Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Alamy Stock Photo Russian President Vladimir Putin on holiday in the Republic of Tuva 2007

Opinion Putin's obsession with making Russia great again is driving his approach to Ukraine

Journalist Hannah McCarthy explains the thinking of Russian President Vladimir Putin as his military builds along the border with Ukraine.

RUSSIA HAS ASSEMBLED 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border in what looks set to be one of the most intense confrontations between east and west since the Cold War era ended.

While Ukrainian officials have downplayed the likelihood of war, the United States has described the move as a precursor to another invasion of Ukraine.

In 2014 Russia annexed the Ukrainian coastal territory of Crimea and it has effectively occupied the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since 2015 by providing military support to separatists there. At least 14,000 people are estimated to have died in fighting since 2014.

Make Russia great again

The current military build-up along the Ukrainian border can be broadly explained as part of Russia’s long-running campaign to re-assert its power over former Soviet states. The latest escalation follows the United States’ refusal to accede to a series of Russian demands in December concerning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russia views NATO and the defensive alliance of Western military powers it represents as a threat to its regional power and influence over former Soviet states. Georgia and Ukraine’s interest in greater cooperation with the West and NATO protection have been particularly antagonising for Moscow.

If either state becomes a member of NATO, an attack on their territory by Russia would require NATO members to provide military support in their defence (i.e., an attack on one is an attack on all.)

In December, Russia issued a series of demands to NATO including a limit on further expansion of its operations eastward towards Russia, the removal of international NATO troops from Poland and the Baltic states, and a guarantee that Ukraine would never be allowed to join NATO.

The United States, the most powerful member of NATO, has deemed the Russian demands largely unacceptable and NATO members have been preparing for worst-case scenarios along the Ukrainian border and an overspill of proxy wars in Eastern Europe.

Putin’s obsession with Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin should by no means be expected to be rational in how he conducts policy. Putin has spent much of the pandemic cocooned in a Covid isolation bubble with little interaction with the outside world and holds an obsessive view rooted in white Slavic nationalism that “Russian and Ukrainians are one people.”

Last July he wrote that “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith.”

And, of course, if Ukrainians are merely a branch of a pan-Russian nation, they have little right to independence or sovereignty over their borders in Putin’s view – which would helpfully give Russia access to considerable economic and agricultural resources in Ukraine, once the second-largest economy in the Soviet Union.

Putin’s idealised depiction of Russian-Ukrainian relations omits a long history of oppression and interference. The Russian empire largely banned the use of the Ukrainian language, while the Soviet government in Moscow created a man-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s that starved almost four million Ukrainians to death.

In 2014, the Kremlin tried to bribe the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich with a $15 billion loan in return for not signing an association agreement with Brussels which would bring Ukraine a step closer to EU membership (and away from Russia).

Today the Kremlin is continuing to practice a policy of ‘Russification’ in Ukraine. Authorities orchestrated the relocation of Russians to Crimea, while almost one million Ukrainians in the occupied territory are estimated to have received Russian passports.

Putin’s strongman image

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 coincided with record popularity for Putin. Despite the punishing economic sanctions imposed by the West in the wake of the annexation, polling in 2019 showed that a majority of Russians continue to support the move.

The Crimean coast is now a popular holiday destination for Russians who have few qualms about buying wine produced in the annexed territory in their local supermarket in Russia. In contrast, the Donbas region has fewer cultural ties with Russia than Crimea and its occupation has been harder to maintain, with regular outbreaks of fighting.

The Russian state media pushes the Kremlin’s depictions of Ukraine as a puppet state for the United States, while the lack of free press and political opposition to Putin in Russia means that there is little real public debate on the country’s military interventions overseas.

But as the Russian economy has flailed under economic sanctions and endemic corruption, public support for Putin has dwindled. The current display of military power along the Ukrainian border now provides a convenient way for him to resuscitate his popularity and his strongman image.

It remains to be seen though whether Putin’s latest attempt to make Russia great again – at least in the eyes of the Russian public – will succeed.

But a costly war with a country that Russia is supposed to have a “brotherly” relationship with may prove hard for even Russian state media to spin.

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist in Beirut. She was previously based in Moscow.


Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel