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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: Putin’s War in Ukraine: 2014–Present

By David M. Durant

Putin’s War in Ukraine: 2014–Present

A number of books have already been published on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For now, the literature related to the Russo-Ukrainian War is a far better source on the historical, political, and military background of the conflict than it is on the actual events since February 2022. A study of this background reveals a microcosm of all the major trends this essay has discussed: autocracy; Russian empire versus Ukrainian nationalism; the Russian regime’s fear of external and internal threats merging; and a politicization of history to justify present policies.

For the history of Ukraine and the development of Ukrainian identity, a good starting point is Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. This book is best combined with Plokhy’s subsequent work, Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation, from 1470 to the Present. The latter volume discusses the rise of Great Russian nationalism, with its belief that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussian form one nation under Russian leadership. Plokhy also examines how this ideology shaped Russian responses to the rise of Belorussian and especially Ukrainian nationalism. The notion that Ukraine and Russia are inextricably linked is a key motivation behind Putin’s brutal war to return Ukraine to Moscow’s orbit.

Finally, returning to a theme presented throughout this essay, it is worth looking at how Putin and his regime have utilized ideologically driven historical narratives to justify their invasion. Drawing on the dark history of Ukrainian nationalists during the Second World War, the activities of the Ukrainian radical Right today, and the memory of the Great Patriotic War, Putin’s Russia has spun an overwrought propaganda narrative in which the war against Ukraine is a literal continuation of the struggle against the Third Reich. Scholar Jade McGlynn recently published a fair-minded study of the effect of this propaganda on the domestic Russian audience in her work Russia’s War. McGlynn rejects simpleminded explanations involving “brainwashing” and emphasizes that Russian narratives work because they tell listeners what they want to hear. This is also worth keeping in mind with regard to Russian information and disinformation campaigns directed at foreign audiences.

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