For some, it is a conflict sparked by Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a new Russian Empire. For others, it is a war caused by Western encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Both approaches to the conflict in Ukraine have one thing in common – they downplay Ukrainian voices and place the war in an exclusively geopolitical context. As a result, the country at the heart of the fighting often finds itself portrayed as a passive pawn in Great Power politics rather than a nation experiencing historic changes and fighting for its continued independent existence.
Veteran Ukraine watcher Taras Kuzio believes this neglect of Ukrainian perspectives has contributed to widespread misinterpretations of what is really going on in Ukraine. His new book, “Putin’s War Against Ukraine,” aims to provide much-needed insight into the conflict from a uniquely Ukrainian point of view. Kuzio spoke to Business Ukraine magazine about international awareness of Ukraine’s struggle for independence and the problems of making Ukraine’s voice heard on the global stage.
Your book “Putin’s War Against Ukraine” focuses attention on the refusal of many in Russia to acknowledge a separate Ukrainian national identity. How important has this been in generating domestic Russian support for Putin’s hybrid aggression in Ukraine?
Russians do not believe the war in the Donbas is an act of Russian aggression. Three quarters of Russians believe what they see on Russian television. This means a narrative led by talk of an illegal coup, “fascist” Euromaidan, nationalist repression of Russian speakers, and so on. The same number believe Ukraine is guilty of downing MH17. Ukrainian polls show the opposite: three quarters believing that the war is a product of Russian military aggression or Russian backing for separatists. The vast majority of Ukrainians now believe Russia wants to destroy their state.
Like most nations, Russians are historically inclined to believe they are the innocent party. This remains the case today - they believe Putin is defending Russian-Eurasian civilization against Western aggression. They regard the West as guilty of propping up a failed Ukrainian state and of financing and orchestrating the Euromaidan Revolution.
Russian and Ukrainian historical narratives are diametrically opposed to each other on many fundamental issues. For example, on the question of whether the Tsarist and Soviet regimes pursued Russification policies against Ukrainians. Ukrainians say they did, while Putin denies this and fosters nostalgia for the Soviet regime. It is therefore not surprising that Russians fail to see their actions as aggression. Many Russians genuinely believe the Ukrainian people are eager to reunite with Mother Russia but cannot do so due to opposition from a confusing coalition of Jewish-Ukrainian oligarchs, the CIA, the EU, and Ukrainian nationalists. In the final analysis, Russian nationalists do not view their coming to Ukraine to fight alongside separatists as going to a foreign country. For them, the Donbas is “Russian land” and they are there to defend their “brothers”.
Russian aggression in Ukraine has plunged Moscow into a bruising confrontation with the entire Western world while bringing few tangible positives. Why is the Kremlin prepared to make such seemingly disproportionate sacrifices in order to defend its position in Ukraine?
Putin is a very angry man looking to reverse the tide of history. He believes the West destroyed the USSR in an act of regime change. He was initially inclined to entertain ideas of cooperation, but Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution served as Putin’s 9/11. From 2005 onwards, he turned sharply to the right. In February 2007, Putin delivered his famous anti-Western speech at the annual Munich Security Conference. Later that same year, Russia launched a massive cyber attack on Estonia. In 2008, Russian invaded Georgia. Two years later, he unveiled the CIS Customs Union to compete with the EU.
Putin believes he is at war with the West. In his worldview, Russia is the victim of two decades of Western aggression, including regime change in post-communist countries. He wants revenge. This is one of a number of reasons behind his readiness to fight in Ukraine. Crucially, Putin also believes he has no choice. To him, this is a life and death struggle. Additionally, Putin’s authoritarian regime needs external and domestic enemies, while Russian great power nationalism requires resurgent Russia to act as a superpower. This means having a sphere of influence in the former USSR and intervening militarily abroad.
The Kremlin’s ‘Novorossia” project envisioned Russia taking de facto control over approximately half of Ukraine in alliance with local pro-Russian forces. This local support largely failed to materialize. What led the Kremlin to overestimate the level of backing it could expect to receive among Russian-speaking Ukrainians?
Russians think they know Ukraine, but in reality, they do not. Their reliance on stereotypes and historical baggage cloud their judgment and prevent them understanding today’s Ukraine. They see what they would like to see, not the reality. I have often joked that there are actually greater numbers of experts on Ukraine in Washington DC than in Moscow.
Rather than studying the changes taking place in post-Soviet Ukraine, too many Russians prefer to believe Ukraine is an artificial state serving as a puppet regime for Western interests. They also tend to regard all Russian-speaking eastern Slavs are “Russians”. This is why Russia consistently attempts to portray all opposition in Ukraine as coming exclusively from the more predominantly Ukrainian-speaking west of the country. They adopted this approach in 2004, when they were convinced Russian-speaking Viktor Yanukovych would defeat the “West Ukrainian-American candidate” Viktor Yushchenko. In 2008, Putin told NATO that eastern and southern Ukraine were “Russian” because, from his perspective, the population of these regions were Russians. In 2014, policymakers in the Kremlin expected these “Russians” to support Putin’s “liberation”. They were wrong, but even now, they still cannot understand the concept of a Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriot.
In your book, you define the current conflict as a continuation of Ukraine’s historic struggle for independence. This independence movement stretches back at least 100 years. Why do you think Ukraine’s independence narrative remains relatively unknown to international audiences?
Knowledge of Ukraine today is actually far greater than at any time in history. There have been four editions of Orest Subtelny’s “Ukraine. A History”, two of Paul R. Magocsi’s “A History of Ukraine”, and one edition of Serhii Plokhy’s “A History of Ukraine.”
Nevertheless, there are two problems undermining greater awareness of Ukraine’s experience. Ukrainian intellectuals, academics and journalists remain isolated from the West. Relatively few read Western publications or know English. The second problem is that North American centers of Ukrainian studies have ossified. After 1991, they never adapted to the emergence of an independent Ukraine. Their research and publishing in the last twenty-five years has not broadened to include politics and international relations. Instead, it has continued to focus on language, Cossacks and the Holodomor.
The war in Ukraine has focused international academic attention on the country for the first time since 1991. Has this renewed interest resulted in greater academic understanding of the underlying Ukrainian context behind the current conflict?
In Canada with its large Ukrainian diaspora, there is no funding for Ukrainian political studies. My own recent four-year research project received support from the US Ukrainian Studies Fund. There has been a vacuum of information giving a Ukrainian viewpoint on the crisis. Since 2014, nearly 300 academic and think tank publications have appeared on the crisis, but Ukrainian voices have not played much of a role in this wide-ranging discussion. Far more academics and experts from Russia have participated. They have long-term networks and contacts in the West and they know English. This has left the floor open to Russophiles and self-styled realists who blame the West for the crisis. It has also encouraged discussions focusing on geopolitics, sanctions, the KGB origins of Putin, and other factors. As a result, there has been barely any focus on Russian-Ukrainian national identity issues.
The only way this can change is for the old guard in Ukrainian studies to be replaced by a new generation of younger experts and academics who are not opposed to addressing contemporary politics. The younger generation of scholars use social media - some of the older generation in Ukrainian studies do not even use email, never mind Facebook and Twitter. In Ukraine itself, there needs to be a conscious education policy of expanding knowledge of English and encouraging interaction of Ukrainian academics with the Western world.
In addition, the Ukrainian diaspora has never invested in journalism. Canadian newspapers, for example, have never had permanent representation in Kyiv. In the whole of North America, only a handful of academics and experts write op-eds and blogs on Ukrainian politics. This has also created a dangerous vacuum at a time of massive Russian investment in media, disinformation campaigns, and social media.
The war with Russia has thrust Ukrainian nationalist groups to the forefront of the country’s national identity debate. Their efforts to glorify Ukraine’s WWII insurgency have sparked an international backlash over Nazi collaboration and involvement in atrocities against Ukraine’s Jewish and Polish communities. What drives such seemingly self-defeating veneration of historically toxic figures from Ukraine’s past?
Ukrainian nationalism, including the history of groups like OUN and UPA, cannot simply be removed Ukrainian history. Finding the right approach to this period in Ukrainian history is the job of academics and intellectuals. It inevitably turns political when the president or political parties become involved in politicizing history. This took place under President Yushchenko, who promoted the glorification of Ukrainian nationalists, and President Yanukovych, who returned to Soviet-style denigration of Ukrainian nationalists while reintroducing Kremlin myths relating to the 1930s famine and WWII.
We should not overstate nationalist influence in today’s Ukraine. Based on the presidential and parliamentary election results of 2014, Ukrainian nationalist groups are not increasing in popularity. Opinion polls consistently show that there has been a growth of Ukrainian patriotism but not of ethnic nationalism. Very high numbers of Ukrainians are negatively disposed towards Putin and the Russian government, but far fewer Ukrainians hold negative views towards the Russian people.
On a final note, journalists should be careful when wading into historical debates. The OUN collaborated with the Nazis in 1939-1941 – roughly the same period and length of time as the Soviet government itself collaborated with Hitler under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. At other times, Ukrainian nationalist groups were in conflict with Nazi Germany. In 1938-1939, the Nazis supported the Hungarian conquest of Carpatho-Ukraine (formerly Czechoslovak Trans-Carpathia). Ukrainian forces fought against Hitler’s allies on that occasion. From summer 1941, the Nazis arrested, imprisoned and executed thousands of OUN members, including Stepan Bandera himself, who spent the war in a Nazi concentration camp. Two of Bandera’s brothers died in Nazi captivity. From 1942, the OUN and UPA fought against the Nazis.
Many observers believe the current conflict with Russia has broadened understandings of what it means to be Ukrainian. They claim that previous ethnic and linguistic definitions have given way to a more inclusive sense of civic Ukrainian identity that is accessible to ethnic minorities - including ethnic Russians. To what extent does your research in the Donbas support or refute this argument?
Ukrainian identity has always been tolerant and inclusive. There has never been a problem speaking Russian on the streets, in parliament, or on TV. The majority of magazines and newspapers published in Ukraine today are in Russian. In the 1990s, Ukraine peacefully resolved the Crimean question – unlike Moldova, Georgia, Russia, and Azerbaijan with their separatist regions. Since 2004, largely because of the Party of Regions entering the national stage and their use of Russian political technologists, there has been a marked politicization of the Russian language question and other flashpoint issues such as NATO membership. This is despite the fact that the issue of language has always been - and still is - very low on the list of priorities for most people.
In any war, those with mixed identities have to choose which side they support. It is no longer viable to sit on the fence. In 2014, the majority of Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced this choice and decided to support Kyiv instead of Putin. Today, two-thirds of the Ukrainian soldiers serving in the conflict zone are Russian-speakers. Women’s groups throughout the east and south offering assistance to the soldiers are Russian-speakers. I have met ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Right Sector and the Azov Battalion. Ukrainian nationalists look at national minorities exclusively from the viewpoint of their loyalty to the independent Ukrainian state. Indeed, one of the two Right Sector deputies elected to the Ukrainian parliament in 2014 was Jewish.
All of the above has led to the spread of Ukrainian civic identity into the east and south and the greater acceptance of Russian-speakers as part of the Ukrainian people. While Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers have moved into the east, middle class Donbas refugees have moved to the west of the country, where they have also had no problems integrating into Ukrainian society. The conflict has brought Ukrainians together in different ways and changed the way the country sees itself.
You predict the current hybid war with Russia will last for many years - perhaps for as long as Vladimir Putin remains alive and in power. How can Ukraine hope to win a long-term confrontation against an adversary that enjoys overwhelming advantages in almost every sphere?
I do not believe Putin has overwhelming advantages in all spheres. Ukraine is too big to invade and occupy. The Ukrainian armed forces are also far more powerful than those of Georgia, for example. Ukraine should take five steps. The first is to stop calling the war an ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) and declare it to be a war of Russian aggression – as Ukrainians already believe it is. The second step is to declare the DNR and LNR (self-styled separatist regions in eastern Ukraine) and Crimea as “temporarily Russian-occupied regions”. The third step is to undertake a PR campaign in the West to frame the conflict as part of Putin’s broader war with the Western world. Within this campaign, the Trump administration should be encouraged to demonstrate that the US President is not “pro-Russian” by supporting the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine. The fourth step is to end economic relations with the DNR-LNR and Crimea, thus further isolating these regions. This policy has widespread support among Ukrainians. The final task for President Poroshenko is to consult with the Ukrainian public about the future of the DNR and LNR. Does the population believe these regions are worth fighting for, or would they rather dump them into Putin’s lap?
About the author: Taras Kuzio is author of the newly published “Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime.” The book is available in E-Kindle and paperback format on Amazon.