As the war in Ukraine enters its second hundred days, there is no let-up in the frenzied search for explanations about the origins of the war, and speculation about its consequences and the possibilities of a solution. Missing from most of this, however, is any sense of historical perspective. The natural focus on the immediate circumstances and events that precipitated the war obscures the fact that the present war is not an isolated event, but is part of a much longer-term pattern of the suppression of any form of Ukrainian identity by the Russian state in its Muscovite, Imperial, Soviet or post-Soviet guises.
The Russian state has long laid claims to the territory and people of Ukraine. It sees itself as the successor to the medieval state of Kievan Rus (circa 850-1250) which once ruled the territory now encompassed by Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Much of Russian history since the 15th century has been dominated by the desire to reconstitute the territory of Kievan Rus under Moscow’s rule. Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow (1440-1505) began the process and it continued through the imperial period, reaching its apogee under Stalin in 1945 when western Ukraine came under Soviet control. Eliminating expressions of Ukrainian identity has been an essential part of this.
Any attempt to create an independent Ukrainian state has been remorselessly opposed by Moscow’s rulers. The Hetmanate state, established by the Ukrainian Cossacks in the mid-17th century, the Ukrainian Republic proclaimed after the October Revolution and the present-day state of Ukraine have never been accepted by whatever regime ruled in Moscow. During the Russian civil war, both the Bolsheviks and their opponents, the White movement, led by the military, opposed an independent Ukraine. The White generals fought the civil war under the slogan “Russia One and Indivisible” by which they meant the reincorporation of all the territories of the Russian empire into a new Russian state. Putin is very much the heir of the White movement.
The rejection of the institutions of Ukrainian statehood has been accompanied by a more sinister rejection of the existence of a Ukrainian people. Russian rulers have long denied any separate Ukrainian identity, while simultaneously energetically suppressing any manifestation of this supposedly non-existent identity. Executions, mass deportations, arrests, prison, censorship and forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language have all been deployed to suppress Ukrainian identity over the past four centuries. These measures culminated in the 1930s when Stalin and his cronies attacked the bedrock of the Ukrainian nation: the peasantry and the intelligentsia. In 1932-1933, a famine deliberately engineered by the state claimed the lives of at least four million Ukrainian peasants. The Holodomor as the famine is known and the extermination of the cultural elite are widely regarded in Ukraine as acts of genocide and are now a defining part of Ukrainian national identity. A bitter anti-Soviet partisan war in western Ukraine took until the mid-1950s to suppress.
Viewing the war launched by Vladimir Putin in February of this year in the context of the last 400 years or so of Ukrainian/Russian relations demonstrates that this war and the brutality with which it is being waged are not aberrations. Nor is the war solely a product of immediate circumstances such as the megalomania of one man, the expansion of Nato or the desire of Ukraine to become part of the West. It is rooted in a refusal by the Russian state, its ruling elites and a large part of the population to accept that Ukrainians are a separate people and Ukraine a separate nation. Putin, like the White generals, subscribes to an ideology of Russia One and Indivisible which encompasses Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Poland. Belarus is already de facto a part of the Russian Federation, Ukraine is being taken piecemeal and the general direction of travel is not hard to discern.
What this means of course is that those advocating a settlement based on the cession of Ukrainian lands to Moscow are entirely ignorant of the long-term trends of Russian history. The aim of Putin, like his predecessors, has been and is always the reincorporation of all of Ukraine into some form of a Russian empire. Any peace based on territorial concessions will only be a ceasefire until Putin or his successor is ready to go again. The vast majority of the population in Ukraine recognise this is an existential war. Putin’s polices in the occupied territories are depressingly familiar to students of Ukrainian and Russian history. Those advocating a “realist” approach to Ukraine are actually rather naive when it comes to Russian foreign policy in general and to Ukraine in particular. They would do well to read a bit more Ukrainian and Russian history before pronouncing so confidently that Ukraine must make concessions for the sake of peace. Two things are necessary for a permanent peace: one is to embed Ukraine firmly as part of the West and the second is for the Russians to accept that the age of imperialism is over. Unlikely? We don’t have to look very far for an example of where this has happened. Ireland’s own relationship with an overweening imperial power shows what is possible given time and determination.
Dr Shane O’Rourke is a senior lecturer in history at University of York