BERLIN – History, above all, informs Vladimir Putin’s policy towards Ukraine. The Russian president justified his 2014 annexation of Crimea by presenting it as righting a historical wrong: the transfer of the peninsula to Ukraine from Russia by the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev while both were Soviet republics. The annexation came a month after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power; the Kremlin characterised the authorities that replaced him as “fascists”, explicitly linking the annexation to the USSR’s victory over Nazism, sacralised above all else in modern Russia.
Nor did the use of history to justify aggressive Russian policy towards Ukraine end in 2014. The current build-up of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border was foreshadowed by the publication in July 2021 of a long pseudo-historical article by Putin about, as he put it, “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.
“History has been a battleground from the very beginning of Russia’s war with Ukraine,” Serhii Plokhy, a prominent Ukrainian historian and the author of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015), told me.
Putin’s views of one greater Russian people, composed of Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and White Russians (Belarusians) stem from an antiquated understanding of nationhood, Plokhy argued. “This thinking that Ukraine is a part of Russia that was somehow torn apart from it – this is very much 19th-century thinking, in which the nation is defined almost exclusively by language rather than political loyalty.”
While many in Russia may sympathise with calls to unite both nations, there is a growing contingent of Russians who view the existence of a separate Ukraine as normal and acceptable, Plokhy said. That can be ascribed to the maturing of a generation that came of age after the end of USSR, which included the two republics in a single state – but also to the relentlessly anti-Ukrainian propaganda to which Russians have been subjected since 2013. “That campaign created an image of Ukraine as an enemy – and one who is an enemy is not one of ours.”
The founding myth of 2014 and the war in eastern Ukraine – that Russian-speaking Ukrainians would gladly join Russia – did not result in a pro-Russia groundswell of opinion across the country. While this was realised in Crimea and parts of Donbas, Russophone cities such as Kharkiv and Odessa remain Ukrainian. “This was a huge miscalculation and disappointment for the authors of the attempted Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine,” Plokhy said.
In February 1945, the leaders of the three most powerful Allied powers – the US’s Franklin D Roosevelt, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and the UK’s Winston Churchill – met in the Crimean city of Yalta to decide on the fate of the postwar world. At Yalta, Europe was divided into spheres of influence – Stalin getting his wish that the countries the Red Army had liberated from the Nazis would be amenable to the USSR.
“There was no question that the Yalta Conference, which is commonly held to have divided the world into spheres of influence, is something that is really cherished and valued in Russia. Russia desires a return to that model,” Plokhy said. That view of international relations is why Putin has sought direct dialogue with the US, viewing negotiations with European countries and Ukraine itself as marginal to the arena where the important decisions are made: talks between great powers.
A corollary to the spheres of influence model is a belief that smaller countries do not have the right to full sovereignty – if they did, they wouldn’t be guaranteed to remain within the orbit of their larger neighbours.
As Angela Stent wrote in a recent essay, Putin believes that “only a few great powers – Russia, China, India, and the United States – enjoy absolute sovereignty, free to choose which alliances they join or reject”. Smaller countries, Russia holds, must align their foreign policies with those of their larger neighbours.
[See also: How Ukrainians turned against Russia]
Yet this idea necessarily conflicts with too much democracy existing within those states, Plokhy argued. With limited exceptions – Finland during the Cold War, Armenia after that country’s revolution in 2018 – “countries being both democratic and pro-Russian in geopolitical terms is a virtual impossibility,” Plokhy said. “A democratic Poland would not have been a member of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.”
The Kremlin’s dismembering of Ukraine in 2014 de facto removed millions of the most pro-Russian voters from Ukraine’s electoral rolls. It also turned the tens of millions still living under Kyiv’s authority decisively against Russia. The share of Ukrainians holding a favourable view of Russia sank from 84 per cent in 2010 to a mere third in 2019, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Part of the fall, but not the whole of it, can be explained by the exclusion of those living in territories now controlled by Russia or its proxies.
Since the annexation of Crimea, it has become almost impossible to imagine Ukraine turning pro-Russian or even simply neutral if it remains a democracy, flawed as it is. Ukraine can be democratic or pro-Russian – but, Plokhy concluded, it almost certainly cannot be both.
“Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima” by Serhii Plokhy will be published in May by Allen Lane.