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Imperial power

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 28, 2022

When Russian troops invaded Ukraine last week, it set in motion the possibility of another major transformation in the European political and economic order.

Russia launched its attack from Ukraine's northern border with Belarus, across its eastern frontier with Russia, and in the south from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. Such a move suggests that more than the annexation of Ukraine is at stake.

In 1922, Russia and Ukraine were founding members of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the Soviet Union crumbled and Ukraine became an independent nation. This retaking of Ukraine by Russia is part of Vladimir Putin's larger ambition to reassemble the Soviet Union—"the need", as he said in his Monday-night speech "to right perceived historical wrongs suffered by Russia over the centuries at the hands of the West". (The New York Times, February 25.)

Putin has never accepted Ukraine as a sovereign state. He claims he invaded Ukraine to defend the Ukrainian people who have been victims of the "Kyiv regime", and to "demilitarise and to de-Nazify Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Russian-speaking Jewish president of Ukraine, denied Putin's claim. He responded: "How can a people who gave eight million lives for the victory over Nazism support Nazism? How can I be a Nazi? Tell that to my grandfather, who went through the whole war in the Soviet infantry, then died a colonel in independent Ukraine."

In 1994, Russian troops invaded Chechnya and took the capital city of Grozny in March 1995. During this war with Chechnya approximately 100,000 people died and more than 400,000 were forced to flee their homes during the same period. Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided at the dissolution of the Soviet Union and became a critic of President Putin, supported Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Gorbachev's contradictory position vis--vis Crimea speaks of the deep Russian feeling of imperial greatness.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine was the result of a deeply rooted ideological position. He believes Ukraine has no right to exist, hence his desire to bring the country under Russian rule or sphere of influence. It reminded many observers of the 1941-1944 period when Nazi Germany and the Axis powers occupied Ukraine. These painful memories led President Zelenskyy to call on his citizens to take up arms and resist the forces that invaded their country "just as they did against fascist Germany". (Financial Times, February 25.)

Putin also feared NATO's expansion. The Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, formerly a part of the USSR, joined the European Union and NATO. Both Ukraine and Georgia were slated to become members of NATO eventually. Putin noted that all the nations that declared independence from the Soviet Union were "ticking time bombs" infected with the "virus of nationalist ambitions". (FT, February 25.)

With the occupation of Ukraine, Russia would extend its military power to the borders of several NATO countries. Steven Erlanger writes: "If Russia succeeds in taking over Ukraine and keeping bases in Belarus... its forces will extend from the borders of the Baltics and Poland to Slovakia, Hungary and northern Romania, making it significantly harder for NATO to defend its eastern flank." (NYT, February 25.)

Most of the leaders of the Baltic countries that joined NATO fear that once Putin is finished taking care of business in Ukraine, "his attention will turn to countries in NATO facing him". (FT, February 22.)

While many observers of international affairs believe the Russians (and certainly the Chinese) feel chafed under US hegemony, they never expected Putin to make such a bold move. They thought he would engage in more economic moves to transform the status quo than use such naked military power.

Many young Marxists saw Russia as a peace-loving country that respected the territorial integrity of states and right of nations to select their own leaders. After all, Russia has always portrayed itself as the protector of world peace, who fought against the dreaded excesses of a moribund capitalist order led by the United States.

Maybe we were young and impressionable, but many saw the USSR as the country that would herald in a new beginning in world affairs. Even those who bought into the Marxist narrative about the USSR being the guiding ideological power of a new world order always believed that Moscow was a peace-loving country that upheld the territorial integrity of states and the right of a people to elect their own leaders. Anton Troianovski, reporting from Moscow, noted: "Many Russians had bought into the Kremlin's narrative that theirs was a peace-loving country and Mr Putin a careful and calculating leader." (NYT, February 25.)

Many people refused to see the fallacy of that position. Even after Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent, subsequently imprisoned for challenging Putin, and his organisation banned from taking part in parliamentary elections, they still believed there was some hope for the Russian system.

It has been reported that over the last two years Putin became an isolated man, a more aggravated and a more emotional person. Gleb O Pavlovsky, a close adviser to Putin until they fell out in 2011, reflected on Putin's present behaviour. He wrote: "Putin's become an isolated man, more isolated than Stalin was." (NYT, February 25.)

We cannot be certain why people do what they do and what drives them to such criminal actions, but no one in his/her correct mind should accept Putin's invasion of Ukraine. We know that he wishes to reunite the old Soviet Union, but one wonders at what cost he chooses to do so.

By the time you read this article, Putin may have gobbled up Ukraine. May the Ukrainians make him pay for his imperial ambitions and ill-considered actions.

Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe

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