How Putin Gets Both Ukraine and Russia Tragically Wrong
Today Russia sent more troops and tanks into the separatist regions of Ukraine, an escalation of tactics in play since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and sped a decade of separatist violence in eastern Ukraine. In hopes of reframing the mounting tragedy, this late-night essay hurriedly rereads Putin’s 2021 essay justifying his invasion of Ukraine, revealing in his (lecherous) reasoning not only the obvious false flag pretense for invading Ukraine but a tragic flaw — namely, an unintentional, if inevitable, misunderstanding of Russia itself. Putin gets both Ukraine and Russia tragically, even perversely wrong.
On February 21, 2022, President Putin ordered his troops to move into the eastern territories of Ukraine, incrementally invading a neighboring country without provocation. As Ukrainians weep and flee worldwide, and US politicians quietly continue to nod to themselves for having publicly called out Putin’s plans for weeks, a harsh reality reemerges: a major war could follow, minds and hearts are reeling, and the path of history appears at a pivot point. How could a former world power, under the guise of carrying out peace-keeping mission no less, incrementally invade a sovereign neighboring country? Who can understand, the repeated refrain goes, what Putin is thinking? Anticipating these questions eight months earlier on July 12, 2021, Putin published a 5,000-word essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” as a pretext for this day: the linked essay above offers a phantasm of historical self-justification for this afternoon’s invasion of breakaway districts in south-eastern Ukraine. Of course, Putin should at some level be dismissed and ignored on face value: no lie is too blatant, no BS deserves no consideration. Still, at another level, his arguments are not purely convenient fabrication and, in their attempts to mislead, they unearth a buried kernel understanding of the world. Thus by taking seriously at least one howling flaw in how Putin historically frames the pretext for his incremental invasion, we may see not only how Putin gets deliberately and maliciously Ukraine wrong but accidentally gets his own Russia backwards. This is, as a colleague recently dubbed it, not the Ukrainian crisis: it is the Russia crisis.
To be clear, this essay has as much interest in Putin per se as he will have in it: none whatsoever. Authoritarians have no interest in the facts just as most area specialists have no enduring interest in dull, compromised, and dangerous autocrats. Indeed, for the purposes of these same-day scribbles, “Putin” and his 2021 essay stands in as a puppet proxy for voicing an imperial ideology of convenience held by many Russian and Western elite. Rather this modest set of notes supports an ongoing public check against state aggression: namely, a global conversation grounded in empirical fact and self-checking historical description, an antidote to the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors emanating from Russian state media at the moment (e.g., the West staged a coup, Ukrainian politics is Nazi-ideological, ethnic Russians in the Donbass faced a genocide, etc.). In a false flag worthy of Alice in Wonderland, Putin is currently deploying tanks onto Ukrainian sovereign territory under the banner of “peace-keeping troops” entering Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian cities, in order, he claims impossibly, to protect Russian separatists in Ukraine from Ukrainian aggression: should outright war be successfully averted, as it may still be, Russian forces will likely try to install or prop up puppet politicians in Donetsk and Luhansk with veto power over Ukrainian foreign policy; this would mean that, even if Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine, Ukrainian sovereignty to self-determine may be piecemeal compromised by Russian-hardened breakaway districts. Stalemate or separation: this is a no-win scenario for Ukraine.
This simple fact is so stunningly obvious it should never need to be said: Ukraine, contrary to Putin’s pan-Slavic history, has a legitimate history of sovereignty on its own terms independent from Russia. (Putin tells Ukraine: “You want to establish a state of your own: you are welcome! But what are the terms,” then unilaterally asserting that all territories must return to pre-1922 borders.) As a modern independent nation, Ukraine has an inalienable right to independence and self-determination, including its territorial inheritance during the Soviet periods, which it served directly: indeed, as Putin acknowledges, the General Secretaries Khrushchev and Brezhnev associated themselves most directly with Ukraine.
Ukraine has a complex history to claim precedent to its on-and-off independence over the centuries: not only has Ukraine been independent from Moscow for over thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the nation, often without a state, has weathered occupation by many non-Russian empires on for centuries, including, briefly, Nazis repeatedly invading, the Habsburg empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Mongols, the remnants of the Holy Roman empire, and countless other kingdoms; like all such forces, Ukrainian history is marked by actions neither holy nor imperial such as partisans supporting the Nazis against Soviet rule and bureaucrats papering over the ionosphere-irradiating disaster at Chernobyl; the country has also long been stymied in internal corruption, even though federal governance arguably enjoys a more mature footing today than perhaps even before. For example of the diversity, L’viv, the most prominent capital of Ukrainian culture today and the current site of the emergency-relocated US core-embassy staff in Western Ukraine, has also been called in the past five centuries L’viv (Ukrainian), L’vov (Russian, in Soviet times), Lwow (in Polish times), Lemberg (German), and Leonopolis (Latin): throughout these serial enfolding into other empires, Ukraine has declared itself independent several times — 1914, 1918, and 1991, if memory serves — in the last century alone: that nationalism burns especially bright today, since it is defined negatively, for we all feel nationalism most intensely when it is threatened. Given the complexity of its independence in the crossroads of so many former empires, Ukraine cannot be considered a single people; how much more wild, then, is Putin’s claim that the Russians, itself a complex people, and Ukrainians are one people — “a single whole”!
Nonsense. There is no singular cultural, historical, religious, ethnic, or linguistic variable that gives Ukraine its identity in the crossroads of history and thus it has no root dependence on other forces outside of own right as an internationally acknowledged state to its own self-determination and territorial sovereignty. Paradoxically, while this reminder is especially urgent to make and remake in defense of Ukraine today, it is also precisely the long-term lesson that the Russia elite that must eventually internalize: no country needs to define its independence by either subordination or superiority to another country.
Ukraine, again, is a nation separate from Russia. Both contain uncountably many ethnicities and different cultural subgroups. Ukraine occupies a territory almost as large as western Europe with distinct and blurred cultures; Ukraine has its own language that is almost as different from Russian as Portuguese is from Spanish (while almost all Ukrainians understand Russian, and many speak Russian, it is not the case that all Russians understand Ukrainian, especially those in exile since the 1914 independence; for example, the Ukrainian spoken in the shchi (soup) belt of Canada, where many nationalists fled in exile over a century ago, remains unintelligible to Russians today). Ukraine claims an independent, interpolated literary history dating back to before the heavyweights such as the Romantic poet Taras Shevchenko and Mykola Gogol (Nikolai Gogol), both of whom wrote exquisitely in Ukrainian and Russian. Ukraine, while never a superpower, also boasts today an industrial basin and agricultural breadbasket famous for its world-famous chornozem (or black earth) soil, as well as a history of significant scientific and technological advances in the productive periphery of the Soviet state. Ukraine, despite considerable struggles with corruption, has contributed to the global economy beyond its wealth in raw materials and grains; between 1954 and 2014 (when Russia occupied the Crimea with unmarked military officers that integrated with local separatists), Ukraine had solitary access to a Russian-speaking warm-water port. Alas, as climate change warms the northern-flowing major river systems in Russia, that access slowly and perversely shifts as the northern Arctic passage continues to thaw.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s Secretary of Defense, put part of the calculus of today’s aggression memorably back in (if memory holds) 1975: “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” NATO’s basic interest in limiting imperial expansion, no doubt, continues to power much of its fears about Russian aggression. Western diplomats no doubt also anticipate that West responses to Russia will set the terms for responses to growing Chinese state ambitions in the Southeast Pacific.
But there is more to the situation than just limiting the former Russian empire: it is not just Russia that is defined by its relationship to Ukraine. So too is Ukraine defined by a curiously necessary non-relationship with Russia. Putin denies this flatly, stating “there came a time when the concept of ‘Ukraine is Not Russia’ was no longer an option.” The resulting situation, pitting Ukrainian anti-Russian sentiment against Russian sublimation of Ukrainian interests, makes for a mutually constituting vicious cycle: as nationalities, Ukraine and Russia are perhaps best defined recently by their self-reinforcing exclusion and inclusion of the other. Nationalism is a killer in any form — it, unlike patriotism, is a catalyst that metastasizes into war and bloodshed, including, of course, those of the America first policies where I live, a country that any seriously historical observer must readily acknowledge often leads major powers in encroaching on the sovereignty of other countries; America, especially during the Cold War and now especially in drone warfare and cyberwar, must acknowledge its role in modernizing imperialism. Fully acknowledging the dangers of American nationalism exercised abroad, perhaps the vicious cycle of Russian aggression into Ukraine may be summarized as follows: without Ukraine, Russia cannot identify as an empire; at the same time, with Russia, Ukraine cannot identify as an independent nation.
For a hasty analogy, consider how Oklahoma most often defines itself as not-Texas; how Canada defines itself as a not-the-US; or how Korea defines itself as not-Japanese and not-Chinese. By comparison, Ukraine must also define itself as somehow non-Russia (but not necessarily anti-Russian) and thus fundamentally independent of Russia, its policies, and its military influence; meanwhile, Russia, in order to remain a global power and lay claim to Putin’s weak justification of its greatness in the brotherhood of Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian Slavic Orthodoxy, must claim Ukraine as its own. As Putin repeatedly points out, modern-day Ukraine covers the territory that once belonged to ancient Rus’, where, in 988 AD, Prince Volodymyr baptized, at the edge of a sword, many of Kyiv’s pagan inhabitants into the Orthodox Christian faith, thus originating the useful myth of a continuous eastern Orthodox brotherhood of nations. Putin’s Orthodox nationalism remains fundamental to his conception of Russia at present, even though, as I develop below, its origins belong not to Russia but to Ukraine.
This Gordian knot of identities has been baked into the very language of the country’s name: the root of Украина, or Ukraina, in Russian — krai — means “edge” so that “U-krai-nia” in Russian means effectively borderland; while that same root in Ukrainian gives us, Україна, or “country” or homeland. Projecting his own linguistic bias, Putin writes “the name ‘Ukraine’ was used more often in the meaning of the Old Russian word “okraina’ (periphery)…referring to various border territories.” Thus the name Ukraine intimates home in Kyiv and border from Moscow; thus, even without mentioning history or policy, the mere mention of Украина in the Russian language defines Ukraine as an edge to and edge of (and thus part of) Russia while the Ukrainian language defines Україна as its own autonomous self, a home country independent of any other. The resulting cry of the root word — home and periphery — suggests just how a single morpheme can contain worlds of difference.
Putin’s case for Russian-led eastern Orthodoxy is wrong for reasons his history implies but cannot consider on face value. Ukraine is independent today and thus has the right to its own territory, regardless of the history. But, even on the terms of his underlying historical logic — namely, since Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are all eastern Slav brothers of ancient Rus, Russia must remain the big brother to Ukraine — we see how Putin arrives upside down on the Ukrainian history question. His historical priors point in the other direction: whatever claim Russia has to Ukraine is trumped by Ukraine’s claim to Rus, and, as he points out repeatedly, Ukraine, in the form of ancient Rus’, came first. He makes Ukraine out to be “Little Russia,” yet his own history quietly signals how Ukraine, not Russia, is the most obvious modern heir to the origins of Rus’ and thus all things historically Rus-sian; indeed, Russia, his Orthodox origins of Slavdom hints but does not admit for obvious reasons, is only secondarily Rus-sian. While Russian elites justify the invasion by claiming that Ukraine cannot exist without Russia, the historical case for the greatness of Russian identity points in the other direction. Putin unintentionally introduces and espouses a staggering fragility into his own historical understanding of Russian greatness: Russia is not great if it cannot exist without Ukraine; the greatness of Russia, on his own terms, belongs to what is today Ukraine, not Russia. The big brother to Ukraine must also somehow appear the child of Ukraine, for his history to make any sense. If Russia is to take seriously (which it most definitely should not; it should abandon blood, soil, and war and instead dignify the self-determination of every state at present) Putin’s notion of Russia as the natural great heir to eastern Slavic blood, soil, and ancient Orthodox, Russia must paradoxically acknowledge its subordination, not superiority, to Ukraine’s claim to Rus. By laying claim to Ukraine as an extension of a historical pan-Slavic Russia, Putin is making the case for the opposite: Russia, not Ukraine, is the historical extension, the unintended periphery, to ancient Rus’.
In other words, when dangerously defined by blood, soil, and Orthodox nationalism, Russia appears to need Ukraine to exist as such but Ukraine does not need Russia. In order to claim, as Putin does, that “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus,” he also implicitly lets slip the priority Ukraine has in defining Russia: Putin says too much in admitting that, by granting independence to the Soviet Ukrainian republic, the Bolsheviks “chopped the country into pieces”… in giving Ukraine away, he intones, “Russia was robbed, indeed” inferring not just that Ukraine was a gift never meant to be given away by the Russian state it once belonged too but, implicitly, he admits that without Ukraine, Russia has no gift to claim its own greatness. This relationship, like calling a parent a subordinate sibling, is abusive in rhetoric and in obvious military fact: in claiming Ukrainian territory as “common territory, as homeland,” Putin apparently unknowingly appropriates the language of the Ukrainian homeland — krai — for Russia in order to then justify Russia appropriating and invading Ukrainian borders for itself.
In short, it has often been said that Russia is a country with a history as uncertain as its future, and Putin’s fabrication of the historical unity of Ukraine and Russia is perhaps no surprising exception. No option going forward appears optimal: in my view, the West must not respond militarily since a major war would exponentially compound the likely ensuing catastrophe. Yet Ukraine’s path to entering a military alliance with NATO was already long and precarious even before today’s destabilizing invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk. The path to NATO only lengthens with every day; this, no history lesson, is surely what Putin intends. What remains clear is that Ukraine must somehow retain the dignity, the territorial integrity, and sovereignty to define its own directions. And, even though Putin accidentally suggests a historical argument for its own independence and prior claims, how Ukraine today will do so remains a mystery to all except those at the levers of realpolitik. The question is not whether Ukraine will turn to Russia or NATO alliances and Europe; the tired battles of West versus East, and especially the mythologizing of Western commerce versus Eastern Orthodoxy, will not save or elucidate this wicked hard situation.
No, the Ukrainian people must maintain sovereign control over its own forking paths of self-determination. In my view, Ukraine must continue to have the choice to democratically contain various pro-Russian, anti-Russian, and especially non-Russian elements, that third distinction requiring an especially careful balancing act that Ukrainians understand all too well on the ground and that both Russian elites and Western media and politicians repeatedly, sometimes deliberately, fail to grasp. The key, in the end, is to not define Ukraine in terms of Russia or not Russia, but in the terms Ukraine sets for itself—especially in the ways forward between the non-Russia and non-West. Even as the tanks roll in, Ukraine must maintain the independence to define its own relationship with the world.
It is Russia, not Ukraine, that must first internalize the necessary lesson of all former empires, especially America, that Putin gets so wrong here: no sustainably great state may make itself great (again) by making other states submit to its will; the timber of history does not bend so easily to the state’s convenience; indeed, often what sounds like Putin’s best justifications for saber-rattling imply the opposite: the call to denouement and Russian humility. Ukraine is neither Russia’s little brother nor is Russia the heir to ancient Rus. The bent timber of history will continue to slowly bend and jam up the flows of the headlines and tragedies likely to follow. Until then, Ukraine should remain anywhere but on the edge of the global spotlight.
Benjamin Peters is the Hazel Rogers Associate Professor and Chair of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa where he is also an affiliate faculty member in the School of Cyber Studies as well as former director of the Russian Studies Program. He is also affiliated fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He has spent two years living in Russia, about one in Ukraine, wrote his senior thesis on Ukrainian national identity, published his first book on the history of networks in Soviet Ukraine, and has spent over two decades studying transnational media, technology, and cyber discourse. Tweet at @bjpeters.