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The longue durée of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Almost 72 hours after the beginning of Russia’s unprecedented military invasion of Ukraine we see that Moscow has not fulfilled any of its strategic objectives. Ukrainian military manages to withstand the attacks, and it does so despite the scale of the invasion. Moreover, Ukrainians do not seem to lose spirit.

There will be time to summarise this atrocious conflict, persecute and the perpetrators and draw conclusions. For now, let me share a few thoughts on the socio-cultural and civilisational implications of Russia’s aggression that are already visible. I believe they are of key importance for the longue durée of the Russo-Ukrainian relations.

“Pereyaslav Council” by woychukb is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

When Russia annexed Crimea 7 years ago, the Kremlin said that they were merely correcting the mistake made by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Back then, the Soviet leader ceded the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Council of Pereyaslav.

The events of 2014 also speeded up the process of building the Kremlin-backed narrative on the history of Russia and its neighbours. Its focal point was the relation between East Slavs: Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. Russian state-sponsored politicians and scholars have been claiming that the latter two never existed and that they have always belonged to the greater Russian nations as White Russians (Belorusians) and Little Russians (Ukrainians).

Similar thought was included just half a year ago in an article published by Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has expressed many times that Ukrainians as a nation are a product of Polish and Austro-Hungarian propaganda, that the Ukrainian language and culture are artificial and that Ukraine is just a branch of Russia – the mother of all Ruthenia and the only heir to its medieval legacy.

Such statements show the level Ukrainophobia that contemporary Russian elites share and have attempted to root in the Russian society using targeted disinformation.

But there is no such thing as Ukrainian nation, is there?

Vast parts of medieval Eastern Europe inhabited by Ruthenian tribes were called Rus’ or Ruthenia. Starting from late 9th century, it had two centres of power. In the north, there was Novgorod the Great – a merchant republic which developed a system of checks and balances between the aristocracy, tradesmen and the common folk that could be called prodemocracy. In the south, Kyiv became Ruthenia’s first consolidate monarchy and religious capital. It was Kyiv that became a metropolis after the Christianisation conducted by Volodymyr the Great in late 10th century.

Ruthenian principalities after the death of Yaroslav I in 1054. Source: Wikipedia.

Back then, Moscow wasn’t even on the map. It emerged only in 12th century and, thanks to its peripheral location, survived the calamitous Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Later, its dukes managed to expand their rule and threaten other Ruthenian principalities. They conquered Novgorod the great in 1478 and razed it in 1570 when paranoid Ivan the Terrible wanted to get rid of any (real or imagined) internal opposition. He also destroyed the democratic traditions developed by Novgorod and paved the way to the later Russian despotism.

It was the time when Moscow tsars started to use religion as justification for their absolute power. It proclaimed itself the Third Rome and the bearer the two previous ones’ traditions. Moscow aspired to become the centre of the Orthodox world and the only political entity in Ruthenia. In order to do so, it needed Kyiv which at that point was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

It was only thanks to favourable international circumstance, short-sightedness of Polish-Lithuanian elites and a great deal of fluke that Moscow took control of Kyiv. It happened after the war initiated by the Council of Pereyaslav when Ukrainians Cossacks, unable to come to terms with the Polish king, pledged allegiance to the Russian tsar.

Ever since Pereyaslav and its consequences have remained a symbol of artificial division of Ukrainian lands into the right and left Dnieper river bank. A division that deprives Ukraine of its subjectivity as a nation entitled to create its own political organisation.

I mention such distant events because they have played a phenomenal role in the imperial Russian narrative on history ever since it was born some 250 years ago. Back then, Catherine the Second was strengthening Russia’s position in Europe by coercion, political intrigues and military conflict. It orchestrated the partitions of Poland-Lithuania and took control of most of today’s Ukraine territory. The rest fell under Austria.

Ever since Russia has been denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation, completely ignoring the developments of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. It has ignored the development of the Ukrainian language which has way more in common with medieval Ruthenian than Russian, full of Mongolian/Tatar influence. It has turned a blind eye to the thriving of Ukrainian poetry and independent thought. Ukrainians writers and intellectuals were meant to be merely Little Russians.

The disdain was so significant that in 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Union orchestrated physical extermination of millions of Ukrainians based on the principle of ethnicity. Forced industrialisation of the country was engineered as a means of Russification. It accused Ukrainians of collaborating with the Third Reich en masse even though Stalin and his lot were Hitler’s ally between 1939 and 1941.

But there is no such thing as Ukrainian nation, is there?

What Russia initiated by annexing and invading parts of Ukraine in 2014 was the erosion of the illusion that there is some sort of a special bond between Russians and Ukrainians. It was the time when many people realised that even the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine can share Ukrainian national identity.

By launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, Vladimir Putin did what no Russian or Soviet had managed to do before him. He ended the untrue myth created by the Pereyaslav Council. It marks the end of any illusions that Ukraine can willingly (or only slightly coerced) join any Russia-sponsored cooperation, alliance or union.

Putin joined the choir of Russian and Soviet leaders who, while claiming there is no Ukrainian nation, do everything to destroy it. At the same time, by his brutal attack, Putin anchored Ukraine in the civilizational and spiritual West for good, no matter how the war will end. It is a ground-breaking change that will have far-reaching consequence not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia and its population.

In fact, it is Russians who are Ukrainians’ and Belarusians’ younger (and very distant) brothers in terms of language, culture and political tradition.