OLD LYME — Long-time Wesleyan prof Peter Rutland kicks off the fall lecture series for the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council on Wednesday with a talk, “The War in Ukraine: How Does it End?”
Not wanting to ruin the talk for our readers (no spoilers!) I caught up with Rutland on Monday to ask him instead about the past, or rather, “How did we get here?” which has been a topic of considerable speculation and a fair amount of handwringing in the press.
Rutland is the Colin and Nancy Campbell Chair for Global Issues and Democratic Thought at Wesleyan, and has studied Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than three decades
Not surprisingly, in the familiar American retelling, the United States plays a pivotal role as protagonist (or antagonist) in the decision by Russia to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
But asked why exactly the invasion happened, Rutland spent less time with those familiar explanations – like NATO expansion or Western meddling in the so-called Maidan Revolution that overthrew then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych – than on nationalism unleashed at the time of the Soviet breakup in 1991 and geopolitical calculus.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking back over the last twenty or thirty years, I thought nationalism was supposed to be on its way out as a central feature of how we frame global conflict – whether it was the rise transnational institutions like the EU or international tribunals like the trial of Milosevic.
But right now, I look at some of the key global challenges of say, Taiwan or Ukraine, and see the really central role of national borders even for large countries like Russia and China where you have to ask why these territories really matter.
Well, it’s true that nationalism has repeatedly been written off.
I mean, it was written off after World War One. It was kind of written off after World War Two. The Nazi Holocaust was like the end of the road for nationalism.
It was kind of displaced by Communism and the Cold War. So, the Vietnamese revolution was interpreted as a communist plot, not a national liberation movement.
The kind of liberal mainstream in Europe and America has been writing off nationalism for the past 100 years, and then the mother of all burials of nationalism was the end of the Cold War.
But I was arguing at the time – not only me, it was obvious to anybody who spent any time in Eastern Europe — that [the breakup of the Eastern Bloc] was a triumph of nationalism. It was not just about democracy. It was about Poland getting its country back. And the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union obviously, confirmed that.
So, the declarations at the end of nationalism in the 1990s were premature. And were kind of divorced from reality.
So why did this war happen?
I think it’s got very deep roots. And it goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union. I don’t think it was anything that was done by X or Y statesman in the 2000s. I think it goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union, to when the Soviet Union lost its control over Eastern Europe, and it lost over a quarter of its own territory, and the Russian border retreated from Berlin to Belgorod [on the eastern border of Ukraine].
That’s a huge geopolitical setback. It’s putting Russia back to where it was in the 1780s. I see it in those geopolitical terms, strategic terms.
Putin is a huge fan of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great who expanded Russia to the Baltic and Black Seas. And he’s looking at the map and thinking, “We’ve shrunk, and we have to get that territory back.”
So, I think all the stuff about Slavic brothers and Orthodox civilization and gay Europe, that to me is just a kind of superstructure. The core that is driving the Russian state’s behavior, I think, is this concern about reclaiming its strategic presence on the Eurasian continent, which means specifically getting Crimea back, because Crimea is a huge territory that’s sitting in the middle of the Black Sea. It has the only deep-water port on the Black Sea and Sevastopol.
So, just to return for one second to ‘91… When I look back at 1991, I see it not just as the Baltics and Georgia and Ukraine spinning off from the Soviet Union — the rise of those national identities — but the breakup was also about the rise of Russian national identity, and that Russia itself spun off of the Soviet collective, and that Russians themselves didn’t necessarily see it as an advantage at the time.
Very much so. So again, the rise of Yeltsin was interpreted in the West as the triumph of democracy. But it just as much or more so the triumph of Russian nationalism. So, you know, Yeltsin took Russia out of the Soviet Union. He challenged Gorbachev for power. And he persuaded the army and the KGB that he was a better bet for them. So, they changed sides. It was the triumph of Russian nationalism, with a liberal framing or no.
Russian nationalism is definitely part of the equation, and it’s not something that just came along with Putin.
From 40,000 feet, looking at Ukraine, my sense is that the war is in some ways a crucible in terms of making a Ukrainian identity more important for Ukrainians… that a common Ukrainian or national identity is more central now than ever. Do you think there is something to that? And do you see this as a lasting phenomenon?
Yeah, well, I haven’t been to Ukraine since this phase of the war began. So, I can’t speak with any certainty, but yes, it does seem to have been a sea change. And to some extent, this began in 2014. But it’s accelerated since February 2022. The sense was before 2014 that Ukrainians had a more neutral attitude towards Moscow; that they had their own grievances with Moscow, historical grievances, but there was a kind of live and let live. They were still doing a lot of trade with Russia.
And after 2014 that began to change, and Russia was seen much more as a direct threat. And then obviously, after February 2022, the hatred is intense.
So, you know, more than one Ukrainian friend has told me, “I wake up every day wondering how many Russians we can kill today?” I mean, it’s really unpleasant.
So, that’s very sad. And I don’t know how long that will last, but those kinds of things and the level of suffering and losses on both sides is astronomical. So, each side is, is digging itself deeper and deeper into mutual fear, and hatred, which is what wars do. So, this is why it’s such a terrible situation.
One last question. Just a quickie. Ten years from now, where will we be with Ukraine?
Very difficult to say. Very difficult.
I hope the war is over then. I hope that there’s a new leadership in Russia. And I hope that they have some kind of stable peace — whatever that will look like. I don’t know. It’s really hard to see how we get from here to there. Very, very grim. A very grim situation.
A reception with hors d’oeuvres begins at 5:30 p.m. with the speech from 6-7 p.m. including Q&A, at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, 5 Ferry Road, Old Lyme.
Registration for non-members of SECWAC for this single-event is $20 for in-person or ZOOM attendance. Make reservations at here.