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Putin’s rationale for Ukraine invasion gets the history wrong

A monument to Vladimir the Great is pictured during the prayer service for the 1,031st anniversary of Christianization of Rus-Ukraine, in Kyiv in 2019. (Future Publishing/Hennadii Minchenko/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
6 min

“He who loves Russia and wishes it well can only pray for Vladimir, placed at the head of Russia by God’s will.” The monk Tikhon Shevkunov, who pronounced these words, had a double entendre in mind: He was connecting a 10th-century ruler of a country called Rus, whom Russians call Vladimir the Great, with present-day Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. Shevkunov, who is close to Putin, was legitimating Putin’s rule with a gesture at eternity.

Shevkunov spoke those words in 2009, when Putin was prime minister, in the interregnum between his presidencies. After Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, he endorsed this understanding of his role. It’s not so much that he keeps extending the term limit of his rule indefinitely into the future (it is now 2036); it’s more that he justifies perpetual rule by reference to the ancient past.

In a 2012 address to the Russian Parliament, Putin suggested that he was fulfilling an eternal cycle initiated by Vladimir. Within such a logic, Russians have no need to think of any other leader. A central problem of Russian politics — who comes next — is pushed to the side.

Since then, Putin has repeatedly invoked his namesake, who ruled from Kyiv, to claim some essential unity between Russia and Ukraine. While visiting Kyiv in July 2013, Putin claimed that God wanted the two countries to be together — that their union was based upon “the authority of the Lord,” unalterable by an earthly force. That September, he made the same claim in secular terms, speaking of an “organic model” of Russian statehood, in which Ukraine was part of the Russian body.

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“We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture,” he said. “We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”

Ukraine was supposed to sign an association agreement with the European Union two months later, in November 2013. Putin tried to halt that process by applying pressure to the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. But Yanukovych’s change of mind led to broad protests, and the attempt to suppress the “Euromaidan” only made it stronger. Russian agents flew to Kyiv to help suppress the protests. Two days after a mass shooting on Feb. 20, 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia.

By then, Russian troops were already on the move. On Feb. 24, 2014, Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula. Putin said that Crimea had to be part of Russia because Vladimir was baptized there. This baptism more than a thousand years ago “predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization, and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

But this is not how history works. Nothing is predetermined. There are countless lines between the past and present, not just one.

The actual history is different and much more interesting. Vladimir is a much later Russian transliteration of Valdemar, a Scandinavian name. Valdemar descended from a group of Viking slave traders called the Rus, who had established a trade route that ran through Kyiv down the Dnieper (Dnipro) River. Kyiv became their main trading post and later their capital.

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It does appear that Valdemar converted to Eastern Christianity, after he and his family had considered a number of other possibilities, including Western Christianity, Judaism, Islam and pagan syncretism. But his doing so did not create modern nations — entities that arose about a thousand years later — let alone any sort of union among them.

What we do know about Valdemar's life suggests a more elemental truth about politics. Ancient Rus was unstable because there was no principle of succession. This is a problem shared by today's Russia. No one knows what will happen when Putin dies or is overthrown. What Russians do know is that there will be no democratic election during his lifetime to settle the issue. And so Putin strives for eternal glory through a war grounded in myth.

Ukraine is different. There, presidents lose elections and depart — something that has never happened in Russia. Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky (whose name is the Ukrainian version of Valdemar), defeated a sitting president in 2019.

Putin's justification of power, eternal rule sanctified by God, makes Ukrainian democracy doubly intolerable, both as Ukraine and as democracy. Thus the grand cyclical mission of one Vladimir to save a Russia created by another.

If we consider what we know of Valdemar’s actual history, we see the problems that arise in the absence of a succession principle. To win Kyiv, Valdemar made for Scandinavia to seek military assistance against his brothers, who also staked a claim. When he died in 1015, Valdemar had imprisoned his son Sviatopulk and was marching against his son Yaroslav. After Valdemar’s death, Sviatopulk killed three of his brothers, only to be defeated on the battlefield by his brother Yaroslav. Sviatopulk then brought in the Polish king and a Polish army to defeat his brother. For his part, Yaroslav recruited an army of Pechenegs — people who, incidentally, had killed his grandfather and drunk from his skull. With their aid, he defeated Sviatopulk, who fell in battle.

Ultimately, the succession from Valdemar to Yaroslav took 17 years, and was only complete when 10 of Valdemar's other sons were dead. For the next two centuries, with some brief intervals, it was more of the same. Usually the Mongols are blamed for the collapse of Rus, but the truth is that the realm was divided long before the Mongols dealt the final blow in 1241.

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That history is one that might trouble Russians today. One can speak of “the test of Valdemar”: Does your country have a succession principle? Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine passes this test; Vladimir Putin’s Russia does not.

Back in 2009, Shevkunov spoke of the two Vladimirs and of “God’s will” just after he and Putin had visited the grave of the 20th-century philosopher Ivan Ilyin. A few years earlier, Putin had overseen the reinterment of Ilyin’s remains. Asked in 2014 to name the historian who had most influenced him, Putin cited Ilyin.

Ilyin was no historian; he was a leading fascist thinker. He wished for a savior from beyond history, who would unite the nation with violence. In the Russia he imagined, elections would have no meaning, and leadership would depend upon charisma. Ilyin believed that Ukraine did not exist and that anyone who even mentioned its name was an enemy of Russia.

In speeches Monday and Thursday, as he ordered Russian troops into Ukraine, Putin echoed fascist themes from the late 1930s, claiming that a neighboring state did not exist, that another people was artificial while his own was real, that violence was needed to protect a people “united by blood” against another infected by “viruses.” Putin’s self-appointed role as political messiah refers to his namesake of a millennium ago, but its real sources appear to lie much nearer.