Understanding the Roots of the Russia-Ukraine War and the Misuse of History
By Oksana Myshlovska
On 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a “war of aggression” against a neighbouring sovereign state that is qualified as a crime against peace in accordance with the Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis and Charter of the International Military Tribunal of 8 August 1945 that Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, helped codify in the aftermath of the Second World War. As the world woke up to the news about explosions in different locations of Ukraine and tried to make sense of the televised and widely disseminated statement by Putin providing the rationale to the Russian actions, the Russian military troops and aviation invaded the territory of Ukraine from several directions with the plan of a quick takeover and the establishment of a “Russia-friendly” administration.
In this short contribution, I will contextualise this watershed event in contemporary history by focusing on the evolution of relations between the West and Russia and the erosion of the rules-based order during the period from the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 to the 2013 2014 cycle of contention in Ukraine and the new types of relations Russia developed with the regions it defined as its “Near Abroad” during the same period. Next, I will focus on the fundamental unravelling of the existing international and domestic political orders with the eruption and escalation of violence during the Maidan protests in 2013-2014 in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea and conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas regions. Finally, I will take stock of the current situation and the prospects of conflict resolution. In particular, I will focus on the role of narratives, memories and histories in these processes that is the core focus of my own research.
Relations between the West and Russia and erosion of the rules-based order before 2013
Following the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 and the reorientation of Ukraine’s foreign policy towards the EU and NATO during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, the relationships between the West and Russia evolved through several key episodes. In February 2008, Russia opposed the Western-supported recognition of the declaration of independence of Kosovo calling it a violation of international law undermining the existing system of international relations. Several months later, setting a new direction to the Russian foreign policy in 2008, Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev highlighted the Kosovo precedent and the US-led coalition invasion of Iraq as the two examples when western states undermined international law. In the following months, the key issues of contention between Russia and the West included the NATO Bucharest Summit Declaration on Ukraine and Georgia in April 2008 and the US missile defence plans in Europe.
Against this geopolitical background, a period of rising tensions between Russia, Georgia and the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia escalated into war in August 2008 and involved the entry of the Russian troops on the territory of Georgia, Georgian defeat, an unprecedented recognition by Russia of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008 and subsequent reinforcement of the Russian military bases both in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia framed its own actions as protection of the local population from “Georgian aggression” and considered the recognition of independence as a “free expression” of the will of the Ossetian and Abkhaz peoples. The 2008 war had also created major internal fissures across the post-Soviet space. In Ukraine as elsewhere, political parties, civil society organisations and other mnemonic communities divided on the attitude to the war – with some interpreting it as the “Russian aggression against Georgia” and advocating the respect for Georgian territorial integrity while others seeing it as the "aggression of Georgia against South Ossetia” and legitimising the international recognition of the break-away regions notwithstanding the EU fact-finding report highlighting the violations by both Russia and Georgia. The violation of international law by Russia did not impact in major ways its relations with the West.
During the Russian Security Council meeting on 21 February 2022 legitimising the recognition of the so called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics (DNR and LNR), another violation of international law and the rules-based order, Dmitriy Medvedev made comments that provided a glimpse on how the Russian top leadership perceived Russian relations with the West and the violations of international law committed by Russia. Medvedev assumed that after a period of tensions and sanctions, which Russia would be able to weather, the West would swallow another violation of international law by Russia and reach out to reestablish relations with it as it did after the Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia: “They themselves came and offered to restore relations in all directions. Because, frankly, for the world community, for our friends in the United States of America, in the European Union, Russia means much more than Ukraine, and everyone understands this, including Ukrainians”.
Another major clash between the West and Russia prior to 2013 concerned the growing Russian ambition to become a centre of regional political, customs and economic integration. In an article published in the Russian newspaper “Izvestiya” in 2011 Putin, at that time in the role of prime minister, outlined the Russian ambition to create a regional market place with unified legislation, free movement of capital, services and labour. In 2013, the EU and Russia clashed over competing regional integration projects involving Ukraine escalating in the trade war between Ukraine and Russia during the summer and autumn of 2013. The choice of the regional integration project has been an internally dividing issue in Ukraine with the salient regionally-dominant integration preferences.
The “russkiy mir” project and the unreconciled past
During the first decade of independence, Ukraine remained at peace by balancing between the EU and Russia and between internally dividing memories and political community ideas crystallised in the past conflicts and state-building experiences. However, during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine reorientated its foreign policy versus the EU and NATO and started a long process of dealing with the past culminating in the “decommunization laws” in 2015 that provided meaning to the past anti-Soviet political community projects and struggles while excluding and delegitimizing the Soviet one.
In the changing geopolitical environment following the “colour revolutions”, Russia devised a new format of relations with the regions it defined as its “Near Abroad”, and for this purpose instrumentalized in new ways the communities defined as “russkiye sootechestveniiki” (Russian compatriots) in neighbouring countries. The “russkiy mir” (Russian World) notion promoted in this context encompassed cultural, “spiritual”, political and economic unity of the transnational mnemonic community centred on Russia framed as “historical Motherland”. The institutionalisation of the “russkiy mir” and compatriots policies took place in 2007-2008 with the establishment of the Russkiy Mir Foundation in 2007 and a Russian federal agency for compatriots policy (Rossodrudnichestvo) in 2008. Russia integrated networks of organisations of “russkiye sootechestveniiki” in Ukraine and elsewhere and organised regular meetings bringing “compatriots” from all over the world.
Fundamentally, in relation to Ukraine, the ideas of “russkiy mir” were structured by the rejection and opposition to the national histories and memories in the “Near Abroad” of independent statehood projects defined in opposition to the Russian imperial and Soviet state-building projects with the most disputed being the ones involving some forms of prewar and wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Opposition to nationalism, poignantly referred to as “peshchernyi natsionalizm” (pre-modern/cave nationalism) in the infamous address by Putin announcing the recognition of the so called LDR and DNR on 21 February 2022, became one of mobilizational ideas for the Putin’s regime.
To oppose the delegitimization and exclusion of the Soviet past and the Soviet state-building processes in the state and nation-building projects in the “Near Abroad”, Russia used the methods that were inherited from the Soviet authoritarian past. Instead of facilitating dialogue that could build the bases for reconciliation between the nationalist and Soviet pasts, Russia strictly opposed “nationalist histories” as “falsifications of history” and normativized the respectful attitude to the Soviet past. At the international level, Russia introduced a regular annual vote for a UN General Assembly resolution against glorification of Nazism that focused on two core issues: condemnation of those “who fought against the anti-Hitler coalition and collaborated with the Nazi movement as participants in national liberation movements” and condemnation of the desecration or demolishment of monuments erected in remembrance of those who fought against Nazism during the Second World War. Most importantly, the relationships, claims and links Russia advanced vis-à-vis the “Near Abroad” and communities of “russkiye sootechestveniiki” led to the estrangement of these communities from their states and governments and contributed to the rise of the far-right parties and organisations in Ukraine that perceived Russia and its “russkiy mir” policies as a threat.
The post-2013 cycle of contention
The existing tensions and community ideas radicalised during the “Maidan Revolution” period of 2013-2014 followed by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. In contrast to the previous periods of contention in Ukraine, the 2013-2014 cycle turned violent. The 2013-2014 period was characterised by the disintegration of the domestic political order with the creation of parallel governance structured by the opposition recognized by a number of local self-government bodies in western and central Ukraine, the creation of the pro-Maidan, pro-government and pro-Russian competing paramilitary organisations, and multiple proclamations of capture of power by the competing political centres of power. An escalatory sequence of events led to the peak of escalation when the Ukrainian government legitimized the use of force against the anti-government protesters with the launch of a short-lived “Anti-Terrorist Operation” on 19 February 2014 after anti-government protesters captured weapons in western Ukraine. According to some estimates, between 18 and 20 February 2014, 81 protesters were killed, hundreds received firearm or other injuries. During the entire period of protests, 13 law enforcement officers were killed, 280 received firearm injuries and 992 sought medical assistance.
Russia kept a relatively low profile during the 2013-2014 protests, but when it took the decision to leverage the disintegrating political order in Ukraine and annex Crimea, it formulated a set of narratives legitimising its action that remain unchanged until today. It highlighted the violation by the political opposition of the Western-mediated agreement between the government and the opposition on 21 February 2014, defined the change of power as a “coup d’état” and framed the new government as illegitimate, described the pro-Maidan paramilitary organisations as violations of law while legitimising pro-Russian paramilitary mobilizations as defensive “local initiatives” and framed the unconstitutional referendum on 16 March as a “free expression” of the will of the Crimean people. Russia also made an ample use of historical memories to support the annexation of Crimea and delegitimize the Ukrainian rule over it. Furthermore, after Russia took the decision to annex Crimea, it closed all opportunities to resolve tensions in a diplomatic way by rejecting all dialogue and negotiations openings from the international community and the new authorities in Kyiv. The OSCE representatives were not allowed to Crimea, and Russia declared the discontinuation of diplomatic relations with Ukraine.
During the 2013-2014 cycle of contention, the Party of Regions-controlled, “russkiye sootechesveniiki” and other pro-Russian milieus attributed violence escalation to the opposition and allied with it radical far-right organisations and promoted the interpretation of the change of government as a “coup d’état”. Thus the incoming government enjoyed little legitimacy in southern and eastern Ukraine that fueled anti-government protests and local demands for federalization, the rights of the Russian language and the taming of the far-right paramilitary organisations. The OSCE efforts to salvage the point from the 21 February agreement on the disarmament of the paramilitary organisations remained unfulfilled and the incoming government was too weak to rein in this period of chaos.
The key elements of the Russian narratives legitimising the annexation of Crimea, most importantly the illegitimacy of the new Ukrainian government, and the expectation of Russian support further fueled the anti-government protests in southern and eastern Ukraine and the formation of the “liberation” narratives of the “native land” from the “central occupational authorities”. To manage the threat of destabilisation in Ukraine, the West largely went along with the dominant interpretations of the Maidan period contention framing the protests as peaceful resistance of the people against the repressive and authoritarian regime, not questioning the ways in which the transfer of power took place at the national, regional and local levels and the violation of the 21 February agreement.
The next phase of conflict escalation focused on the following two issues of contention: the extent of Russia’s involvement in inciting the anti-government protests in March-April 2014 and in the subsequent violent conflict, and the decision by the Ukrainian government to criminalize the protests and to use force against the anti-government protests with the launch of the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” on 13 April 2014. Russia and the de facto authorities in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics framed the conflict as the “Ukrainian aggression against the people of Donbas” and the Russian military, political and humanitarian intervention, when recognized by Russia, as “assistance” and “protection”. While public opinion about the nature of the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern regions was regionally divided, in Ukraine the multi-level and complex conflict was gradually reinterpreted under the dominant frame of “Russian aggression against Ukraine”. Such fundamental disagreements about the nature of the conflict, the parties to the conflict and the impasse on the annexation of Crimea without effect of the UN resolutions and economic sanctions against Russia did not allow to achieve any progress on political demands in peacebuilding processes.
The most recent cycle of conflict escalation was linked to Russian-US relations. Comments made by Putin a few days before the launch of attack against Ukraine indicate that the core concern in Putin’s mind was the use of the Ukrainian territory by third countries. In a meeting with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev during his official visit to Moscow, a day after Putin announced another violation of international law with the recognition by Russia of the so called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on 21 February, Putin rejected the claims that Russia intended to rebuilt the Russian empire but singled out Ukraine as the only post-Soviet state with which Russia did not have good relations and stated that “unfortunately, the territory of this country is used by third countries to create threats against the Russian Federation itself”. These comments indicate that for Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime Ukraine had no subjectivity, it was just the territory that needed to be disciplined into a “Russia-friendly” space at any price against the backdrop of confrontation with the US.
In the months preceding the invasion, the Biden administration responded to the perceived threat of the Russian attack on Ukraine with the decision to move several thousand US troops to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank and to increase the US military assistance to Ukraine. The factsheet of the US Department of State of 3 March 2022 indicated that in 2021 and 2022 the US provided over $1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine and “The U.S. Departments of State and Defense (DoD) have committed over $3 billion, in training and equipment to help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve interoperability with NATO”.
After days of the most brutal fighting and suffering, war crimes and unimaginable destruction inflicted by the Russian attack, the diplomatic front is faced with a list of Russian demands that leaves little space for compromise: a neutral status of Ukraine and commitment not to join NATO, recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, recognition of independence of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in the administrative boundaries of the Luhanska and Donetska oblasts, the ban of the far-right parties and organisations and full demilitarisation of Ukraine. Other possibilities such as the spill-over of the conflict to neighbouring states and regions, the continuation of the hot phase of the conflict until mutual exhaustion and unimaginable further destruction, a ceasefire allowing Russia to keep the current territorial gains, or the Russian capitulation and the subsequent international trial for war crimes remain currently on the table and one or combination of several of these possibilities will shape our future world. In any case, the many years of failed reconciliation, peacebuilding, deradicalization and democratisation in the post-Soviet space as a whole will remain on the scorecard of the international community. It is also clear that there will be no peaceful future without the transformation of the narratives and beliefs that had been used to legitimise the war and without the construction of a new rules-based order and a security system.
Oksana Myshlovska is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Bern. She contributes to an FNS project “Remembering the past in the Conflicts of the Present. Civil Society and Contested Histories in the Post-Soviet Space” that focuses on the cases of Ukraine, Chechnya, and Georgia. Previously, she was a researcher and an invited lecturer at the Graduate Institute and a researcher at the University of St Gallen and the Global Studies Institute in Geneva. Her research is at the intersection of memory studies, history, transitional justice and conflict transformation. Together with Ulrich Schmid, she co-edited the collective volume “Regionalism Without Regions: Reconceptualizing Ukraine’s Heterogeneity” (2019, CEU Press).