Is Vladimir Putin an Imperlialist?
On Wednesday 24 February 2022 Vladimir Putin order the 200,000 troops surrounding the Ukraine and in the two Russian backed separatist areas of Donestsk and Luhansk in the east, to invade Ukraine. There is no doubt that this a date that marks a turning point in European and probably global history. If the situation escalates, into a conflict between NATO and Russia for instance it could mark a new age of war. Lithuania have reported a Russian misinformation campaign directed by Russia at Russian speaking people there. Lithuania is a NATO country.
These are developments that may happen. What is for certain is that at this moment Ukranian people are dying, being displaced to surrounding countries in their thousands (soon the be millions) and suffering in an awful situation. This war is already a bloody, brutal and deadly conflict. The extreme anxiety being felt within Ukraine is seeping across Europe as I know having spoken to my students about the situation in the seminar for my ‘Shadows of Empire: Movements and Migrations’ module yesterday.
As a module focused on global history and empires (as well as the timing of our seminar the day of the invasion) it was our job as historians to discuss these issues. I told the students we would be talking about the war and gave them an opportunity to leave for a while if they were concerned about this or personally affected in some way, but all of them stayed and were keen to talk.
We debated whether Putin is an imperialist. On one level the answer is simple – of course he is. He has used force to subjugate another society with boots on the ground. No doubt once Ukraine is occupied the usual suspects in colonial policy will rear their ugly heads – extreme violence, purging political rivals, a ‘civilising mission’ including the spread of the Russian language, the co-option of elites to help sustain that imperial system.
In other ways the question is far more complex, particularly if we ask a slightly different question: ‘is Russia an Empire?’ If Russia is an empire might we refrain from calling it a ‘colonial empire’? Ukraine has been part of the Russian sphere of influence before, during the Tsarist period and later during the period of the USSR. Historically, as far back as the 8th century, Russia and Ukraine’s histories have been entangled and in many ways the history of Ukraine has been characterised by a swing between close relations with Russia and with western European nations. Russia, at least Putin, believe therefore they have a historic claim on Ukraine and refer to agreements made after the end of the cold war that NATO and the EU would not move into the former Soviet countries in eastern Europe.
But Ukraine achieved independence out of the shattered ruins of the Soviet Union many years after the deaths of millions during Soviet collectivisation and some years after a devastating nuclear disaster at Chernobyl that rendered a vast area of Ukraine uninhabitable and contaminated.
Ukranians have developed a sense of a Ukranian identity and they are being violently subjugated by a more powerful and more heavily armed nation. That reminds me of imperialism in a very clear way.
History is very close to the surface at this moment – Putin talks of his campaign of ‘denazification’ in Ukraine and the west is reminded of the excesses of the Soviet Union during the cold war. The occupation of the Chernobyl site by Russian forces puts Russian souls on the site of perhaps one of the most notorious reminders of the disregard for human life that characterised that system.
We must continue, as historians, to speak truth to lies (https://theconversation.com/a-historian-corrects-misunderstandings-about-ukrainian-and-russian-history-177697), challenge the twisted version of history that is being used to excuse this despicable attack on the innocent people of Ukraine. I’m proud I was able to do that with my students yesterday and equally proud of the professional and scholarly way in which they tackled those discussions. We continue those discussions online and one student sent me this link to a powerful speech comparing Russias actions to colonialism at the UNSC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0g1SrJkfo8