top of page

How an Op-Ed in 1997 Forewarned of Russian Aggression

We knew, in 1997 itself. When in an Op-Ed article warned that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Kenan noted, such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to harm the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking. In a speech, Putin gave his clearest answer yet. Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on land that is historically and rightfully Russian: Ukraine never had stable traditions of real statehood,” as he puts it. He goes on, “the incumbent Ukrainian Government's overtures to the West, as well as its hostile attitude towards Moscow, are an attempt to stand up as a fraudulent government.”

This combination is unacceptable to Putin: an anti-Russian leadership in the land he considers to be legitimately Russian, populated by rightfully Russian people. Putin's central assertion is that there is no historical Ukrainian country is worthy of modern-day sovereignty, is patently incorrect. The speech is consistent with a Paper from Putin entitled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. The 5,000-word article was published on July 12 and features narratives favored by Putin throughout the past seven years of undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine. He declared that, "the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster [in which] tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory". Putin genuinely believes in militant Russian nationalism, a broader invasion is not unavoidable. However, it is a mistake to reduce Russia's reason to a single clear grievance - fear of Ukraine joining NATO or a plain aggressive desire to acquire Ukrainian territory. These elements, in Putin's perspective, are inextricably linked in a complicated historical and ideological tale.

It is, to understand the Russian perspective, crucial to comprehend the current situation, and perhaps even resolve it. Putin believes that Ukraine and Russia are virtually intertwined, historically. “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space” he said, per the Kremlin’s official translation. “Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians” Putin claims, modern-day Ukraine was "completely constructed by Russia, or, to be more exact, by Bolshevik Communist Russia". In this perspective, a trio of early Soviet leaders is discussed. Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev were sculpted from the Russian mainland and from several neighbouring countries to form Ukraine. Ukraine is a separate and ahistorical republic.

The formation of Ukraine and the other Soviet republics was an attempt to secure the support of the Soviet Union's "most zealous nationalists" at the price of Russia's historical concept. This underscores Putin's "virus of nationalism". According to Putin, Ukrainian nationalism is a virus that the Bolsheviks infected the Russian host with. When the Soviet Union disintegrated and countries from Ukraine to Estonia to Georgia declared independence, the "virus" killed its host. These nations have long had national and ethnic identities apart from Russia. Putin, on the other hand, does not accept this. He views the former Soviet countries — particularly Ukraine — as fragments of Russia taken from the homeland by communist intrigues. Putin further adds, "Radicals and nationalists, particularly in Ukraine, claim credit for the country's independence. As far as we can tell, this is completely incorrect". "The breakup of our united country was caused by Bolshevik and Soviet leaders' historic, strategic mistakes... the collapse of historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience." As a result, Putin does not consider post-Soviet Ukraine to be a legitimate country; he believes it lacks both a meaningful past and a national tradition that would bind it together. Instead, he sees it as a haven for billionaires who use anti-Russian hysteria to hide their crimes. “The Ukrainian authorities — I would like to emphasise this — began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us,” he says. He claims that Russian power over Ukraine has been supplanted by a new type of foreign rule: Western rule. "Ukraine itself was placed under external control... a colony with a puppet regime" after the 2013 Euromaidan uprisings, which toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

This historical narrative has the alarming implication that the Ukrainian government is both invalid and unsustainable in its current form. It's illegitimate because Putin considers Ukraine to be a natural extension of Russia, separated only by happenstance. It is intolerable because Ukraine's government seeks legitimacy by inciting confrontation with Russia, suppressing native Russian speakers while also threatening Russia's borders. Putin warns that a regime backed by the West might jeopardise the Russian state's fundamental security. Putin goes as further as to suggest, "Ukraine is getting nuclear weapons with Western support, joining NATO, and eventually serving as a launching pad for an American strike on Russia." In addition to the military invasion, the Maidan movement in Ukraine as a "coup d'état" carried out "with direct backing from foreign governments," and he fears a similar uprising against his regime. Bringing Ukraine to heel — demonstrating that a pro-Western protest movement in Russia's historical heartland cannot thrive — is critical to his government's survival. Russian nationalism and Russian security interests are inextricably linked in the minds of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin believes that the current Ukrainian government is a threat to Russia because of their imperial past. Restoring Russian sovereignty over lands that, he believes, Russia controls would be one method to eliminate the threat. Putin's narrative is a twisted version of the past, as some believe.

This trajectory is followed by claiming that Ukraine does not lack a distinct national identity from Russia and that Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, was constructed centuries before Moscow. After declaring independence from Russia after the end of World War I, Ukraine was forcibly returned to Soviet authority. People in former Soviet republics, from Estonia to Ukraine to Georgia, attempted to leave Moscow's orbit in the 1990s because of genuine dissatisfaction with Soviet repression. Putin's mentality is not some kind of elite Ukrainian manipulation that has boosted support for a closer relationship with the West among Ukrainians. In conjunction with that perspective, Putin's belief in Russian suffering, as presented in the paper, looks genuine, but is based on his questionable rhetoric and infallible imagination. "The construction of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive toward Russia, is analogous in its effects to the use of weapons of mass devastation against us," Putin stated in the essay. He said that "it was [historically] inconceivable to imagine that Ukraine and Russia could split apart and become two distinct states" in his 2014 address announcing the annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian territory that continues under Russian administration. Putin warned in a 2007 speech in Munich that "no one felt safe" under the American-led global order. He claimed that Russia and the rest of the globe had arrived at "a critical juncture" in their efforts to break free.

There was also the 2005 statement in which Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union as a "geopolitical calamity" and here because it resulted in ethnic Russians living in independent republics outside of Russian boundaries, such as Ukraine. This contributed to his coup-de-grace-Esque statement to claim that the entire international liberal order is obsolete. However, the fact that Putin has long harboured nationalist grievances does not indicate how far he will go to achieve his goals. Nonetheless, the paper and speeches illuminate an important component of the crisis: why Putin is acting in this manner.


bottom of page