The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History reveals what Putin really wants to do in Ukraine

At the root of the escalating Russian-Ukrainian conflict lies a contested past.

President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend Russia's Zapad-2021 joint military exercises with Belarus in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia on Sept. 13. (Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/ Kremlin Pool Photo/AP)

Over the past few weeks, reports have emerged that Russia has been building up its forces on the Ukrainian border. With these actions, Russia seems to be signaling that it is prepared to intensify its military intervention in Ukraine that began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has alleged that Russia is not just prepared to invade but is also plotting a coup against him. As the world attempts to make sense of these developments, the fundamental question that has haunted this conflict for the past seven years remains at play: What is Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine?

Those attempting to answer this question often put forward the idea that Putin sees Ukraine as “Russia” and its inhabitants as “Russians,” and that this view serves as the foundation for policies that seek to turn Ukraine into a Russian satellite. But what Putin is doing is in fact something more insidious — he is denying Ukraine’s sovereignty by denying its history.

Today’s Ukraine was founded as an independent country in 1991 when it broke away from a collapsed Soviet Union, but its political and cultural history goes back much further. In the 10th century, a medieval kingdom allied with the Byzantine Empire emerged in Ukraine’s current capital of Kyiv, ruling over territory spanning present-day Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Belarus. The Kyivan kingdom, which both Russia and Ukraine claim as their country’s origin, was conquered by the Mongols, and over time the territories once united by Kyiv became part of various political formations, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

As imperial Russia grew more powerful in the 17th century, it conquered and took more of this region from its rivals. Still, a portion of the Ukrainian lands remained outside Russia, forming the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between the Romanovs and the Habsburgs, the Ukrainian lands served as a key juncture in transnational European networks, which fostered a culture in Ukraine influenced not only by Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also by Vienna and Warsaw.

By the early 20th century, the heterogeneous Ukrainian lands had become the crucible of Eastern Europe’s most important movements, with Jews, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians rooted in this region becoming key figures in radical politics, avant-garde art and various nationalisms. That’s why between 1914 and 1921, Ukraine was home to half a dozen governments, all with distinct visions for Ukraine’s future. Some imagined an independent Ukraine in the form of a multinational federation, others a Bolshevik-led party-state ruling from Moscow — the vision that eventually won by force.

When the Bolsheviks founded the Soviet Union, Ukrainians were recognized not only as a distinct nation but as the titular nation of the multiethnic Ukrainian republic. That meant that Ukrainian language and culture would be the foundation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1920s, Ukrainian intellectuals engaged in the production of new art and scholarship that emphasized a Ukrainian heritage not only separate from Russia but rooted in the multiplicity of traditions that long existed on the Ukrainian lands.

As the Soviet party-state became more centralized in Moscow, it became increasingly threatened by historical narratives that emphasized cultural autonomy from Russia, especially in a powerful republic like Ukraine. Beginning in the 1930s, Soviet historians revived imperial-era ideas that put forward Russia’s origins as being in Ukraine, tracing Russian history as beginning with the medieval kingdom in Kyiv and emphasizing the expansion of imperial Russia as the foundation of Soviet power.

In 1954, this historical narrative was elevated to the status of a set of theses — titled “Theses on 300 Years of Russian and Ukrainian Reunification” — that were officially adopted by the Communist Party and printed in the main Soviet newspaper, Pravda. The theses were adopted on the 300th anniversary of the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav, which brought much of the Ukrainian lands into imperial Russia.

For nationally minded Ukrainian historians, the 1654 treaty was an end to Ukrainian independence and the beginning of Russian oppression. But the Soviets rewrote this history, celebrating it as a “reunification” of the Russian and Ukrainian people. Subsequent moments when Ukrainian leaders had allied with foreign powers or attempted to assert their independence from Russia were deemed tragic events that led to the oppression of the Ukrainian people. This narrative did not erase Ukrainian traditions, but instead insisted that these traditions flourished only when Ukrainians were living alongside their Russian brothers and sisters.

In 1954, the adoption of this historical narrative came with a surprise gift. As an anniversary present to the Ukrainian republic, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine from Russia. While there is no consensus about the reasons for this transfer, Crimea was officially presented as a reward to the loyal leadership of the Ukrainian Communist Party for embracing the 1954 theses as the foundation for Soviet Ukraine.

Sixty years later, in March 2014, the gift would be wrested away from Ukraine and annexed to Russia. Yet, in the speech Putin gave in the wake of the annexation, he offered the same version of a shared Russian and Ukrainian history that appeared in the 1954 edition of Pravda. But for Putin, this history justified why Crimea needed to be taken from, not given to, Ukraine. The Ukrainian leadership’s refusal to continue a partnership with Russia needed to be met with a harsh punishment — losing the anniversary gift of Crimea and experiencing the unrelenting devastation of military conflict.

While in 2014, Putin’s speech referencing history served as justification for a territorial grab, his July 2021 essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” leveraged this same history to hint at his plans. Published just a few months before the new troop buildup, Putin again drew extensively upon the narrative of the 1954 theses to criticize Ukraine’s hostile position toward Russia.

The vision of history outlined in the 2021 essay supports a path for Ukraine to remain independent, as long as it accepts becoming a partner with Russia — albeit a subservient one. Russia’s continued presence in Ukraine, in this way, can be justified not as an occupation but as liberation.

Just as with the facade of democracy in Russia, the natural question that arises is why bother with the illusion of “managed independence”? Because Russian imperial power has long depended on Ukrainian subservience. Ultimately, it is not desirable for Ukraine to become “Russian,” but instead to maintain its distinctiveness so that Ukraine can be a partner that has chosen Russia as a leader. In this role, Russia can present itself as the protector of Ukrainian culture, a culture that Russia insists is shared between them.

And this is where the danger lies. In the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s position as “second” among equals allowed Moscow to claim that the Ukrainian republic enjoyed a flourishing official culture and support for the Ukrainian language, all the while restricting this culture and language so that it could never operate on equal footing with what was defined as “Russian.” If Russia is successful in ensuring a loyal government in Ukraine, Ukraine may remain on the map but it will be a Ukraine remade in Russia’s image. Through rewriting Ukraine’s past, Russia hopes to be in a position to define not only Ukraine’s future but the future of post-Soviet Europe in the 21st century.