Loving Our Neighbor by Understanding Our Enemy

Untangling a Few Historical Threads Between Russia and Ukraine

We’ve been flooded in recent days with images of one of the most horrifying international conflicts since World War II. Ukraine, a nation defended by an outgunned military and its gutsy civilians, is holding out against invasion by one of the largest and most advanced armies in modern history. The world, almost without exception, has unified behind the Ukrainian cause – sending weapons and non-lethal military aid, opening borders to refugees, and leveling devastating economic sanctions on Russia. The near-universal condemnation of the invaders would seem to lend the whole affair a fairly objective tint.

But how did Russian leadership come to the conclusion that it needed to invade in the first place? We can all agree that the invasion is a blatant violation of the dignity and rights of a sovereign nation and will cause unquantifiable damage. That said, for the sake of greater insight into the issue itself, we need to enter into the Russian narrative as much as we can and determine what made this decision justifiable in the eyes of President Vladimir Putin.

It can be difficult to take steps towards understanding in the midst of conflict, particularly when our anger is justified. But when we refuse to examine an event through the perspective of our enemies, we run the risk of reducing them down to the subhuman monsters we want them to be, sowing the seeds of bitterness and resentment that grow into larger conflicts in the future.

To offer an example, the European leaders in attendance at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I were unable to separate themselves from their desire for vengeance against the Germans. They rejected U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s plan for a “just peace,” and decided instead to heap scorn and payback on their former enemy with the Treaty of Versailles. This not only devastated the German economy, but humiliated its citizenry, creating a nationwide victim complex and paving the way for a charismatic leader to claim power with promises of restoring the country to its former glory. Twenty years later, Hitler’s army rolled into Poland.

We need to view such events through multiple narrative lenses – our own, our allies’, and our enemies’. Stories provide a far better structure for understanding motives and actions than we could hope to build by framing those same events as isolated incidents. By attempting to understand the Russian story, we’ll be able to implement more effective strategies of intervention and resolution.            

To begin, we need a basic historical framework for Russian foreign and domestic policy regarding Ukraine. A comprehensive examination of the intertwined history of Russia and Ukraine would be too large of a project for this article, but by zooming in even on just the years surrounding the turn of the 20th Century, we can begin to see patterns of conflict that continue to this day.

Dominic Lieven, in his book The End of Tsarist Russia, argues that in the decades leading up to World War I, the world’s most powerful nations were caught between two opposing currents: imperialism and nationalism. Many of the old empires were fading – Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary all struggled to maintain their former positions of strength in the face of growing nationalistic movements. Railroads and road improvements were granting landlocked nations an opportunity to catch up economically with their coastal rivals who had dominated global trade in an era when naval strength meant everything. Forward-thinking individuals could see bright futures for three nations in particular: Germany, the United States, and Russia.

But no ascent to “Great Power” status was guaranteed, particularly when it came to Russia. While the United States had little competition in the Pacific, and Germany had unfettered access to trading partners in Europe, Russia was a logistical nightmare to rule from a central government, partially due to its sheer enormity. The eastern part of the country was still undeveloped, and the Trans-Siberian railroad (which would enable the necessary development of its remote, sparsely populated regions) hadn’t yet been completed. Russia’s potential was nearly limitless, but it would have to survive the coming years intact to grow into it.

Most of Ukraine at this point was part of the Russian Empire, serving as an incredibly important economic engine for any future imperial aspirations. Lieven suggests that without Ukraine, Russia would have diminished to such a degree that Germany would have likely dominated Europe and won World War I. Russia’s future was dependent on Ukrainian loyalty.

For a while, they could count on such allegiance. Many Ukrainians saw themselves as a part of the Russian Empire and were even dubbed “Little Russians.” But as the 19th Century moved towards the 20th, Ukrainian interest in their own national identity grew, enough that Russia decided in 1876 to quash any potential nationalistic movement by banning the publishing of materials in Ukrainian. This didn’t win them much favor in Kyiv. On top of this, a quarter of the Ukrainian population lived in Austria-Hungary, where they were encouraged by factions in Vienna to explore their national identity in the hopes of creating a buffer between Austria and Russia. Ukraine found itself at the center of a tug-of-war between the East and the West.

Russia’s fear of Western intervention in Ukraine wasn’t unfounded, either. Toward the end of World War I, when Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, one of the most significant takeaways was the creation of an independent Ukraine.

It doesn’t take too much pondering to gain some clarity on the Russian point of view. In an age of imperialism, with Russia on the verge of becoming a true world power, the West hoped to subvert Russia’s plans by encouraging nationalistic ideas in one of its most essential populations – a people still identified as “Little Russians” by many in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and even some in Kyiv.

John J. Mearsheimer, international relations theorist at the University of Chicago, identified a similar pattern in 2014, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend. A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.

Since the 1990s, NATO – an alliance that served as Russia’s primary threat for forty-five years – has expanded Eastward, adding nations that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union. Two of them, Estonia and Latvia, border Russia itself. The EU, with its democratizing influence, has also moved closer to Russian territory.

The parallels between these two time periods should stand out – Russia’s rivals try to turn Ukraine’s gaze to the West, potentially threatening Russian security and stinging the pride of Russian nationalists. To Putin and his supporters, if the goal is Russian strength, Western influence on Ukraine poses a serious challenge.

It’s important to note – this does not in any way justify Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014, or their current invasion of Ukraine. It does not nearly do justice to the complex history of Russia’s relationship to Ukraine and the West.

What I do hope to show, however, is that narrative shapes the way we perceive conflicts. In this case, a historical Russian narrative is influencing its leadership to believe that they are backed up against a wall. We will not convince Putin to withdraw his troops with appeals to our common humanity – in his eyes, he is acting in his nation’s best interests against an enemy (the West) that has repeatedly tried to turn “Russians” against each other. The stories Putin and his supporters are telling themselves carry more weight than objective realities.

If Ukraine were to join NATO and further westernize, would Russia actually find themselves in danger? Probably not, but this doesn’t really matter. It is the fact that Russia perceives this to be dangerous that drives them to act so erratically and violently toward their neighbor.

It’s not easy to counter a historical narrative, particularly when outside perspectives are being censored by the Kremlin and dissent is punishable with imprisonment. But by delving into the Russian viewpoint, we can at least begin to speak to areas of Russian concern.

When this violence mercifully ends and we sit at opposite ends of the negotiating table, we would do well to listen to each other’s stories. Perhaps, by entering with open ears, we can prevent this from happening again.  

was raised in northern Wisconsin and graduated from Wheaton College. He works as a writer and runs the humor newsletter The Sometimes Gazette. Ben lives in Indiana with his wife, Tess.

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