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Oxana Shevel is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine is in full swing, with the final outcome unknown. Given Russia’s military dominance over the Ukrainian army, few seem to doubt that if the assault continues, the Russian army will defeat the Ukrainian military.
But does this mean Putin can achieve victory over a country larger than France with a population of some 44 million? In his obsession with Ukraine, Putin greatly misunderstands it. This misunderstanding contributed to his decision to invade, and it stands to foil his plans for restoration of Russian power over the country.
In his hour-long speech delivered days before he launched a full-scale military invasion, Putin aired a litany of grievances. He claimed the U.S.-led NATO bloc of Western democracies was dead set on destroying Russia by way of Ukraine. Enumerating fantastic scenarios that included the U.S. planning to put nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s territory and NATO assisting Ukraine to retake annexed Crimea and placing ballistic missiles aimed at Moscow in Ukraine’s provincial airports, Putin presented Ukraine as both a mortal threat to Russia and a victim in need of liberation.
In his delusion, he alleged that the West controls Ukraine, down to the level of municipalities and the lowest units in the military. And Ukrainians are victims of foreign powers and the ruling “Nazi” government (though President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and had family members who were murdered in the Holocaust), who have been deprived of their “true” identity — a common identity with Russians.
Putin argued in a lengthy essay last summer that Ukraine is merely a quasi-state, an “artificial” construct of Vladimir Lenin born after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and that Ukraine is not a “real” nation but a “natural” part of a greater Russian nation.
Historians and scholars of nationalism can take numerous issues with Putin’s reading of history, starting with the assumption that some of today’s nations are “real” while others are “artificial.” Dominant theories of nationalism reject the premise that modern nations are millennia-old natural entities, and hold instead that all nations are socially and politically constructed over the course of relatively recent history. A distinct Ukrainian nation today is indeed an “artificial” construct, but so are the modern Russian, French, German and other nations as well.
Historical processes by which the modern Ukrainian nation emerged are complex. Ukrainian identity continued to evolve since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, oscillating between Russia and the West. In recent years, however, Ukrainian identity drew away from Russia.
Ironically, Putin himself contributed greatly to the solidification of a distinct Ukrainian national identity with popular views increasingly aligned against Russia. As Russia moved to annex Crimea and foment and support a separatist insurgency in the Donbas region in 2014, following the protests that drove the pro-Russian Ukrainian president out of power, civic Ukrainian identity strengthened while pro-Russian attitudes declined.
Putin, however, repeatedly either dismissed these Ukrainian identity changes all together, or framed polling data as falsified preferences, because pro-Russian Ukrainians were too afraid to answer opinion polls because they were ruled by a “Nazi” regime.
These delusions about Ukraine and Ukrainians almost certainly informed Putin’s military plans. A protracted war with substantial casualties risks growth of domestic opposition to the war, including within the ruling Russian elites.
Putin called on Ukrainian soldiers to surrender and appears to be counting on a quick victory and outright welcome from “liberated” Ukrainians, now free to express their “true” pro-Russian preferences.
In this frame, there would be no need for an occupation, and Putin said he is not planning to occupy Ukraine permanently. Instead, the stated goal of the military action is to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine.
Western intelligence reports indicate that Putin’s game plan seems to involve installing a pro-Russian puppet government in Kyiv that will then rule Ukraine, guided by the Kremlin’s wishes. These plans extend far beyond military or foreign policy alliances, and a “denazification” campaign would likely target civil society activists, pro-democracy and anti-corruption campaigners, as well as intellectuals and academics who have researched Stalinist atrocities such as the 1932-33 Holodomor (the famine that killed more than 3 million Ukrainians), the complexities of World War II, and other subjects and interpretations that do not fit with Putin’s glorification of Soviet history.
According to a recent British report, Ukrainians targeted in this campaign would be eliminated or sent to concentration camps. The remaining “good” Ukrainians will presumably live happily under Russian rule.
But how does one rule over a country of tens of millions that rejects this rule? A puppet government, if installed, will lack any legitimacy and can only rule with the full force of Russian guns behind it, which would necessitate Russia’s full and sustained occupation of Ukraine.
As Western states contemplate further actions and weigh probabilities of Putin’s next moves, two things appear certain: Ukraine’s resolve to be free, and Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s right to exist as a free state. Standing up to Putin as he seeks to destroy freedom for Ukraine defends not only Ukraine and its people. It would defend a core value of Western democracies and thus their national interests as well.