With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Understanding Putin's Historical Vision of Ukraine is the Necessary Foundation of Diplomacy

With Western officials warning that a Russian attack on Ukraine could “come at any minute,” it seems appropriate to ask why Vladimir Putin would order such an attack.  The desire to expand Russia’s territory? Fear of Ukraine becoming part of NATO? A desire to restore as much as possible of the old USSR?  With Putin it’s hard to be sure, but regarding his perspective on Ukraine and on NATO more evidence exists. The essay that follows attempts to clarify his views on that neighboring country and that Western-led military alliance.

Explaining such views does not mean justifying them. It is an attempt rather to employ what one scholar calls “strategic empathy.” He adds that it is “the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It is what allows us to pinpoint what truly drives and constrains the other side. Unlike stereotypes, which lump people into simplistic categories, strategic empathy distinguishes what is unique about individuals and their situation.”

Another scholar, this one the Cold War expert John Lewis Gaddis, further clarifies such strategic empathy. “Your subject’s mind—the one you’ve got to get into—is a reality you can’t change. . . . You can’t accomplish this without empathy, which is not the same thing as sympathy. Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world.” But then Gaddis indicates you  “bail out,” by which he means you switch from empathizing to trying to assess, realistically and objectively, the current situation.

But now back to Putin’s view of Ukraine and NATO. His view of the former he spelled out in his summer 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

He begins by writing that Russians and Ukrainians were historically “one people–a single whole”–and that the “wall” that emerged between them in recent years is a “great common misfortune and tragedy.” He admits that the wall is partially due to Russia’s own mistakes, but it “also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity.” (As a former KGB officer, Putin is especially wary of any perceived foreign conspiracies.)

He then states a truism that appeals to us historians: “To have a better understanding of the present and look into the future, we need to turn to history.”  (In a previous article I have indicated Putin’s genuine interest in history, but also that he tends to manipulate it for political purposes.)

Putin’s essay on the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians then traces in considerable detail the history of the two peoples from the ninth century to the present. His words (if indeed he authored them all) reflect both a detailed knowledge of Russian-Ukrainian history and his desire to view that history in keeping with his present political agenda.

He also displays a deep and continuing distrust of Western motives. For example, “Well before 2014, the U.S. and EU countries systematically and consistently pushed Ukraine to curtail and limit economic cooperation with Russia. . . . Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia.”

From Putin’s viewpoint, the Ukrainians made a bad mistake in 2014 when they drove Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and started moving even more in a Western direction. “Nor were the interests of the Ukrainian people thought of in February 2014. . . . Western countries directly interfered in Ukraine's internal affairs and supported the coup. Radical nationalist groups served as its battering ram. Their slogans, ideology, and blatant aggressive Russophobia have to a large extent become defining elements of state policy in Ukraine. All the things that united us [Russia and Ukraine] and bring us together so far came under attack.” 

Following the ouster of Yanukovych, Putin encouraged a vote for secession in Crimea, which was part of Ukraine but contained more than 50 percent ethnic Russians. After Crimea voted to secede, Russia then annexed it. Two other Ukrainian areas, aided by Russian “volunteers,” also chose to secede, both in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region bordering Russia. Those secession movements proclaimed the establishment of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR and LPR), and the two “republics” have continued in their hazy status ever since, with some 14,000 deaths resulting from the simmering conflict between the two breakaway regions, backed by Russia, and the Ukrainian government forces.

Near the end of his essay, Putin attacks--and inflates somewhat--the effects of recent steps by the Ukrainian government, and he claims “that the Russians in Ukraine [a little less than 17 percent] are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.” He also states that the “spiritual unity” of Russians and Ukrainians has “been attacked,” partly because Ukrainian authorities have hampered the work of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Putin then switches to considering the Minsk Accords of 2014 and 2015, the latter signed by Russia, Ukraine, the Donbas separatist leaders, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an organization of 57 countries including the United States. He claims that he supports Minsk II as a basis for working toward a new Ukrainian-Russian settlement, but that the Ukrainian government does “not intend to seriously discuss either the special status of Donbas or safeguards for the people living there. They [the Ukrainian leaders] prefer to exploit the image of the ’victim of external aggression’ and peddle Russophobia. They arrange bloody provocations in Donbas.” (Minsk II is in fact a complex document, with language that is sometimes vague and open to differing interpretations.)

Finally, Putin turns to Western (including NATO) influence in Ukraine. He writes of “the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ‘development’ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure,” in addition to “the takeover of the rest of the Ukrainian economy and the exploitation of its natural resources.” Further, he claims that Western countries established and maintain an “anti-Russia project,” but that Russia “will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia.”

Russia, he insists, is “open to dialogue with Ukraine and ready to discuss the most complex issues.” But in such talks, it must not act as “a tool in someone else's hands to fight against” Russia; for true Ukrainian sovereignty “is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

To better understand Putin’s animosity and distrust of Western countries and NATO, a brief look is necessary at NATO expansion since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  In December 1994, Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin complained that NATO’s planned expansion threatened to split Europe anew and that Europe was in danger of “plunging into a cold peace.” But despite Russian concerns, various parts of the former “Soviet Bloc”--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, and Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia in 2004--were welcomed into NATO. So too later in that year, were the three former Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This was despite a Russian statement earlier in 2004 that it would not tolerate NATO military forces in these former Soviet republics.

A current NATO website declares that “at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the Allies agreed that Georgia and Ukraine [two more former Soviet republics] will become members of NATO in the future. In a March 2014 PBS interview U.S. historian Stephen Cohen suggested that the USA should be more sensitive to “Russian national interests” and compared Russian concerns to the kind we would have if a Russian-led military alliance tried to include Canada and Mexico. Former ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock (named by President Reagan and serving from 1987 to 1991) once stated that he thought that NATO expansion and talk of bringing Ukraine into NATO has been “Putin’s main concern” and that such talk has been “irresponsible.”

All of the above does not suggest that Putin’s present military intimidation of Ukraine is justified. He has also recently demanded that NATO promise never to admit Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova, and he wants the alliance to agree to remove any troops or weapons from countries that joined NATO after 1997.

Although the past criticisms of Cohen and Matlock have some merit, we have also learned well from Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938 to be wary of meeting the demands of authoritarian nationalists. Doing so might just encourage further aggressive acts.  On the other hand, we wish to be careful not to blunder into war as Europe did in 1914.

Exactly how the U.S. and its allies should respond to Putin, now and in future days, is a much more difficult task than just trying to employ strategic empathy, as this essay has done. Courage will be required in the days ahead, but so too should we hope for creativity and imagination. Decades ago, writer Wendell Berry stated, “We have been led to our present shameful behavior in Vietnam by this failure of imagination, this failure to perceive a relation between our ideals and our lives.” One might add that our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from a similar lack of imagination and creativity. We can only hope that in the days ahead, the U.S. and its allies will not again fail to employ these assets.