With Russia and Ukraine on war’s edge some reach for prayers and others for diplomacy. Mana restoration is also needed, as are history’s lessons.
Vladimir Putin contends that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and that current tensions result from NATO’s expansion eastwards. Critics argue his authoritarianism is destroying Russian democracy and human rights, and that he is threatening Ukraine to distract attention away from Russia’s economic problems. They also charge him with reinventing Soviet history to gloss over the darker periods and to reframe it as a heroic time that saw victory in the Great Patriotic War and global leadership in many scientific and technological fields.
During Putin’s first tenure as president from 2000 to 2008 the Russian economy grew for eight straight years, with GDP per capita and real incomes increasing, unemployment and poverty rates more than halved, and Russian self-assessed life satisfaction rising significantly. This reflected high oil and gas export prices, recovery from depression and financial crises and associated with past economic restructuring, foreign investment, and prudent macro-economic and fiscal policies.
However, in recent years Russia has failed to make much progress economically. Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s break-up, Russia is still dependant on oil, gas and armaments exports. It has failed to reach the industrial sophistication of major western economies or of China.
Putin has drawn on Soviet era symbolism as if to conjure up a romantic image of past greatness for Russia, and by extension for ordinary Russian citizens. However, Stalin’s forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture caused millions of deaths in Ukraine in the 1932-33 Holodomor or “Great Famine”. The Ukrainian government asserts this was genocide targeted especially at Ukrainians.
During the Great Patriotic War some western Ukrainian nationalists fought with Germany, whilst eastern Ukrainians overwhelmingly supported the Soviet war effort.
Russia and Ukraine share a long and troubled history, with much shared cultural heritage, and with high intermarriage from the Soviet era.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus share roots in the Kyivan Rus’. This was an alliance of East Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. The Kievan Rus’ began to decline during the late 11th century and it was devastated by 13th-century Mongol invasion, with Kyiv destroyed in 1240. Following this, Lithuania controlled much of the Ukraine until Poland took control within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the Union of Lublin (1569).
During the 16th, 17th and into the 18th century, the Zaporozhian Cossacks were strong enough to challenge the Polish-Lithuanisn Commonwealth, the Russian Tzardom and the Crimean Khanate.
In 1657–1686 came “The Ruin”, a bloody war involving Russia, Poland, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire and Cossacks for control of Ukraine. In 1686 Russia and Poland divided the Cossack Hetmanate lands between them.
After centuries in which Russians and Ukrainians interacted, Ukraine only united as one entity from September 1939 when Hitler and Stalin jointly invaded and then dismembered Poland. Galicia and Volhynia with their Ukrainian populations then became part of Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s aggressive stance towards Ukraine has origins partly in the humiliation he and many other Russians felt in the wake of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact alliance, the Soviet Union’s break-up, and the pain that so many people went through as the Russian economy was restructured.
As a KGB officer in Dresden in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down, Vladimir Putin saw the GDR authorities and the KGB itself powerless in the face of rampant public demonstrations. That is, he observed first-hand the Eastern Bloc’s humiliation. The lesson for Putin might well have been to never again surrender control.
Putin claims that after the Iron Curtain collapsed and Germany was reunited the US led NATO’s expansion into formerly Warsaw Pact states in breach of earlier assurances this would not happen. In a 1990 meeting with Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in principle to German unification so long as NATO did not expand to the east. The US Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev on this. Jack Matlock, the last US ambassador to the Soviet Union confirms that Gorbachev was given to understand that if Germany united and stayed in NATO, the borders of NATO would not move eastward. Others argue that no such explicit commitment was made.
Since the Cold War ended NATO has added 14 more member nations, ten of them former Warsaw Pact countries. Many Russians across a wide political spectrum argue that this violates at least tacit understandings entered into over the 1989 – 1991 period.
Mikhail Gorbachev has long argued that the U.S. wanted to be the dominant global superpower and did not want competition from a resurgent Russia. He has been critical of US “triumphalism” towards Russia. He rejected President George H W Bush’s contention that the U.S. had “won” the Cold War, arguing that both sides had cooperated to end the conflict. Subsequently, in 2008 President George W Bush actively pushed for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO – this formed part of the backdrop to conflict between Russia and Georgia in late 2008.
Russia has in its history often been torn between its traditional culture and institutions and western European influences. Peter the Great looked to Europe for Russia’s modernisation. Turgenev drew on European liberalism and progressiveness, while Dostoyevsky exemplified conservative, often Russian Orthodox Church-influenced Russian nationalism.
When he became President in 2000, Vladimir Putin wanted Russia to develop deeper ties with western Europe. He was open to Russia joining NATO if it could do so as an equal partner. That is, he wanted to uphold Russia’s mana and not allow his country to play a subordinate role internationally. However, NATO’s continuing expansion eastwards and specific incidents such as the Orange Revolution street protests in Ukraine in 2004 deepened his distrust of NATO, and especially of the US’s role within the alliance.
However, in recent years the US has lost influence and partly disengaged from traditional alliances. Its confidence has been dented through its Afghanistan withdrawal, and it faces challenge from an assertive China. Ukraine and NATO do not want war, and given this, Putin’s aggressive stance seems unwarranted.
When it became independent in 1991 Ukraine pledged non-alignment between western Europe and Russia. This option offers comity and good socio-cultural (and economic) relationships with Russia whilst also allowing Ukraine to become deeply integrated with western European economies and institutions.
Precedent exists for such relationships. After the Great Patriotic War ended and the Cold War began Austria and Finland both became neutral between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, while still remaining market economies and social democracies.
Former Ukrainian President Yanukovych opted to keep Ukraine a non-aligned state, and the Ukrainian parliament confirmed this in 2010. However, subsequently Ukraine has swung erratically between closer relations with Russia or with the EU. After the Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014 the Ukrainian parliament renounced Ukraine’s non-aligned status. President Zelensky recently made a renewed call for NATO membership.
Russia has been invaded and occupied through the centuries and this shapes Russian psychology. This psychology has also been shaped by Russian history since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc from 1989, Germany’s reunification, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
From 1991, the Soviet Union’s breakup and economic reforms undermined Russia’s economy and its social security system. The tax base collapsed, undermining public services and marginalising top Russian public sector professionals. Teachers, academics, and scientists found themselves earning less than ill-educated entrepreneurs opening bars, nightclubs and other private sector businesses.
Beggars appeared on the streets of once-proud cities such as St Petersburg and Moscow. Putin himself went moonlighting as a cab driver to make ends meet, and he never forgot the humiliation. Russian industrial towns that had once provided stable employment became reminiscent of the American “rust belt”. “Deaths of despair” soared as workers who had lost their pride and dignity turned to alcohol or suicide.
In 1992, hyper-inflation destroyed many people’s life savings and weakened trust in institutions. Corruption became rife, and well-connected insiders (some of them former government officials) acquired privatised assets, with some shifting huge asset holdings abroad.
While few would want to return to the old Soviet economy, many felt pride in the Soviet Union’s power, felt humiliated as individuals and as Russians, with much of this blamed on the Soviet Union’s collapse, and by extension on the external powers perceived to benefit from it.
A way forward is for a US-led NATO to treat Russia as an equal European partner and a significant global player. That is Russia’s mana must be enhanced, noting that it has a far bigger population than any western European country, it is the wealthiest country in Eastern Europe, the biggest nation on earth with the richest natural resource base, and it is a nuclear power.
The US could commit to vetoing Ukrainian membership of NATO, which it has the power to do. Ukraine could then focus on building deeper relationships with all its neighbours, with an independent foreign policy that poses no threat to any other nation.
There are more radical options that could be explored. For example, Russia could apply for NATO membership, or NATO could invite Russia to join. However, any such options would be contentious and negotiations on them would be drawn out.
The most critical first step is for President Putin to de-escalate. Failure to do so risks drifting into war, without anyone actually wanting a war.
In tense times leaders must avoid triggering events that then get out of hand. The Cossack song Oh, it is not yet evening is a salutary warning for leaders who might otherwise lose their “impetuous heads.”
In Russian and Ukrainian Cossack culture the raven is a bird with supernatural powers. It mediates between life and death, sometimes connecting dying Cossacks with their families. De-escalation is needed, otherwise the raven might become tragically busy. One of the most powerful Cossack anti-war songs is Black raven. Best to listen to it through headphones to harvest its full emotional power, and to remind ourselves how terrible war can be.