As the first cracks appear in the Kremlin leadership, it it is becoming clear that this is Putin's war against Ukraine. Nato's expansion is a secondary factor, the pretext Putin used to get doubters like foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on his side. Putin's aim is to destroy Ukraine as a sovereign nation and restore it as a vassal of 'historic Russia' – his twisted vision of the 'family of peoples' living in the lands of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus from the time of Kievan Rus in the first millennium. Putin's war is a war over history. But his history is fantasy.
Like many Russians of his generation, schooled in Soviet views of history, Putin never really recognised the independence of Ukraine. In 2008, he told George Bush, the U.S. president, that Ukraine was ‘not a real country’ but a historic part of greater Russia, a borderland protecting Moscow’s heartlands from the West.
That was a view he might have read in any Russian history book, starting with Karamzin's History of the Russian State (1818-1829), the founding work of Russia's imperial historiography. His reading of it tells him that Russia has been strong when its people were united behind a strong state; weak and vulnerable to foreign invasion when the people were divided or lost sight of the ‘Russian principles’ that united and distinguished them.
Ukraine has a special place in this view of history. It was both a 'borderland' (the meaning of the Slav word 'ukraina') and a conduit for western ideas in Russia. That was why the tsars banned Ukrainian-language publications in the nineteenth century. They feared Ukrainian nationalism as a democratic force. Putin likewise fears Ukraine. A burgeoning democracy on his doorstep represents a challenge to his regime in Russia.
He does not express his fears that way but wraps them up in history to make them seem like facts. In July 2021, he wrote a long article ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ in which he dwelt on all those moments in four hundred years of history when the West had tried to turn Ukraine against Russia. He basically argued that nationalism in Ukraine had been created by Russia's enemies to dismantle its empire.
Because the essay is full of arcane references to long-dead historical disputes, it is not fit for propaganda purposes. But in his speeches Putin talks of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist whose partisans collaborated with the Nazis in the war. He absurdly claims that the Zelensky government is reliant on 'Banderovites' armed and financed by the West.
Putin's notion of the 'Russian world', which has fuelled his foreign policy since 2012, is equally absurd historically. The idea was advanced by Patriarch Kiriil, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to reclaim its spiritual inheritance from Kievan Rus, a link broken by the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was seized on by Putin, who used it to assert his country's right to defend Russian speakers, the ‘tens of millions of our (sic) citizens' who 'found themselves outside the territory of Russia' after 1991.
The fact that these Russian speakers were citizens of foreign sovereign states, and identified themselves as such, did not count in Putin’s view. History justified his reincorporation of their 'Russian lands' (the Crimea, the Donbas, all Ukraine) into 'greater' or 'historic Russia' – a 'civilisation' going back to Kievan Rus.
This civilisational thinking comes straight from pages of the nineteenth-century Slavophiles, who wanted Russia to reject the western path in favour of its own 'traditional values' (the collectivism of the 'Russian soul' and similar ideas). It owes most to Nikolai Danilevsky, who argued that Russia was not part of Europe and should not seek its approval or measure its own progress by western ‘universal’ principles, which were in fact self-serving, a means for Europe to impose its values on other civilisations. All Putin's talk of western 'double-standards' and 'hypocrisy' is rooted in this politics of resentment.
Such ideas would lead Tsar Nicholas I to fight the whole of Europe in the Crimean War – a war, as he saw it, to defend the Orthodox beyond Russia's frontiers. His adventure failed. The tsar miscalculated the resolve of the western powers to fight Russian aggression against the Ottoman Empire, and fooled himself into believing that the sultan's Slavs would greet his troops with open arms.
Putin has made a similar mistake. The Russians of east Ukraine may have voted for the pro-Russian parties in the past, but this war has united them behind the Zelensky government.
Putin has also underestimated the Ukrainians' determination to defend their land and freedom. The Ukrainians are a diverse people but many of them trace their origins to the Cossacks, the tsar's best fighters who won most of Russia's wars. Putin has forgotten his Russian history.