Opinion: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine in Context

Opinion: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine in Context

History provides the vital context to explain why events have come to pass in the international arena. Why did Russia invade Ukraine? Why might conflict in that region persist? In the current conflict, many commentators look to the past few decades as the source of aggression. But, Russian aggression is shaped not exclusively by events in the recent past. Russia today does not embody a civilisation of just the last 30 or 100 years.

Instead, Russia and its leaders continue a centuries-long march shaped by religion, nationality and geopolitical security. Understanding the history that has shaped the people and states of Russia and Ukraine is key in understanding the war and coming to grips with the idea that conflict between the two may be a reality for decades and centuries to come.

Religion

Religious ideology underpins much of how Russia interacts with its neighbours and other global powers. In the 10th century, Vladimir the Great converted the Kievan Rus to the Orthodox faith. A central tenet of the Orthodox faith, established by the Byzantines, was the idea of Caesaropapism, which is someone who centralises both secular and religious leadership in one person becoming an absolute monarch. Rulers in this style not only ruled their polities but also held sway over others that followed the Orthodox faith.

Russian leaders further enhanced the Czar’s powers by claiming that Moscow had become the “Third Rome”. After the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Constantinople claimed imperial and religious authority over the former empire’s territories, through the idea of translatio imperii. Following Charlemagne’s ascension, Rome became the centre of Catholic authority, while Constantinople led the Orthodox people.

After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Moscow assumed the authority that had been bestowed upon Constantinople. Moscow became the centre of the Orthodox faith, hosting one of the patriarchs and its religious leaders taking primacy over other Orthodox leaders. Becoming the Third Rome allowed Moscow to press its authority over the other Orthodox polities in its orbit.

Putin has utilised both motifs. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin encouraged the rebirth of Orthodoxy, even taking steps to promote it and ensure he was seen as an Orthodox ruler publicly. As a ruler in the Caesaropapist model, Putin has centralised control over the Russian people, military and economy through the oligarchs. In some sense, Putin has become more Byzantine than the Czars themselves.

Using the motif of Moscow as the Third Rome, Putin justifies his aggression. A Czar could only be seen as legitimate if he held sway over the Orthodox faithful. For Putin, this means reasserting control over states like Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkans. In some cases, Orthodox states have submitted almost willingly; see Belarus. But others have been difficult to absorb, and military action may be the only option to bring a state back under control. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. Ukraine would not come back into the fold willingly, and Putin arguably saw war as the only way to ensure their subordination.

Nationality

Over time, the emphasis on religion wanned and gave way to Russian nationalism as a unifying force. In the early 18th century, Russian imperial ideology emphasised both, supporting one another. However, nationalism, spreading after the French Revolution would soon subsume religion into its ideology.

Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians are all seen as one people in Russia. Historians, propagandists and political leaders have asserted the notion that all three groups descend from the Kievan Rus. However, the passage of time has meant that each group has built their own national identity, seeing their customs and languages as distinct. 

Only with the growth of the Russian Empire did the distinctions begin to be eroded through state action. The Russian state asserted that there had never been a Belarus or Ukraine, banning both groups’ languages. The aim was to unify and reinforce the idea that there were only one Russian people, helping to bring stability to the Czarist state.

Putin has reasserted the idea that there are only one Russian people. As early as 2001, Putin mentions there being only one Russian people, to which Belarus and Ukraine belong. More recently, Putin published a paper detailing the historical links between Russians and Ukrainians, justifying the need for unity amongst both groups.

It appears that Putin sees his aggression toward Ukraine as a war of re-union, not as some conquest. There is a similarity to how Prussia aggressively conquered other German-speaking territories in the 19th century to build the German nation. Putin may be acting similarly, unifying a people seen as artificially separated by the Soviet Union and kept apart by western interference.

Security

The geopolitical-security landscape is the final piece in the historical matrix explaining Russian aggression. Russia has always feared its physical position in global affairs, being constantly invaded from all sides. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine Aims to rebuild the past strategic depth.

With only the Ural mountains breaking up the vast expanses of plains and prairies, Russia is ripe for invading armies. In the 13th century, Mongol armies used the steppe lands to decimate western Russia. The French Grande Armee in the 19th century and Hitler’s legions in the 20th century both attempted to subdue Russia.

Even if modern warfare makes some geographic boundaries obsolete, Russian leaders have sought to strengthen their geographic defences and the space between themselves and potential enemies. The ideal natural boundary against potential invasions is along the Mongolian highlands, south along the Hindu Kush, the Caucasus, the Carpathian mountains, and the Vistula River.

It seems that in Putin’s eyes, taking Ukraine is necessary to strengthen the western defences against NATO, which is a perceived threat. If Russia believes that NATO could become offensive, pushing the border west along large rivers and mountain ranges in central and eastern Europe is necessary to slow advancing forces. The end goal is not necessarily complete annexation. Instead, Putin seems to be seeking any form of a buffer: a neutral state or partition into multiple states, so long as the arrangement prevents Ukraine from being absorbed into the West.

Forecast

Overall, numerous historical currents seem to have contributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and contribute to an atmosphere where future aggression is likely. The dual stress of Orthodox religious views and pan-Slavic nationalist sentiments give Putin, in his mind, both the legitimacy to attack and a goal to pursue. On the more realist side of the equation, Russia’s strategic position has always necessitated the establishment of defensible boundaries to battle back potential invaders.

With these sentiments ingrained into Russian society, especially amongst the ruling elite, it is unlikely that regime change will prevent future aggression. There is potential that the next ruler will continue the same historical march, especially if that ruler comes from the current ruling elite and benefits from continuing with the current policy platform.

Western leaders risk becoming complacent, believing that sanctions and revolutions by the Russian people will end the threat an aggressive Russia poses. Russia may change at some point in the future, but it is not something western countries should count on. Rather, developing a strategy to handle an aggressive power, the long term, is needed, utilising both incentives and coercive measures to encourage Russia to interact productively with nations it opposes.

Categories: Europe, Insights

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