the debrief: issue three

Russia and Ukraine: The historical context to the current crisis

by Iwan Roberts

image credit: The Presidential Administration of Ukraine (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the single most significant story in international relations this year so far has been the increased tension on the Russia-Ukraine border. Around 100,000 to 135,000 Russian troops are now massed on the border, stoking fears of war in Europe and repeating the suffering visited upon Ukrainians during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Although that conflict has become distant in the minds of many western Europeans and others, the people of Ukraine have not been given the luxury of ignoring their colossal neighbour to the east. Indeed, even after the Russian seizure of Crimea, violence has simmered on in the eastern part of the country over the past eight years. Pro-Russian separatists occupy significant parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and have proclaimed two unrecognised ‘people’s republics’. Since the start of the conflict eight years ago, Donetsk and Luhansk have seen 29 separate ceasefires, with the longest lasting no more than six weeks. In all, the Council on Foreign Relations estimates the number of casualties caused by the conflict to be 13,000, and the number of displaced persons to be 1.5 million.

All of this presents an extremely bleak view of the situation in Ukraine and reminds us of the heavy human costs of the ongoing conflict. With this in mind, it is all the more alarming that a further escalation of the conflict seems increasingly likely. Observers worldwide are once again confronted with the prospect of a belligerent Russia violating the sovereignty of a smaller neighbour and a further destabilisation of international relations, fuelling narratives of the decline of the post-Cold War global order dominated by the United States. It is worth remembering, however, that Russia itself faces likely consequences in any future invasion. Despite its initial claims that the ‘little green men’ fighting in Ukraine had nothing to do with them, Russia has not been immune from the human cost of the conflict. Statistics are difficult to come by, but judging by the US State Department’s estimation that around 500 Russian soldiers died in the first year of the conflict, it seems reasonable to assume that Russian casualties from the war in total are in their thousands. Putin’s regime was also subject to extensive sanctions from large parts of the international community, striking hard at a Russian economy that had still not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.

Why, then, would Putin even be considering yet another invasion of Ukraine? As with all such questions about large-scale crises, the answers and interpretations will be many. Maybe Russia aims to sow dissent and enact regime change in Ukraine, ensuring a more amenable government in this strategically important buffer state. Perhaps it is acting for economic reasons, extending its influence over a state that stands between the lucrative Russian gas industry and its eager customers in Europe. It is likely that these factors and others play their part, however a full assessment of Russian aims in Ukraine requires a historical perspective. When searching for explanations of Russian aggression towards Ukraine, western commentators often suggest nostalgia for the Soviet Union, with its immense territorial extent and global influence. This is understandable given that much of modern Russia’s leadership is drawn from the ranks of the KGB and other Soviet agencies, with Putin among them.  Famously, the president once asserted ‘whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart, whoever wants it back has no brain’. The second part of that quote is the most revealing, as it reminds us that his political points of reference are considerably different from those of the former leaders of the Soviet Union.

Given that there appears to be such continuity between Soviet and Russian attitudes in foreign policy, it can be easily forgotten in the west that these are two distinct states. The pre-1991 USSR was nominally a union of several socialist republics of which the Russian republic was the largest, but was by no means entirely dominant. The multi-national character of the Soviet Union and Marxism’s complicated relationship with nationalism, was a central issue in the state until its end, and indeed many have argued that such debates, exacerbated by Mikhail Gorbachev’s decentralising reforms, contributed to the ultimate breakup of the USSR. That collapse, when it came in 1991, was profoundly destabilising for the region in several ways. As well as signalling the final end of the Cold War and the departure of one of the most influential players on the global scene, a staggering 25 million Russians found themselves living outside of the newfound Russian Federation. Over 8 million of these were in Ukraine, by far the highest number of the former Soviet states outside of Russia. Statistics like these present a Russian connection to Ukraine that is deep and well-established, and it is on this connection that Putin is drawing on in order to strengthen his regime and give cohesion to a society still emerging from the turmoil of 1991, and more recently buckling under economic pressure.

Often analyses of Putin’s motivation consists of theorising and guesswork, however in this case we can point to an article written by the president himself last year, revealingly titled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’, describing the two countries as comprising ‘essentially the same historical and spiritual space,’, and citing the role of Kiev in particular as a progenitor of Russian culture, stretching back to the early Middle Ages. Rather than the Soviet Union with its class-based and revolutionary rhetoric, this harks back to the earlier Russian Empire, its role as the perceived champion of the Slavs of Europe, as well as a state whose identity was bound up in the official imperial ideology of ‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality’, three principles that certainly also shape Putin’s vision of what a stable and cohesive Russian society looks like and what should drive its foreign relations. This points to the motivation of national identity and cohesion as being perhaps the most significant in Russia’s insistence on continuing to pressure Ukraine to back down from such a historically significant area for which the Russian people would be anathema to a nationalist Russian leader like Putin. With the president having invoked supposedly oppressed Russian speakers in Ukraine as an excuse for military intervention throughout the crisis, it seems unlikely that such nationalist rhetoric will end any time soon.

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