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Opinion

Putin’s claim that Ukraine and Russia are one nation has no historical basis – he’s just a thug with an army

08 Mar 2022 8 minutes Read
Vladimir Putin. Picture by the Presidential Press and Information Office
(CC BY 4.0).

Owain Jones, lecturer in history at Bangor University 

As war continues in Ukraine, thinking of history can sometimes seem an irrelevant indulgence, a distraction from the world as it is.

Nevertheless, Putin’s attacks on the existence of Ukraine are justified by him as the righting of a historical wrong, a culmination of the natural course of Russian and Ukrainian history. Ukraine’s distinctiveness as a people and independence as a state cannot be denied on historical grounds – in terms of language, culture, history, and identity Ukraine is its own nation. Politically it is its own state. Vladimir Putin has attempted to change this through war and bloodshed.

We have perhaps spent too long considering the inner thoughts of Vladimir Putin, casting him as an expert strategist and second-guessing his grand schemes. But his use of history as a justification for war and murder must also be considered and refuted.

Putin’s own attitude towards Ukraine is explained at length in his long historical essay, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, published in July 2021. In it he presents his own view of Russian and Ukrainian history, emphasising the basic indivisibility of the two countries and arguing for Ukraine’s status as an integral but subservient part of a wider Russian people led by Moscow.

It is clear from the article that Putin’s historical understanding is a partial and simplistic narrowing of the variety of continuities and discontinuities, the changes, and the political, cultural, and social developments that form the history of the peoples of Russia and Ukraine over the span of nearly a thousand years.

His presumption that Russia is in some way the guardian or supreme authority over Ukraine is fundamentally a situation of modern politics. Its consequences can be seen in the murderous invasion of Ukraine that still goes on. But the supposed justifications of this imperialistic view are historical, and as such can be discussed in historical terms. The argument rests fundamentally on the distant shared past of both nations.

Coherence

In simple terms, both Russia and Ukraine can trace their origins to the medieval state usually known in English as Kievan Rus’ or Kyivan Rus’, which developed along the great rivers connecting the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea. Its ruling dynasty were of Swedish, Viking descent, but by the time of its emergence as a network of cities and rulers under the Grand Prince of Kyiv, it was fundamentally Slavic in culture and language.

The Byzantine Empire to its south gave Kyivan Rus’ its Orthodox religion, and as well as being a route of trade between the Black Sea and the Baltic, Kyiv stood between Europe to the west and the wide expanse of the Asian steppe to its east.

It was from the east that the Mongols or Tatars came in the thirteenth century, defeating the already-fragmented principalities of the Rus’ and making many of these polities tributary to the Mongol Empire. After this, the south-western parts of Kyivan Rus’ followed a different political path to the north-eastern, with modern-day Ukraine and Kyiv becoming first part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

At one point the largest country in Europe, this was a multi-ethnic state, and a multi-confessional one characterised by its toleration of different religious groups – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. Its complex constitution featured an elected monarchy and parliament, and its history has recently been discussed in an excellent episode of In Our Time.

Often maligned in later European historiography, the Commonwealth sat awkwardly with nineteenth-century nationalistic ideas of ethnic and cultural coherence and strong central government.

Threats

The imperialistic view of Russian history expounded by Putin sees the emergence of Moscow as the most powerful post-Mongol state, and its conquest of surrounding Russian polities, as the recovery of the lost unity of Kyivan Rus’. The creation of the Russian Tsardom and, subsequently, the Russian Empire continues this re-unification.

In this story, the other polities which emerged from Kyivan Rus’ are incidental, and Poland-Lithuania is something of a bête noire, a nonsensical and inconsistent conglomeration of different peoples which consistently undermined the ambitions of the Russian Tsars to reunify their inheritance.

The experience of Ukraine under Poland-Lithuania was by no means entirely positive. From the mid-sixteenth century, Polish settlement in Ukraine and the spread of serfdom led to Ukrainian Cossack revolts in the seventeenth century. These hugely significant events in the development of the Ukrainian people severely weakened the Commonwealth and enabled Russia to conquer large parts of modern Ukraine. But the independence of these Cossacks was further reduced within the Russian Empire, which had by the end of the 18th century taken much of the rest of modern Ukraine and achieved the extinction of the Polish-Lithuanian state.

In Putin’s narrative, Ukraine and the Ukrainians are only ever passive actors in the more important work of Russia’s empire. Russia’s role is as the re-unifier of the Eastern Slavs and the cradle of Slavic civilisation. This reading of history casts Muscovite Russia as an uncomplicated hero, with western states, most notably Poland-Lithuania, the deceitful and undermining villains.

No wonder a man so taken by these historical fantasies can interpret the choice of neighbouring, sovereign nations to join defensive alliances like NATO as dastardly threats to Russia’s civilising mission.

Distinct

This view also ignores and abuses the wonderful complexities of the histories of Russia and of Ukraine. Muscovite Russia developed into a powerful and fundamentally autocratic empire, but it would be a grave mistake to see this as the inevitable outcome or the ‘pure’ political inheritance of the history of Kyivan Rus’ and its neighbouring peoples.

In Ukraine, the political and social independence of the Cossacks demonstrates a distinct political tradition with its own inheritance from medieval Kyiv, though one eventually undermined and suppressed by the Russian Empire. Within Russia itself, the city of Novgorod in the later middle ages had a republican system of government comparable to the Renaissance cities of northern Italy, until its conquest by Moscow in 1478.

These separate inheritances, these different paths, and parallel developments are what create states and define peoples. The aggressively simplistic view of Russia’s history in Putin’s own essay ignores or downplays these paths, and he denies and distorts Ukraine’s own history in the name of imperialism.

Refutation

I have concentrated here on the pre-modern period, but the egregious oversimplifications of Putin’s worldview are apparent in the modern. Consider his description of the events of 1939 in eastern Europe:

“In 1939, the USSR regained the lands earlier seized by Poland. A major portion of these became part of the Soviet Ukraine.”

Not only do the people of Ukraine have no role here, the events of Molotov-Ribbentrop and the division of eastern Europe between Soviets and Nazis during the Second World War are cast as simple, unproblematic events: the ‘regaining’ of territory earlier ‘seized’.

It may be wasteful to attend in such detail to the words of a tyrant, giving a transparently partial, political, and morally corrupt abuse of history more attention than it deserves. Perhaps it is to repeat some of the mistakes of international politics, casting Putin as the master-strategist, the puppeteer.

Putin’s repeated assertion that Ukrainians and Russians are basically the same people can be dissected and disproven in detail, but fundamentally it is not an historical argument but a political one. Its refutation is in the sacrifice and resistance of the people of Ukraine themselves as this war drags on.

Putin is not a complex historical thinker, but a thug with an army. It is easy to mistake a thug with an army, convinced of his own destiny, for a master-strategist or a military genius. That is a fundamental truth of Leo Tolstoy’s portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte in War and Peace, a work deeply concerned with the falsity of the idea that history is created by ‘men of destiny’.

Putin’s careful plans for the conquest of Ukraine may be beginning to unravel, thanks to the resistance of Ukrainians who reject his idea that they cannot be their own country. We should consider Tolstoy’s depiction of Napoleon in Moscow, when this dictator’s invincible reputation was itself beginning to unravel:

“During the whole of that period Napoleon, who seems to us to have been the leader of all these movements – as the figurehead of a ship may seem to a savage to guide the vessel – acted like a child who, holding a couple of strings inside a carriage, thinks he is driving it.”

Owain Jones is a lecturer at the School of History, Law and Social Sciences at Bangor University.


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Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
3 months ago

Surely it is time for the Unionists in Cymru (and England) to publish their own version of the immutable logic of ‘On the Historical Unity of Engs and the Welsh’.

While an armed invasion may be unlikely, the unionist propaganda and bullying has been going on for some time now – about 700 years! Could we trust them to leave Cymru alone after independence? It is time for the Labour Party here to reject unionism and stand up for the people of Cymru against both Johnson and Starmer.

Paul
Paul
3 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

Yesterday, on Facebook, I read a comment from a guy that was calling for England to do to Wales what Putin is doing to Ukraine… His argument being that is would serve to snuff out the very idea of Wales being separate from England…

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul

Strange thing, was reading about Gwenllian yesterday, her father’s severed head mockingly crowned with ivy and paraded through London on a spear, placed aloft the bloody Tower,she taken as a baby and jailed in the convent. Teach our kids the history.

Dani
3 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

Don’t encourage them any more than they already do. “Wales is an integral part of the uk”. “The uk was created by the tudors who were welsh” “people like lloyd George made the uk what it is today” “wales was never a real country it was only one Kingdom for 10 years” “it was just a country of warlords all fighting each other”. “People in north wales have nothing in common with the south they feel closer to Chester and liverpool” “devolution was all a big mistake by Tony Blair who narrowly hoodwinked the gullible welsh” “wales is becoming a… Read more »

Dai Jung
Dai Jung
3 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

what

Hogyn y Gogledd
Hogyn y Gogledd
3 months ago

An excellent summary of a thousand years in a few paragraphs.

Grayham Jones
3 months ago

When is the next Putin , Boris Johnson going to start a war with Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿 Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 and Ireland 🇮🇪 it’s time for a new wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

Mark
Mark
3 months ago
Reply to  Grayham Jones

going by the almost daily attacks on Wales by the inglish media, politicians and desperate 2nd rate personalities, I would suggest the war has already started.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
3 months ago

It’s ironic. There are parallels with Putin attitude towards Ukraine and Boris Johnson to Wales & Welsh devolution. It’s exactly the same rhetoric Boris Johnson recently said of Wales when the Welsh Government asked if he would adopt a similar Covid restrictions to Wales, and when he refused to prohibit cross border travel from Red Alert areas in NW England, stated how we were “one country” his reasoning. So with his refusal to act in unison with Wales, the Welsh Government thankfully decided to its own way by making it Welsh Law by giving Welsh police forces power to stop… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Y Cymro
Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
3 months ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

Greater parallels exist if you invert that view. Wales is a separatist entity like Donbass which has been subjected to genocidal war by the bigger neighbour/coloniser Ukraine. That Ukraine and the West then signed the Minsk Agreements but continued the war. Arming the aggressor and using “mercenaries” in the form of UK and US military “trainers” just gave Putin his excuse. Nothing is simple except the Western mindset. Owain Jones quotes Tolstoy who vilified Rostopchin in W&P. Count Fyodor dismantled the fire engines of Moscow, broke the water supplies then burned the city starting with his own house. He also… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Kerry Davies
Y Cymro
Y Cymro
3 months ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

Not only are their parallels with Boris Johnson & Putin in the way they disregard a nation’s sovereignty and right to self-government. But unlike Ukraine Wales experienced total annexation not partial. And I’m not lessening their suffering but highlighting the similarities. Don’t forget also that Wales suffered in recent past linguistic cleansing by the very English state & establishment who now from the halls of Westminster decry the Russian invasion of Ukraine eastern breakaway regions in full knowledge they did the very same to Wales find a tad hypocritical when they moralize to the world seeing the horrors of the… Read more »

Gaynor
Gaynor
3 months ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

As well as the psychosis of submission

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
3 months ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

Well, you have a point. I suppose we are all on a learning curve on Ukraine, but they definitely have a language and culture, so are a Nation. Though myself, I would put it as Kiev to Karkhov (spell?) and somewhere near Lviv, but I’m probably not correct. (The Poles have claims to Lviv?) I doubt if Russia will let go of Odessa if they get it, so they’ll link with Transnistria (strange name?).
But they must accept some sort of Ukraine.

GW Atkinson
GW Atkinson
3 months ago

Sounds like the English governments view of Wales even though we existed before they were even conceived by their French ancestors.

Cynan
Cynan
3 months ago
Reply to  GW Atkinson

Their Saxon ancestors, defeated by the French in 2 months

Gareth
Gareth
3 months ago

What we Cynru forget is, that the UK is the immaculate conception of countries, where nothing existed pre Westminster, therefore we are one country with one shared ( English ) history. 🤣🤣

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
3 months ago
Reply to  Gareth

Well, they said that about the Soviet Union.

arthur owen
3 months ago

Do the people here comparing what is happening in the Ukraine to Wales’s relationship to England realise how stupid and insensitive they are?I suppose it proves that you are not a Plaid Cymru wholly owned subsidiary because they,surely,would have put a stop to such suicidal nonsense.

Cynan
Cynan
3 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

Not comparing the suffering. Just the OBVIOUS hostile intentions of Westminster. The suffering happened to our nation a thousand years ago (not the Saxon times, who failed, but the Normans who kicked their asses, soaked up their new serfs then spent 400 years with superior numbers trying and failing to oppress the real British by force). When the occupying force failed to subjugate us long after our “leaders” capitulated – as inherited leadership often does – they tried to wipe out our culture by a constant drip – drip of revisionist history and punitive measures against our culture. All good… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Cynan
Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
3 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

Arthur at last someone is talking sense about this.Firsrt of all I would like to clarify that I am no fan of Putin and I condemn this war in the same way as I condemn Western Military action in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. It is absurd to compare this to an England against Wales thing, people are choosing to ignore the fact that a Democratically elected government in Ukraine was overthrown in The 2014 coup which in part was organised by Neo Nazis. The Neo Nazi Azov battalion which makes up a section of The Ukraine military… Read more »

Rob
Rob
3 months ago

I share the sentiments with most people here in regards to Welsh self-determination, but in no way can this be compared to Ukraine. Wales is not being occupied by a genocidal maniac armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.
I am no supporter of Boris Johnson and I’m deeply concerned at his attempts to undo devolution, but any comparison in regards to Ukraine is deeply insulting as to what the Ukrainian people are currently going through right now. Furthermore it harms to the pro-independence campaign.

arthur owen
3 months ago
Reply to  Rob

Thank you mate,otherwise I would have thought the whole world(of Welsh Nationalists) had lost its marbles.

Richard
Richard
3 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

not sure what a Welsh Nationalist is ?

isit someone who likes living in an outward looking nation that cares for other nations like Ukraine 🇺🇦?

or perhaps one who likes opportunity for people in Wales over accessing Welsh language choices in public life ?

or a person who has concern how his / her nation has been treated, dis respected and ignored over generations from the religious and language oppression that drove so many folk to Y Wladfa right up to the drowning of Valleys by big Cities over offas dyke ?

arthur owen
3 months ago
Reply to  Richard

A Welsh Nationalist is someone who believes in an independent Wales.It is unreservedly a good thing,except for the people who make stupid comments here.

Richard
Richard
3 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

You may be suprised but if you take a peek at last weeks in detail examination of the subject of “ independence “ a fair few folk across the political landscape in favour of that direction and indeed a fair few in Plaid who are not 🤔.

Last edited 3 months ago by Richard
Gaynor
Gaynor
3 months ago
Reply to  arthur owen

if people do make a comparison to today’s catastrophe, then it is crass and stupid. However what makes perfrct sense and shld be discussed are the machinations of imperial projects, like Great Britain and Greater Russia and other powers, which have subjected us, the Baltics and nations worldwide to centuries of subjugation and exploitation. Something which is flippin obvious.

Cynan
Cynan
3 months ago
Reply to  Rob

Not the suffering of modern Ukranians (that happened a thousand years ago for us). But other parallels are clear and obvious. Conversations can be had without people injecting their “feelings” into things. Ukraine needs only to look to our history to see how this is going to pan out for them. Putin is their Henry I. He was a brutal murderous, angry, genius leader who waged hybrid warfare. But he was just ONE of the leaders of the criminal nation. When he died, another less capable Don inherited. And for a thousand years, English attitudes informed the sometimes overt sometimes… Read more »

brass mynci
brass mynci
3 months ago

putin is both a complex historical thinker, AND a thug with an army. that his irridentist version of history is bunk doesn’t make him stupid. he is rewriting history, putting the official version out there, sending a message about how he wants to world to be. history is not onjective facts, but propoganda controlled by the powerful – our own prime minister in the uk has written actual history books full of nonsense and seeks to control what can be taught in schools so that young people grow up only with the sanitised version of history.

Maglocunos
Maglocunos
3 months ago

@Owain

Just one thing, please turn the map of Europe on its side and look at the continent with its extended NATO countries from the direction of Moscow

See what I mean?

Cynan
Cynan
3 months ago
Reply to  Maglocunos

Nope. Putin is still a global criminal murdering the citizens of a sovereign nation. NATO did not invade any of its member nations. Eastern European nations only joined NATO for fear of predation from Russia (again). So in fact Russia was the most effective recruiter NATO ever had. Without Russian aggression, NATO would never even have existed

Last edited 3 months ago by Cynan
I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
3 months ago
Reply to  Cynan

You should edit out that final sentence, for obvious reasons.

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
3 months ago
Reply to  Cynan

Far from it.In 1991 George Bush Senior and James Baker gave Russia assurances that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Germany.NATO bombed Serbia to establish a foothold in The Balkans.
How Ironic that Russia doesn’t have troops stationed on the USA border in Canada and Mexico.

Last edited 3 months ago by Johnny Gamble
Rob
Rob
3 months ago
Reply to  Johnny Gamble

Thats because Canada and Mexico trust the USA more so than the Eastern bloc nations trust Russia. Don’t get me wrong if Trump had threatened Mexico & they formed an alliance with China to protect themselves I would side with Mexico.

Tim
Tim
3 months ago

NATO is not a defensive alliance. NATO has gone to war three times in my lifetime, to destroy Serbia, Afghanistan and Libya (all far away from the North Atlantic). NATO is an army in the service of the USA. Viewing it simply as an alliance of nominally sovereign entities obscures that it is commanded as a tool of US foreign policy in its stated quest of world dominion; that is, “full spectrum dominance.” The “alliance” members must fully integrate their militaries under that command along with purchasing US war equipment and offering up their own citizens as troops. NATO membership… Read more »

Rob
Rob
3 months ago

Ukraine made it clear it had no intention of joining NATO. In regards to its expansion it was the eastern bloc countries that requested NATO membership. A lot of people make the analogy about how America would feel if their neighbours formed an alliance with Russia or China, which is a valid point, the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind. But why do Mexico and Canada trust America more so than the Eastern bloc nations trust Russia? Could it be that Russia is an authoritarian state that regrets the break up of the Soviet Union? I’m not justifying everything that… Read more »

Tim
Tim
3 months ago
Reply to  Rob

In 2008 Moscow informed Washington at the highest level that expansion of NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine would constitute a “red line.”  Washington’s response? NATO announced that Ukraine and Georgia were on the list of countries to eventually be admitted.  From the Guardian “The main European countries reject this. On balance they view Georgia as the bigger villain in the August war with Russia, regard Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili as untrustworthy, believe that political instability in Ukraine makes it unsuitable for NATO, and are anxious to avoid further confrontation with Moscow.” Nato allies divided over Ukraine and Georgia |… Read more »

Erisian
Erisian
3 months ago

The fact they have their own language is a bit of a clue to their status as a nation.

Argol Fawr!
Argol Fawr!
3 months ago

Putin’s deranged view of Ukraine being one with Russia is frightening when one considers Stalin let 30 million Ukrainians starve to feed Russians during the 1930’s. However not that further back between 1845-49, a Tory English Gov let 1.8 million people in Ireland perish. Different times? Lets hope.!

Maglocunos
Maglocunos
3 months ago
Reply to  Argol Fawr!

Argol fawr, that’s a bit of an exaggeration and actually wrong

The disaster that was the Holodomor was part of a wider famine in which at least 5 million Soviet citizens perished from hunger of whom maybe 3.5 million were in Ukraine.

It will be good if more people inform themselves about the tragic history of Eastern Europe, because the current narrative in the West is grounded in appalling ignorance

.

Gaynor
Gaynor
3 months ago
Reply to  Maglocunos

Caused by a dearranged, paranoid, mass murder and Russian despot.

Maglocunos
Maglocunos
3 months ago
Reply to  Gaynor

Old Uncle Joe was a Georgian, actually!

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
3 months ago
Reply to  Gaynor

Gaynor don’t believe everything that Western Media tells you please take time out to read up on The 2014 Coup in Ukraine and the Neo Nazi Azov battalion which is attached to The Ukrainian military.

Rob
Rob
3 months ago
Reply to  Johnny Gamble

I don’t trust everything the Western media says, but they are still more reliable than RT or other Russian state propaganda outlets.

Cai Wogan Jones
Cai Wogan Jones
3 months ago

The playbook will be oh so familiar to many in Wales.

Label the people “ugly nationalists”. Deny their distinct history, culture and nationhood. Then crush them.

Gaynor
Gaynor
3 months ago

Great read. Can we have similar columns on Baltic states to educate us about that region

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
3 months ago
Reply to  Gaynor

Why? It’s absurd to compare what is going on in Ukraine as an England Wales thing.Why not a similar column on The Balkans following on from The NATO bombing of Serbia.

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