How Russia Justifies Its Aggression Against Ukraine – The Answer Lies in History

The concerns of the US in Eastern Europe, on the other hand, have more to do with geopolitics and security.

4 min read
Edited By :Saundarya Talwar

"On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians."

That was the title of a 5000-word essay written by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he claimed that "Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole."

That argument was reiterated with greater vigour during his address to the Russian nation on Monday, 21 February.

"Modern Ukraine was wholly and fully created by Bolshevik, communist Russia. You want decommunisation? That suits us fine. But don’t stop halfway. We’re ready to show Ukraine what real decommunisation means for it."
Vladimir Putin, in his address to the nation

Soon after his speech, the Russian government recognised two separatist territories – Donetsk and Luhansk – as independent from Ukraine, and sent in military troops for "peacekeeping".


What Putin Thinks of Ukraine 

In April 2005, Putin had referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century".

Taken alone, this statement doesn't seem connected to the issue at hand. There was, however, something else he had added.

"Tens of millions of our citizens and countrymen found themselves outside Russian territory."

For a documentary film, Putin, in December 2021, also lamented "the disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union."

The most important part of Russia that was lost, according to him, was Ukraine.

It is true that the world's largest ethnic Russian population outside of the country resides in Ukraine.

It may also arguably be the case that Ukraine's history, ethnicity and culture is most similar to Russia's when compared to other former Soviet republics.

But Russian and Ukrainian identities have always been distinct, despite the 19th century Russian empire prohibiting the use of Ukrainian language (which led to Ukrainian being spoken in the western part of the country).

Putin thinks otherwise. He wrote in his essay that the situation in Ukraine involved a "forced change of identity".

In fact, he claimed that "Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus" (Kievan Rus'), which is considered to be the place where the Russian state was born.

Putin asserts that Western European nations have corrupted Ukraine, and dragged it away from what is its original place – within Greater Russia. This is what he means by a "forced change of identity".

How is all of this linked to the current geopolitical crisis?

Ukraine is nothing but an anti-Russia tool for the West, according to the Russian president.

He often cites the example of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine that ousted the pro-Moscow administration in Kyiv led by Viktor Yanukovych.

The revolution had been supported by the EU and by NATO because Yanukovych had been refusing to sign an agreement that would bring Ukraine closer to the EU.

For the next seven years after the 2014 revolution, Putin has argued that in seeking closer ties with Ukraine, the EU and NATO have been embarking on an anti-Moscow project.

This project, he insists, is leading to a denial of Russian identity in Ukraine, which in turn is culminating in "the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia", as argued in the essay.

"And the most despicable thing is that the Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy", he further added.

In conclusion, Putin seems to have two core ideas:

  • The Ukrainian and Russians people are one and the same, and what is currently Ukraine (an entity separate from Russia) should come back within the Russian fold

  • Ukraine is being used by Western European nations to expand their influence at the cost of Russia's security, which has put the Ukrainian people on the "path of forced assimilation"

Why the US Cares About Ukraine 

Ukraine is thousands of miles away from US territory. What are the stakes for the US that has led the Biden administration to get involved in an Eastern European crisis?

Perhaps the most important reason is that the tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine are reminiscent of the Cold War.

The concerns that the US has over this crisis has got little to do ideology, and more to do with geopolitical and security strategy.

Ukraine is considered as a buffer against Russian aggression in Europe.

The US wants to maintain a balance of power in the continent. After all, it was the US that had led the creation of NATO in 1949 in order to counter Soviet aggression in Europe.

That strength of that inter-governmental organisation is today being challenged by a country that is showing Soviet tendencies of expansionism.

Putin sees this the other way around. He argues that the West is coming close to Russia's border by allowing Ukraine to join NATO.

Nevertheless, for the US, supporting NATO is supporting the security of Western European nations.

As Matthew Pauly, an expert on the topic who teaches at Michigan State University told ABC News, NATO is "critical to US policy in Europe", and supporting is "integral to US security policy for the European continent as a whole".

Another key reason for US involvement is the economy, especially with respect to energy prices.

If Russia invades Ukraine, the US has promised to hit the former hard with sanctions. That will most likely lead to Russia, in retaliation, reducing oil and gas exports, causing a spike in global prices.

"I will not pretend this will be painless. There could be impact on our energy prices, so we're taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets and offset rising prices", Biden had said when asked about the economist costs of war, as quoted by The New York Times.

This doesn't mean that ideology plays no role for the US.

The fact that Ukraine is one of the more democratised nations of the post-Soviet republics (compared to say Hungary and Poland), makes the country worth protecting in the minds of US foreign policymakers.

Therefore, while the Russian policy on the Ukraine crisis seems to be dominated by certain historical and ideological beliefs, US policy is primarily guided by strategic and economic concerns.

(With inputs from ABC News and NYT)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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