To see through the fog of Putin's war, talk to Ukraine's millennials
Ihor, a student I taught in the summer of 2016 in Lviv, Ukraine was fascinated by the Transformers. He wore the symbol of the heroic protagonists, the Autobots, on a t-shirt to class.
As a fellow geek myself, I wanted to encourage him to speak up, and asked, “Your parents lived in Ukraine through the Cold War. What distinguished your life from theirs in the USSR?”
Ihor paused. He was taken aback. Not because he didn’t have an answer. He replied, “No professor in university has ever made me feel like my voice matters.”
I asked him why he thought this.
“Because our professors still have a Soviet mindset. This is the problem for all of Ukraine.”
I replied, “that is the challenge of your generation. You are the products of a transition to a post-Soviet system. Let’s try to define it.”
Ihor, the other Ukrainian students in his group, and I went on to do just that. Little did we know that years later our formulation would explain why his country would be tragically invaded.
"Whilst a lot of focus has been put on Putin’s personality, and whether his pursuits are rational, the reality is that his decision to invade is greater than the man himself."
We determined that their system had three unique, overarching dynamics. The first included the emergence of new states after the collapse of the USSR which led to new Russian security concerns vis-à-vis NATO and the EU, contested borders, the birth of new identities, the displacement of peoples, and resurgent religious identities.
The second consisted of new means of conflict, including information wars, the privatisation of violence through mafias and mercenaries, as well as the weaponisation of oil and gas.
The third related to new domestic insecurity concerns, including on a societal level amidst rising corruption.
International leaders and media alike have attributed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a means for Moscow to prevent the country from joining NATO, and as a way for Putin to rewrite the post-Cold War political order.
Both explain Putin’s strategic goals.
Whilst a lot of focus has been put on Putin’s personality, and whether his pursuits are rational, the reality is that his decision to invade is greater than the man himself.
Granted, the old security dynamics of the Cold War are in place, such as access to warm water ports and passages, the threat of nuclear war, and arms sales and interventions in conflicts, from Syria to Libya. However, Putin’s actions emerged within this post-Soviet system after 1991, that determined why and how he sought to pursue these objectives in the first place.
Afterall, there are rarely singular causes for war. In this case, multifaceted dynamics intersected to lead to the invasion of Ukraine.
Firstly, the Post-Soviet system inherited elements from the Cold War, namely, the geopolitical rivalry between the USSR, NATO and the EU. Russian security concerns vis-à-vis NATO, emerged as newly independent Baltic states, Georgia and Ukraine, sought to and/or joined the trans-Atlantic alliance. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia joined. The wars with Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014 were an attempt to prevent them from pursing the Baltic path.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of new states, another dynamic emerged - contested borders between Russia and the new republics, or infighting, which was the case with Azerbaijan and Armenia last year. Russia’s carving out of the territories in Transdniestria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine were attempts to establish borders according to Moscow’s security interests and create perpetual instability for all three nations. As long as parts of them were occupied by Russia, they could not join NATO or the EU with their territorial integrity intact.
"There is universal agreement that Russia's war on Ukraine breaches main principles of international law." @AnnaCSchmidl on how the very fabric of the international legal order is unraveling in the wake of Russia's Ukraine Invasion 👇 https://t.co/izFqDApAsb— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 5, 2022
Another crucial factor, is the creation of new nationalities and resurrection of older identities suppressed during the Soviet Union. The independence of Ukraine, for example, allowed the resurrection of a national narrative which Putin has denied. History is a battlefield over memory in the present, and past events are weaponised. Putin, by denying Ukraine’s distinct history, thus could claim he is reuniting what is essentially Russian territory.
Additionally, the formation of new states after 1991 led to the displacement of peoples. This meant some Russians either moved to Russia, or stayed in the newly created states. Putin could thus claim his own version of Responsibility to Protect over the Russians in Ukraine, when in reality the question of identity has been fluid in the post-Soviet system- particularly in Ukraine- and cannot be reduced to a Russian vs. Ukrainian binary. Other ethnicities were displaced or persecuted for being on the wrong side of newly created borders, like the Crimean Tatars following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. The massive movement of Ukrainians to the EU is now also part and parcel of this historic trend.
After 1991, news means of warfare emerged.
Russia has used state media like Russia Today to spread its ideology and launched cyberattacks to target Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure and government websites. On the other hand, the hacktivist group Anonymous has fought on behalf of Ukrainians, declaring a “cyber war” against Russia, and aerospace company Space X has set up satellites to facilitate Ukrainians’ access to the internet.
"The response by Russian leadership, was to divert attention from these domestic failings by fostering a resurgent nationalism and enemies abroad, from the US and NATO to Ukraine and Georgia."
The ability contestation of hydrocarbons, oil and gas has also been a significant contributor. European fears that Russia might turn off the gas supply this winter or Germany’s threat to end the Nord Stream 2 pipeline are just some examples of the tensions over energy.
In addition to all of this, the USSR’ collapse had also led to new domestic issues. Societal insecurities emerged as the state would no longer provide its former social services like housing and employment. This was not aided by the corruption that was being faced on a daily basis. This was not just within official bureaucracies, but also due to mafias and oligarchs that were stifling small businesses and entrepreneurship.
The response by Russian leadership, was to divert attention from these domestic failings by fostering a resurgent nationalism and enemies abroad, from the US and NATO to Ukraine and Georgia.
Whilst the discussion I had had with my students in Lviv in 2016 was a theoretical one for me, I realise that for my students the dynamics we had outlined were a lived reality. It is this very system that years later mobilised students like Ihor to be on the frontlines in the hope of seeking agency within it so that they may finally overcome it entirely.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.
Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.