Let’s hope that historians in the years to come won’t conclude that the West was too complacent and too lacking in imagination to realize that Putin’s continued hold on power in Russia could not survive with a free, Western-oriented Ukraine on its borders. Instead, let’s hope that historians recount how today’s leaders stood up to the dictator, writes Roberta N. Haar.
Roberta N. Haar is Professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at the University of Maastricht and the University College Maastricht.
In February, I wrote that the most compelling reasons that Russian President Vladimir Putin amassed soldiers on the Ukraine border were external. Specifically, Putin wanted to put pressure on the new coalition government in Berlin, to capitalize upon the perceived weaknesses of the current Joe Biden administration in the United States and to stop an increasingly western-facing Ukraine growing in its military cooperation with the U.S. and other NATO members.
While these facts explain why Putin acted now, the complex explanation of how we got here must include the internal elements that propel Putin time and again to exert flagrant acts of aggression against sovereign nation states.
The most important internal reason is Putin’s own sense of vulnerability for his power base. A strong Russian state provides an effective cover for the members of his kleptocracy to personally enrich themselves by misappropriating government funds at the expense of the wider population. For Putin and his fellow kleptocrats, who mostly come from the security services and had worked closely with Putin in the early years of his career, victories against perceived enemies proves their importance as defenders of the state.
Moreover, this group of securocrats (also known as the siloviki) increase their hold over other Russian elites when the threat of war looms. It allows the siloviki to stamp out any criticism of the state with even less justification. War-gaming in Ukraine represses internal problems and growing anti-Putin voices. Similar war making in Georgia, Crimea, Syria and the Donbas region of Ukraine allowed the siloviki to gain a firmer grip on power.
Attacking Ukraine also fits in with Putin’s narrative of uniting the Kyivan Rus, a historical, even romantic myth, that plays into Russian feelings of identity and Muscovy ideology. Ukraine was the second-most-economically powerful and second-most-populous republic of the former Soviet Union, making the role it plays in the Rebuilding the ancient Rus narrative essential.
Thus, Putin’s abuses of myth, cloaked in a blanket of lies designed to delay, appease, and momentarily allay fears to invade with the least resistance, included claims that his troops were welcomed by Ukrainians as liberators.
Ukraine for Ukrainians
The reality of what Ukrainians think about Putin could not be more different than Putin’s narrative. In the fall of 1993, I went to Ukraine with my paternal aunt. The German side of my heritage established itself in the United States in the 1870s, after a period in the Russian Empire. In the early 1990s, after the Cold War ended, relatives who managed to hide their German roots and survive stints in Siberia, where Stalin had sent many ethnic Germans, wrote a letter to my aunt.
We communicated with a mix of sign language, German, and Schwabisch (the dialect my aunt learned as a child from my grandmother and great-grandmother). My understanding of Ukraine at the time was that it was a part of Russia, and I asked what was the difference between Ukraine and Russia? The vigor and passion that our hosts argued their independence made clear to me that Ukrainian patriotism was strong. They told me about Stalin’s man-made famine to obliterate Ukrainian nationalism. The Great Famine or Holodomor, from 1932 to 1933, is a real genocide that killed between 7–10 million ethnic Ukrainians.
While being united with the lands of the Kyivan Rus, with Kyiv the cradle of Russian culture, might be the dreams of Russians, it was not and is not the dream of Ukrainians.
What Rhymes with Munich?
Today, as I reflect on what is happening in Ukraine, the phrase often attributed to the great American writer Mark Twain that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” seems appropriate. I mention this phrase because I know that the rhyme I am about to point out is an often sung one—namely, that the lessons of Munich 1938 are to never appease the tyrant. In fact, the well-known Dutch global thinker Ian Buruma wrote a whole book, entitled The Churchill Complex, about the interplay between the abuses of heroism and myths attached to Winston Churchill (who is the symbol of defiance and Anglo-American notions of valor), and Neville Chamberlain (who was the shortsighted and cowardly appeaser to Adolf Hitler’s aims of conquering Europe in 1938).
Consequently, it is with some trepidation that I bring out the Munich analogy. And yet, it feels like our complacency, our failure of imagination or our leaders’ failure to take the dictator at his word that he wanted to unite the lands of the “Ancient Rus,” that our continued international appeals for a peaceful solution, feels like Chamberlain standing on the tarmac waving a single sheet of paper.
It feels like all these efforts to avoid convincingly standing up to Putin since 2008 have got us where we are now.
Abuses of heroism and myth
In December 2020, I had the privilege to monitor the presentation that Buruma gave on his book The Churchill Complex for the John Adams Institute. Buruma, a committed Anglophile, was clearly upset by Brexit. His book intended to set the record straight about Churchill’s views on Europe, on internationalism and on the values of democracy. Buruma was appalled by Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s abuses of heroism and myth and of their bastardization of the FDR-Churchill relationship, which was based on a shared goal of spreading liberalism and democracy through international organizations. Such concepts are antithetical to Brexit.
But in the reactions to Putin’s invasion—the fruits of Putin’s abuses of myth and panoply of lies—in the reactions to this, I see the seeds of a new Anglo-European-American bond to support and secure democratic values.
In the years to come, let’s hope that historians do not pour over the dictator Putin’s tract “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and say, it was all obvious beforehand. That his plans to invade and unit the “Ancient Rus” were written for all to see but we were too complacent and too lacking in imagination to realize that Putin’s continued hold on power in Russia could not survive with a free, Western-oriented Ukraine on its borders.
Instead, let’s hope that historians recount how today’s leaders lived up to the heroic myth of Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and stood up to the dictator.