The revenge of history in Ukraine: year of war has shaken up world order

The Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko recalls a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “Wars are not won by generals, but by schoolteachers and parish priests.” It’s a country’s taught collective memory, its shared sense of its own history, that are the decisive instruments for mobilisation, and are as important on the battlefield as weaponry.카지노사이트

Few conflicts have been so shaped by the chief actors’ sense of their own national story as the Ukrainian war that began in February. It is the competing grand narratives of the past, not just in Russia and Ukraine, but in Germany, France, Poland, the Baltics, the UK, the US, and even the global south, that make this war so hard to resolve.

Indeed, sometimes this war feels less like the end of history and more like the revenge of history.

Georgiy Kasianov, the Ukrainian historian, puts history in the cockpit of a conflict that may create a new world order. “Russian forces have been smashing their way through Ukraine spurred in large part by historical fiction,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “But history also propels the fierce Ukrainian resistance. Ukrainians, too, harbour a particular understanding of the past that motivates them to fight. In many ways, this war is the collision of two incompatible historical narratives.”

Putin is sometimes described not as commander in chief, but as Russia’s historian in chief. The ground for this war was prepared by the Russian president’s pseudo-historical essay On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, published in July 2021. In this document, Putin argued Ukraine was, historically, indistinguishable from Russia, citing Oleg the prophet’s 10th-century dictum: “Let Kyiv be the mother of all Russian cities.”

Radosław Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister, said he became sure an invasion would happen when he read that essay and learned Putin had ordered it to be sent to every serving Russian soldier. “The plan was to do again what Russia had repeatedly done to Ukraine in the past: extermination of its elites, Russification of its culture and population and the subjugation of its resources to its own imperial needs. Ukraine could be permitted as peasant folklore but not as a free and democratic nation choosing its own destiny and allies.”

When Putin talked about Ukraine needing to disarm and making Russian its second official language, it was not only about restoring Ukraine as part of Russia, but a staging post to the full reinvention of the Russian empire.

During his Victory Day speech in Moscow in May 2022, the president told Russian soldiers back from the Ukrainian front they were “fighting for the same thing their fathers and grandfathers did” – for “the motherland” and the defeat of nazism. The Ukrainian revolution of 2013 was a fascist “Banderite coup”, the government in Kyiv a “junta”, Nato enlargement an Anschluss, and the EU a decadent threat to Russian culture. Russia in 2022, according to Putin, was like the USSR in 1941, threatened by an invasion from the west.

Zabuzkho argues that this deep historical sense of injustice and betrayal drives not just Putin, but the whole of Russian society. “One wants to find Russians who are not preoccupied with self-pity right now. The feeling of injustice is one of the most distinct symptoms of the moral breakdown that characterises so much of Russian society today.”

Ukraine, too, has its own sense of injustice and points its accusatory finger at Russia. Olesya Khromeychuk, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, argues: “Ukraine’s historical experience – of statelessness and struggle, repressive external rule and hard-won independence – has shaped Ukraine into the nation we see today: opposed to imperialism, united in the face of the enemy, and determined to protect its freedom. For the people of Ukraine, freedom is not some lofty ideal. It is imperative for survival.”

Ukraine’s identity took time to form after it gained independence in 1991. Two narratives competed – one national and nationalist, the other Soviet nostalgic. This was not unique among post-Soviet states, but the process was never more intense or confrontational than in Ukraine.

Battles were fought over school textbooks, monuments, the choice of national anniversaries, street names, state archives, or the status of the Holodomor – the human-made famine of 1932-33 that killed millions of Ukrainians – as a genocide. Under the “historical presidency” of Viktor Yuschenko between 2005 and 2010, 159 historical decrees were issued, the vast majority about the de-communisation of Ukraine.

In the process history was often royally misused. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory for instance between 2014 and 2019 came to be dominated by a narrow group of rightwing nationalists that defined Ukraine in purely ethnic anti-Russian terms.

Unpopular leaders such as Petro Poroshenko relied on increasingly divisive and crude ethnic appeals to patriotism, thinking it was the shortcut to remaining in power. In 2015 the government even issued a set of “memory laws” that made questioning the official, deeply anti-Soviet view of Ukraine’s past punishable with prison terms of up to 10 years.

It was not until the advent of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the “independence generation” – those who grew up after Ukraine left the Soviet Union – that Ukraine addressed issues of the past, identity and language in a more inclusive way, as Olga Onuch sets out in her book The Zelensky Effect. Zelenskiy, a former comedian and actor elected in 2019, understood the importance of history. Indeed, in the opening series of Servant of the People – the TV show that made his name – Zelenskiy plays a history teacher trying to convince his pupils of the importance of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the historian who, in 1903, first tried to show how Ukrainian history was not merely a part of an overarching Russian story.바카라사이트

In his new year address in 2020, Zelenskiy asked Ukrainians to ask themselves, “Who am I?”, and not find an answer by simply excluding others. “Our passports don’t say whether we are the right kind of Ukrainians or a wrong one. There is no entry there, saying ‘patriot’, ‘Maloros’ [a derogatory term used to describe a Ukrainian native with no national identity], ‘vatnik’ [a derogatory term for a pro-Russian citizen] or ‘Banderite’ [a derogatory term for a Ukrainian nationalist]. It says: ‘citizen of Ukraine’, who has rights and obligations. We are all very different.” The idea was to live together with respect.

Onuch and her co-author, Henry Hale, argue Zelenskiy was critical to giving Ukrainians a chance to “realise they shared a rich common fate that transcended linguistic, national and religious diversity”. This generation did not want just to shed their Russianness, but find a new Ukrainian civic identity linked to a hard-fought idea of common values. As a Russian-speaking Jewish person from south-east Ukraine, Zelenksiy was perfect to demonstrate how Russian-speaking Ukrainians, including those in the east, could fully identify with the Ukrainian state and express their patriotism.

That mattered when the war began. The Polish historian Adam Michnik argues that the future of Ukraine as part of Europe was always going to depend not only on the western cities of Lviv and Kyiv, but also on the cities to the south and east, Kharkiv and Odesa. “There is no doubt, under Putin’s rockets, both Kharkiv and Odesa chose Europe.”

In short, Putin was invading a country that very much existed – one he no longer understood.

The FSB told the Russian president that a superior army could capture Kyiv and decapitate its leadership in hours, as it had in Crimea in 2014, since it was invading an artificial and politically apathetic country that distrusted its leaders. Just to make sure, it supposedly spent $1bn fomenting discontent among the Russophone population in Ukraine and promoting pro-Russian politicians. Unfortunately, the FSB’s agents siphoned off some of the money and then fabricated data on pro-Russian attitudes to please Moscow.

As a result, many Russian soldiers, poorly briefed on the invasion, seemed genuinely bewildered by a Ukrainian volunteer defence force determined to protect their homeland. When they reached cities such as Kherson they were greeted with shotguns, and not flowers.

“The Ukraine in your news and the Ukraine of real life are two entirely different places,” Zelenskiy warned Russians on the eve of the invasion, “and the difference is that the latter is real”.

By day three of the invasion it was apparent to Russian commanders that serious mistakes had been made from which the operation has never fully been able to recover. Russia’s hubris and overconfidence led to false assumptions that sabotaged the mission.

The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, provided a concise summary of the critical importance of Russia’s initial mistakes. He told a Lords select committee in November: “This war has exposed the whole pitch about ‘night one, day one’. You might translate it as saying, ‘When the balloon goes up, you take out the air defence of your adversary and then you can pick and choose at will and do your targeting.’

“What if you do not manage to do that on day one, night one, and it takes three weeks, as the Russians found out? On their day one, night one, the Ukrainians rather cleverly drove out of their barracks, dispersed their arsenals or used deception in their air defence capabilities. Knowing that this was going to happen, the Ukrainians used false trails for where their air defence was so that Russia hit all the wrong places. Suddenly, day one, night one becomes three weeks, four weeks. You run out of your complex weapons and you are now where the Russians are.”

Ten months on from the initial invasion, Ukraine’s extraordinary resilience and courage has staved off defeat, but not guaranteed victory. Europe’s post-cold war security landscape has changed, and yet nothing is settled. This is still a moment of transition.

The Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov describes the war as “more like a game of poker than chess. On a chess board, all the pieces are face up, but poker is essentially a game of incomplete information, a game where you have to guess and act on those guesses.”

The most difficult guess is estimating how long the other side can withstand this level of destruction in terms of manpower, ammunition and morale. Each side has to increase the cost of war for the other in the hope the enemy is close to cracking.

Yet the toll is already massive. The US chief of staff, Mark Milley, claims as many as 100,000 Russian soldiers have died or been injured. Based on open-source references, the Oryx site determined that the Russians had lost a total of 1,491 main battle tanks since 24 February, of which 856 different types were destroyed, 62 damaged and 55 abandoned, and the Ukrainians had taken more than 518. Russia, albeit involuntarily, became Ukraine’s most important arms supplier.

By one calculation, the US has spent 5.6% of its annual defence budget to destroy nearly half of Russia’s military capability.

The successive battlefield defeats have damaged the reputation of the great Russian military. First there had to be the “regrouping” in the north, when Russia realised it could not take Kyiv and Chernihiv. On 6 September came the stunning collapse of the Russian front in the north-east in the Kharkiv region. On 11 November Russia withdrew from the port city of Kherson, retreating from territory it had announced as annexed and part of Russia only 40 days earlier. The goal of establishing a land corridor to Transnistria – a Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova, one of Ukraine’s western neighbours – is, for now, abandoned. Since September Ukraine says it has reclaimed more than 8,000 sq km (3,089 sq miles) of Russian-occupied territory.온라인카지노

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