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The Russia-Ukraine Conflict: A Reflection on Its Complexity

By Gabriel Queiroz Imhoff

In this opinion and informative piece, I will attempt to be concise – yet holistic – in exposing the essence of the conflict and my interpretation of it. To understand what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, I believe a social-historical perspective is necessary as, like any other war, that one also has a high content of historical and identity resentment. 

Kiev, the once-called mother of all Rússian cities by Putin, was the birthplace of the Russian empire. It was the capital of Kievan Rus that existed from the mid-9th to the mid-13th century. As explained by Harari, when Kiev was already a city and a cultural center, Moscow was not even a village. Precisely, Rus’ was the oldest common political entity in the history of the three modern East Slavic states: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Moscow – a small military foothold created in northern Russia Kiev – progressively took over Kiev. Ever since, relations between what we now call Russia and Ukraine have been tense as Tsars sought to impose control over Ukrainians through cultural, economic, and political means.

The assumption that history is a legitimizer of aggressions and cement of social cohesion oxygenates arguments to justify a Russian invasion. That is why, in the long speech – a diatribe, so to speak – he made last week, President Putin claimed that the Ukrainian territory is not sovereign and that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia. In his narrative, he is not invading a country because Ukraine is neither a nation nor a sovereign country .

Characterized as a country with a rather complicated history, Ukraine has had recurring changes in its borders over the centuries. This explains why the Slavic meaning of the word Ukraine signifies “border”. Erratically, its strong influences, both from the West and East, have been expressed in a conflictual fashion throughout history. Today, we see this happening again.

To take it further, the concept of Nation and State are key to understanding the complexity of this debate. Briefly, the idea of a Nation encompasses cultural aspects of a population, whereas the State is a nation’s political entity. If, on the one hand, there exist Nations without a state, like the Kurds, on the other hand, there are States that comprise several nations with distinct spoken languages and traditions, such as Russia and the former Yugoslavia. 

It is known that Ukraine as a Nation has existed for centuries; however, the State emerged only in 1991. Although it is correct to claim that Ukraine has only about thirty years, one factor is neglected by Russian counterparts: the Russian Federation does too. This is because both came to existence in parallel with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Italian nation has existed for centuries, albeit its political entity is newer than Brazil. It is nonsense to argue that, because a State is new, it can be invaded. How many years must a country be to have the right to not be invaded? 

The logic behind Putin’s offensive lies, of course, on national security questions. However, the deeper framework that explains such aggression can be found in the XIX century with the emergence of modern nationalism and the establishment of ethnic, linguistic, and religious criteria to the formation of the modern state. That being so, it is acknowledged that the identity question is at the center of the Russian narrative. Making use of an old practice of conquering a sphere of influence by invading smaller countries, Putin pretends to be defending Russia’s population of an alleged Neo-nazi state: Ukraine – outrageous argument since (1) not only has the Neo-nazi party, Svoboda (Свобода),  obtained only 2.15% in the last election (less than half of the 5% election threshold and thus no parliamentary seats via the national party list), but also (2) Ukraine’s head of state, Zelensky, is Jewish

Now, it is helpful to recall that the idea of identity presupposes a static cultural essence that, in practical terms, does not exist. As it is understood by the discipline of Historical Sociology of the Political and mainly developed by Professor Jean-François Bayart, there exists no Russian identity, just as there exist no Brazilian or Italian identities. In turn, what does exist are complex, contradictory, and non-linear processes that define a certain sense of national and civic belonging – therefore, it should be no problem for a Russian-speaker citizen to self-identify as Ukrainian. We must free ourselves from this nationalist and identity conception if we want to understand the fifty shades of gray that surround the current conflict. So saying, the identity narrative is nothing more than a dirty way to justify the Russian rhetoric.

It is such identitarianism that fulminates wars in the name of an assumed cultural essence that involves the question of Russian unity and its identity affirmation. Following this reasoning, I allow myself to infer that Putin’s greatest fear is linked to the “Yugoslav destiny”, that is, the possible total dissolution of the Russian territory. At times, regional phenomena illuminate global tendencies as is the case with the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It sheds light on a tendency that has lasted over 200 years.

Back to the facts, I feel that the dictates of a certain political realism were abandoned with the possibility of a 15th ex-soviet country entering into NATO. We must remember, Ukraine has the longest European border with Russia, a wealth of natural resources important to Moscow (especially minerals), and a population with a close ethnic and linguistic relationship with Russia (Ukrainian’s 45 million inhabitants have long been called the “little Russians”). What made the West think that silence would last in the world’s largest nuclear power in the face of another NATO advance?

Yet, although NATO could have embraced a more realistic policy in Eastern Europe, the complexity of the conflict should not prevent us from seeing the obvious. Albeit the Western military alliance has miscalculated Russian reaction, we know how Putin’s imperialist rule of thumb works. His government kills opponents, persecutes journalists, and funds the world’s largest fake news operation. The situation is so clear that it even made Switzerland pick a side and abandon its historical neutrality to fully align itself with the European Union.

Since World War II, the conquering of territories has no longer been seen as an acceptable policy. Today, the very term “imperialism” has gained a negative connotation and has come to be seen as unnecessary for the advancement of capitalism. Vladimir Lenin articulated that the annexation of territories, regardless of which nations inhabited them, was an intrinsic part of capitalist development.

Over time, however, the persisted vision is that imperialism is simply a policy chosen by a Head of State to suffocate weak nations, not an organic cycle of capitalism. And it is precisely this view that the world now shares when it sees Putin’s military forces in the territories of a sovereign and democratic country. The fact is, if we stick to the basics (such as democracy, peace, and the self-determination of peoples), the complexity of the conflict should not prevent us from concluding that a Russian invasion is an act of ludicrous aggression, not only in legal terms but also moral.


Photo: “Russian Bear” by Pawel Jonca

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