Putin, Ukraine, and History

Russia's leader sees the situation in the former Soviet Republic quite differently than the West.

Photo via The New York Times

The political scientist and former Clinton official William A. Galston attempts to assess “The Fight for Ukraine From Putin’s View.” It’s a plausible case:

An independent Ukraine is for Vladimir Putin what the Treaty of Versailles was for Hitler —a historical injustice imposed on a defeated nation at its moment of greatest weakness, to be reversed as soon as circumstances allow.

This is what I have gleaned from a remarkable article Mr. Putin published in July. As Russia puts more troops on its border with Ukraine and President Biden conducts emergency talks with President Putin, it is essential that the administration and the American people understand the threat.

Mr. Putin’s master narrative rests on his interpretation of more than 1,000 years of Russian history, from which he derives a conclusion: Russians and Ukrainians are “one people—a single whole,” speaking variants of one language, professing a common faith, sharing a common culture, whose separation results from a divide-and-rule strategy pursued for centuries by Russia’s enemies. He attributes the idea of the Ukrainian people as a separate nation to 19th century “Polish elites” and Malorussian (“Little Russian”) intellectuals, a theory concocted with “no historical basis” and subsequently adopted by Austro-Hungarian authorities for their own purposes before World War I.

None of this is terribly new, but it reinforces the notion that, for Putin, this isn’t mere grandstanding and the talk of Russian ethnics in Ukraine isn’t some great game of “lawfare” or “gray zone conflict.” He seems to genuinely believe he’s righting a wrong and has a duty to do so.

Galson expounds on the history a bit but this strikes me as the most important part:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, picking up speed after Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in 2004 and 2005, Mr. Putin charges, Russia’s enemies in the West have conspired with right-wing and neo-Nazi Ukrainians to create an “anti-Russia project” whose purpose is to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. Although the two countries are “natural complementary economic partners” that have long developed as a “single economic system,” the West has used loans and grants to cut Ukraine off from Russia and subordinate it to foreign economic interests.

After what Mr. Putin labels a “coup” in 2014 that led to the removal of a pro-Russian government, Ukraine’s new government signed an association agreement with the European Union that deepened Ukraine’s anti-Russian orientation, “inevitably” provoking “civil war” in the Donetsk region. Worse still from the Russian president’s perspective: the deployment of Western military advisers, infrastructure and weapons on Ukrainian soil.

Now, this is almost complete horseshit. But I can understand why Putin would see it this way.

For the United States and other Western powers, Ukraine is simply another part of the Wilsonian project to spread democracy and reinforce the right of national self-determination that we follow more-or-less consistently unless it’s very inconvenient. Ukraine was having elections and they were being stolen by anti-democratic forces that were aligned with Russia.

But, for Putin, Ukraine is, at very least, part of Russia’s rightful sphere of influence (it’s “Near Abroad”) and quite probably rightly part of Russia Proper. While that view has zero basis in international law, it makes Western policy incredibly provocative.

Galston closes:

The “true sovereignty of Ukraine,” Mr. Putin insists, is possible “only in partnership with Russia.” The question is what this partnership would mean in practice. Mr. Biden can’t give Russia’s president a pledge that Ukraine will never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Nor will the EU promise that its association with Ukraine will never ripen into full membership.

Mr. Putin can’t achieve his aims through peaceful means. He must soon decide whether he wants to expand his military involvement in the Donetsk into a wider war.

It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it did, given both Putin’s foreign policy and the likelihood that bold action would bolster his popularity at home. And, as noted earlier in the week, Ukraine simply means more to Russia than it does the West. We have very few arrows left in our quiver to employ against Putin and I can’t imagine either the Biden Administration or any of our Western European allies are willing to go to war over the matter.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott says:

    I think proximity is the issue. Just imagine if Mexico or Canada (after all, Canada borders Russia across the Arctic Sea) were flirting with Russia. We would go nuts. Just look at our continuing response to Russian involvement in Cuba 60 years ago. Or any kind of interest by Russia and China in Venezuela. We behave quite irrationally.

  2. JohnSF says:

    Yes, proximity is the issue, for various neighbours of Russia.
    Just ask Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan…
    It would be just so awful for Moscow to have to add Ukraine to the list of “neighbouring states it’s no longer cool to threaten”.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    As I recall my high school Russian history, Kiev was once the capital of Russia, but that was long ago and many tsars, not to mention comrades have have past into history. Putin may have some historical justification, but it is thin.

  4. Beth says:


    Out of curiosity, do you think that Russia formally entering Ukraine would have any tempering effect on the loonies that run Poland right now?

    I suspect the Batics would rather eat bullets than have the Russians closer to them.

  5. Kathy says:

    Mr. Putin overlooks two things:

    1) Whenever Ukraine has seen a chance to split from Mother Russia, it has attempted to do so. This includes WWI, WWII, and finally success after the Soviet collapse.

    2) Ukraine doesn’t rate good treatment from Russia, with things like the terror famine in the 30s. Which explains the first point.

    Ukraine is more a victim of long-term abuse, who decides to get a restraining order and builds relationships with others. If the abuser feel powerless and jealous and offended, it’s on them.

  6. JohnSF says:

    The Polish government are populist nationalists; I suspect they’d moderate their drive for domestic political dominance if Russia moved in Ukraine.
    They have tended to be less flamboyantly authoritarian then Orban in Hungary; which way Budapest will jump is more iffy IMO.

    The rest of the EU are continuing internal measures aimed at curbing Poland and Hungary via EU budget mechanisms; see recent ruling by Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona.

    In the recent Poland-Belarus borders crisis over migrants, the EU, including the Baltics, followed a twin-track policy: solidarity with Poland against Belarus, including offers of assistance; but no stepping back on the legal issues.

    Europe tend to be intensely legalistic on these matters: that’s why the Russian “might makes right” attitude is so offensive.
    Not to mention previous European experiences of unilateral assertions to determination of borders and “spheres of control” did not end well.
    See Munich, also Danzig, Poland, former Yugoslavia, Belgium, Ireland etc etc.

  7. JohnSF says:

    Putin may, perhaps, have been correct that a large slice of what is now Ukraine was not a conscious “Ukrainian nation” before the Revolutionary and Soviet Era forged it out of more disparate components of New Russia/Lesser Russia/Podolia-Volhynia/Bessarabia.
    But so what?

    A lot of nations are defined by by quite recent historical experiences and even accidents.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t believe Putin has even a single sincerely held belief beyond greed for more power. He doesn’t want to be just the head thug of a fading, depopulating rump state, he wants to be the head thug of a much larger, more successful country. He’s making the same argument Hitler made about the Sudetenland, and for the same reason: he wants more power. Everything else is propaganda.

  9. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Americans are constantly being surprised that foreigners think differently than we do. The Iranians thought about the Shah differently than we did, China has always thought differently about Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. differently than we did/do and in fact just about everyone in any country that threw off colonial – shall we say – heavy-handed administration thinks differently about their country’s history than we do.

    Putin has inherited Stalin’s paranoia about western intentions. During WWII, Stalin was convinced that the delay in the invasion of Normandy was because the US and UK wanted Russia to hurt as much as possible before they committed. Maybe it’s the water supply in the Kremlin or something. But the fact that the leader of any foreign country thinks differently than we do should be standard operating procedure for us, and help our foreign policy responses move past wishful thinking.

    It really is a good thing for us that America is the wealthiest country on earth and so we never really do have to pay for our missteps in the world. I just wish we’d live up to our potential and our good intentions.

  10. Jay L Gischer says:

    I have the pleasure of knowing quite a few people from that part of the world. And quite consistently, the Ukrainians object to being described as “Russian”. Interestingly enough, the Byelorussian family I knew described themselves as “Byelorussian” rather than simply “Russian”.

    This is where FDR’s formulation of the “right of self-determination of peoples” is fundamental. And, the world seems to be drifting away from the ideas of the Atlantic Charter.

  11. Andy says:

    For the United States and other Western powers, Ukraine is simply another part of the Wilsonian project to spread democracy and reinforce the right of national self-determination that we follow more-or-less consistently unless it’s very inconvenient. Ukraine was having elections and they were being stolen by anti-democratic forces that were aligned with Russia.

    The ways and means the US, in particular, supports and promotes that Wilsonian view is – at best- problematic. The Wilsonian vision among most of the Washington NATSEC blob has resulted in several questionable premises – namely that the US sphere of interest is global, that we have a moral right to intervene where and when we choose, that no one should complain since our actions are obviously good, and that the natural state of humanity is liberal multicultural democracy. This strain of the blob has historically been so focused on the righteousness of this cause that they’ve ignored practical considerations, strategic realities, actual effects, and even the fundamental truth that not every society or geographic entity can magically become like the US. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, Syria are just some of the examples off the top of my head where Wilsonians got out too far over their skis, and the promotion of democracy was either an abject failure or much diminished from the original stated goals.

    Ukraine is set to be another hard example of the limits of activist US Wilsonian policy. The blob needs to realize that its designs for Ukraine are a bridge too far in multiple ways.

    The bottom line is that this isn’t really about Putin. No Russian leader would tolerate a strategic situation in which Ukraine is in the orbit of the West and especially NATO. Putin didn’t wake up one day and decide to retake Crimea, he did that in response to US actions and rhetoric that threatened to put Ukraine into NATO’s orbit. All one needs to do is consider the history of Russia’s attempts over the centuries to secure its southern flank and access to the Black Sea.

    It’s a similar situation with Syria. Most in the West cannot understand why Russia’s position in Syria is so vital to their national interest. It was clear from the beginning that Russia wouldn’t be pushed around in Syria This shocked the blob who was used to being able to ignore Russian strategic interests. The stakes in Ukraine are even bigger.

    So it’s fine if one wants to pursue aggressive Wilsonian policies, but one should be cognizant of strategic realities both in terms of the vital interests of other countries, but also the effects of our actions. It’s simply stupid to think that Putin specifically, or Russians generally, would accept the premise that US policy is benign and only about promoting democracy, especially considering the US has never passed up the opportunity to shit on Russian strategic interests over the last 30 years.

    Just to conclude, I’m not against the US promoting democracy or aggressively pursuing our national interests, even at the expense of adversaries and competitors, Russia in particular. But we need to be much smarter about it than we have been and recognize that there are strategic limits and red lines. The blog also needs to recognize that Wilsonian interventionist policy isn’t inherently good or moral and ought to be more circumspect regarding the extensive history of policy failures.

  12. Andy says:

    The “blog” in the last sentence should be “blob” – stupid autocorrect.

  13. Chris says:

    If the people want to defend their right to live in a more democratic state, with some inalienable freedoms, and reject the rule of immoral dictators, oligarchs, and tyrant wannabes, then so be it and I am all for helping them as best we can to give it a go! Down with Vlad Putin, Xi Jinping-aling, and the Dear Leader, as well as his lovely pen pal Bone Spurious!

  14. Lounsbury says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Kiev has not been a Rus Capital since the Mongols – and before there was a Russian Tsar in proper terms. The state that became what we call Russia today really arises from the ashes of the Mongol invasion. Purely analytically, it’s not really a direct descendant of the Kievan state. More like a cousin.

    But such is national myths….

    @Jay L Gischer: Well, the ones who do not ID as Russian, bit of a defiinitional issue. In addition those that tend to expatriate and are visible to you under ethnic identity are a biased sample (this is not to say they are wrong, but rather you should price in that expat communities are not per se the best sample set to have a sensation on home-country identities, as they are usually highly subject to internal selection biases).

    It is really objectively true that the Western parts of Ukraine have historically had quite a distinct sense of identity than the Eastern parts, which were… are… more great Rus Russian.

    Of course while Mr Putin would never allow for this, the wee Soviet experience and that famine thing had some impacts on the Ukraine….

    @Michael Reynolds: You would believe wrong then.

    Putin is not Trump.

    Putin is and always has been a Great Russian nationalist There’s little sign of him being particularly focused on personal enrichment on a personal level as a primary motive (incidentally perhaps but not really his motivator, in contradistinction to Trump) – he is a power and prestige fellow with enormous self-identity bound up in old-school national prestige.
    @Kathy: It is a mistake to speak of the Ukraine in any of these contexts in a truly unitiary fashion. Significant parts of the Ukraine certainly. Other parts haven’t been quite so enthusiastic – broadly East versus West internal (and broadly aligned with their historical background, which parts were old Moscovy and which parts were Polish-Lithuanian for the longest time).

    USA and NATO should tread carefully – there is legit paranoia chez Poland and the Balkans but on the other side the Ukrainian case is rather more complicated and rather more sensitive to the Russian nationalist.

  15. Lounsbury says:

    @Chris: A fine example of why superficial reaction and thinking via facile slogans is a rather bad practice.

  16. Slugger says:

    We should not accept Mr. Putin’s statements without examination. The differences in language, religion, and culture look small to us from far away, but they are quite important to the people on the ground. Yes, Moscow has been dominant over Kyiv for most of the past five hundred years, but Ukrainians have often felt that the Russian yoke was heavy. The Holomodor is just one example. When German panzers first rolled in, there were welcomes from substantial numbers of Ukrainians which was not forgotten by Moscow. Collaboration with Nazi Germany was not rare and certainly fueled by anti-Soviet feelings. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army tried to fight both the Nazis and the Soviets.
    The real question is whether Russian domination of Ukraine is acceptable to the US and what are we willing to risk to resist Moscow on this. Mr. Putin’s sincerity can not be questioned; he has none.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree he’s a power and prestige guy – in fact said as much. And I’m surprised to realize that you may be a bit naive. People who claim they want power because of X, Y and Z reasons only really care about the power and the rest is bullshit they feed to the suckers. Occasionally they’ll even convince themselves, but their supposed deeply held beliefs are tossed overboard as soon as those beliefs have served the purpose of justifying a power grab.

  18. Chris says:

    @Lounsbury: A failure to support democratic principles and freedom for others will invariably lead to less freedom for you and I. But, please tell me more how my contempt for evil authoritarianism is superficial thinking and the disdain I conveyed is merely facile slogans… or don’t… it is your choice.

  19. JohnMcC says:

    Not to be forgotten in discussions of Russian foreign policy and it’s ‘near abroad’ is that Mr Putin is from Leningrad/St Petersburg. His father was wounded? killed? by Latvian insurgents that he says were Nazi sympathizers. If Ukraine is “Russian” and part of Russia’s security then the baltic republics probably are too.

  20. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Arguably the eastward expansion of NATO in the 90’s was a strategic mistake, and it’s certainly driving Russian fears about Ukraine and NATO today. Hindsight being 20-20 a buffer zone/3rd alliance of nations between Russia and the NATO core might have been better. Nothing to be done about that now however, if it was ever practical in the first place.

    As for Putin, I believe the analysis that he is a nationalist to be correct, and he has reason to be concerned about NATO intentions. However, he is himself guilty of not understanding how other nations view his actions. Which is a bit odd–I remember a speech or paper he gave (sometime in the early 2000’s I think) where he discussed how Germany’s pre-WW1 actions were scaring their neighbors and essentially driving them into an alliance against Germany that wouldn’t have existed if they weren’t so bellicose. In the end a nasty feedback loop developed where the actions of one side frightened the other, who responded to that fear with actions of their own, which generated another fear & nationalism based response response, etc etc etc. And yet just over 100 years later he (and others) are repeating the same damned cycle.

    I am not optimistic.

  21. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican: No edit button, so…meant to add their are hints of the same cycle playing out vis a vis Taiwan and China. China’s belligerence and nationalism are scaring the neighbors, who thus seek increased security guarantees from others like the US. China has some legitimate fears about the US Navy limiting their access to the Pacific (and trade) and that fear and nationalism again drives bellicose responses.

    None of this is new from a historical perspective of course (it wasn’t even before WW1). It’s the way a multi-power world works. But the decades of a two power world, followed by the US superpower era of the last 30 years, seems to have dangerously sapped the diplomatic elements needed to understand another point of view and cool these things down before they turn violent.

  22. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “He’s making the same argument Hitler made about the Sudetenland, and for the same reason: he wants more power. Everything else is propaganda.”

    One could say the same about Xi and Taiwan.

    And Trump… and Greenland?

  23. wr says:

    @Lounsbury: “Putin is and always has been a Great Russian nationalist There’s little sign of him being particularly focused on personal enrichment on a personal level as a primary motive (incidentally perhaps but not really his motivator, in contradistinction to Trump) – he is a power and prestige fellow with enormous self-identity bound up in old-school national prestige.”

    Yes, it’s just an astonishing coincidence that he’s ended up as one of the world’s richest people.

  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    The American concern for freedom isn’t just starry-eyed idealism. We are not a true empire, but we have client states and allies, and the thing which (loosely, sometimes very loosely) unites those allies and clients is a belief that the only legitimate power is that which flows from a free people. It is core American dogma that kings and dictators and autocrats are, by definition, illegitimate.

    We are the leader so to speak, of a gang that believes X, and if we don’t step up and defend people who likewise believe X, it reflects on our power and prestige.

    That doesn’t mean we go to war to defend every nominal democracy, but it does mean that we cannot stand by and do nothing. Doing nothing cedes power to the opposition and we don’t want that.

  25. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Yes. For all it’s mis-steps and inevitable compromises and failures, the United State has always been open to having an ethical dimension to its policy.
    And to a fairly orderly trading and financial order, a certain regard for national freedoms, and a general inclination towards a system of law regulated liberties.
    If it were to abandon this for pure realpolitik a lot of current and potential allies might well decide it were best to seek terms with Moscow or Beijing.

    Raymond Aron pointed out that Great Britain was prepared to fight to the finish against German supremacy, even when Berlin made promises about the empire.
    But was willing to accept American pre-eminence even when it was evident that meant the wreckage of the British Imperial System.
    Even the French usually accept US primacy, albeit grumpily.
    And it’s not just because of your cute accents…

  26. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Naïve? Perish the thought. Your reasoning is rather like those who wrote off Hitler as not really believing what he actually believed (not to say Putin is like Hitler, merely an example). By all signs and measures, Putin is a genuine proper nationalist, it’s a real motivation for him (among others including personal ambition of course). He is not a grifter as the Orange Cretin.

    To misunderstand that is to make a serious error and be overly American in commercially oriented understanding.

    You blunder into misreading of courses of action that way.

    @Chris: Yes, the same foolish argument that saw you fight in Vietnam pointlessly, and Afghanistan for two decades beyond any sense.

    Messianic declarations are fine for agitprop, rather foolish as basis of real policy and action.

    @wr: First, as a factual matter, he is not one of the world’s richest people on a personal basis – unless one chooses to believe the motivated analyses of the Americans. Very rich indeed, certainly, richest in world on a real personal basis, no. Second, there is no coincidence between the benefit of power and his personal access and mingling of state and personal, in the manner of most autocrats. He’s no hair-shirt socialist. He’s also no Trump, which makes him rather more dangerous. And reminder, what I actually said, “primary motivation.” Primary motivation of real nationalism in Great Russsia tradition does not mean sole motivation.

  27. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Mike: do you really believe all that? Because it would be nice if it were true but it isn’t. We’re really good at coming up with reasons why this time things are different and it’s okay to disregard our principles.

  28. Michael Reynolds says:

    Id comes before ego comes before superego. If I may go Freudian. Or another way, first comes hunger, then comes the plan to take what food you need, then comes the rationalization of your actions. At base humans want power. There are a million different rationalizations – ideology, religion, nationalism – but that’s all they are in almost every instance: rationalizations.

    One of the reasons George Washington was a great man was that he walked away from power that was right within his grasp. He actually believed (some of) his rhetoric. The reason we marvel at this is that it’s so rare. 99% of the time, if faced with a choice, a person will toss aside all their beliefs if it means they achieve power. Paris is worth a mass, etc…

    Put it this way: if you told Putin he could have all of Europe, all of it, with the sole exception of Ukraine, how many milliseconds do you think it would take him to agree? People lie about their motivations. First they lie to themselves – a necessary step if you want to convince others.

  29. JohnSF says:

    Putin may be a nationalist.
    But not necessarily in the way most Westerners conceive of nationalism: it is state based, rather then primarily ethnic.

    The focus is the Russian state, not the Russian people. Ethnic Russians (a category that blurs at the edges anyway) are most valued, but largely because they are the most loyal to the state, and most imbued with the orthodox culture the state upholds.

    Their anti-western, anti-liberal, attitudes are of a piece with their “Russian greatness” ideology.
    And a part that ideology is: the ruled have no right to defy their rulers.
    The view is: the common people belong to the state, the state belongs to its rulers.
    The rulers have duties, yes; but to the state, not to the people.

    And, of course, the rulers are entitled to the rewards of power and privilege and wealth, and disburse the same, at their whim, to their supporters.

    Also, in this context, a policy of tension and confrontation both polishes their self-image as “champions of Russia” and enable them to justify repression as preventing weakness.

    As for dreams of a Greater Russia, what about:
    “Fine. And you’ll accept the leadership of Kiev in this polity?”
    Yeah, right.

  30. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: If Putin controlled all of Europe except The Ukraine, how many nanoseconds would elapse before he rolled tanks into Kyiv?

  31. Chris says:

    @Lounsbury: Don’t confuse my support for freedom for those who desire it with unbridled American military intervention around the world. We should be judicious with our might and liberal with out love for democratic rule and liberty. Vietnam and the Second Gulf War were corruptly sold to us, while Afghanistan was not supposed to be an exercise in nation building that turned into nation building.

  32. Beth says:


    The focus is the Russian state, not the Russian people.

    Because the Russian people are irrelevant to the state.

    I wish I remembered more of my Russian history classes from Undergrad. I had a fascinating professor. It always struck me just how effected, even now, how Russian culture was effected by the Mongols. The lasting repercussions just bouncing around for hundreds of years.

  33. JohnSF says:

    The legacies of the Scandinavian Rus and ByantineOrthodoxy, and the quite western early medieval Russian states. Then the catastrophe of the Mongols and the Yoke of the Horde for a couple of centuries.
    And the thing was, Muscovy emerged as the champion of Russia by backstabbing the other Russian states, and alternating between submissiveness and defiance to the Khans.

    And there is some argument that Muscovy rose due mainly to the combination of civil war in the Horde and the offensive by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (sort-of Polish/Lithuanian union).
    Funnily enough, Great Russian chauvinists tend to get really upset when reminded that for much of both medieval and modern history, much of Belorussia and Ukraine were ruled from Warsaw or Vilnius, not Moscow.
    Or that a lot of people didn’t regard Russian tsars or Soviets as much of an improvement.

  34. Kingdaddy says:

    We should not let our own ignorance of this distant part of the world provide an excuse for Putin’s faux-ignorance (i.e., bullshit) about the history of Ukraine.

    He certainly knows that Ukraine was part of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania (1569-1795). Modern Poland and Lithuania could say, if we’re basing claims on Ukraine based on the length of rulership, that they have just as strong an argument as does Russia. Maybe weaker, if you separate the Russian Empire from the Soviet Union.

    He also knows that the failure of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth occurred, in part, because of the shenanigans of the Russians, who wanted to help make it collapse and then absorb however many pieces of it they could. By the way, one of the other contributors to the collapse of the Commonwealth was a flaw in their constitution that no one ever fixed, letting people game the system in a way that ultimately led to the nation’s implosion. A fascinating case study with perhaps some modern lessons.

    He certainly knows that modern Ukrainians didn’t suffer Soviet rule quietly. After both WWI and WWII, there were anti-Soviet insurgencies in the Ukraine. They operated across a pretty big part of the country. Consider how motivated at least some Ukrainians must have been to take on the massive Red Army that defeated Nazi Germany. Similar guerrilla movements, nicknamed “the Forest Brothers,” fought the Soviets in the Baltic states after 1945.

    As someone else noted on this thread, every time the Ukrainians have had a chance to slip away from domination from Moscow, they’ve bolted for the door. “Let’s try to understand Putin’s point of view” can too easily slip into taking Putin’s claims at face value, no matter how bogus they are. The fact that Ukraine is next door to Russia (Imagine how we’d freak if the Russians were messing around in Mexico!) is just another way of saying that abusers inflict violence on the people closest at hand.

    There was a very funny clip from Zelensky’s TV show, Servant of the People, which seems to have disappeared from YouTube. If memory serves, aides to the president are arguing over a revised map of the country, in an effort to reflect the complexities of Ukraine’s history. The short version: it’s not as simple as, “They were conquered by the Russians centuries ago, and they accept their lot as part of the Russian sphere of influence.” The only place I could find a reference was on this Reddit thread, which includes the map.

  35. Kingdaddy says:

    @JohnSF: Spot on. “Statist nationalism” helps explain why it was possible for Stalin, a Georgian, to invoke Russian nationalism in WWII.

  36. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    How is it different from the “manifest destiny” of our past? Putin and the Russians have a beef with our notion that Russia should be just another weak state.

    Why did we dispatch Nuland to meddle by stridently and publicly support “color” revolutions in the Russian economic sphere? Whatever the reason, how Putin is reacting to it seems quite on a par with how we would in reverse. I recall when we were meddling Putin released a recording of Nuland even telling the Euros to f-off. He compromised his own intelligence capabilities to do so. I believe he was trying to show to the American public what was being done in their name. The response of the US public was a Buttheadian “Uhuhuhuh…She said f&%k!”

    Putin’s job is to look after Russia’s interests. To think we are the best judge of that is hubris.

  37. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: How much would I bet, why quite a lot. Putin is not a fool. Even if one were to reframe in a manner which might be plausible, the Balkans rather than the Ukraine, I rather doubt he would be so foolish to accept a poisoned chalice. The Ukraine itself is a different calculation.

    @Kingdaddy: Again. Treating the orientations of Western Ukraine and what is modern Eastern Ukraine collapses internal differences, cultural and linguistic and quite related, identity. Broadly certainly very true for Western Ukraine / majority of modern Ukrainians. However ignoring the real differences along the eastern edge ignores the factual roots of Putin’s mythologising. One should indeed not take his nationalist mythologising at face value but also not equally make the error of treeating (analytically that is) the modern territory of the Ukraine and its inhabitants as as unitary thing with united views and identity. Being blind to the complexity there also can induce blindness to the genuine hooks available to the Russians.

    Lest there be some misunderstanding, I rather personally sympathise with the Ukranian majority, but at the same time as the Afghans, they have to live permanently with the actual neighbour they have, not the far intellectual allies who occasionally pay attention to them.

    As evoked already, a Finnish type resolution is in the end likely a wiser one, although the Russians seem likely to succeed as with Finland in detaching some frontier territory – unjustly but living next to Russian empire is unpleasant reality. Better a bit of donbass flesh given up and Finlandisation than the other likely results.

  38. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Yes agreed.

  39. JohnSF says:


    …just another weak state….the Russian economic sphere

    Various leaders of various nations have thought it perfectly reasonable, to them, that they should escape comparative weakness by predating upon their neighbours, and later their former neighbours neighbours.
    Such national vampirism seldom appeals to the potential victims.
    Russia is a country of 144 million people, over 6 miliion square miles, and plentiful natural resources.

    If they are discontent with that, they are are no more entitled to revive the Russian Empire by conquest than the British, French, Spanish or Germans would be to reimpose Reich or Raj or Ascendancy or Holy Roman Empire or whatever.

    They have no more prescriptive right to an “economic sphere” than Japan had to a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, or Germany to the former Austrian Empire, or Britain to the economic and political subordination of Ireland, or France to North Africa.

    Putin’s job is to look after Russia’s interests. To think we are the best judge of that is hubris.

    And, to take a random historical for-instance, Mussolini’s job was to look after the interests of Italy. It was not necessarily in anyone else’s interests to indulge him in that regard.

  40. JohnSF says:

    Being a Russian speaker, even in eastern Ukraine, let alone the southern region, is not necessarily a marker of Russian loyalties.
    Even in the Donbas districts the votes for independence in 1991 were over 80%.
    That may have changed, but Russian arranged polls are rather dubious as indicators.

    The Russian success in seizing part of the Donbas was likely more related to their capturing the allegiance of the local oligarchs/gangsters.

  41. dazedandconfused says:


    Aren’t you begging the question of expansionism? The Russians are complaining about the expansionism of NATO, and they got a case.

  42. JohnSF says:


    The Russians are complaining about the expansionism of NATO, and they got a case.

    No, they do not got a case.
    Either pragmatically or in principle.

    The practical answer is that NATO is not going to expand to Ukraine.
    Or Georgia or Azerbaijan or even (probably) Moldova.
    And everyone knows it.
    And neither is the EU going to offer full membership to a “conflict zone” state, even if it met the criteria (it doesn’t).

    The principled answer is the Russia has no right to dictate the foreign relations of Ukraine which is a independent sovereign state.
    The basis of global order is that sovereign states exist on a plane of rough-and-ready legal equality.
    There does not exist a separate category of “countries who are not really independent because it upsets Vladimir.”
    The EU and (it is to be hoped) the US and NATO are not prepared to concede that Moscow is entitled by fiat to abrogate a neighbours sovereignty.

    If Russia wants a neutral Ukraine, it could try negotiating that with Kiev, without military invasions and threats of further aggression.
    Though it might help if Moscow had not wilfully set aside the provisions of the Budapest Memorandum.

    Would Russia accept Kiev claiming to have a veto over a putative alliance between Russia and China?
    Is Russia entitled to subordinate Ukraine on the basis of some debateable historical assertions?
    Or on the basis of “might makes right”?
    Or because Putin does a really good Gollum impersonation: “We wants it, my precious, we wants it!”

    Russia has no more valid claim to determine the rights and policies of Ukraine than inter-war Germany had to be the arbiter of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Britain would have to dictate the foreign policy of Ireland, or Spain to subordinate Portugal.

  43. dazedandconfused says:
  44. JohnSF says:

    Yes it has the right to add Ukraine.
    In theory.
    In practice, the Germans will veto and everyone knows it.
    The essential point remains: Russia has no right to determine the foreign policy of another sovereign state either by self-assertion of historic primacy or by “might makes right”.
    Any more than Ukraine would have right to veto a Russian alliance with China.

    Europe has a long history of states asserting a right to alter borders or subordinate other countries for one reason or another.
    It has seldom ended well.
    For millions of dead values of not well.

    Russia, essentially, needs to grow up and drop the the “poor us, we are so persecuted” act.
    As most other countries in Europe have done.

    Unfortunately Putin is unlikely to do so, as he seems to believe the politics of confrontation serve his domestic and external ends.

  45. dazedandconfused says:

    Everybody knows it but can’t stipulate it, and Putin is the only one playing games?

    The US State Dept was paying people to foment and aid a color revolution in the Ukraine. To say Putin has no legit arguments is a hard case to make.

  46. JohnSF says:

    Yes, they can’t stipulate it, because that, in the present circumstances, is to concede a right of veto to Putin.
    That concession is unacceptable to the NATO states.
    But NATO is not going to admit a country that does not exercise effective control over all its nominal territory.
    That would be to enter a potential war situation without the military infrastructure in place to dominate the potential battlefield.
    Not going to happen.

    Also, Germany continues to dream of “wandel durch handel” re. Russia.
    And as long as it does, Kiev is locked out.
    Though if Russia does invade Ukraine, that desire for conciliating Russia is quite likely to get finally and definitively thrown out the window.
    Does Russia really want a hostile, re-militarized European Power to it’s west?
    Because it’s going the right way about getting it, if it keeps acting like it’s the 19th century.

    The US State Dept was paying people to foment and aid a color revolution in the Ukraine.

    That is disputed.
    But even were it true, it is not necessarily wrong to support the opponents of autocratic oligarchs.
    Well, Vlad may think it wrong, for obvious reasons.
    But OTOH he was busy supporting Yanukovych.

    So: what clause in the UN Charter grants Russia the right to determine the rights and wrongs of the politics other sovereign states, or to assign, at its whim, other nations to the status of “must obey Moscow”?

  47. Hal_10000 says:

    Russians and Ukrainians are “one people—a single whole,” speaking variants of one language, professing a common faith, sharing a common culture, whose separation results from a divide-and-rule strategy pursued for centuries by Russia’s enemies.

    I’m sorry, this is high-test nonsense. The last time the Russians controlled the Ukraine, they tried to exterminate Ukrainian culture, language, history, literature, art, music and, ultimately, it’s people.

  48. dazedandconfused says:

    There is no honest way to dispute the US, in an official capacity, meddled. That there was a false narrative about the money floating about is tangential and not definitive.