In two weeks, a peaceful country with a routine daily life has been turned into a war zone. Against the expectations of most experts, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation launched a military attack against its neighbor. The brutality in Ukraine, captured in images of fleeing immigrants and bombed maternity wards, has shocked the world. The destruction is even more shocking because Ukraine and the Russian Federation have such close ties. Intermarriage between the two countries is common, millions of Russians live in Ukraine, and millions of Ukrainians live in Russia. Why would Putin attack a country which is culturally, religiously, and historically close to the Russian Federation? Why does he not recognize the Ukrainian right to sovereignty?
In a highly criticized essay from 2021, Putin argued that the Ukrainians and the Russians were one people with their origins in medieval Kyiv and he has made it his historic mission to reunite the two peoples. Ukrainians vehemently oppose this view, stating that Kyiv was a uniquely Ukrainian city and early Russian culture had little to do with developments in the city—there were two separate peoples, one around Moscow and one around Kyiv (in 2019, major news organizations adopted the transliterated Ukrainian spelling of the city rather than the Russian spelling, Kiev). In the seventeenth century, however, the Russian tsars absorbed much of Ukrainian territory and, over centuries, slowly erased the Ukrainian lands from their maps. Ukrainians still lived there but they had no official territory to call their own. In the nineteenth century, the tsars censored the use of the Ukrainian language.
Despite the numerous obstacles, Ukrainians maintained their culture, language, and traditions. They had a long wait before they could declare independence but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed the country to raise its own flag, sing its own anthem, and elect its own officials without interference from Moscow. It has been a politically and economically turbulent thirty years since independence, but the country has moved forward with each day. It does not have the vast energy wealth of Russia yet its citizens enjoy greater political freedom and other benefits.
Tragically, the Kremlin has never felt comfortable with an independent Ukraine. Many Russian officials disliked Mikhail Gorbachev for dismantling the Soviet Union and even renowned Soviet dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not recognize the need for an independent Ukraine. Fearing the country might lean westward, join NATO, and pose a threat to Russian security, Putin took what he considered necessary steps. Over the last decade, Putin has modernized the Russian military, annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and supported breakaway regions in the eastern parts of Ukraine. While these moves pale in comparison with the current disaster, they suggest a pre-occupation with Ukraine. It reflects a desire to reunite what Putin considers a lost family member or a wayward younger sibling and a Russian need to send an intimidating message to NATO states.
Yet the last thirty years have taught Ukrainians the value of sovereignty and independence. In Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city dominated by Russian speakers, the Russian-speaking mayor has called upon residents to repel the invading army. In Odessa, a cosmopolitan port city founded by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century, Russian-speaking Jews have spoken out against Putin. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Russian and Ukrainian-speaking Jewish president of Ukraine, has charismatically urged Ukrainians to keep fighting as he skillfully mocks the Russians. Throughout the country, men and women have mobilized to stall the Russian army and preserve their independence.
The war has also brought extensive clampdowns in Russia. While the Kremlin already played a role in the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya (2006) and Boris Nemtsov (2015), it just legislated a possible 15-year jail term for those who issue ‘fake news’ about the ‘special operation’ (it is forbidden to refer to as a war). Longstanding oppositional media such as the Ekho Moskvy radio station or the Rain TV station ceased their broadcasting rather than put their journalists at risk. By contrast, the state-sponsored newspaper Izvestia publishes stories justifying and presenting an alternate reality of war.
Each day brings more tragedy, especially since Putin’s endgame is unknown and the war brings unexpected complications. The Russian ruble has reached a historical low, the stock market has been closed for days, stores are shuttered, and Russians have even begun to stockpile food, a flashback to the days just before the Soviet collapse. If the domestic situation deteriorates, will he limit his ambitions and end the war or will he unleash more horror on the Ukrainian people? The slow pace of the war might encourage Russia to make limited demands of the Ukrainian government in their on-going negotiations. While most experts believe this is unlikely, it allows us a ray of hope in the direst of circumstances.
By Nigel Raab, Ph.D., professor of history at Loyola Marymount University
Nigel Raab, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Dr. Nigel Raab is the author of All Shook Up: The Shifting Soviet Response to Catastrophes, 1917-1991 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), The Crisis from Within: Historians, Theory and the Humanities (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015), Who is the Historian? (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), Democracy Burning? Urban Fire Departments and the Limits of Civil Society in Late Imperial Russia, 1850-1914 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).