Udi Greenberg on the Crisis in Ukraine

Among many things, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is a war over history. What the Russian leadership seeks to impose is not only its strategic or political preferences, but also its understanding of historical events: how they unfolded in the past and what they mean for us today. Nothing exemplifies the centrality of this issue to Russian violence better than Vladimir Putin's own words; indeed, hist most high-profile address to the Russian public on the war last week were prolonged history lessons. On 2/21, Putin discussed in the detail the events and decisions that between 1917 and 1922 led to the creation of the Ukraine as an autonomous republic in the Soviet Union. He spoke at great length about the tragic "mistakes" made by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership, which, by granting the Ukraine lands populated by Russians, allegedly exposed them to humiliation and foreign aggression. He therefore insisted that Russia's goal must be to finally correct it. The Russian president's 2/24 address, in which he formally shared with the Russian public the news about the war, similarly was a lecture in history. Most of it was dedicated to narrating the invasion of the Soviet Union through the Ukraine by the Third Reich, and the rebuilding of Russian security through de-Nazification in the postwar era. It then explained why the expansion of US and NATO influence since the end of the Cold War was ultimately a nefarious effort to undermine postwar de-Nazification. For Putin, it was crucial for his listeners understand the current invasion in the context of this long history. Indeed, he repeatedly insisted that this was in fact an effort to "de-Nazify" the Ukraine from anti-Russian fanatics, and as such was a direct continuation of WWII, as well as an effort to reverse the alleged failure of Russian leadership to resist Western aggression in the post-Cold War decades. While some may view this fixation with history as insignificant, mere rhetoric that covers hard-nosed calculations, it is in fact crucial for understanding this current conflict. It provides a window into Putin's understanding of Russia's actions, their origins and objectives. And equally important, it shows what the Russian president and his speech writers believe to be the most effective tool in mobilizing the Russian public's support for war.  

February 28th