Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, followed by rockets. President Vladimir Putin wants to subordinate it to Russia, of course.
The situation is dynamic, so it is hard to tell what is developing.
Thankfully, there is not a full-scale invasion yet. The missile attacks have targeted mostly Ukraine’s military infrastructure. Is an all-out offensive next?
Putin’s aims seem rather limited, but are they? He has vowed to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Both war goals denote either a total or partial domination.
This can entail several possible scenarios. The Kremlin could encourage a collaborationist government to be set up in Kiyv without major fighting. Or, less probably, Moscow could choose a total war and occupation, which would result in a puppet regime or an outright incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian Federation.
For now, Putin has recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as “sovereign” states, while darkly hinting that they should recover their original borders. This may be a signal for further expansion, perhaps a land bridge to Crimea.
This time, however, Moscow has gone the easy way so far. Its troops have just entered two separatist regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, very soft targets. First, there were already Russian and other allied troops there, albeit unofficially. Second, the regions have de facto operated as standalone entities since the Maidan upheaval of 2014, when Russia captured Crimea.
Meanwhile, Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers helped organize and lead the local opponents of Maidan in eastern Ukraine to get themselves rid of Kiyv and set up rouge statelets. They succeeded only in those two regions. They failed conspicuously elsewhere, in particular in Kharkiv/Kharkov, which is awash with Russian speakers.
Right afterward, about 800,000 denizens of Luhansk and Donetsk have accepted Russian citizenship. The Russian authorities reinforced their militias with “volunteers,” real and imagined, but strenuously denied any Russian presence there. Following some deadly encounters, which were partly civil war and partly a foreign invasion, a standoff with Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiyv ensued.
Thus, Putin created a phony “independent” zone and yet another “frozen conflict” to complement those that had arisen back in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s: in Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova.
We hear about them periodically. They usually make international news when it suits the Kremlin. Sometimes that entails violence, as in the bout between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh last year; or Russia’s invasion of Georgia “to liberate” South Ossetia in 2008. Sometimes it is just about economic warfare, as in the secessionist area of Transnistria which periodically stems the flow of Russian energy to Moldova.
Incidentally, there were other Soviet attempts to trigger secessionist movements, including among the Polish minority in Lithuania. The Poles refused to bite in 1989. They sided with the Lithuanians, despite the fact that the latter double-crossed them and failed to grant political and cultural concessions to the Wilno Polish.
The point is that “independent” separatist zones and frozen conflicts are convenient for Moscow. Divide et impera is the rule. And whenever the Kremlin meddles in such places, it usually ends up dispatching its troops as “peacekeepers” and as “guarantors” of “minority rights.” The Russian troops continue to occupy Georgian, Armenian/Azeri, and Moldovan soil.
There is a long tradition of that, too. In the 18th century, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great repeatedly sent their armies into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to “protect” religious minorities as well as Russia’s political clients. So did Prussia.
Partitions of Poland ensued incrementally: 1772, 1793, and 1795. The Commonwealth disappeared from the map until 1918.
In 1939, both Hitler and Stalin claimed that their invasion of Poland was allegedly to thwart the Polish external aggression and internal persecution of its minorities: Germans, on the one hand, and Ukrainians and Belarusians, on the other. Stalin was particularly adept at convincing the gullible Westerners that he had the welfare of minorities foremost on his mind.
The same goes for Putin. He will tackle his strategic tasks incrementally. He protects everyone everywhere, whether one wants it or not. He is most keen on protecting the Ukrainians.
The master of the Kremlin even penned a historiosophical essay expressing his feelings about things Ukrainian. There is no Ukraine, you see. There is just Russia, one and indivisible. There are no Ukrainians, just Russians. They are all one happy family.
Only the machinations of the United States, the CIA, and George Soros, not necessarily in this order, have split them up and kept them apart. You know, this was in the aftermath of the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe,” the implosion of the Soviet Union.
Its captive people consider this joyous event a liberation from “a prison of nation.” Many of its victims have historically held early modern Muscovy and its avatars – the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and, now, the Russian Federation – to be just that: the continent’s main slaver, whose main competitor in the enslavement, the Ottoman Empire, thankfully disappeared a hundred years ago.
At any rate, Putin’s historiosophical fantasies should be explained and debunked. He invokes Kiyv as the source of Russia and, hence, argues that everything is Russia. That’s bunk.
Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are eastern Slavic people occupying a rim between the Baltic and Black seas. Before Christianity, they had their own arrangements, including local self-government, which would blossom in Novgorod the Great in particular.
By the 9th century, the eastern Slavs came to be dominated by Swedish Vikings, known as the “Rus” – rowers, or Ruthenians. The country they occupied became known as “Rus.” That was the term applied to all inhabitants, not just the Vikings.
Before they settled, the “Rus” plied the eastern Slavic rivers to trade and to slave. They kidnapped Slavic people and sold them to Muslims and pagans on the coasts of the Black and Caspian seas for a few hundred years.
To settle local disputes, the Vikings were invited by the Slavs to Kiyv in the mid-9th century. They stayed to rule. Eventually, they began sending junior princes to set up minor principalities elsewhere, which, in turn, dispatched their cadet princely offspring for the same purpose. One of the juniors, Prince Yuri Dolgoruki, founded Moscow in the 11th century. That’s Putin’s claim to fame.
Meanwhile, like the Normans in England, the Vikings introduced a separate law to apply to themselves; the people continued to adhere to Slavic legal customs. Hence, a separation between the ruled and rulers occurred which persists until today.
Next, Kyiv accepted Byzantine Christianity with its caesaropapism. That means that, unlike in the West, there was no division between the Church and State: the Emperor was simultaneously pope.
Nonetheless, the Ruthenian rulers kept in close touch with Western Christendom. Their houses intermarried with royal households elsewhere, most frequently Poland and Hungary, but also nomadic chiefdoms of the steppes.
Then the Mongol/Tatar invasion in the middle of the 13th century obliterated Kyiv and most other Ruthenian principalities, in what is now contemporary Ukraine particularly, while inflicting lesser damage on the remaining statelets.
Moscow survived relatively unscathed. It promptly offered its services as overseers, tax collectors, and slave drivers for the conquering Mongols. Only those Ruthenian principalities, located in the northeast, which sought the shelter of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania escaped the clutches of the Tatars and their Muscovite henchmen.
The khans appreciatively awarded the Muscovite rulers the title of “grand dukes” and backed them whenever needed. The grand dukes emulated the Mongol style of rule: Oriental Despotism. Only the despot mattered. Everyone was his slave and everything in his patrimonial state belonged to him.
Muscovy managed to use the khans to destroy many of its Ruthenian competitors and peers to emerge as the strongest regional state as the Mongol/Tatar power waned by the end of the 14th century.
In the middle of the 15th century, Moscow further proclaimed itself the successor to the Byzantine Empire which, meanwhile, had succumbed to the Ottoman Turks and their Islam. Now, a grand duke of Moscow dubbed himself “tsar,” which, unbeknownst to most Europeans, derived from “ceasar.” Thus, the lords of the Kremlin (which is a Mongol word for the main fortress and court of the ruler) styled themselves as emperors.
They duly embarked on an empire-building project. Ruthenian principalities enslaved under them under the khans became springboards to further conquest. The Muscovite state expanded 55 miles per day for 500 years. By 1914, the Russian Empire encompassed everything from the eastern German border to the Pacific Ocean: 11 time zones.
The Soviet Union inherited the world’s largest empire, and Stalin increased it further under the red banner of Communism.
Putin’s objective is to restore the Russian Federation to the status of a global superpower. First, he aims to re-integrate the old USSR, hence his assault on Kazakhstan and, now, Ukraine. Second, the master of the Kremlin will secure the external empire: the Warsaw Pact countries, most likely in condominium with Germany. Third, the Russian president plans to face the United States as an equal on the global stage.
Only then will “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” be remedied.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 25 February 2022