History’s Vengeance In Ukraine: War And Upended Global Order

Credits: Karollyne Hubert/Unsplash

A common sense of national history is proving to be a powerful tool, inspiring both Russian soldiers and the resistance in Ukraine, as reported by The Guardian.

National story 

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.

Few conflicts have been so shaped by the chief actors’ sense of their own national story as the Ukrainian war that began in February.

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

But history also propels the fierce Ukrainian resistance.

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.”

NATO enlargement 

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.

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.

One wants to find Russians who are not preoccupied with self-pity right now.

For the people of Ukraine, freedom is not some lofty ideal.

Ukraine’s identity took time to form after it gained independence in 1991.

This was not unique among post-Soviet states, but the process was never more intense or confrontational than in Ukraine.

Royally misused history 

In the process, history was often royally misused.

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.

and not find an answer by simply excluding others. 

The idea was to live together with respect.

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.

Nigh One, Day One

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. 

“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.

“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”.

He told a Lords select committee in November: “This war has exposed the whole pitch about ‘night one, day one’.”

Guaranteed victory?

“What if you do not manage to do that on day one, night one, and it takes three weeks, as the Russians found out?

Suddenly, day one, night one becomes three weeks, four weeks.

Ten months on from the initial invasion, Ukraine’s extraordinary resilience and courage has staved off defeat, but not guaranteed victory.

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.

The US chief of staff, Mark Milley, claims as many as 100,000 Russian soldiers have died or been injured.

Russia’s military capability

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

The great Russian military’s reputation has been tarnished by its repeated setbacks on the battlefield. When Russia realised it couldn’t conquer Kyiv and Chernihiv, it first had to “regroup” in the north. On September 6, the astounding collapse of the Russian front in the Kharkiv region’s northeast occurred. On November 11, Russia retreated from the port city of Kherson, retreating from a region it had only 40 days earlier declared to be annexed and a part of Russia. A land corridor to Transnistria, a breakaway territory of Moldova that is one of Ukraine’s western neighbours and is backed by Russia, has been abandoned for the time being. Ukraine claims that it has recaptured more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,089 square miles) of Russian-occupied territory since September.


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Source: The Guardian