Moscow’s obsession with Ukraine is not new: Since the 17th century, Ukraine has been an integral part of how Russian rulers have thought about their realm of power, says Stanford historian Norman Naimark.

The more Ukraine continues to establish democratic freedom, rule of law and integration with the West, the more it becomes a threat to Putin’s sense of Russia’s mission, according to Stanford historian Norman Naimark. (Image credit: Getty Images)

For centuries, the two entities have had a complicated relationship: Russia sees Ukraine as integral to its empire, while Ukrainians frequently see themselves differently and independent from the common Eastern Slavic heritage they share, says Naimark. Putin wants Ukraine to be integrated into a larger Russian polity, not be an independent sovereign state with a functioning parliamentary system it has today. The more Ukraine, a thriving young democracy, continues to establish democratic freedom, rule of law and integration with the West, the more it becomes a threat to Putin’s sense of Russia’s mission.

Naimark, a scholar of Russian and East European history whose current research focuses on Soviet policies and actions in Europe after World War II and on genocide and ethnic cleansing in the 20th century, discusses some of the historical and geopolitical context around Putin’s fixation on restoring a Eurasian empire.


A number of historical comparisons about the invasion have been made: For example, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that in terms of scale, it could be the largest conflict Europe has experienced since 1945; others are likening to the start of a new Cold War. And while not quite historical, there are some people, including Representative Michael McCaul, who fear a WWIII. How useful are these comparisons? What historical parallels come to mind for you, if any? 

Historical analogies are useful heuristic devices to give us perspective on contemporary events. To some extent, these references to past and future conflicts make sense. We have not seen this kind of major invasion of one country of another in Europe since World War II. Think about older Ukrainians who can remember the invasion of their country by the Nazis in 1941, but also the retaking of their lands by the Red Army in 1944 and the insurgent warfare by underground Ukrainian formations against the Soviets that went on in the west of the country until the late 1940s and early 1950s. This kind of bloody insurgency may emerge again if Ukraine loses this present war and is occupied by troops of the Russian Federation.

The Cold War question is a complicated one since the structured ideological struggle that was so central to the Cold War is not really part of this renewed bellicose hostility between Russia and the United States. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t serious differences between what we might call “Putinism” and Western values and norms. It is deeply troubling that the antagonisms between Putin and the “West” have reached such alarming proportions that nuclear strikes are threatened by Moscow and severe sanctions are imposed on the Russians that will clearly damage their economy and their ability to live a normal productive life. In my view, this is a pointless invasion on the part of Moscow, can only damage Russian interests and will sour U.S.-Russian relations for a very long time. Can World War III come from this situation? I really don’t think so. Putin has reacted irrationally in moving into Ukraine, to be sure, but NATO has held firm and acted wisely and in concert to protect its eastern flank. I can’t imagine Putin would challenge the combined forces of the U.S. and its Allies. He is interested in his Eurasian empire, not world hegemony. Still, there can be nuclear mistakes and miscalculations, and we have to be very careful, in conjunction with the Russians, to make sure that such accidental conflicts don’t happen.


In Putin’s Feb. 22 address, he talked about “the historical destiny of Russia.” What in particular in Russia’s history might help people better understand Putin and his motivations and intentions?

There is no Russian empire, to which Putin aspires, without Ukraine. Since the 17th century, Ukraine has always been an integral part of how Russian rulers have thought about their realm of power. This is both conceptual and geostrategic. Stalin ostensibly worried about “losing Ukraine” in the 1930s to Pilsudski’s Poland. Putin does not seek to reconstitute the Soviet Union, as so many commentators have suggested. In fact, he recently denounced Lenin and the Soviet government for having “given” Ukraine a sense of its statehood. He doesn’t admit that Ukrainians have frequently thought of themselves differently than Russians and for many centuries have looked for autonomy within and independence from a larger Russian entity. But Putin simply refuses to recognize that. He is right that Russian and Ukrainian histories have been “entangled,” but not in the way he asserts.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have been complicated since the turn of this century by the fact that Putin’s Russia has moved increasingly in the direction of autocracy, kleptocracy and control over domestic politics and society. Ukraine has become, with lots of bumps on the road and problems with corruption, a thriving young democracy. A Ukraine that is heading towards democratic freedom, the rule of law and integration with the West particularly galls Putin because Ukraine is ethnically Slavic and primarily Orthodox in religion, like Russia. It shares the Russians’ own Soviet and Imperial past and therefore should be complicit, in Putin’s view, in Moscow’s anti-democratic ideology. For Putin, it’s one thing if Estonia or Latvia has a well-functioning parliamentary democracy. These former Soviet republics that also share common borders with Russia did not have the same integral nexus with the Russia that Putin thinks Ukraine does. Ukrainian democracy is seen as threatening and undermines his sense of the larger Russian mission.


What aspect of Putin’s obsession with Russia’s past do you find the most troubling?

Putin’s version of Russian history is both distorted and pernicious. Alas, given heavy censorship it’s also the only version of history that is proffered in the Russian media. (Note the closing last December in Russia of the impressive civil society organization, “Memorial,” which was dedicated to accurately documenting and interpreting the Soviet past.) To be sure, since the late 19th century, there have been Russian nationalist thinkers who, like Putin, extoll the special role of the Russian people, the superior moral quality of Orthodoxy, the justifiable dominance of Russians in Eurasia and the unique place of the Russian collectivity in the world. But there are also plenty of reasonable Russians, who reject this kind of national chauvinism and would like to live normal lives in peace with their neighbors and in a democratic society. This war really hurts these good people. They live under a brutal autocrat, and there is not much they can do to change their country’s policies. They have had to experience Soviet dictatorship and now Putin’s with the accompanying historical distortions. This is another reason the Ukrainians are fighting so hard: They just don’t want to go back to denying their national aspirations and giving up the ability to tell their own story because of Moscow’s dictates.

Naimark is the Robert & Florence McDonnell Professor of E. European Studies and of German Studies (by courtesy) in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He is also a senior fellow (by courtesy) at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).