Ukraine, Russia and the Last Empire in Europe

November 9, 2021
Recently Putin and then Medvedev published articles on Ukraine-Russia relations. Read a recent analysis by our Editor-In-Chief to know more.

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President Putin and Security Council member Dmitry Medvedev openly discredited Ukraine as an independent state. Medvedev's recent article in Kommersant was insulting for Ukrainians and especially for president Zelensky, hinting at his 'Jewish identity'. According to Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko Medvedev's remarks are 'xenophobic' and not very intelligent. Causing the rage is a fundamental attitude of imperial Russia, that denies its neighbour's right to independence.

In July, 2021, Russian president Vladimir Putin published a long article on the Kremlin's official website The article, 'On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians' was expressing the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are 'one people (narod), one whole'. Putin stressed that the reorganization of the Russian empire by the Bolsheviks changed Russia's internal borders and so Russia 'was robbed' of territory — a hint that modern Ukrainian state borders are illegitimate and should be reviewed.

This is exactly what Russia has been doing since 2014, when it sent its troops to occupy Crimea, and subsequently helped to create a Russia-loyal military enclave in Eastern Ukraine.

Three months later, in October 2021, former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev (now vicepresident of Russia's Security Council) published an article in the newspaper Kommersant entitled 'Why contacts with the current Ukrainian leadership are senseless'. This text had a much more agressive emotional tone than Putin's; pejorative wording was used with regard to Ukrainian initiatives, calling them 'bastardish' (ubliudochnyi) and 'imbecilic (debilnyi). The major message was that nowadays Ukraine is not a sovereign state, that it is under 'external governance' by the US and EU, that Russia does not want to talk with 'vassals' but only with 'suzerains' (sic) and that president Zelensky, his Jewish origin notwithstanding, is cooperating with Ukrainian nationalists of 'Nazi'-type. According to Medvedev Ukraine is 'inventing (sochiniaet) its own history' and 'has no value'.

Quotes from Medvedev's article in Kommersant

Ukraine, says Medvedev, is desparately looking for its identity and history. 'But the Ukrainian leaders are people who lack any consistent self-identification'. 'The current president of this pained people is a man with certain etnic roots [M. is alluding to Zelensky's Jewishness — ed.] who his whole life spoke Russian. [...] But becoming head of state, out of fear of a new "maydan" against his personal power, completely changed his political and moral orientation. And so renounced his identity. He began to cater to the most virulent nationalistic forces in Ukraine.'

'One can imagine how disgusting this moral "salto mortale" must have been for him. It reminds one of the crazy situation, when a representative of the Jewish intelligentsia in nazi-Germany for ideological reasons would ask to be admitted to the ranks of the SS.'

This, says Medvedev, for the Ukrainian president causes a 'cognitive dissonance'. 'The more so, as you can never be sure that, when the political tide is turning, they will come after you and sew a yellow star on your back.'

The Ukrainian leaders according to Medvedev are totally dependent on (financial dotations and cadres of) the USA and EU, who need Ukraine exclusively as an "anti-Russia". 'But for us it is useless to deal with vassals. We deal only with souvereign leaders.' 'The leaders of Ukraine are weak people who only care about filling teir own pockets.' 'Contacts with such weak leaders are counterproductive, any moment they can trade you for a dime.'

These constantly lying leaders are also 'ignorant and irresponsible', and change their positions overnight, writes Medvedev. So Russia just has to wait for better leaders. 'Russia can wait. We are a patient people'.

Medvedev, a secondary figure in Russian politics, was Putin's 'Ersatz'— president of Russia in 2008-2012, a 'bridge' to his next presidential term. When Medvedev was president, Putin acted as 'prime minister'. De facto the country was ruled by Putin, who returned to presidential power in 2012. The constitutional 'reforms' of 2020 show that he intends to stay in power forever.

In the early stage of Medvedev's presidency, in 2008, Russia attacked Georgia, proof of the continuity with Putin's policies. The military agression against Georgia and the occupation of the [Georgian provinces of] South Ossetia and Abkhazia were a prelude of Putin's occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Medvedev is Putin's 'alter ego' rather than an independent politician.

Military exercises

Both Russian politicians in their articles had clear messages that might be the start of a new era of Russia's expansion in Eastern Europe. Putin meant to give an ideological and historical justification for Russia's imperial policies towards Ukraine and to eventual further military revision of its borders. Medvedev's article showed that Russia is not intending to continue talks in the Normandy or Minsk processes to end the war in the Donbas; instead, military, economic and energy pressure on Ukraine is meant to provoke Ukraine's collapse from within.

In March-April 2021 Russia organized massive military exercises on the Ukrainian-Russian border and dislocated a substantial amount of troops to the occupied Crimea. This stirred up serious concerns in Ukraine and the world about the possibility of a new escalation. This pattern is repeated now, in early November 2021, as US intelligence reports about the accumulation of Russian troops and equipment on the border.

Putin meant to give a justification for Russia's imperial policies towards Ukraine and to military revision of its borders...

By pushing the NordStream-2 project Moscow successfully divides NATO members. One of the aims is to cut Central and Eastern Europe off from its gas geo-infrastructure and undermine its security. As I am writing these lines, Russia announced it will stop supplying coal to Ukraine. On the eve of winter it wants to deprive Ukraine from energy resources and provoke social and political instability. In combination with the dramatic situation with the coronavirus in Ukraine and the plummeting popularity of president Zelensky this will destabilise Ukrainian politics during winter. Medvedev ends his article with the line that 'Russia is patient and can wait', but if it is interested in the collapse of Ukraine it will push as hard as it can.

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Denial of the right of existence

These statements of Russian leaders are not new: they just repeat the century-long Russian ideology that Ukrainians do not exist as a nation. In the 19th century this was done with the help of the so-called 'Pan-Slavic' ideology, by incorporating the principle of nationality into the Russian imperial myth.

By mid-19th century Russia, a multinational empire whose monarchs had German roots and whose elite spoke French, decided to become the leader of the Slavic world. In the 1840s, under tsar Nicholas I, prince Uvarov, minister of Education, created the slogan 'Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality'. Thus he incorporated the anti-imperial Romantic concept of narod(people, nation) into the idea of the empire. From that moment on, the Russian empire decided that its citizens formed one and the same nation, a 'triune' Russian people consisting of 'Great Russians' (Muscovites), 'Little Russians' (Ukrainians) and 'White Russians' (Belarusians).

During the Soviet epoch this idea was transformed into the concept of 'Soviet people', a new type of men. The existance of three Eastern Slavic people was recognised, but banned to the past. In the future they would be united in a single 'Soviet people' — based on a culture where the Russian language was dominant. This idea was rather a product of Stalinism then of Leninism. It echoed with the phantasies of Russian émigré Eurasianists for whom the continent of Eurasia was to become a new 'melting pot' like the United States.

Ukrainian historians refuted these myths many times (see our book Re-vision of History published in English by UkraineWorld). Contrary to the Russian ideology, as expressed by Putin in his article, the medieval state of 'Rus' with capital Kyiv was never Russian. It was created by Scandinavian warriors mixed with the local population in the Dnipro basin and therefore had more in common with today's Ukraine and Belarus, than with today's Russia.

...Medvedev's article showed that military, economic and energy pressure is meant to provoke Ukraine's collapse from within

'Rus' was a territory that comprised the lands of today's Ukraine rather than today's Russia; Ukrainians were not 'invented' by Poles or Austrians as the Kremlin often claims, but emerged as a mix between different ethnicities (not only Slavic) and different religions (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamitic). Numerous Western European observers and travelers in the 18th-19th centuries confirmed that the Ukrainians developed a strong republican political culture as opposed to Russian autocratic political culture. In the end the Soviet autocrats merged these different lands into one entity primarily because the Ukrainians stuck to their strong community feeling, despite being scattered between different empires. And yes: Crimea was Russian only for 5% of its written history.

Reviving the empire

However, Russia's expansionist policy towards Ukraine has much broader importance. It is important not only for the national identity of Ukraine, but also for Europe's future development. Russia's claims on Ukraine and Belarus mark an attempt to revive the imperial idea of Europe, as opposed to the republican and democratic idea of Europe in the 20th century. More importantly, it is an attempt to anchor the imperial idea in the national myth. The last time Europe has witnessed this debate was in the 1930s.

What is important in the Ukrainian political and intellectual history is its anti-imperial drive. Ukrainians were not always good republicans (they were often helping to build the empire or provided it with ideology) but the republican and anti-imperial drive remains one of the leitmotivs of Ukrainian intellectual and socio-political history.

From the 19th century on Ukrainians were trying to transfer the European idea of the république des peuples to Eastern Europe. This took form either in the Enlightenment discourse of the contractual nature of politics (look at History of Ruthenians); in the Romantic 'bottom-up' idea of culture as deeply linked to a community (think of Shevchenko or Kostomarov); in the post-Romantic 'modernizing nation' narrative (Drahomanov); in the early 20th century's opening up of European culture to the 'Eurasian' steppes (Krymskyi or Khvyliovyi); in the post-WWII human rights movement (Ukrainian Helsinki group) or in the 21st century idea of Ukraine as a 'frontline of Europe' and a 'frontline democracy'.

All along the 'national' idea in Ukraine was intrinsically linked to the 'republican' and 'anti-imperial'. The success of the Ukrainian political project can lead to the expansion of the 'republican idea' of Europe further to the East. Its failure, instead, can lead to a return to neo-imperial ideas of politics, in Europe and beyond.

Post-imperial Europe

An imperial idea of Europe presumes top-down authoritarian politics and fluid borders, which an imperial power can cross if it wishes to do so. On the contrary, a 'republican' Europe presumes bottom-up democratic politics, national sovereignty and inviolability of borders.

The concept of 'republican' Europe emerged in the early and mid-19th century, when the elitist Enlightenment idea of a république des lettres (republic of educated writers and philosophers) paved the way for a democratic république des peuples (republic of peoples — or nations). Paradoxically, this in itself was a mixture of national reactions to the expansionist Napoleonic empire.

From the mid-19th century on, Central and Eastern Europe was dominated by the struggle between imperial and republican/national ideas. The Germanic (Prussian and Austrian), Russian and Ottoman political entities reacted by trying to combine the imperial and the national. The collapse of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires after World War I led to the emergence of a diversity of nation states in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. After the end of the second empire Germany in the 1930s reemerged as the Third Reich, bringing the synthesis between the imperial and the national to a horrible peak with its racial imperialism. The defeat of Nazism and the end of the Third Reich paved the way for 'republican' Europe as we know it today.

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For Putin and Medvedev Belarus and Ukraine are part of the Russian sphere of influence

But there was one empire that didn't collapse: the Russian empire. The principle of 'national self-determination' barely took root there. Ukraine and Belarus had a short-lived independence after the Bolshevik coup, but finally fell victim to the new Bolshevik empire in the early 1920s. Poland, Finland and the Baltic States emerged as independent states after the First World War, but fell victim to renewed aggression in 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War.

The 'federation' principle on which the Soviet Union was organised created quasi-states with quasi-borders. This time bomb exploded in 1991, when the former Soviet republics declared their independence. But it is naïve to believe that the Soviet Union disappeared as an empire in 1991. It stuck to its spheres of influence throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with Moscow building suzerain-vassal relations with the former Soviet republics. Ukrainians tried to liberate themselves from this empire during the Orange revolution (2004-2005) and during Euromaidan (2013-2014), that provoked Russia's military takeover of Ukrainian territories.

This imperial-republican struggle in Eastern Europe continues up until today.

What is Eastern Europe?

When 19th century European geographers were separating 'Europe' from 'non-Europe' (or 'Eastern Europe', which for many meant a not very civilized part of the continent) they usually drew the lines on the Western borders of the Russian empire. After the partitions of Poland in late 18th century, this 'non-Europe' included a substantial part of today's Poland, the Baltic States, most of today's Belarus and Ukraine. 'Russia' was the embodiment of this mysterious 'Eastern Europe'. To an external observer it seemed a homogeneous geographical and political entity. Even the prominent Czech writer Milan Kundera in his diagnosis of communist Central Europe in the early 1980s not only described the Soviet Union ('Russia') as a homogenous entity, but also identified it with a specific Orthodox 'civilization'.

That was a mistake. Russia has never been a homogeneous entity; even less so it was a 'nation state' or a separate 'civilization'. It didn't take part in many processes that defined the history of Europe, like the principle of national self-determination that took root in Central Europe when major empires collapsed. Political thinking about Europe as a 'republic of nations' developed in the period from the Spring of Peoples of 1848 to the end of the 'Great War' in 1918, but it was limited to the Habsburg, Ottoman and German empires, but never grew in Russia.

This intellectual revolution in Europe, embodied in the Paris peace conference and Woodrow Wilson's principle of 'national self-determination', never made it to 'Eastern Europe', that traditionally was seen as a synonym of 'Russia', a mysterious continent where all differences disappear into thin air and are replaced by one homogeneous entity. In the multicultural world of the 20th century Russia kept pretending that no other Eastern European nations, like Ukrainians and Belarusians, exist.

This is why the articles by Putin and Medvedev should be taken seriously. They are interesting not for their content (xenophobic and not very intelligent) but because of their motivation. They are meant to prepare public opinion that Ukrainians do not have a right to exist separately and are not capable to have an independent state. On many occasions in history Ukrainians proved this statement to be wrong.

But this play of words is not only about respecting Ukrainian independence, the real question is if the imperial idea of politics will get a new boost in Europe. Will it defeat the republican idea of politics that Ukrainians have been advocating for Eastern Europe for the  last centuries? Europe will not be complete without Eastern Europe; but this can only be accomplished if the imperial idea of politics finally disappears, as it did in Western and Central Europe during the last hundred years.

This material was firstly published on Raamop Rusland website:

Volodymyr Yermolenko
Editor-in-chief at UkraineWorld, Director of Analytics at Internews Ukraine