshevik commissars. Both regimes suppressed civil society, just as the Putin administration does today.
Second, a sovereign Ukraine threatens both aspects of the Russian identity. By becoming an independent state in 1991 and subsequently refusing to place itself within the Russian sphere of influence, Ukraine challenged the vision of Russia as an empire. But it also defied the notion of Russia as a nation-state by showing the strength of the Ukrainian ethnic identity and, above all, the inclusive political identity that developed after the two democratic revolutions in 2004–5 and 2013–14. This political identity included Ukraine’s national minorities, and the early Russian setbacks in this war have demonstrated that the majority of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine identify with it.
The Putin regime applies an unusual definition of “compatriots” in neighbouring countries. They are not just Russians by ethnicity as established during censuses and, in Soviet times, indicated on internal IDs. They are also Russophones, culturally Russian people of other ethnicities. Of all the Soviet Union’s republics, Ukraine had the highest number of those, and not by accident. During various periods the tsarist regime had banned all publications in the Ukrainian language and tried to stamp out any Ukrainian cultural presence beyond folk songs and peasant customs. Except for a brief period in the 1920s, the Soviet Union also encouraged, especially among Ukrainians, assimilation into Russian culture. It is thus, once again, the “imperial” notion of Russianness that the Kremlin is applying when it considers all Russophones compatriots.
Putin and the “Nazis”
Who, then, are the “Nazis” whom Putin wants to destroy in Ukraine? In the postwar Soviet Union, any Ukrainian speaker in an urban setting risked being called a Nazi because Soviet propaganda had tried to connect all Ukrainian patriots to the groups collaborating with the German administration during World War II. Given the many connections between Stalinist ideology and that of Putin’s Russia, one might expect to see some marginal right-wing Ukrainian nationalists as Russia’s target in Ukraine. Instead, the “Nazis” are the multiethnic and often Russophone officials of the democratic Ukrainian state led by its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The answer, then, must be found not only in Ukraine’s resistance to empire and forcible inclusion in the Russian ethnos, but also to the political authoritarianism that underpins it.
“Ukrainians are neither part of the Russian people nor of the Russian empire, and any Russian road to democracy will need to begin from this acknowledgement.”
Millions of ordinary Ukrainians of various ethnic backgrounds participated in the two recent Ukrainian revolutions. They fought for the notions of democracy and rule of law represented by the slogan “Europe.” They also rejected “Russia” as a geopolitical choice, not just because of the imperial past, but also because of Putin’s Stalinesque regime. Because the West supported them—sometimes belatedly and with reservations—the Russian media has created a delusional construct of a “pro-Nazi” West aligning with the Ukrainian “Nazis” in a new world war.
Russia is not just fighting against the West in Ukraine while presenting democracy as Nazism. It is also fighting against its own citizens, those who in 2011 protested against Putin’s continued rule in what he saw as a Ukraine-inspired revolution, as well as those few who dared to protest the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. A war fueled by ethnic nationalism or imperial ambition would have been bad enough, but a war on democracy can only escalate the level of violence that Putin needs in order to remain in power.
Ukrainians are neither part of the Russian people nor of the Russian empire, and any Russian road to democracy will need to begin from this acknowledgement. Russian atrocities in Ukraine have destroyed any remaining sense of cultural closeness. Ukrainians have chosen another family, that of democratic nations. It is a war of a political regime identifying with the past against a multiethnic civil society representing the future. One needs to know history in order to understand this war, but one does not need to be a historian to know that Putin will fail.
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Featured image by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash, public domain
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