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Conflicting Ideas and Contested Geographies: The Role of History in Explaining the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

By Nachiket Midha

There is a natural tendency to gravitate, or hark back, to the present moment when talking about a historical process or event. This bias becomes more prevalent if that event is ongoing or unfolding. At the present moment, Russia and Ukraine are caught up in one of the deadliest conflicts in recent history. How does one make sense of this conflict? What role does history play here? This article looks at the historical arguments and does not focus on the recent history (past hundred years or so) but goes way beyond to look at the origins of sovereignty, nationality, statehood, and thus, the conflict. In short, this article argues that the answer to the ongoing conflict lies in a closer analysis of historical assertions through a historiographic quest.

To understand the complex history of the Russian region and its boundary, this article’s primary focus will be Vladimir Putin’s essay dated Twelfth July of the past year. Since the war was declared unilaterally by Russia, it becomes imperative to understand what Putin’s historical view consists of. In doing so, we shall simultaneously look at counterfactuals or counterarguments to Putin’s understanding. 

Putin’s Vision: History and Hubris

Russian President Vladimir Putin penned down a seven thousand words essay last year titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” One can understand the essay as Putin’s take on his periphery (Russia’s periphery), the ‘idea of Ukraine’ and the idea of a new Russia. A closer analysis of the essay reveals three broad things or three contested visions. 

The first is the vision of a “unified” Russia. Putin begins his essay by saying that “…Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole,” and that in his view, both Russia and Ukraine are a part of “…the same historical and spiritual space.” This brings the question of sovereignty into play. Putin’s emphasis on a “unified” Russia based on the shared geography between present-day Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians traces back to the Ancient Rus in his view. By bringing in the idea of a ‘glorified’ past, Putin, in actuality, is diminishing the sovereignty of these states; this is the first implication. The second implication of a unified Russia is that, by downplaying sovereignty, Putin is bringing himself closer to how the Chinese act while dealing with historical questions. This idea of a unified Russia is, in reality, very much akin to the Chinese mentality of it being a middle kingdom. Just like the Chinese, Putin’s emphatic call for historical restoration of one grandiose Russian empire is precarious since it downplays the role of modern-day Westphalian sovereignty. Putin is also keen to mention the commonality of language intermittently in his essay. It seems that Putin’s nationalism for a unified Russia derives from two things, (a) a sense of linguistic cohesion or linguistic nationalism, and (b) an idea of a historical (perhaps sacred) geography or historical-territorial nationalism.

The second contested idea in Putin’s commentary, stemming from the concept of sovereignty, concerns the survival and the nature of statehood. Putin is also eager to highlight that“Ukraine” was used more often in the meaning of the Old Russian word “okraina” (periphery), which is found in written sources from the 12th century, referring to various border territories. And the word “Ukrainian,” judging by archival documents, originally referred to [the] frontier guards.” By taking such a stance, Putin not only diminishes the idea of a distinct Ukrainian nation-state but also hints at its historical subsumption under the Ancient Rus. This assertion raises two momentous questions that indicate the weakness of Putin’s historical claim. Firstly, can’t frontiers or borderlands have a distinct affiliation leading to a separate nationalistic belonging? Secondly, aren’t there other factors responsible for culminating a nationalist sentiment apart from Putin’s twin elements, historical and linguistic? Both these questions have a response in the negative. Therefore, Putin’s theoretical rendering of Ukrainians being just a frontier group is nothing more than a semantic irritation. 

The third broad theme that the essay takes is closer to recent memory. Putin relies on recent Soviet history to suggest that the whole idea of a Ukrainian nation is owed to the existence of the former USSR. Putin, while recalling a certain provision that grants autonomy to the different units in the USSR, says that “…the authors planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the leading role of the CPSU was gone, the party itself collapsing from within. A “parade of sovereignties” followed.” For Putin, Russia was “robbed.” This line of reasoning and thought turned out to be pernicious as is evident from Putin’s move to invade. 

It is quite evident that the nation-building process is an ongoing project. For Russia it is still ongoing, and thus, the invasion. At a more fundamental level, this also represents the limits of nation-building projects on both sides. For Russia, specifically for Putin, the recalling of history embodies the unrealized visions of the past and wounds unhealed that he thinks he can realize and heal, respectively. By reimagining and, more importantly, re-enacting the “vision” of an unrealized ‘Russian empire’ Putin wishes to complete the nation-building project. On the other hand, the disturbances in the Donbas region of Ukraine represent the supposed unfulfilled aspirations. Stroked further by Putin’s plan, this denotes an inability to defend that sovereignty. 

Countering Putin: Another Interpretation of History

Like all ideas and events, Putin’s view of history is also contested. Some say it is a myth and a complete false rendering; others provide a more nuanced argument to counter him. One counterfactual is that “…Ukraine is a nation with more than a thousand years of history, and Kyiv was already a major metropolis when Moscow was not even a village.” Yuval Noah Harrari even goes as far as claiming that Putin lost the war the moment he declared it because of his faulty understanding of history. 

Again, looking at the cartographical history, one finds that the Ukrainian sovereignty is well-rooted in factual evidence. While Russia has employed its control strategy to eventually occupy Kharkiv and Kyiv, recent history tells that it has been a part of Ukraine. While Putin can claim that “…true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” the (f)actual version says the opposite. Also, a crucial fact of the matter is that the “Maps have made empires and helped to unmake them.” Therefore, discounting historical cartography from consideration leaves Ukraine in a tough spot.  

Conclusion: Agency, Autonomy, and Ability

As a concluding note, Putin has impacted three main things. First, by claiming that Ukraine is a part of the larger Russian vision, Putin has left Ukraine agency-less by appropriating its distinct history, culture, and national vision. Second, and concomitantly, by invading Ukraine, Putin has taken away a modern nation-state’s autonomy by stripping it of its basic premise of sovereignty. Lastly, a State both agency-less and non-autonomous has no ability left other than its people and the promise of nationhood.  

Nachiket is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.
Nachiket Midha | LinkedIn

Image credits – Reuters

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