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In pursuing his imperial ambition, Putin underestimated Ukrainian nationalism

Just what does Putin’s invasion of Ukraine signify? How do we understand Putin’s objectives and motivations?

Let us begin with what the invasion is not about. It is not about the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, which disintegrated after seven decades in 1991. Putin’s hour-long speech on February 24, which laid out the rationale for war, was severely critical of the Communist handling of Ukraine, which he called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine”. Indeed, his critique of Communism was larger. As is widely known, the Soviet Constitution granted the right to secede to the 15 constituent republics of the USSR. Lenin’s assumption was that nationalism flourished if nationhood was denied. By recognising the languages and cultures of 15 national groups — from the Estonians on the northwestern tip all the way down to the Uzbeks on the southeastern flank — the Soviet Union would end up extinguishing internal nationalisms. All 15 nations would make a transition to a higher state of human consciousness. They would be Communist/Soviet. If you are no longer national, why would you secede from the Soviet Union?

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In his speech, Putin called this theory an “odious and Utopian fantasy inspired by the Communist revolution”. Indeed, exercising the right to secede in 1991, all 15 republics of the Soviet Union did become independent nations. Lenin and the Communists, said Putin, were wrong about nationalism, whose “virus” still persists.

What should then Moscow do, if not rebuild the Soviet Union? Using the various speeches of Putin, scholars of Russia point to his frequent citation of the concept of “Russky Mir”, translated as “Russian World”. A non-literal, but more appropriate, translation would be a Russian imperium, consisting of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Belarus has already accepted Russian hegemony, but having less than 10 million people, it is small. With a population of more than 40 million and having a land-mass second only to Russia in Eurasia, Ukraine is infinitely more significant. In the words of Lilia Shevtsova, a scholar of the region, Ukraine is “a star in the Russian galaxy”, accounting for what she calls “Russia’s Ukraine obsession”.

In the February 24 speech and his widely noted 5000-word essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, published by the Kremlin on July 12, 2021, Putin offered three arguments about Ukraine.

First, Ukraine is an “inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space”. Only during 1918-21 and, then, for a mere three decades after 1991 has Ukraine been independent. In contrast, he said, Ukrainians have called themselves Russians for centuries and have also been Orthodox Christians, thus sharing their religion with Russia. Their statehood was “never stable”. They were historically an integral part of Russia.

Second, Ukraine’s new leaders are “building their statehood on the negation of everything that historically united us”, in the process “distorting the mentality and historical memory of millions of people”. In the creation of pro-Western, anti-Russian attitudes, the political leaders have been systematically helped by Ukraine’s oligarchs, who have “stolen billions of dollars from the people and kept them in Western banks”. Ukraine’s move towards Europe and the West is thus a conspiracy hatched by the political elites and oligarchs, going against the historical truths and violating the honest sentiments of Ukrainian masses.

Third, Ukraine’s gravitation towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), argues Putin, poses a grave security threat to Russia. It is a two-headed threat. If NATO admits Ukraine as a member, an anti-Russian, US-led security umbrella will reach the doorsteps of Russia. Moreover, Ukraine used to host Soviet-era nuclear weapons before giving them up in 1994. The know-how, says Putin, has not disappeared and Ukraine can easily develop its own tactical nuclear weapons capable of hitting Russia, an argument the scholars of nuclear weapons find wholly false. Nuclear weapons require much more than technical knowhow.

Essentially, these three arguments boil down to one foundational claim — Ukraine cannot have an independent state because it was historically part of Russia. Any attempt at expression of independence, or Ukraine’s Western desire, must be militarily crushed.

Longstanding nationalism theory tells us why this argument is deeply flawed, apart from being profoundly dangerous if accompanied with military action. Over the last four decades, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities has become the most authoritative text on nations and nationalism. Anderson has persuaded the scholarly world that nations were born only after the 18th century. They are modern political constructs. Indeed, most nations were born in the 19th and 20th century. Earlier polities took two forms, both non-national: empires or city-states. There was no Russian nation before the modern times, only a Russian empire.

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Leaving this conceptual reasoning aside, the absurdity of Putin’s argument can be more concretely illustrated if we draw a South Asian comparison. We know that there was no Pakistan before 1947, and no Bangladesh before 1971. Both were, historically, parts of India, and they even speak languages also spoken in India. Such conditions, however, neither mean that India can legitimately claim them as its own today, nor that they must be brought back into an Akhand Bharat (undivided India) with military means. As history progressed, both Pakistan and Bangladesh emerged from the development of national consciousness, became nations in their own right, evolved statehood reflecting that consciousness, and received international recognition for their sovereignty.

With over 92 per cent vote in favour of independence, Ukraine opted overwhelmingly for a break-up from the Soviet Union in 1991, and other than in some small parts, especially on its eastern borders, there is no evidence of a popular desire to re-unite with Russia. It is also now providing one of the ultimate tests of national resolve and consciousness. Ready to sacrifice their lives, citizens are turning into street soldiers, mounting an impressive resistance against the Russian armed forces. The emergence of citizen soldiers, aiding professional soldiers, reflects a highly developed form of national consciousness.

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Putin might have expected that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian armed forces with open arms, or view them as liberators from an illegitimate elite wrongly taking them down the disloyal Western path. But what we are witnessing today is a full-blown national rebellion against a mighty neighbour bent upon bullying and subjugating.

History tells us that these conditions lead to lasting conflict. Ukraine will be no exception. Devastation and resistance are likely to continue.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on March 5, 2022 under the title ‘Putin’s decision’. The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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