Regathering the Russian lands: the rationale for Putin’s war in Ukraine

The president’s inflammatory rhetoric is informed by two centuries of Russian nationalist thought centring on a distrust of Europe and a mission to recover all the lands of “Ancient Rus”


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 2015, the European Union Committee of the House of Lords inquired into the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. Among the problems it identified were a decline in collective European analytical capacity to read political shifts in Russia and, within the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a loss of deep knowledge of the cultural and historical factors that have shaped Russia. Judging by July’s Institute for Government report “How should the Foreign Office change now?”, the Foreign Office’s Russian expertise has diminished still further. 

At the very time when ability to understand Russian actions in historical perspective is thus decreasing, the “special military operation” Vladimir Putin launched against Ukraine on 24 February underlines the urgent need for such perspective. After all, Putin himself takes a keen interest in Russian history. 

Medieval Novgorod was an outward-looking city

Fiona Hill, who has served in the US as presidential adviser on Russian affairs, has written that Putin believes “his personal destiny is intertwined with that of the Russian state and its past”. The Russian president implicitly made this point in June when he alluded to Peter the Great (ruler from 1696 to 1725), who fought a war against Sweden for 21 years with the aim, as Putin saw it, of returning to Russia what was rightfully Russia’s. More generally, Putin’s preparations for and prosecution of his war in Ukraine have been accompanied by historical commentary that may have gained traction both in Russia itself and beyond.

Of course, many statements about Russian policies and intentions that are made by Putin or his speechwriters must be taken with a pinch of salt. The mendacity of the Russian government was unforgettably demonstrated by repeated denials in the weeks preceding the invasion that the huge military force being assembled in Belarus and southern Russia would be used to attack Ukraine. 

Yet, Putin’s overarching purpose is easily discernible from the selective historical allusions and geopolitical remarks that punctuate his own and his propagandists’ writings and speeches. His 20-page article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published in July 2021, in which he turns to history to gain “a better understanding of the present and look into the future”, is particularly illuminating. 

Its themes are reiterated in the oration he delivered in the Kremlin on 30 September on the occasion of the signing of documents on Russia’s incorporation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia following hastily organised “referendums” in Russian-occupied areas of those Ukrainian provinces. 

These and other texts produced by commentators who take their cue from Putin draw on ideas that have long been commonplace in the Russian national story and echo persistent leitmotifs in varieties of Russian nationalism.

Putin’s masterplan is to restore an imagined historical homeland which was already occupied by “Russians” (the term is elastic) over a thousand years ago and the larger empire they subsequently built. This patrimony contains not merely the heartland of the Russia which now comprises the Russian Federation but also a “Russian world”, which includes contemporary Belarus and Ukraine and further space, such as current Baltic states, which it may be more difficult or impolitic to define. Swathes of it have been lost over time, in Putin’s telling, as a result of Russian disunity or negligence, foreign incursions, or the machinations of external enemies. 

One of Putin’s first aims in his article is to make it seem indisputable that the contemporary Russian state is entitled to govern all of the lands whose East Slav inhabitants, according to the medieval Russian chronicles, turned to Scandinavian Norsemen in 862 with an invitation to come and bring order to their affairs. 

Modern Russia, Belarus and Ukraine do all have their roots in “Ancient Rus”, as the collection of principalities that subsequently developed in the East Slav lands was known. Putin strives to present Rus, of which Kiev (Ukrainian Kyiv) became the religious and cultural centre, as a world that was coherent by virtue of trading links, the familial connections of its princes, a common language, and — from 988, when Vladimir, grand prince of Kyiv, formally adopted Byzantine Christianity — shared religion. 

He strengthens the impression of national cohesion by describing Rus as “the largest state in Europe” at that time. However, the description is problematic because the numerous Rus princes were constantly engaged in fratricidal disputes and unitary authority was rarely exercised.

As Putin points out, the political fragmentation of the East Slav lands worsened after they were invaded in the mid-thirteenth century by the Mongols, who established an overlordship that lasted to some degree for about 250 years. Disunity thus seemed to offer a salutary lesson on the need for strong centralised government, which began to be provided in the fifteenth century by the astute grand princes of Moscow who — Putin uses the stock lexicon of the national story — “cast off the foreign yoke and began gathering the Russian lands”.

And here is Putin’s second key historical point. Moscow — a settlement not mentioned in the Russian chronicles until the mid-twelfth century — became the centre of Russian reunification and continued “the tradition of ancient Russian statehood”. Putin thus endorses the assumption of Muscovite rulers that they had a right to recover all of Rus, much of which had passed to non-Russian powers, notably the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which acquired the city of Kyiv after defeating the Mongols in 1362.

The Slavophiles were typical cultural nationalists

This gathering of lands in the Great Russian heartland (the areas around the upper Volga and Oka rivers) proceeded apace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The subjugation of the north-western city of Novgorod, a bloody business which Putin does not mention, has particular resonance today. Medieval Novgorod was an outward-looking city that traded in the Hanseatic League of northern European towns. Novgorod had a rudimentary form of democratic assembly, known as the veche. Ivan III attacked the city in 1471 and 1478 and brought its ability to conduct independent relations with foreign powers to an end. The veche was no longer allowed to meet and the bell used to summon it was removed to Moscow. Resistance was crushed by deportations. The many resettled Novgorodians were replaced with Muscovite servitors. 

The Orthodox Church affirmed Moscow’s pre-eminence in the Christian world by declaring the city the “Third Rome” (the first having become Catholic and the second, Constantinople, having fallen to Islam in 1453).

The task of recovering the lost lands of Rus continued during three more centuries of empire-building, which Putin also celebrates. In the late seventeenth century, Kyiv and territory on the left bank of the Dnieper known as Little Russia, which had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, were incorporated into Muscovy as a result of what Putin calls a “war of liberation”. 

The project continued in the late eighteenth century under Catherine the Great (1762-96), who successfully prosecuted two wars against Ottoman Turkey. Lands to the north of the Black Sea were acquired and Crimea was annexed in 1783. Thanks to three partitions of Poland during Catherine’s reign, Putin reminds readers, the Russian Empire also “regained the western Old Russian lands”, that is to say much of modern Belarus and right-bank Ukraine.

Following the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, large western areas of the Russian Empire became independent or were ceded to Poland (or, in the case of Bessarabia, to Romania), but by the end of the Second World War the USSR had recovered Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Moldavian lands. It was in this happily restored homeland, in which the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was dominant, that Putin was born, grew up, and became a KGB operative. 

However, the USSR had a weakness, for which Putin holds Lenin responsible. The Soviet state had been conceived as a federation from which each republic had the right to secede and therefore it disintegrated in 1991 when the Communist Party lost power. People in territories outside the Russian Federation who considered themselves Russian were torn from their motherland. Russian speakers in Ukraine, for example, were subjected to “forced assimilation” in “an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia” — an outcome which Putin tellingly compares “to the use of weapons of mass destruction” against Russia.

The break-up of the USSR, Putin has lamented, was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the age, and throughout his presidency he has striven to recover lands previously controlled by Moscow. The Second Chechen War (1999-2009); the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, as a result of which Abkhazia and South Ossetia were detached from Georgia; the annexation of Crimea in 2014; Russian backing for the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014 and the recent “admittance” of these and two other occupied Ukrainian provinces into Russia — all these episodes suggest a long-term revanchist project which is now imperilled by the fierce resistance put up by Ukrainians.

Russian nationalist thought is underpinned by a simplistic contrast between “Russia” and the imagined entity known as “the West” or “Europe”. The classic formulation of this contrast is found in the mid-nineteenth-century dispute between so-called Westernisers and Slavophiles, especially in the writings of members of the latter group. 

The Westernisers, of whom the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the historian Timofei Granovsky, and the political thinker and memoirist Alexander Herzen were leading representatives in the 1840s, believed Russia should draw on ideas, values, and practices developed by more advanced European nations, although they did not agree on which ideas, values, and practices. 

The Slavophiles, such as Aleksei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevsky, and Konstantin Aksakov, on the other hand, insisted that native values and traditions provided a basis for a distinctive Russian future. They lauded Russia’s Orthodox Christianity and deplored the introduction of alien habits into the organic community they imagined had existed in Muscovy before the eighteenth century. 

The Slavophiles were typical cultural nationalists: they aspired to regenerate an indigenous culture of which the rural common people were considered authentic bearers. However, mid-nineteenth-century Russia also had its share of political nationalists, who aimed to build loyalty to Russian institutions, legitimise imperial expansion, and Russify non-Russian minorities. 

Pro-Kremlin activists hold Russian national, Russian and Soviet naval flags and orange- black flags made of St. George’s Ribbons, a well-known Russian symbol of military valour, during a rally in support of ethnic Russians in Ukraine; Moscow, March 2014

Nationalists of this sort were more direct forerunners of Putin and his ideologues than the Slavophiles. Prominent among them were supporters of Official Nationality, a doctrine formulated by Sergei Uvarov, who became minister of education in 1833. Official Nationality, in which there has been some interest in Putin’s Russia, upheld the principles of autocracy, Orthodoxy, and national character which supposedly distinguished Russia from other nations. Later in the nineteenth century, following Russia’s Crimean debacle, there developed a more aggressive political nationalism, Pan-Slavism, which was associated with Russia’s military colonisation of Central Asia and support for Balkan Slavs fighting for liberation from Ottoman Turkey.

Of all Russia’s nineteenth-century declarations of manifest destiny, Nikolai Danilevsky’s Russia and Europe (1869) seems the most topical today. Largely neglected in the USSR, this work has been resurrected in post-Soviet Russia, where at least 15 editions have been published. Ironically, its resonance has been amplified by a modern American reflection on geopolitics, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) by Samuel Huntington, which uses a paradigm similar to Danilevsky’s for the study of international relations.

Danilevsky set out to classify ethnic groups and characterise their civilisations. He identified ten cultural-historical types that corresponded to major linguistic-ethnographic families. According to Danilevsky, Germanic-Roman peoples were violent and egoistic. By contrast, good-natured Slavs showed tolerance, gentleness, and kindness — traits which enabled others to take advantage of them. Within Slavdom, Danilevsky believed, Russia was the “true sun”. He took it for granted that the “Russian people, regardless of the difference in dialects of the Great Russians, Little Russians [i.e. Ukrainians] and White Russians [i.e. Belorussians]”, should be united in a sovereign unitary state. 

Danilevsky predicts a terrible confrontation between Europe and Russia but is convinced of Russian innocence. He cannot understand Europeans’ view of Russia as an aggressor state constantly expanding its borders. In fact, Russian colonisation, he maintains, has often been an almost bloodless extension of Russian jurisdiction into areas inhabited by “half-savage” Finnic or nomadic tribes who were incapable of forming “historical” nations. In other cases, Russia has afforded protection to peoples, such as Georgians and Armenians, who were no longer able to defend themselves from their enemies.

A further variety of Russian nationalism, known as Eurasianism, emerged after the upheavals of the First World War and the 1917 October Revolution. The leading Eurasianists were émigrés who viewed the Bolshevik revolution as the product of Western ideas assimilated by a deluded radical intelligentsia. In the 1920s, they began to imagine former Russian imperial space as a new geographic and cultural whole where another dominion led by Russia might be established. 

This new entity would seek alternatives to both capitalism and communism, shunning liberal democracy, and restoring Orthodox spirituality. Like Danilevsky and other nationalists, the Eurasianists rejected the assumption that European civilisation was superior to Russia’s. But unlike their predecessors, they were prepared to reimagine Russians as heirs to the empires of the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, such as the Mongols. They also conceived of themselves as potential leaders of other peoples colonised by Europeans.

There is, then, a large corpus of writing that informs the contemporary Russian narrative about the Ukraine war. The account given by Putin and his apologists of the attempt to recover what they consider Russia’s Ukrainian patrimony is tinged, for example, with the sense of victimhood that colours Danilevsky’s tract. The greatest threat to Russia, Putin complains, has always come from external ill-wishers who want to divide and rule it. 

Most importantly, this narrative is underpinned by the idea of opposition between Russia and the West that is central to traditional Russian nationalist discourse. Thus, in a celebratory piece prematurely published on 26 February, when the Kremlin believed Russia’s “special military operation” would end in triumph within days, Petr Akopov treated the invasion as an epoch-making event which spelt defeat for “the West”. Like Danilevsky, who wrote his magnum opus in the 1860s as Italian and German unification were taking place, Akopov argued that Russia could not but respond to recent accretions of power in the West, in this case German reunification and the enlargement of the EU after the collapse of the USSR. 

Russia, Putin maintained, was undaunted

In an article published on 3 April, another commentator, Timofei Sergeitsev, maintained that by thwarting Ukraine’s attempt to defect from the Russosphere, Russia was inflicting a signal defeat on European civilisation, which had been in crisis throughout the twentieth century. Daria Dugina, who was killed by a car bomb on the outskirts of Moscow on 20 August, had followed her father Aleksandr Dugin, one of the most militant contemporary champions of Russian expansionism, in describing the situation in Ukraine as an example of a clash of civilisations.

Finally, Putin himself reinforced this narrative of Russia versus the West in his speech of 30 September, when Ukrainian advances had called into question the feasibility of his historic mission. More than half of his 37-minute oration was devoted to a catalogue of resentments about the Russophobia, greed, brutality, and duplicity of a West engaged in a continual attempt to undermine Russia in order to preserve its global hegemony. 

Yet Russia, Putin maintained, was undaunted. Proud of their distinctive way of thinking and “spiritual forces” and guided by their “love of humanity” and “mercifulness”, Russians would make their own future, leading resistance to the doomed colonial model of the rapacious Western powers. Perversely contextualised in this way, the invasion of Ukraine is an attempt to decolonise an outpost of the West and an episode in a struggle against a bloc trying to dominate the unipolar world against which Putin was already railing in a muscular speech on security policy he delivered at a conference in Munich as far back as 2007.

Putin’s case for invading Ukraine also relies on a historical narrative in which the Muscovite autocrats who began to reunite the imagined East Slav homeland after the disintegration of Kievan Rus were the leading actors in the national story. Nikolai Karamzin helped establish the Muscovite statist viewpoint in his beguiling 12-volume History of the Russian State (1818-29), in which Ivan III, the most successful gatherer of Russian lands, was the principal hero. There is little room in the various forms of this narrative — pre-revolutionary imperial, Soviet, or officially approved in the Putin era — for any challenge to the notion that Great Russia has been the legitimate hegemonic power in the East Slav lands since the Mongol invasion.

Putin endorses this narrative by treating modern Ukraine as part of the Great Russian patrimony even though large parts of it have been governed for long periods by regimes including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crimean Tatar Khans who were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and autonomous communities of Cossacks. 

Russia and Ukraine, Putin asserts, are “parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space” and Russians and Ukrainians are “one people — a single whole”. Though he stresses the importance of language as a marker of national identity, he regards literary works written in Ukrainian as part of a common heritage that cannot be divided between Russia and Ukraine. He deplores the idea that the Russian lands are divisible into separate states. All these lands belong, he believes, to “the large Russian nation, a triune people”: Great Russians, Little Russians, and Belorussians.

Putin resents the Ukrainians for rejecting this imagined unified nationality by breaking the economic, linguistic, and religious links he believes have tied them to the Russian world since the dawn of East Slav history. They benefitted from Russian economic support between 1991 and 2013, he claims, but have frittered away the industrial and technological advantages that economic partnership with Russia had bestowed on them. 

What is more, they have promoted Ukrainian as the national language and attempted to “virtually cut the Russian language out of the educational process”. (Prolonged and acrimonious debate in Ukraine about legislation on language policy has played into Putin’s hands over the last decade.) As for religious affairs, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from its Russian Orthodox counterpart in 2018, Putin complains, as a result of the interference of the Ukrainian secular authorities in church life.

The very idea of Ukraine would have to be obliterated

As the war has proceeded, loyalist commentators have endorsed Putin’s campaign to bring the “anti-Russia” on Russia’s southern flank under Muscovite control. Akopov claimed Russia was restoring “its historical fullness”. Ukraine could now be reordered, so that it could revert to its “natural condition as a part of the Russian world”. Sergeitsev expatiated in a vindictive manner on how such a reordering should be carried out, advocating censorship, repression, exemplary punishment, executions, incarcerations, and re-education of the Nazis and their sympathisers who had allegedly abetted the war waged by the Ukrainian government against Ukraine’s Russian population.

Not only would Ukraine cease to be an independent nation, the very idea of Ukraine would have to be obliterated. It is likely, of course, that this Russian treatment of Ukraine as an artificial construct will prove to have had the opposite effect to the one intended. Since nations define themselves by identifying not only the positive characteristics they think they possess but also the negative characteristics of opposing nations, Russia’s invasion may strengthen Ukrainians’ sense of nationhood.

In sum, Putin has selflessly taken it upon himself — so the contemporary expansionist narrative runs — to restore the indivisible Russian motherland, avenging in the process the humiliation suffered at the hands of its external enemies when the USSR collapsed. 

As legal justification, Putin on 30 September invoked a clause in Article 1 of the UN charter, on the “inalienable right” of peoples to self-determination, when reporting the results of the sham referendums in four Ukrainian provinces. The narrative he has persistently woven around the conflict, however, relies for its legitimacy on a nostalgic notion of a primeval homeland which overrides the principles of sovereign equality and territorial integrity of all states enshrined in Article 2 of the charter.

Thus, when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is viewed in the light of a national story that began in the ninth century, we find something familiar about his attempt to regather lands that are perceived as part of the “Russian world”. As in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Great Russian determination to subjugate areas inhabited by fellow Slavs who do not wish their horizons to be restricted by Moscow entails military attack, cruelty to civilians, and resettlement of potential opponents. Once again, a Russian leader and his actions are blessed by a supportive church, led now by Patriarch Kirill. On the ideological level, old tunes are replayed. In the perennial Russian debate about the nation’s relationship with Europe, Westernism (whose representatives were no less patriotic than the Slavophiles) could only thrive in different domestic political conditions or in a diaspora. For now, Sergeitsev warns, Russians should give up any “pro-European and pro-Western illusions”. 

On the other hand, anti-Western political nationalism is resurgent, fuelled by the upheavals that followed the disintegration of the USSR. This nationalism, moreover, is of a highly aggrieved and aggressive kind, invoking the sort of apocalyptic clash of civilisations imagined by Danilevsky 150 years ago.

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