If we want to understand the war now happening in Europe, we need to investigate the Russian president’s worldview and his underlying motivation – as well as those of Ukraine. Political scientist Anders Nordström describes Russia as a fallen empire with phantom pains.
Ukraine was declared an independent state in 1991, after 90 per cent of the population voted for independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The leaders in Moscow accepted this, as well as Crimea becoming part of the new Ukraine.
“Throughout history, Ukraine has had short periods of independence, but Ukrainian nationalism and a longing for their own state has existed since the nineteenth century – the desire to decide about their own present and future,” says Nordström, who has followed the development of democracy in Ukraine since he wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject, almost 20 years ago.
But if Moscow recognised Ukraine as a state at the end of the Cold War, why do they now think they have the right to retake it by force? We need to examine this in the light of decolonisation.
“The change from being an empire with an exceptional status to becoming just one country among others, to giving up your power, can be painful. Just as a patient can feel pain in a limb that has been removed, Russia has phantom pains.”
Nordström says that fairly soon after the Russian Federation emerged in 1991, there was talk of the ‘near abroad’. This comprised countries that had once belonged to the Russian empire, such as Belarus and Ukraine.
“From Russia’s perspective, accepting them as sovereign states has been difficult. They are regarded more as if they are Russians who are deluded into believing that they are not Russians.”
Is it Putin that has this opinion, or is it widespread?
“Putin is not the only one to believe it, as this idea is found subconsciously in large sections of the population. This is not surprising, as it’s what they learned from history.”
The opposite is true in Ukraine. They have gone from being subservient to the Soviets to becoming one country among others – something of which they are very proud. Their journey to democracy may not have taken a straight path, but it has had one fundamental difference to that of Russia and Belarus. In practice, those are countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whereas Ukraine has an unbroken tradition of formal power resting with parliament.
“The Ukrainian government had tried several times to move towards authoritarianism, which led to significant backlashes from the people and parliament. The Ukrainian parliament has not functioned perfectly – for example, criminals have become parliamentarians to avoid prosecution, and there have even been fistfights in the Chamber. However, it is still a parliament in which the members are elected and represent the people, which is an important foundation for a democracy, and things can always be improved.”
What has the war meant for the development of Ukraine’s democracy? Is it weaker or stronger?
“Both, but mainly it has been put on hold. During a war, infighting ceases. Political opponents, such as President Zelensky and Kyiv’s mayor, Klitschko, are now cooperating, which dampens democratic exchanges of opinion. At the same time, civil society has been significantly strengthened. Ukraine has come together to defend itself in a magnificent manner, which has reinforced the sense of wanting to be a democratic country.”
Can Russia co-exist peacefully with a sovereign Ukraine?
“No, as long as Russia is an authoritarian regime and is dreaming of an empire, they will regard a democratic Ukraine as a threat.”
However, this is not just an issue for Ukraine. Earlier this year, at the conference organised by Folk och Försvar (People and Defence), Russian Studies researcher Gudrun Persson stated that a new chapter of European history has just begun, an opinion with which Nordström agrees.
“For a long time, I was one of the nay-sayers, those who did not believe there would be a war. I was wrong about that, but my opinion was shared by many others, the belief that Russia wanted to be part of the international community. There were indications that they had a lot to gain by appearing to be a credible partner for dialogue. Instead, they’ve chosen direct confrontation with the international community.”
Nordström also adds that although he was depressed by the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he has felt some hope since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Last time the international community chose to look the other way, but this time there has been a strong reaction to Russia’s actions.”
What consequences will the war have for European security?
“Significant ones. Russia has breached all the fundamental principles on which European security is built. These took shape after World War Two and, in simple terms, mean that current democratically recognised borders are respected. If anything is to be changed, it is done through diplomacy and dialogue.”
Since the invasion, Putin has referred to historical injustices, by which he means that Russia has a special duty to protect anyone with a Russian identity, even if they are in other countries – something he wants to correct by retaking territory and staging referendums on the return to empire. This rhetoric is chilling because, by extension, where does it stop? Twentieth-century history has taught us that mass expulsions and changed borders are not sustainable solutions. Instead, one important element of European security is working on minority rights within existing borders.
“There is a lot at stake. If peace is made on Russia’s terms, then they are very likely to continue using this tactic – and there are more European influences that wish to establish authoritarian regimes, who care little for international law. An authoritarian regime builds upon the idea that a country may do as it wishes with its own population, and if you want to take territory you do so using physical violence. The outcome of this war is therefore not only important for Ukraine, but for the stability of the entire region,” says Nordström.
The origin of the conflict
Ukraine has borders with both Russia and Europe, so has an interest in maintaining good relationships in both directions. Different groups in Ukraine have lobbied for different areas of cooperation, as the eastern parts of the country have proportionally had more Russian sympathisers, while western Ukraine has had more people who look towards the EU. In 2013, the EU offered Ukraine an association agreement in return for them not entering a Russian-led economic union. Then-president Viktor Yanukovych turned down the EU’s offer and instead signed an agreement with Russia. This led to a wave of protests, with the president being deposed in 2014 and fleeing the country. Russia’s reaction to the president’s fall was to take control of the Crimean Peninsula and invade eastern Ukraine.
(Source: Globalis/United Nations Association of Sweden)