Russian Imperialism and the War on Ukraine

Commentary “This is a murder!” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy showed Congress a two-minute video that made the heart-wrenching reality of Russia’s war on Ukraine inescapably plain for all to see. Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation, recognized as such throughout the world and by the United Nations. Vladimir Putin invaded its neighbor and embarked on the largest, most brutal land war in Europe since World War II. Americans, fiercely at odds over other matters, are overwhelmingly united in support of Ukraine, though not for direct commitment of U.S. troops. There’s also a minority of Putin apologists in the United States who urge Ukraine to sue for peace through surrender. Western leaders who talk about giving Putin an “exit ramp”—allowing him to save face by acquiring Ukrainian territory and limiting its sovereignty as his reward for aggression—are not so different in practice. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether an “antiwar” critique comes from the left or right, from the likes of the Democratic Socialists of America and Noam Chomsky or of Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson. Both positions reject as virtue signaling or war fever the unity and patriotic spirit that has for the moment united the rest of the country. They blame the war principally on America and the West, even though it was Russia that launched this war of aggression and regime change on its neighbor. This is also the view of some foreign policy experts, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Cohen, and Henry Kissinger. From this perspective, the neoconservative Republicans and liberal imperialist Democrats are much alike. They don’t understand the importance of national resentments or imperial aspirations of Russia or China and lead the United States repeatedly into losing wars. Those who nudged Ukraine toward membership of the EU and NATO were leading the country down the primrose path in a direction that wasn’t in anyone’s interest. They offered an illusion of freedom and security that the West couldn’t and wouldn’t assure. Encouraged by the West, in this blaming-the-victim view, Ukraine provoked a powerful Russia that considered Ukraine a part of its historic land. Empire and Nation Both Putin and Zelenskyy are sometimes called “nationalists.” But a Russian nationalist is not the same as a Ukrainian. The nationalism of Putin is imperial; it aims at restoring and building a Russian empire, one that’s vast, transcontinental, and includes many nations under the rule of a centralized Russian state. Ukrainian nationalists vary widely about what kind of independent and sovereign state Ukraine should be. Putin makes much of its neo-Nazi elements—though the country’s president is a Jew who lost family members to the Holocaust. Putin’s Western apologists emphasize that Ukraine is corrupt and undemocratic, as if Russia were not itself a corrupt authoritarian kleptocracy and as if we should only support the right of nations to self-determination if the nation’s leaders already meet our standards of liberal democracy. Russia had been a prison house of nations (as Lenin called it) under the Tsars and was so again under Stalin. It was not a nation but an empire. The Russian empire in its Cold War form disintegrated as the Gorbachev era ended in 1991. The Soviet Union itself and the Warsaw Pact—a Soviet-dominated counterweight to NATO involving the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries—dissolved. The subsequent incorporation of many former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics into NATO itself was a threat, in Putin’s view, to Russia itself. Putin sought at least to prevent further NATO encroachment on Russia’s “sphere of influence,” especially in the form of Ukraine’s becoming a member. Most Putin apologists emphasize this limited view of Putin’s aims as a response to NATO expansionism. But the “grand theory driving Putin to war,” professor of Russian history Jane Burbank argues, is a geopolitics of Eurasianism that turns away from the whole Atlantic world. Russians had always been an imperial people, in this view, expounded by Nikolai Trubotskoy in the 1920s and Aleksandr Dugin recently (pdf). World empire is the aim, a transcontinental superpower including many nations and religious confessions, but based on Eurasian geopolitics, Russian Orthodoxy, and traditional values. Ukraine is not a distinct nation in this view, with a right to self-determination in a world order of free and sovereign nation-states. The Russians and Ukrainians (or Little Russians) are one people. Ukrainian independence and sovereignty constitute a “huge danger to all of Eurasia,” as Burbank quotes Dugin as saying. Ukraine had to become “a purely administrative sector of the Russian centralized state.” Burbank concludes that “The goal, plainly, is empire. And the line will not be drawn at Ukraine.” When he heard that NATO had announced at its Bucharest summit in April 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members,” Putin reportedly flew into

Russian Imperialism and the War on Ukraine

Commentary

“This is a murder!” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy showed Congress a two-minute video that made the heart-wrenching reality of Russia’s war on Ukraine inescapably plain for all to see.

Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation, recognized as such throughout the world and by the United Nations. Vladimir Putin invaded its neighbor and embarked on the largest, most brutal land war in Europe since World War II.

Americans, fiercely at odds over other matters, are overwhelmingly united in support of Ukraine, though not for direct commitment of U.S. troops.

There’s also a minority of Putin apologists in the United States who urge Ukraine to sue for peace through surrender. Western leaders who talk about giving Putin an “exit ramp”—allowing him to save face by acquiring Ukrainian territory and limiting its sovereignty as his reward for aggression—are not so different in practice.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether an “antiwar” critique comes from the left or right, from the likes of the Democratic Socialists of America and Noam Chomsky or of Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson. Both positions reject as virtue signaling or war fever the unity and patriotic spirit that has for the moment united the rest of the country. They blame the war principally on America and the West, even though it was Russia that launched this war of aggression and regime change on its neighbor.

This is also the view of some foreign policy experts, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Cohen, and Henry Kissinger.

From this perspective, the neoconservative Republicans and liberal imperialist Democrats are much alike. They don’t understand the importance of national resentments or imperial aspirations of Russia or China and lead the United States repeatedly into losing wars.

Those who nudged Ukraine toward membership of the EU and NATO were leading the country down the primrose path in a direction that wasn’t in anyone’s interest. They offered an illusion of freedom and security that the West couldn’t and wouldn’t assure.

Encouraged by the West, in this blaming-the-victim view, Ukraine provoked a powerful Russia that considered Ukraine a part of its historic land.

Empire and Nation

Both Putin and Zelenskyy are sometimes called “nationalists.” But a Russian nationalist is not the same as a Ukrainian. The nationalism of Putin is imperial; it aims at restoring and building a Russian empire, one that’s vast, transcontinental, and includes many nations under the rule of a centralized Russian state.

Ukrainian nationalists vary widely about what kind of independent and sovereign state Ukraine should be. Putin makes much of its neo-Nazi elements—though the country’s president is a Jew who lost family members to the Holocaust. Putin’s Western apologists emphasize that Ukraine is corrupt and undemocratic, as if Russia were not itself a corrupt authoritarian kleptocracy and as if we should only support the right of nations to self-determination if the nation’s leaders already meet our standards of liberal democracy.

Russia had been a prison house of nations (as Lenin called it) under the Tsars and was so again under Stalin. It was not a nation but an empire.

The Russian empire in its Cold War form disintegrated as the Gorbachev era ended in 1991. The Soviet Union itself and the Warsaw Pact—a Soviet-dominated counterweight to NATO involving the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries—dissolved. The subsequent incorporation of many former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics into NATO itself was a threat, in Putin’s view, to Russia itself. Putin sought at least to prevent further NATO encroachment on Russia’s “sphere of influence,” especially in the form of Ukraine’s becoming a member. Most Putin apologists emphasize this limited view of Putin’s aims as a response to NATO expansionism.

But the “grand theory driving Putin to war,” professor of Russian history Jane Burbank argues, is a geopolitics of Eurasianism that turns away from the whole Atlantic world. Russians had always been an imperial people, in this view, expounded by Nikolai Trubotskoy in the 1920s and Aleksandr Dugin recently (pdf). World empire is the aim, a transcontinental superpower including many nations and religious confessions, but based on Eurasian geopolitics, Russian Orthodoxy, and traditional values.

Ukraine is not a distinct nation in this view, with a right to self-determination in a world order of free and sovereign nation-states. The Russians and Ukrainians (or Little Russians) are one people. Ukrainian independence and sovereignty constitute a “huge danger to all of Eurasia,” as Burbank quotes Dugin as saying. Ukraine had to become “a purely administrative sector of the Russian centralized state.”

Burbank concludes that “The goal, plainly, is empire. And the line will not be drawn at Ukraine.”

When he heard that NATO had announced at its Bucharest summit in April 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members,” Putin reportedly flew into a rage and warned that “if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart.”

Putin’s War Is Evil

A common element of many responses—both realist and idealist or globalist—to the brutal Russian invasion of its neighbor is how little weight either side gives to the Ukrainians themselves. The views and moral agency of Ukrainians count for little. Many American commentators see the war in terms of how it affects American politics, how it divides the right or exposes the delusions of the left. It’s all about us.

American military experts talk much about Russian capacity and strategy, but little about the Ukrainian response, which they grossly underestimated. Realists, but not they only, have treated the conflict as if it were a strategy board game like “Risk.” It’s about the strategic moves of great powers and the balance of power among them.

In contrast, the British expert on the politics, economics, and security of Ukraine, Taras Kuzio, recently identified three big errors that Putin made with his invasion. First, Putin overestimated popular enthusiasm in Russia for war against Ukraine. Second, his denial of a separate Ukrainian people—seeing them as Little Russians who would greet their Russian liberators with cheers and flowers. Third, he believed the West would be divided and weak, as they proved to be when he invaded and annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014.

These errors of fact and judgment reflect deeper ethical misconceptions shared by many realists and Putin apologists in the West. One is the tendency to discount moral considerations that have led millions of people, in Ukraine, in Europe, the United States, and Russia itself, to respond with repugnance to Russia’s role in the conflict. It’s a war of choice visited by a big power (albeit a declining one) on a small nation seeking to follow its own path and not to be forced into being a buffer or a bulwark.

One unintended consequence of this Russian war against Ukraine is that it’s solidifying Ukrainians’ sense of being a single and distinct nation, contrary to the Russian ideology that denied its existence. Russian forces have devastated Kharkiv and Mariupol, Ukrainian cities with Russian-speaking majorities. Citizens know who is bombing and shelling them, and many have switched from speaking Russian to Ukrainian.

Another consequence is that Russia’s catastrophic losses on the battlefield despite its numerical superiority and brutality serve as a warning to other like-minded imperial regimes (like China) looking to subjugate or swallow up smaller neighbors. Putin’s unprovoked and illegal war of regime change has already been a strategic defeat, if not yet a military one. He has shown the weakness, incompetence, and demoralization of his new “modernized” military. An unequivocal defeat for Putin would be a victory for Ukraine, the West, and for Russians themselves. Those urging Ukraine to surrender territory and sovereignty in the name of appeasing Putin with an off-ramp he’s not looking for, help no one.

Wars, above all, are not static, reducible to a game in which big players move about their forces like inert chess pieces. Attitudes change quickly when people see that the side with overwhelming superiority on paper is poorly organized and motivated, while the smaller nation, fighting on its own land for its own freedom, is well led, well organized, brave, and determined.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.