It is impossible for me to write anything at the moment other than as it relates to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All else seems insignificant although I don’t subscribe to the view that because of this all else should be forgiven or forgotten (this morning’s news of a Christmas Eve massacre in Myanmar set me back on my heels, for example). It seems that a new Hitler has risen and that person wears the clothes of Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s attempt to justify Russia’s aggression and barbarism seems to have been conditioned by his view of history and, as you might expect, I have a view on that. Putin has claimed, “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us, it is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” Ukraine’s borders, he says, have no meaning other than as an administrative district of the former Soviet Union. This is in clear conflict with historical facts and the courageous response of millions of Ukrainians, even Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
The territories of Ukraine have a long history with many changes in rulers. I say, territories because the borders of Ukraine have changed over time. The story starts with a descendent of Norse raiders, Volodymyr the Great. He established himself in Kyiv toward the end of the tenth century and ruled parts of Russia and Belarus too. The Mongols established control in the 12th century and when their hold crumbled through the 1300s, it was absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in turn combined by dynastic marriage with Poland, so that for the next two and a half centuries, the territory of Ukraine was ruled from Krakow.
In the late 17th century Moscow entered the picture. Following a long war with Poland over part of modern-day Ukraine, Muscovy annexed Kyiv in 1686. Polish rule was now swapped for its harsher Muscovite counterpart under the Russian Tsars. An uneasy existence settled on the land until Ukraine’s modern national movement appeared in the 1840s, led by Taras Shevchenko who, for his pains, was sent to Siberia. As tsarist rule became more repressive, hundreds of Ukrainian socialists followed Shevchenko into exile where they could exercise more freedom. In Austrian-ruled Lviv, they formed their own political party and sent representatives to Lviv’s provincial assembly.
When the tsarist regime was swept away in 1917, a Ukrainian parliamentary government formed in Kyiv, but it was soon swept away by Bolshevik militias and then by Germany. At the end of World War I the Red Army, the Russian White Army, the Polish army, a Ukrainian army under Symon Petlyura, and an assortment of independent warlords attempted to take control. Under assault by the Reds, Petlyura formed an alliance with Poland before fleeing to Paris when Poland and the Soviet Union made a peace that divided Ukraine again, the Russians taking the east and the centre, the Poles the west.
In 1929, Stalin launched the Holodomor—literally, “killing by hunger”—a program of genocide that witnessed the death of nearly four million Ukrainians. Less than a decade later the Red Army briefly occupied the Polish-ruled western part of the country—the first time Russia had ever controlled this part of Ukraine – but two years after this the Nazis overran Ukraine and two years after that, the Red Army returned. In all more than 5,000,000 Ukrainians died during the war years so Ukraine is no newcomer to the horrors being inflicted upon its citizens.
When the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Ukraine declared its independence (August 24, 1991) with a country-wide plebiscite confirming this declaration 3 months later.
The glass bubble
Like a child viewing himself in a fairground distorting mirror, Putin seems to exist in a Soviet-era bubble. Not only does he have the objective of re-establishing Soviet-era hegemony of neighbouring peoples, he also appears to be paranoid about the USA and more generally NATO, giving the impression that he believes it would only be a matter of time before one or more NATO countries would invade Russia without pre-emptive Russian action.
I personally am at a loss to understand how he has come to this conclusion absent any action or word from anyone to signal this other than positioning of NATO troops and armour near the Russian border to counter Russian acts. Or maybe it’s simply posturing using that age old tactic of creating an external enemy to deflect from domestic problems.
When he overran Crimea and the Donbas, Russian state media claimed that Ukraine had been taken over by a neo-Nazi junta and that Russian forces were going in to liberate undefended Ukrainians. As the extraordinary, heroic Ukrainian response has shown, these claims are nonsense. And saying that Ukraine doesn’t really exist is as absurd as saying that Ireland doesn’t exist because it was once under English rule (much, much longer, in fact, than Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union) or that Texans are really Mexicans or the Dutch are really Spanish or Norwegians are really Swedes.
The idea of a ‘failed state’ and their needing to be defended against their government of ‘drug addicts and neo-Nazis’ is being heroically disproved in the ravaged cities, towns and villages of Ukraine each day. As for the neo-Nazi insult, this is incredible in the truest sense of the word. Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish and in the most recent parliamentary elections, in 2019, Ukraine’s far-right party, Svoboda, won less than 3 percent of the vote.
I quote Anna Reid, a former Kyiv correspondent for The Economist: “As during the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013–14 Maidan protests, which came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine’s fierce self-defense today is a defense of values, not of ethnic identity or of some imagined glorious past. Putin’s obsession with history, in contrast, is a weakness. Although earlier in his presidency, banging the “gathering of the Russian world” drum boosted his approval ratings, it has now led him down what may turn out to be a fatal dead end.
In terms of square mileage alone, Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, after Russia itself … Occupying it permanently would be enormously costly in troops and treasure. Moreover, Putin’s war has unified Ukrainians as never before. And whether they are speaking Russian or Ukrainian, their sentiment is the same. Already, video clips have gone viral of babushkas telling Russian soldiers that they will leave their bones in Ukrainian soil and of Ukrainian soldiers swearing joyously as they fire bazookas at Russian tanks, all in the purest Russian. The war is likely to go on for a long time, and its final outcome is unknown”. As Frederick the Great observed, ‘all wars should be short and rapid; because a long war insensibly relaxes discipline, depopulates the state, and exhausts its resources’.
However, Putin is a poor historian. Rather than putting aside his distorted ‘glass bubble’ view of history, Putin remains blinded, has stumbled on, has reverted to Soviet era totalitarian censorship and control to sell his perverted view. But with the world’s democracies and a strengthening NATO providing an ongoing flow of support, this is not Syria, this is not Chechnya, this is not Georgia, this is not 2014.
I cannot see Russia stopping this war and withdrawing to Ukraine’s borders unless Putin is toppled or NATO steps up its response to confront force with force. But regardless, I can only see Putin failing and Russians paying a dire penalty for Putin’s folly. Putin’s aims are daily being thwarted, NATO is stronger and the sovereignty of Ukraine has been strengthened. Ukrainians have earned the respect of the world in a way inconceivable before this war began whatever the details of the final outcome.
History cannot be bent to your own fantasy. Reality will prevail.
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