The slow-grinding Ukrainian offensive in the country’s south has forced many to accept that the war against Russia might turn out to be a prolonged conflict. But while military experts debate whether or not Ukraine can win this war, and how such a victory could be achieved, the focus on military hardware and territory has skewed the West’s approach to the war and potential solutions. Russia’s war against Ukraine war is not a territorial conflict: it is an identity war aimed at extermination. It will not and cannot be solved by territorial changes or security compromises. Just listen to Putin and take him seriously.
This week, the Russian President sent a message that was extraordinary even by the standards of Russia’s unrestrained wartime propaganda. Speaking to a Kremlin advisory group, Putin declared that 1.5 million Jews, a quarter of all Holocaust victims, were killed by Ukrainian ‘nationalists and anti-Semites’ and that even the Nazis ‘didn’t consider it possible to take part in these mass repressions.’ After that meeting, Putin also told Russian propagandist Pavel Zarubin that ‘western handlers’ deliberately installed an ethnic Jew Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukraine’s president to conceal the country’s ‘anti-human nature.’
It might be tempting to dismiss these statements as conspiratorial lunacy or historical ignorance of an ageing and desperate dictator. It would be wrong. These are not gaffes but prepared, deliberate statements, a message that signals how Putin sees Ukraine and the war. This message is bleak. Putin is not after territory or security. His goal is to destroy Ukraine as a state – and in his vision, there can be no room for compromise.
Putin’s obsession with history and Ukraine go hand in hand. His July 2021 article ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ outlined the Russian president’s conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are a single people that were divided by the machinations of foreign powers and that Ukraine is an artificial state.