What the West doesn't understand about Russia or Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — “You have to understand, George. Ukraine is not even a country.”

Those were the jarring — and, it would turn out, prescient — words uttered by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in 2008, during a meeting with then-President George W. Bush. It was an unambiguous assertion of ownership over a sovereign nation, an assertion that has particular resonance 14 years later, as Putin has just recognized the independence of two Ukrainian regions and sent troops to bolster Russian-backed separatists.

The West is outraged by Putin’s current aggression, as well as by the logic for his seemingly inevitable full-scale invasion. “Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbors?” wondered President Biden in remarks delivered from the White House on Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin addressing the Russian people on Tuesday. (Kremlin Press Service/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Such outrage, however, ignores a complex and uncomfortable truth: Many Russians recognize Putin’s sentiments about Ukraine as largely in keeping with established beliefs about the relationship between the nuclear superpower and its much smaller neighbor, which has a similar language and culture. That may explain why many Russians support military action against Ukraine, which they see as a necessary response to Western meddling.

“America badly wants to start this war,” an elderly Muscovite told the New York Times, citing — as Putin has — the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe as a prime reason for the current conflict. Ukraine isn’t currently eligible for membership, but Russians have watched carefully as the Western alliance has crept ever closer throughout the last two decades.

Having grown up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I can safely say that most Russians view Ukraine as part of Russia. It is impossible to speak for a nation of 144 million people, especially long after leaving. However, the Russian view of geopolitics and history has, paradoxically, become more assertively nationalistic than it was during the Soviet era, when it tellingly embraced Joseph Stalin as a model leader.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 14 republics were freed from the Kremlin’s grasp, only to discover that genuine independence would prove no simple matter. Russia “never accepted anything but conditional independence of the former republics, predicated on an alliance with Moscow and belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence,” Serhii Plokhii, a Harvard professor of Ukrainian history, recently wrote in the Financial Times. Belarus hewed closely to Russia, while the three Baltic states sought (and achieved) close ties to Western Europe.

At the same time, Putin was never shy about exerting Russian force if he saw the more economically and culturally consequential of the former Soviet states straying too far afield. He invaded Georgia in 2008, then Ukraine in 2014. The current crisis can be seen as a redoubled effort to remind the former republics that there are consequences for defying the Kremlin.

In the United States and Western Europe, Putin has been described as a warmongering bully who deserves a strong brushback from the West. “You’ve got to punch him in the nose,” former Central Intelligence Agency officer John Sipher told Yahoo News last week.

The West is preparing to do just that, with sanctions and military support to Ukraine. But none of that will erase Russian grievances that have festered for decades — and are inarguably at work today. Understanding those grievances is crucial to engaging in what some are describing as a new Cold War.

A proud people with centuries of intellectual and artistic achievement, Russians despise being lectured by a West that has never fully accepted them as equals. Nor is Russia much interested in being chided by Washington about invading other countries, especially in the wake of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The Kremlin gains domestic legitimacy from confrontation with the West, as long as bullets aren’t being fired,” Samuel Greene, a British scholar of Russian society, told the Guardian.

And though democracy is nonexistent in Russia today, the 1990s-era flirtation with freedom was so unsettling and chaotic that many people have simply accepted autocracy as a fact of life.

“We’re not being invaded by Nazis and there’s food in the stores, so as far as I’m concerned he’s doing a good job,” a Russian villager said about Putin to Vice News in 2014. Despite occasional outbursts of protest, 70 percent of Russians approve of how he governs.

Shoppers in Moscow's Red Square
Shoppers in Moscow's Red Square. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

History for Russians is also a much more intimately lived experience than it is for most Americans, who tend to favor the present, with an eye to the future. Some of the tensions at work today between Russia and Ukraine go back centuries, as an intentionally provocative tweet from the U.S. Embassy reminded the world, in a series of memes, that Kyiv is an older city than Moscow.

The principality known as the Kievan Rus fell to the Mongols in the 13th century, to later become part of the Russian empire — and, later still, of the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Ukraine and the other Soviet republics became independent — a split that Russians saw, not without cause, as a rebuke.

“The Lithuanian people reject lies, and they are not afraid,” Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis said in 1991, as his nation pulled away from the Soviet Union and into Europe’s embrace. Native languages replaced Russian in government institutions and schools. At the same time, Russians who continued to live in the now independent nations worried that they would be punished for the cruel excesses of the Soviet regime.

Putin has stoked those fears by promulgating reports of violent persecution of Russians by Ukrainians. The Kremlin’s savvy propagandists understand that those reports — which are exaggerated, outdated or simply untrue — play on incipient Russian anxieties about the resentment directed toward them by former subjects in Ukraine and elsewhere.

More important, Putin has continued to reference the same sentiment he voiced to Bush in 2008: that Ukraine is a region of Russia that has no claim to independence. “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia,” Putin said earlier this week. The sentiment is obviously ahistorical, but it does hold an almost mystical appeal for Russians who see their nation as no less a regional beacon — albeit in profoundly different ways — than does the United States.

Ukrainian protesters
Ukrainian protesters near the Russian Embassy in Kyiv on Tuesday. (Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Nothing unites Russians like memories of World War II. Every child growing up in Russia was inculcated with legends about the heroic defeat of Hitler, a victory that permeated every aspect of Soviet culture — and of Soviet psychology. To grow up in Leningrad, as both Putin and I did, is to feel the war right at your door — the Nazis laid siege to the city for nearly three years, in what came to be known as the 900 Days.

The Red Army that defeated Germany on the Eastern Front was constituted from all over the Soviet Union, not just Russia, but that fact has been intentionally forgotten. Even before the war began, Stalin saw the diversity of cultures as a threat to Bolshevik dominance. The war with Germany only intensified his desire to forge a single national culture, a project known as “Russification.

Putin has seen to a determined rehabilitation of Stalin’s image, which suffered what seemed like a fatal blow from decades of revelations about the terrors to which he subjugated the Soviet Union. The more recent resurrection has been striking: Stalin now enjoys widespread popularity in Russia. “Stalin was the best master. He won the war and built the country from ruins,” a 44-year-old Russian businessman from central Russia said last year. Such attitudes could only further embolden Putin to pursue the kinds of policies Stalin would doubtless have approved of.

Ukrainians remember Stalin too: He oversaw the intentional starvation of 4 million Ukrainians in the 1930s, a brutal and prolonged famine known as the Holodomor. And while that atrocity is commemorated with a monument in Washington, D.C., and is recognized as genocide elsewhere, the Russian government steadfastly rejects responsibility.

And while most of the world sees Russia as the instigator in the present conflict, Putin insists that Western imperialism is to blame.

A portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin
A portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Aleksey Filippov/AFP via Getty Images)

“Once again, they threatened us with sanctions,” Putin said in Monday’s speech, correctly predicting Biden’s response. “They will still impose those, the stronger and more powerful our country becomes. They will always find an excuse to introduce more sanctions regardless of the situation in Ukraine. The only goal they have is to contain the development of Russia.”

It is an old idea, one pulled straight from Soviet history into the anxious and uncertain present.

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