A Savage War of Russian Decline

Serhii Plokhy Discusses the Russo-Ukrainian War

In this conversation co-hosted by Marta Haiduchok (Visible Ukraine) and Ferenc Laczó (the Review of Democracy), Serhii Plokhy – author of the new book The Russo-Ukrainian War – discusses why Ukraine was so crucial to the Soviet collapse and how Ukraine and Russia diverged subsequently; explains what made Ukraine a focal point of competition in the post-Cold War decades and which factors enabled the current devastating war; dissects the origins of Russian imperialism and Russia’s current war aims; reflects on the state of Ukrainian Studies and suggests new questions concerning Ukrainian nationalism and Russian imperialism; elaborates on the stages of the unfolding war and the reasons behind Ukraine’s ability to fight back; and ponders what major geopolitical shifts the Russo-Ukrainian war might signal or reinforce.

This interview appears simultaneously at Visible Ukraine and at the Review of Democracy

Serhii Plokhy is an intellectual, cultural, and international historian of Eastern Europe with an emphasis on Ukraine. He acts as Professor of Ukrainian History and as the Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of a host of books, including The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015), The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2015), Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters (2022).

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been published by Allen Lane.

Marta Haiduchok

When discussing the historical background of the relations between Ukraine and Russia today, you underline that the historical myth of the Russian dynasty’s Kyivan origins “underlays the policy of newly independent Muscovy – a policy of conquest.” What are at the origins of the imperial politics of the Muscovite state toward Ukraine? Can we identify a clear starting point to this extended history?

Serhii Plokhy

The origins of the claim concerning Kyivan heritage go back to the 15th century and the rise of Muscovy as an independent state – independent of the rule of what was left of the Mongol Empire in eastern Europe. The argument was first formulated when the Russian ruler at that time, Ivan the Third was trying to lay claim to Novgorod. To do that, he employed a particular type of dynastic history, saying that as the successor to the Kyivan princes, he, the prince of Moscow had the right to rule over Novgorod.

The story was not just about the formation of an independent Russian state after centuries of Mongol and Tatar rule. There was also the question of what sort of a state Russia would be. The authoritarian state based in Moscow really crushed the republican and democratic order that was in place in Novgorod at that time. In other words, you see three things happening at the same time more than five hundred years ago: the birth of independent Muscovy, the rise of Russian authoritarianism, and the first formulation of claims to Kyiv and Kyivan heritage.

Ferenc Laczó

You underline that Ukraine was a crucial actor in the collapse of the Soviet Union and that Ukraine and Russia parted ways afterwards when it comes to their political development. Could I ask you to discuss why Ukraine was so central to the Soviet collapse and, more particularly, how the Ukrainian referendum in 1991 may have catalyzed this process? Equally or perhaps even more importantly, what made Ukraine and Russia differ from each other so significantly after 1991?

Serhii Plokhy

Ukraine has been a very important part of Soviet history from the formation of the Soviet Union back in 1922-23 to its disintegration in 1991. The Soviet Union came into existence very much on account of the Bolsheviks trying to accommodate the resistance coming from Ukraine and Georgia. The original plan, Stalin’s plan, was basically to name the new state the Russian Federation and include other republics as autonomous entities in that federation. The Ukrainians and the Georgians pushed back against that idea. Lenin came up with a plan where Russia and Ukraine, and for that matter, Belarus, would be, at least pro-forma, equal republics, and that those republics would have the right to secede, to leave the Soviet Union. Without Ukraine resisting the centralizing attempts coming from Stalin back in 1922, we probably would not have had the Soviet Union, or at least not the Soviet Union in the form that it existed.

Ukraine played a crucial role in 1991 too, when Ukrainians voted for independence in the referendum on December 1, 1991. More than 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for Ukraine’s independence. Upon that referendum, the Soviet Union fell apart within a week. Neither Gorbachev, nor Yeltsin was interested in continuing the Soviet experiment without Ukraine.

The reasons for that were quite simple. Ukraine was the largest republic after Russia and to continue with the Soviet experiment without the second largest economy in the Union would have been quite difficult for Russia. Second, there was a chance that Russia would be left mostly with the Central Asian republics that are not either Slavic or Christian in their traditional culture.  Boris Yeltsin told President George H. W. Bush more than once that without Ukraine, Russia would be outvoted and outnumbered – would be outgunned, so to speak – by the non-Slavic, predominantly Muslim republics.

The questions of economic potential, of ethnic composition, and of cultural and religious traditions thus all made Russia reluctant to want to preserve the Soviet Union without Ukraine. The idea of dissolving the Soviet Union came to the fore. The Commonwealth of Independent States was the Russian way to deal with the new Ukrainian question – the Ukrainian question as it emerged after 1991.

Regarding the different paths that Ukraine and Russia chose after 1991, that is, of course, a broad question. What I can say in brief is that for anyone who was there in 1989-90, the most democratic republic in the Soviet Union, at least outside of the Baltic states, was Russia.  Yeltsin, who became the leader of Russian democracy, was standing on a tank in front of the Russian Parliament to defend their democracy. But within two years, he ordered Russian tanks to fire on the very same building that he previously helped to defend. I write in my book that Yeltsin survived both crises, in 1991 and then in 1993, but Russian democracy didn’t. Yeltsin rewrote the constitution and gave enormous powers to the president – and the rest is history, as they say. Shooting at the Parliament was really the beginning of Russia’s descent into the current semi-totalitarian regime – which obviously didn’t happen overnight.  

Now the party elite that took control in Ukraine after 1991 was trying hard to emulate what Yeltsin was doing in Russia. For anyone familiar with the recent history of Ukraine, the name of Georgiy Gongadze will say a lot – he was a Ukrainian journalist who was kidnapped and killed.  The Orange Revolution is a very important and well-known concept. What is often overlooked though is that all those important developments came in the wake of President Leonid Kuchma’s attempts to repeat what Yeltsin did in Russia – to have a referendum to enhance the power of the presidency. In Russia, that attempt produced a more authoritarian regime. In Ukraine, the same kind of attempt resulted in the first major popular revolt, the Orange Revolution.

Marta Haiduchok

Another important point you make is that throughout the 1990s, Ukraine managed to maintain democracy because of its regional diversity and the weakness of Ukrainian nationalism. This is a fascinating perspective that runs contrary to all the international focus on Ukrainian nationalism. How do you think the subject of Ukrainian nationalism and questions related to it would need to be addressed in academic and more public discussions? I am thinking here primarily of Western academia where the national movements in Ukraine are often associated mainly with the name of Stepan Bandera and may be directly connected to fascism.

Serhii Plokhy

I want to start with the general statement that, of course, there is nationalism and there is also radical nationalism in Ukraine. They should be studied and addressed. But all the emphasis on the radical nationalism of the interwar period as embodied by Stepan Bandera, among others, looks to me more like a political tool to justify Russian aggression. That is a tool that Russia has been using since 2014 and even earlier than that. This is the political level of the question.

When I look at Ukrainian nationalism as an academic, the question I ask myself is the one you alluded to, which is reflected in the title of Andrew Wilson’s book from the 1990s about Ukrainian nationalism being “a minority faith.” A lot has changed in the meantime, but I don’t think this phenomenon has changed all that much. If you look at the Ukrainian Parliament today, there are no nationalist parties represented there. They just didn’t pass the threshold due to the lack of popular support – in a country that is in the middle of a war which is supposed to boost all sorts of nationalism.

Moreover, this is happening in a country that is surrounded by countries where radical nationalism is on the rise.  I do not just mean Russia by that, but also Central Europe and Western Europe where the nationalist parties are not just represented – and I would say overrepresented – in the respective parliaments, and where there are chances that the president will be a spokesperson for that sort of party.

The big question hence is why we see a very different sort of nationalism in Ukraine.  I don’t have a ready-made answer, but I would like to point out that we have a very particular situation in Ukraine – which is, by the way, the only country outside of Israel where the President is of Jewish background today. That’s another thing that goes against the widespread image of Ukraine as not just a land of radical nationalists, but also a land of antisemites. As an academic, “why is there a very different sort of nationalism in Ukraine today?” is the question that I would put on the research agenda.

Ferenc Laczó

The Ukrainian state, like many other states these days, has been developing its own official approach and interpretation of history. As a prominent historian, how do you relate to Ukraine’s current politics of history when it comes to major subjects like the Holodomor or other contested chapters in recent history?

Serhii Plokhy

For a long period of time, it was not that Ukraine didn’t have a state policy of history, but rather that it had too many state policies towards history. As the next elections were coming, the political pendulum was moving in one direction or in the other. President Yushchenko who was very active in promoting research on and the memory of the Holodomor insisted on the fact that it was a genocide. Then you had the next elections which brought in President Yanukovych and the pendulum swung in a completely different direction. Historically too, the state in Ukraine has tended to be quite weak in terms of imposing any particular type of historical memory, and a lot has depended in this regard on society.  Historians had a lot of freedom too; not that there were no limitations, but compared to Ukraine’s neighbors, they had a lot of freedom to take different positions and choose between them.

We see that out of these different politics and out of different attitudes in the population much more cohesiveness started to emerge after the start of the war in 2014. That partly comes from the state and partly it comes from below as a reaction to Russian aggression.  

At Harvard, we have a project called MAPA Digital Atlas of Ukraine. One of its modules is dedicated to tracking and mapping the attitudes of the Ukrainian population: we look at how those attitudes change, not only in time, but also in space. Questions concern the Holodomor, nationalism, Bandera, and so on and so forth. What we see is that the number of people who understand the Holodomor as a genocide has been growing steadily since 2014, and the geography of people who believe that it qualifies as that has been expanding ever further to the east.

My overall understanding of the situation when it comes to the politics of history in Ukraine is that the government is not in charge – a lot of it still comes from society and depends on society. And as the result of the resistance to Russia’s war, Ukraine is becoming more homogeneous. With that comes the embrace of symbols that were historically understood as Ukrainian national symbols or were part of interpretations of history that were associated with the national narrative – the Holodomor is an obvious example of that.

Even after 2014, Ukrainians had difficulty agreeing on who are their heroes and who were their villains. However, something new emerged in these years: the celebration of the “Heavenly Hundred,” the people who were killed during the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, and of the heroes of the war in the east, in Donbas.  Special memorials were created in the towns and the cities.

I expect that process to continue during the current war. More emphasis will be put on more recent history and on the sort of heroes that all Ukrainians can agree on.

Marta Haiduchok

Another powerful statement you make is that “Without nuclear weapons and NATO membership, Ukraine found itself at the mercy of Russia, which saw the ambiguous offer of membership extended to Ukraine by the Bucharest summit as a threat to its own security. Ukraine was a lone warrior on open ground pursued by hostile forces, running to take shelter in a secure fortress, only to find its gates closing because of disagreements among its defenders.” What made Ukraine get stuck in the grey zone between Russia and NATO, with a real and immediate threat posed to it by the former, on the one hand, and a hypothetical membership in the latter, on the other? What made it become the new focal point of competition in the post-Cold War decades and what made the current devastating war possible?

Serhii Plokhy

Ukraine inherited the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world at the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine had physical control over those nukes but didn’t have operational control over them. That was a technical issue which Ukraine, with its very strong military-industrial complex at the end of the Cold War, could probably have resolved within a few months, maybe a year. 

But Ukraine made the decision to give up its nuclear weapons instead of trying to get operational control over them, which was a result of pressure applied from both the United States and Russia. The nukes were removed from Ukraine, and Ukraine was offered a number of documents, the best known of which is the Budapest Memorandum, in which the countries gave, not guarantees, but only assurances that they have the right to intervene if Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were violated. They didn’t have to do so.

By removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine at the time when Russia was making territorial claims on Ukraine, and Crimea in particular, a security vacuum was produced in the center of Europe, and that security vacuum was not properly addressed at all. I compare the Budapest Memorandum with a wallpaper that is spread over the hole that has been punched in a wall. The building sooner or later would collapse, but for now, it all looks good – there is wallpaper over the wall, and so you cannot see the hole.

How could the issue have been addressed? You either leave the weapons in Ukraine as a deterrent, or you provide proper guarantees – either within NATO or outside of it. To have Ukraine join NATO would have been problematic because not even central European countries were members of that organization back in 1994. On top of that, Ukraine was divided over the issue of NATO and the majority was in fact against joining it back in the 1990s. The right way to deal with that would have been to have a sort of Budapest Memorandum that would have carried some actual weight.

That wasn’t achieved and this turned Ukraine into a gray zone between an expanding NATO and a more and more aggressive Russia. One of the key preconditions for the current war was the fact that a security vacuum emerged in Ukraine, and that security vacuum emerged back in the 1990s. European security was a wall with a big hole in it, a wall that was waiting to collapse. Unfortunately, that is what is happening today.

Ferenc Laczó

Much has been written about Putin’s and Russia’s war aims – their curious attempt to justify their aggression, the reasons behind which have been far from obvious. You depict him as a flexible opportunist who is also a Russian ethnonationalist subscribing to the imperial idea. What do you see as key Russian war aims and how may those aims have changed over the months?

Serhii Plokhy

To understand this war – not just to answer your question, but to understand this war – we need to get the chronology right. The war didn’t start in February 2022, the war started in February 2014. It started over the issue of Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, which sounds a little bizarre. It was not about membership in NATO or the European Union, it was not even about being a candidate for membership of the sort that Ukraine has today. Why that Association Agreement turned out to be so important and served as at least a trigger to the war, if not one of its main causes, is because any country that signs an Association Agreement with the European Union can’t join other economic and political unions.  

At that time, Putin was in the process of building a Eurasian Union as one of the poles in the multipolar world that was imagined by the Russian policymakers already before Putin came to power – it was imagined by people like Primakov back in the 1990s.  As we have discussed, Ukraine was a very important factor in the Soviet collapse, and any attempt to rebuild Russian control over the post-Soviet space and mobilize resources to become one of the centers in such a multipolar world heavily depended on the second largest republic, Ukraine. Stopping Ukraine’s drift away from Russia and towards Europe was an essential part of Putin’s thinking at the time.

Once its primary attempts to keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit failed, Russia went for Plan B, which was based on a more ethno-national understanding of Russia’s interests. They grabbed Crimea and they launched the war in Donbas.

In 2022, the realization came that the Minsk Agreements had not produced the result that Putin wanted: they didn’t stop the drift of Ukraine towards Europe. Ukraine in fact became stronger and more mobilized. Then military force was used in ways that really dwarfed the efforts of 2014.    

The basic pattern was the same: the goal was the entirety of Ukraine.  The major target in the first weeks of the war was, of course, Kyiv. Once that didn’t work out, then another Plan B was introduced, which was to grab as much territory as possible, territories that in Russia were considered – since Solzhenitsyn and even earlier than that – to be Russian, to be historically Russian, culturally Russian, linguistically Russian, and so on and so forth. We have such claims not just for Donbas and Crimea but also for Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions now, regions that were not even controlled by Russia in the fall of last year when the Russian constitution was changed to introduce those regions into the Russian Federation.

What we see are basically attempts to restore the great power status of Russia, reinstate some form of control over the post-Soviet space. Once those don’t work out, then a more nationalistic and ethno-national scenario comes into play that goes hand in hand with Putin’s claims that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people. Then once that fails, you get claims on parts of the territory of Ukraine that have not been occupied. In other words, what I am trying to show in the book is that in the Russian leadership’s toolbox there is more than one ideological tool that they apply to try to achieve their goals.

Marta Haiduchok

Let us explore the ongoing war a bit more closely. What have been the major stages of this war until now?

Serhii Plokhy

The war has gone through a number of stages already. The Russian early successes were achieved in a moment of surprise: Ukraine was not fully prepared and was not ready. A good part of the south gets lost, but Kyiv survives, and the Ukrainian state survives. This is the first stage of the war.

The second one was the failure of the Russian army near Kyiv, which was also the end of the illusions that the Russian leadership had in connection with the complete takeover of the Ukrainian state. In my opinion, in 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine imagining that it was the same country as back in 2014, when in fact, the country has dramatically changed in the meantime and all illusions that Ukrainians would welcome Russians with flowers had to be abandoned.

The Russians had to change track and go for a more conventional war which produced some limited results. By the April of 2022, you see the Russians limiting their ambitions. They start to attack in the Donbas and gain some territory, including the cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk.  That’s the peak of their success and the end of the third stage.

 At the next, fourth stage, Ukrainians recapture the initiative and there is not one single successful Russian operation. There is the counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine near Kharkiv. There is also the pushing out of the Russian troops from the right bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region. Now everyone is focused on the counteroffensive in the South.  We don’t know what the outcome would be, but chances are that the tendency that started in the fall of 2022 would continue.

What you also see is that the Russian regime becomes more desperate as it becomes increasingly obvious that it is losing the war. It engages in acts of terrorism: trying to bomb Ukrainian cities during the winter and causing the ecocide now with the explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam. Ironically, this does major damage to the territories that have been claimed by Russia – Kherson, Crimea, and other places would be without water. Such crimes of war become a more and more pronounced part of their overall strategy and that just stresses the desperation on the Russian side.

Ferenc Laczó

You also underline that nobody expected Ukraine to resist so valiantly and so effectively. The Americans predicted the attack but did not predict how strong Ukraine would prove. What might help us explain Russia’s inability to dominate Ukraine by force and Ukraine’s unexpected successes on the battlefield? How do you see the connection between Western policies towards Ukraine and Ukraine’s ability to defend itself rather effectively and even launch a significant counteroffensive?

Serhii Plokhy

American intelligence successes and failures derive from a very simple fact: the Russian plan to attack was there, and the question was just one of discovering it and realizing that it was for real. That was very difficult to do, but it was possible. Ukrainian resilience and resistance were in the future, so the failure there was a failure to predict the future. As a matter of fact, no one was able to predict this future, not just Americans. One thing was clear: that after the eight years of war, Ukraine had an army and there would be resistance. How strong that resistance would prove to be very, very difficult to foresee. What we see now is that during those eight years major transformations happened in Ukraine.

You can be repairing a car for a long period of time, but before you start the engine, you don’t really know whether it will run. That was the situation in Ukraine. We saw that a lot of improvements were made, the old details were changed, new drivers appeared behind the wheel, and so on and so forth, but there was no way of telling what would happen once one started the ignition. Looking back, we can say that the army turned out to be much stronger than anyone predicted.

The Ukrainian society really discovered the state as its partner, and the state learned how to work with Ukrainian society, partly through the reform of local administration. A new generation of people came to the fore who were highly patriotic, and the unity in the country was enhanced. This was already clear from the electoral politics: the map of Ukraine had previously been divided into two halves during every presidential election and that division just disappeared after 2014. The elections of Poroshenko in 2014 and Zelenskyy in 2019 show basically the same map. There were some changes on the margins, but both won by a landslide.

We now know that the transformation was for real, and we also know that it created a different sort of Ukrainian citizen. It created a citizen who, first of all, fights back. To try and understand this transformation would amount to an excellent agenda for sociologists and historians.

Marta Haiduchok

When discussing the ongoing war, you state that – and I am quoting – “What we see today is not an entirely new phenomenon. In many ways, the current conflict is an old-fashioned imperial war conducted by Russian elites who see themselves as heirs and continuators of the great-power expansionist traditions of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.” Even though the perception of the Soviet Union as an empire is not new, Ukrainian postcolonial studies have not become very visible yet. How do you relate to the current state of such studies and which questions would deserve more attention in the future?

Serhii Plokhy

There is certainly a discussion in Ukraine to what degree postcolonial studies can be useful and there are more people who argue that they can be useful. The war today also raises the question whether Ukrainian society as such is in a postcolonial state, or if this is a colonial war, whether the imperial and colonial perspectives are useful or maybe even more appropriate in analyzing what is happening. This is not to say that postcolonial studies don’t provide very useful perspectives on today’s Ukrainian society, but I would say colonial studies and studies on anti-colonial struggles may still be more fully explored by Ukrainian scholars. However, whether you look at this as an anti-colonial situation or as a post-colonial situation, the challenge for Ukrainian Studies remains the same, and that is the challenge of joining European and Global Studies, learning their languages and approaches that produce good results.

In my opinion, this war is not particularly unique. It’s a war of Russian and Soviet succession. The Ukrainian challenges and problems are not unique either: most states that exist today were once part of the peripheries or were colonies of other empires.Joining this broader dialogue would be extremely important and useful for us. We should develop such studies in Ukraine and hopefully we can then contribute something to the broader international discussions as well.

Ferenc Laczó

You are a well-known and highly reputed historian of Ukraine. Your new book is a very contemporary one that was written while the events you discuss were just unfolding. Could I ask how you approached the writing of such a “history of the present” and what special challenges it posed to you to write such a book, not least in terms of relevant sources? Is there anything that you would like to add, or perhaps revise, now that a few more months have passed since you have closed the book manuscript?

Serhii Plokhy

It was indeed a huge challenge for a historian like me to write a book which is partially historical and discusses the origins of the war, but which partially tracked issues as they were happening. Our wisdom as historians very often comes from the fact that we are writing about events after we have already come to know their outcome. In fact, that is considered one of the characteristics of history per se: we study processes that have already come to some form of conclusion. Practically, one of the big issues for me was that news items seem to be so important today and then they become a mere footnote, not fifteen months later, but one month later. How to recognize turning points in contemporary times?

What I was trying to do was to identify such turning points, then use the historical lens to explore where they came from and what contributed to them. I also tried to put recent and ongoing developments into their broader contexts, both chronologically and geographically. I have tried my best to do that – we shall see what the reaction of readers will be. More generally, having written this book, I believe that we historians are in a better position than the representatives of other fields in writing about current developments because we know where certain processes started, and we also have a broader understanding of parallels in regional and global history.

Marta Haiduchok

Next to the historical contextualization you provide, you also embed the Russo-Ukrainian war into broader geopolitical contexts. As a matter of fact, you close to book by reflecting on the major geopolitical shift under way which heralds a “return to the era of great power rivalries,” as you write. However, instead of the multipolar world that Russia was hoping for, the Russo-Ukrainian war has rather presaged a return to the bipolar world of the Cold War which will be centered on Washington and Beijing, you assert. How would you summarize the major geopolitical shifts in Europe and more globally that have been observable since early 2022? And in connection with that, what makes you argue that the war may be seen as a major chapter in the making of a new bipolarity that ultimately revolves around the US and China?

Serhii Plokhy

Yes, indeed. As I mentioned before, I believe that the major cause of the war was the attempt of Russia to emerge as one of the poles in a multipolar world, and to be able to compete with the European Union, on the one hand, and China, on the other.  However, what we see today is that Russia is significantly weakened, and the Russian military force turned out to be not what everyone imagined it to be, and it has certainly been greatly diminished. Russia’s standing in the international arena is tarnished.  The leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has an arrest order issued against him, which has certainly not helped the standing of his country. The economic sanctions, even if Russia is dealing with them better than expected, are clearly not helping to turn Russia into another economic superpower. We also see that Russia is losing its dependencies, not just allies in the former Soviet space. It’s not just Ukraine, the Armenians are making all sorts of moves and noises as well, saying that they don’t want to be part of the military alliance led by Russia.

In the meantime, China provides security guarantees to Kazakhstan and assures the sovereignty of other Central Asian republics.  What are those countries so concerned about when they seek those guarantees? The answer, of course, is Russia. China has thus entered Russia’s “Asian backyard” while Russia is moving closer to China, for both economic and political reasons.

All this doesn’t match very well the idea of Russia being an independent and major player. The bipolar world revolving around the US and China is not here yet, but there are certainly tendencies pointing towards its emergence, and the current war is a contributing factor. History never repeats itself in the same way, but that is a tendency today that we can recognize from the history of the Cold War.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Lucie Hunter.