Nothing New in the East? What the West Overlooked – Or Ignored
By Andrii Portnov
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 came as a surprise to many in Western Europe. Perhaps even more surprising was the firm Ukrainian resistance. But why was this unexpected? Apparently, Putin’s worldview and Ukrainian reality were ignored for a long time.
Many things become clearer only after a catastrophe. Accordingly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the morning of February 24th, 2022, came as a surprise to many in Western Europe. Perhaps even more surprising was the firm resistance of Ukrainians, who prevented Russia’s blitzkrieg plans and withstood the attempted ‘decapitation’ of Ukraine’s government. But why were so many surprised? Why did Germany and the larger Western world misjudge both Russia’s policies and the state of Ukrainian society so strongly? And what is the nature of Putin’s aggression?
A History Lesson by Putin
On June 30th, 2021, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, claimed in his annual press conference that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and announced that he would write a longer article on the subject. Barely two weeks later, the text appeared on the Kremlin’s website. His main message is simple: according to Putin, the Ukrainian national and state project is a recent invention, dating to no earlier than the end of the 19th century, and was enacted by external powers and a small part of the local elites, who wanted to oppose Russia and the will of the majority of the Ukrainian population. Addressing the recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Putin repeated the same key points – that Ukraine is a failed state completely dependent on the West, primarily the US and NATO – in a nearly hour-long lecture broadcast on Russian state television three days before the invasion.
After this speech, there was no longer any doubt that Putin had made the decision to invade. From today’s perspective, it even seems that this conclusion should have been drawn from the ‘historical article’ published in the summer of 2021. Putin had certainly not written it to initiate a historiographical discussion. Rather, he had, on the one hand, emphasized as much as possible the manipulative question of ‘historical rights’; on the other hand, he clearly expressed that he considered Ukraine a field of confrontation with the West. The publication practically coincided with the finalization of plans to the launch the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, running under the Baltic Sea, on whose ‘purely economic’ importance the German government insisted until February 24th, 2022. Yet even foreign policy experts close to the Kremlin had interpreted the article as an admission of the “end of the liberal order” and the world’s return to “naked competition”, combined with “the former periphery’s compulsion to be loyal to Moscow”.
The summer 2021 article on Ukraine was not Putin’s first ‘historical revelation’. But it is significant that the West also largely ignored his earlier speeches and drew no political conclusions from them. For example, in June 2020, in an English-language article on the anniversary of the start of World War II, Putin denied the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the ensuing destruction of the Polish state in September 1939. Instead, he argued that Poland’s aggressive policies, along with the “national humiliation” of Germany after 1918, had been the crucial preconditions for the war.
There is no point in refuting Putin’s beliefs with scholarly arguments. But it is an important research task to understand his supporting sources. What Putin says and writes is not original. His televised address on February 21st, 2022, particularly, is in some ways reminiscent of the theses on Ukraine from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1990 pamphlet “Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiyu” (the title of the English translation was “Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Solutions”). In this deeply conservative and at times imperialist text, the Nobel laureate in literature assumes that Ukraine belongs to Russian history and to the Russian people, and describes the country’s independence, or its “division” from Russia, as a “consequence of an eclipse during the communist years”. The idea that Ukraine could develop independently of Russia seems to also be far from Putin’s mind, as is similarly the case for many other representatives of conservative Slavophile thinking. Rather, their prevailing view is that the idea of independent development has been externally imposed on Ukrainians. According to this logic, a Ukraine that is not pro-Russian is inevitably the product of a foreign (Western) agenda.
Putin’s other sources sometimes resemble mythological narratives. In 2012, then-Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky argued: “I believe that after all the catastrophes that befell Russia in the 20th century, from World War I to perestroika, the fact that Russia still survives and evolves indicates that our people have an extra chromosome”. It is no coincidence that Medinsky, who is known for exploiting Russian history for political purposes in various and scandalous ways, today leads the Russian delegation in the negotiations with Ukraine. Russian literary scholar and Oxford professor Andrei Sorin recently pointed out that the official interpretation of the events between 1989 and 1991 that dominates the Russian public’s consciousness is “not Russia’s liberation from Soviet totalitarianism and its imperial legacy, but as a defeat at the hands of the West in the Cold War” – a defeat, moreover, that was achieved through deception. According to this account, Russia believed in a common European home, agreed to German reunification, and in return received NATO expansion as far as its borders.
Since Putin became president, he has cultivated and disseminated this narrative. On December 30th, 1999, a day before his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, announced his premature resignation, Putin published his now largely forgotten article “Russia at the Dawn of a New Millennium”. It dealt mainly with economic reforms, but he already listed the most important components of the ‘Russian idea’: patriotism, sovereignty, statehood, and “the turn to collective forms of living”, in contrast to the individualism prevalent in the West. Shortly after he took office as president in 2000, one of his first symbolic political decisions was to reintroduce the anthem of the USSR as the Russian national anthem. In a by now familiar statement, a few years later he described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. These words both shaped and divined the prevailing public sentiment.
NATO’s 1999 military intervention in the former Yugoslavia, which later led to the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, also played an important role in establishing this worldview. For post-Soviet Russia, these events were “a moment of truth”. Subsequently, Russia’s leadership perceived any NATO expansion to the east as “a preparation for aggression”. Significantly, in a meeting with UN Secretary General António Guterres on April 26th, 2022, Putin once again raised the issue of Kosovo and directly compared the NATO operation at that time to the ongoing Russian ‘special operation’ in Ukraine.
In 2007, Putin ended his programmatic speech at the Munich Security Conference with the following words: “Russia is a country with more than a thousand years of history, and it has always had the privilege of pursuing an independent foreign policy”. The following years showed that he also envisaged the use of military means for this purpose: shortly after the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, at which Ukraine and Georgia were denied the prospect of joining the alliance, Russian troops marched into Georgia. This was followed by the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, and on October 7th, 2015, on Putin’s 63rd birthday, missiles were fired at Syrian opposition positions. Underlying these military decisions is the belief that the sovereign – or, to use a phrase from Russian history, “the real tsar” – has the right to use force and to override formal international legal norms.
This so-called Crimean consensus marked a moment of new legitimacy for his regime. It found its legal continuation in the constitutional reform of 2020, which allowed Putin to remain president until 2036 – de facto for life. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was apparently intended to further strengthen this legitimacy. The Russian president hoped for confirmation primarily through an easy and convincing victory – not only over Ukraine, but over its supposed ‘overlord’, the collective West. A quick victory was also intended to bring about the ultimate recognition of Russia’s historical independence.
A History Lesson for Putin
In his decision to launch a military invasion of Ukraine, Putin would have taken the mood of the Russian public into account. Russian political scientist Dmitri Furman noted in 2010 that Russian national consciousness had not freed itself from either imperial or Soviet captivity – the post-Soviet borders of the Russian Federation are seen as unnatural and historically unjust. This allowed Russia’s political elites to justify the authoritarian development of their country by claiming that otherwise, that is, with more political freedom, there was a risk of state collapse. The expectation that the effect of the “Crimean consensus” would be repeated was based on the argument that a “strong hand” was necessary because otherwise “democratic inconsistency” was imminent. However, a requirement for the successful mobilization of society for a militaristic foreign policy is a ‘victory’, preferably with minimal casualties. Such a victory, as is already clear today, is no longer attainable.
It is noteworthy that in Russia, it is forbidden to call the war in Ukraine as such. There is only mention of a military ‘special operation’. And this enjoys considerable support among the Russian population. However, it is important to understand that a full-fledged sociological or public opinion survey using methods developed for peaceful democratic societies is hardly possible in today’s Russia. Therefore, caution must be exercised in evaluating the reported collective social attitudes and, among other things, the dynamics of the situation must be taken into account. Clearly, the first phase of the war succeeded in setting in motion a patriotic mobilization. But this does not mean that the pendulum cannot swing in the other direction. This is all the more true considering that military failures have been triggers for political change several times in Russian history: for instance, the failed Crimean War in the mid-19th century was followed by Alexander II’s liberal reforms, and Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 contributed decisively to Nicholas II’s loss of legitimacy, which led to the 1905 revolution and ultimately to his abdication in 1917.
In 1991, all people living in Ukraine, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or linguistic background, became full citizens of the young state. At the time, numerous observers predicted the country’s imminent collapse and cited regional ‘divisions’. The thesis of ‘two Ukraines’ and the conviction that the Russian-speaking population would be politically loyal to Russia seemed plausible to many. But even the first days of Putin’s war showed how simplistic and far-fetched these conceptions are. Otherwise, Russian-speaking Ukrainians would have defected en masse to the side of the occupiers, and the Ukrainian government would have soon yielded to the pressure of Russian aggression. Why didn’t this occur?
Ultimately, Russia’s attack conclusively demonstrated that Ukraine has formed as a sovereign nation with a specific model of political loyalty and identity that cannot be reduced to language or religion. Even in the face of the invasion, diversity did not prove to be a weakness: religious and linguistic differences did not undermine the unity of the country. To understand this, it is necessary to finally get rid of simplistic transfers of the Swiss or Canadian models to Ukrainian reality: in Ukraine, there is no clear geographical or historical border between the Russian and Ukrainian languages. According to various surveys, about 35–40 percent of the population speak only or mostly Russian or only Ukrainian, respectively, and about 20 percent claim to use Ukrainian and Russian equally. In Ukraine, a particular model of situated bilingualism can be observed, in which Ukrainian is predominant in education and Russian in politics and economics. Most importantly, in Ukraine there is no direct connection between the preferred language and the political orientation of a given person. The latter aspect in particular renders Putin’s ‘argument’ that Russian-speaking means a pro-Russian attitude obsolete and shows that it is completely disconnected from everyday reality in Ukraine.
A new, more adequate description of Ukrainian diversity is needed. It is time to dismiss stereotypical phrases about a ‘looming split’ and to rethink the country’s diversity – and by no means only in terms of language – as a crucial source of political pluralism. Unlike neighboring Belarus and Russia, Ukraine has developed a tradition of political competition and continuous transitions of power over the course of its post-Soviet history. Since 1991, the country has had six presidents, and only one of them, Leonid Kuchma, managed to be reelected for a second term. The current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected in 2019 with a clear majority across Ukraine. His decision to remain in Kyiv after the Russian invasion, despite the strong advice of leading Western intelligence agencies to leave, can hardly be overestimated in its symbolic value. Moreover, Zelensky is considered by many to be an embodiment of Ukrainian diversity: he comes from a Russian-speaking Jewish family living in the southeast of the country, thus refuting in the flesh the Kremlin’s propaganda of the “Nazis’ seizure of power”.
Nevertheless, some of the main points of Kremlin propaganda have been reflected time and again in Western European and German discourse – be it by experts or the general public. Thus, there is an ongoing identification of Ukraine with nationalism, while simultaneously, the existence of the Ukrainian nation itself is at times called into question. And in Western academic and media circles, almost as often as in Russia, there is talk of Ukraine’s “deep division”, of “two Ukraines”, and of language preferences as connected to geopolitical orientations. Attempts to point out the simplicity and inadequacy of such points have had little effect.
Hopefully, after February 24th, 2022, the search for new ways of describing Ukrainian reality will no longer be met with such resistance. This search, among other things, includes a critical analysis of the discursive processes occurring in contemporary Ukraine, including the increasing influence of post-colonial approaches in viewing one’s own history. As opposed to the mythology of the ‘brotherly peoples’, the post-colonial perspective allows for a powerful comparative analysis, which does not contradict critical empathy with Ukraine – a society and country at war.
A decisive prerequisite for reconceptualization is the full recognition of Ukraine’s historical and cultural competence to act. It has been repeatedly stated that, for years, German stereotyping of Ukraine has been based on strong historical complexes in relation to Russia and the US. In other words, Ukraine was often used as a pretext to express German attitudes toward Russia and the United States. Ukraine’s right for historical and cultural agency applies not only to the current politico-military situation, but also extends to its multifaceted and complex history, including Ukrainian-German and Ukrainian-Russian relations. An important task for the social sciences and humanities is not only to examine these, but also to communicate the findings to the broader public to a greater extent than has been done up to now.
The German-language version of this text was published in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 28–29/2022, 11 July 2022, pp. 16–20, and was republished by TRAFO Blog. Translation into English was done by Natasha Klimenko.
 Vladimir Putin, “Pro istorichnu ednist’ rosiyan ta ukraintsiv [About the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians]”, 12.7.2021.
 Vladimir Putin, “Rede an die Nation vom 21.2.2022 [A Talk Addressing the Nation on 21.2.2022]”.
 Vladimir Putin, “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II”, 18.6.2020.
 Alexander Solschenizyn, Russlands Weg aus der Krise: Ein Manifest [Russia’s Path out of the Crisis: A Manifesto], Munich 1990, p. 16.
 Vladimir Medinskii, “U naroda Rosii imeetsya odna lishnyaya khromosoma [The Russian People Have an Extra Chromosome]”, 21.1.2013.
 Vladimir Putin, “Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletii [Russia at the Dawn of a New Millennium]”, 30.12.1999.
 Vyacheslav Morozov, Rossiya i Drugie: Identichnost’ i granitsy politicheskogo soobshchestva [Russia and Others: Identity and Borders of Political Community], Moscow 2009, pp. 315–382.
 Sergei Medvedev, Park Krymskogo perioda: Khroniki tret’ego sroka [Park of the Crimean Period: Chronicles of the Third Term], Moscow 2017, p. 132.
 Dmitri Furman, “Ot Rossiiskoi imprerii k russkomu national’nomu gosudarstvu [From the Russian Empire to the Russian Nation-State], in: Neprikosnovennyi zapas 5/2010, p. 47.
 For language politics and the general linguistic situation in Ukraine, see: Michael Moser, Language Policy and the Discourse on Languages in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych, Stuttgart 2013; Volodymyr Kulyk, “Language Policy in Ukraine: What People Want the State to Do”, in: East European Politics and Societies 2/2013, pp. 280–307; Volodymyr Kulyk, “Einheit und Identität: Sprachenpolitik nach dem Majdan [Unity and Identity: Language Politics after Maidan]”, in: Osteuropa 5–6/2014, pp. 227–238.
 Andrii Portnov, “Postsowjetische Hybridität und ‘Eurorevolution’ [Post-Soviet Hybridity and ‘Euro-Revolution’]”, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 47–48/2014, pp. 3–8; Andrii Portnov, “Post-Maidan Europe and the New Ukrainian Studies”, in: Slavic Review 4/2015, pp. 723–731.
 For earlier attempts at these approaches, see: Stephen Velychenko, “Post-Colonialism and Ukrainian History”, in: Ab Imperio 1/2004, pp. 391–404; Serhy Yekelchyk, “The Location of Nation: Postcolonial Perspectives on Ukrainian Historical Debates”, in: Australian Slavonic and East European Studies 1–2/1997, pp. 161–184. See also: Stephen Velychenko, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918–1925, Toronto 2015; Mykola Riabchuk, The Fence of Metternich’s Garden: Essays on Europe, Ukraine and Europeanization, Stuttgart 2021.
 Gerd Koenen, Der Russland-Komplex: Die Deutschen und der Osten, 1900–1945 [The Russia-Complex: The Germans and the East, 1900–1945], Munich 2005; Karl Schlögel, ed., Russian-German Special Relations in the Twentieth Century: A Closed Chapter?, Oxford and New York 2006.
 Dan Diner, America in the Eyes of the Germans: An Essay on Anti-Americanism, Princeton 1996. First published in German under the title Feindbild Amerika: Über die Beständigkeit eines Ressentiments, Berlin 2002.
Andrii Portnov is Professor of Entangled History of Ukraine at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder), a Principal Investigator in the research project “Europäische Zeiten/European Times – A Transregional Approach to the Societies of Central and Eastern Europe” (EUTIM), and the director of the research network PRISMA UKRAЇNA at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.
Citation: Andrii Portnov, Nothing New in the East? What the West Overlooked – Or Ignored, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.07.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/39812