op_bildt1_ARIS MESSINISAFP via Getty Images_ukraine crissi ARIS MESSINISAFP via Getty Images
en English

Putin's Imperial Delirium

When the history of this period is written, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be seen as an unwitting creator of the Ukrainian nation that he wanted so much to destroy. Whether in exile or at home, Ukrainian nationalism is likely to grow even stronger in the long run as a result of Putin's effort to extinguish it.

STOCKHOLM – War has erupted in Europe again, and responsibility rests squarely with one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The martial drumbeat had been growing louder for months. But on February 21, Putin staged a remarkable puppet show in the Kremlin. Forcing his entire security council into submission, he delivered a rambling, hour-long televised speech in which he showed himself to be a man consumed by nationalist myths and imperial nostalgia, bent on extinguishing an independent Ukraine. Three days later, Putin launched a full-scale, predawn invasion.

Europe hasn’t seen anything like this since Adolf Hitler attacked and invaded Poland in September 1939. But that is the brutal reality. To see how we got here and what Putin wants, we need to revisit the build-up to his war.

Myth and Reality

The February 21 speech wasn’t the first time Putin had questioned Ukraine’s right to exist independently of Russia – though he did carry this thesis to new heights of delusion. (Clearly, his extreme self-isolation during the COVID years has taken its toll.)

Putin often returns to the fact that Christianity was brought to the Eastern Slavic world with the baptism of Prince Valdemar in the spring of 989, in the city of Chersonesus, the ruins of which can be seen in the outskirts of Sevastopol, in Crimea. That historic event illustrates the complexity of the matter at hand today.

The prince who is called Vladimir in Russian is called Volodymyr in Ukrainian; but in his childhood, he would probably have answered to Valdemar. He was born of a Scandinavian Viking clan that had come to rule over the cities of Novgorod and Kyiv, along the littoral trading route between the Baltic and Black Seas. By that time, Chersonesus had been a Greek city for about a millennium.

Not until centuries after the Kievan Rus state had been established did the state of Muscovy begin to emerge, with Moscow at its center. For centuries, the area that would become Russia was under the tutelage of the Mongols, and the area that would become Ukraine was largely dominated by Poland and Lithuania, with the open steppes to the south being the domain of the roaming Tatars and Cossacks.

Hence, when Putin, in his rambling speech, referred repeatedly to “historic Russian lands,” he was being not just ahistorical but downright fanciful. To be sure, in later centuries, these lands were conquered by Imperial Russia and included in its domains. But this was not always a harmonious period, because even by then, a Ukrainian national consciousness had begun to emerge, reflecting the area’s unique historical background. Though Ivan Mazepa was eventually defeated by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, his memory lived on as a Ukrainian national hero.

The Prison of Nations

Imperial Russia, which seems to figure prominently in Putin’s fevered dreams, was often known as the “prison of nations.” Ruled by the czar and dominated by the Russians, it included numerous nationalities that secretly or openly longed to shape their own futures. And when the empire collapsed, and Russia sank into a brutal civil war, most of them, including Ukraine, declared their independence.

But the Bolsheviks eventually emerged victorious and went on to set up their Soviet state, basing it on the fiction of a union of national republics with various degrees of autonomy. Some non-Russian nations managed to preserve the independence they had declared, and some did not. Ukraine fell into the latter category.

Putin now sees the old Soviet structure as a cardinal sin. By establishing a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Bolsheviks de facto recognized the existence of a Ukrainian nation. Putin thus has attacked Vladimir Lenin for committing a profound error in creating the Ukrainian administrative entity. In Putin’s opinion, it was better when the czar was the source of all power (a tradition reprised by Stalin when he brutally ended any illusion of distributed powers).

When the Soviet state collapsed seven decades later, history repeated itself, with all those captive nations that had not managed to preserve their sovereignty declaring independence once again. In a referendum on December 1, 1991, 90% of Ukrainians – and a majority in every single region of the country – voted for independence. Even in Crimea, where support was lowest, 57% voted for an independent Ukraine. A few weeks later, the Soviet Union dissolved itself.

Catastrophes and Failures

Putin, who famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “major geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century,” does not think Ukraine and the other captive nations should have been allowed to become independent. That they were merely reflected the weakness of the Russian state at that time.

Ukrainian independence certainly brought difficult issues to the fore. Nationalists in Russia wanted control of Crimea; there were numerous issues of industrial integration to sort out; and there was the fact that one-third of the old Soviet nuclear arsenal was housed on Ukrainian territory. Most of these problems were resolved through the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine relinquishing the entire nuclear arsenal. One side kept its word; the other did not.

The second act of the drama came in 2004, when Ukrainians elected a president with a distinctly pro-Western orientation. Moscow’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych – who later did become president – was initially declared the winner and congratulated by Putin. But after evidence of massive electoral fraud was uncovered, large popular protests erupted. When a free and fair election was held, Viktor Yushchenko emerged as the winner. Putin had misjudged Ukraine, and his strategy ultimately alienated many Ukrainians, undercutting his own influence.

SUMMER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

SUMMER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99

Subscribe Now

The same basic scenario was repeated on an even larger scale a decade later. By then, Yanukovych had been elected president in a free and fair election, and Ukraine had been eagerly knocking on the European Union’s door. In 2014, the EU and Ukraine had concluded an Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. This was not to Putin’s liking. Determined to have Ukraine inside the semi-imperialist Eurasian Union that he intended to create, he pursued a series of measures to pressure Yanukovych not to sign the agreement. But when Yanukovych did as he was told, major popular protests erupted again.

The regime met this uprising with extreme violence, leaving a hundred people dead in the streets of Kyiv. On February 21, 2014, with the help of the German, Polish, and French foreign ministers – but also with a Russian presidential representative as part of the talks – a deal was reached to end the crisis. Under the agreement, the next presidential election would be brought forward, the constitution would assume a more parliamentary orientation, a new coalition government would be set up, and those responsible for the killings would be held accountable.

The crisis seemed to be over. But instead of staying to carry out the agreement, Yanukovych suddenly left Kyiv, and later was smuggled into Russia. In the absence of a president, the Ukrainian parliament proceeded to implement the agreement to the letter. Even a clear majority of Yanukovych’s own party voted to see the measures through. The new coalition government was set up, and another presidential election was called.

Later, the Kremlin would repeatedly describe these events as a coup. It was nothing of the sort. After days of massive protests and brutal killings by the authorities, calm immediately returned to the streets of Kyiv.

But while there was no coup in Kyiv, there was obviously a crisis in the Kremlin. As Putin later admitted, this was when he made the decision to seize Crimea. A week later, a Russian special forces unit took over the regional parliament in Simferopol, and installed a local thug who had garnered only limited support in the previous election. Once this was done, Russia followed through with its annexation of the peninsula.

Not content with this seizure of territory, Putin also continued with an attempt to destabilize, and eventually take over, most of southern Ukraine, establishing an entity called Novorossiya. But once again, he misjudged Ukraine. The Ukrainian army and the police were in shambles, but still they managed to repel Russia’s “little green men” (soldiers with no military insignia). Putin thus was left with no choice but to send in regular Russian army battalions to salvage what he could of the failed effort. In the meantime, Ukraine had elected a new president in an election that international observers deemed free and fair.

It was alongside this earlier Russian invasion that the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were created in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Their governance has been opaque in the extreme, with leaders appointed and demoted (or simply killed) as a consequence of factional fights in Moscow. As for the “people,” the tragic fact is that the majority of them are no longer there, having fled primarily to Ukrainian territories.

Despite annexing Crimea and establishing a pair of vassal statelets, Putin essentially failed in 2014. Ukraine’s democracy survived. It went forward with the EU Association Agreement and started to revive its economy. Ukrainians’ hostility toward Russia deepened only further as small-scale warfare with the gangster republics in the east dragged, leaving some 14,000 dead.

Around the same time, NATO countries recognized that they needed to start increasing their defense spending, and the alliance deployed non-national forces to its eastern member states for the first time. There had been no NATO military presence there before, because the alliance’s attention had been directed elsewhere, on faraway countries like Afghanistan. In fact, in 2013, the US had withdrawn its last tank from Europe.

Through his own aggressive behavior, Putin has almost single-handedly revived NATO. Historians will debate why he launched this fourth, deeply tragic act in the drama between the Kremlin and Ukraine. Perhaps the less-than-glorious US withdrawal from Afghanistan gave him the impression that the US was in retreat and could be pressed to make concessions that could then be imposed on Ukraine and other reluctant Europeans. (Putin’s security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, hinted as much in statements after the Kabul debacle.)

In any case, Putin threw down the gauntlet against the West with a battery of extreme demands, issued with the threat of a massive military mobilization. Not since the erratic Nikita Khrushchev was in charge in the early 1960s has a Kremlin leader acted in this way. From the beginning, it was obvious that Putin would either have to back down substantially or pursue his aims with military force.

End Days

Putin’s objective in Ukraine was never limited to Donbas, or even to blocking NATO membership. Rather, the issue for him has always been Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign country. Putin made his strategic intent clear in a remarkable essay published last July – a document that immediately became required reading for the Russian armed forces. Following his policy debacles in 2004 and 2014, he probably realized that Ukraine would continue turning toward the West, strengthening its democracy and slipping further out of the Kremlin’s reach.

He was right. He was on a losing track, owing to his own mistakes, and he couldn’t stand it. So, he convinced himself that there was an opportunity to turn it all around. And with the West refusing to capitulate, there could be no diplomatic solution. Though it wasn’t wrong to try diplomacy, some of the rhetoric surrounding these attempts seems somewhat naive in retrospect. Putin probably made up his mind months ago.

Either way, the illusion has been dispelled. Putin is now trying to conquer Ukraine and decapitate its government, removing its current leaders by whatever means and installing a puppet regime. With that, Ukrainian independence will be extinguished, as Putin has desired all along.

But Putin cannot extinguish the Ukrainian nation. Whether in exile or at home, Ukraine is likely to grow even stronger in the long run. And when the history of this period is written, Putin will be seen as an unwitting creator of the Ukrainian nation that he wanted so much to destroy. He has united Ukrainians in hatred for the Russia that he represents.

History hasn’t ended. It has entered a new, dangerous phase, in which the future of the current regime in the Kremlin also will be at stake.