Putin’s war in Ukraine is the result of historical build-up, and as such it wouldn’t have been possible in the absence of dictatorship. Irrespective of its exact outcome, the war will trigger an irreversible change in Russia. The immoral, criminal and illegal war against Ukraine is perhaps the last action of an empire, which although it collapsed long ago, it has endured in the minds and hearts of many Russians who support Putin. Seeking “only” to mitigate the lack of achievements of Putin’s dictatorship, a regime which promised Russians prosperity, asking them to forfeit their freedom instead, Putin’s propaganda managed to bring Russia to the brink of a civilizational makeover, at the end of which we will finally be able to claim that Russia’s quest for empire has truly ended. Each the changes we witness today has an explanation, a justification that derives from history, but it is by no means certain that, in the absence of the war, they would have produced the effects we see today. The war itself is the very substances that fuels, accelerates and determines the evolution of these changes.
The end of the civilizational limbo
One of the structural consequences of the conflict, which applies not just in Ukraine’s case, but also to the Republic of Moldova, is the end of the civilizational limbo in which these states got stuck after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that Russification continued at an accelerated pace and with deeper consequences than it ever did during the existence of the USSR, particularly in the case of Moldova, is a reality transparent to the common observer, to anyone who’s had the chance to visit these countries. Despite the absence of any sustainable economic accomplishments and a few regional initiatives that panned out, Russia’s policy with respect to these states spelled remarkable success in just two areas. The first, and most important, was maintaining these states in a sort of temporary civilizational vacuum, where boundaries were set based not on modern criteria, but rather depending on their geopolitical orientation. The political turmoil in Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova was not about choosing between right or left, between Liberalism or Social-Democracy or any other ideology, but simply imaginary oscillations between East and West. Unlike the latter, whose embodiments have been rather vague throughout the ages, the former, represented by Russia, had the big advantage of hailing from a shared cultural and linguistic background, which Moscow heftily reinforces. By means of its cultural policies, but in particular through its imperial projections, Russia has managed in the three decades that have passed since the dissolution of the USSR to seriously deter the non-Russified population of these countries from expressing their national spirit, punishing every attempt at promoting anything that might pass as “nationalism”.
Fostering the notion that being born a Russia is a “drawback”, as is not being able to speak exclusively Russian and especially refusing to let yourself be diminished by Moscow’s beaming imperial hologram, is the second achievement of Russian policy-making. It was this psycho-cultural (pardon my phrasing) backdrop that helped big lies glorifying the civilizational unity of Soviet space flourish during post-communism. Only so have Moscow’s changes succeeded in producing serious political effects in the Soviet period, when large groups of Russian and Russian-speaking colonists were brought over to Bessarabia and Western Ukraine, were quickly named “Moldovans” or “Ukrainians”, deliberately ignoring the fact that the only language they spoke was Russian, or that their only cultural or family ties were not to the colonized territories, but to Russia and Moscow. The final goal of such policies was not just to Russify these territories, but particularly to replace the local population through colonization and assimilation, so that the freshly conquered territories could be forever linked to Russia through people themselves. Any effort to culturally emancipate, to clarify the terminology, to connect to the values of Western modernity, was and continues to be swiftly sanctioned by a large part of the descendants of these colonists and labeled an attempt to infringe on citizen rights and liberties, creating the impression of a nearly insurmountable dispute.
The constant Russification, particularly by criminalizing the economies of these countries (which from the very start limited the possibility that Western countries could make any impact at local level), as well as the huge influx of Russian media products (which turned the broadcast of Russian television channels in the two countries into a matter of national importance), in addition to the leverage held by Russia in its relations to these countries, have helped preserve and deepen this confusion, which only helped fuel Russia’s cultural supremacy. The success of this genuine cultural diversion Russia enacted in Ukraine and Moldova, particularly in Moldova, can be explained not through the efficiency of the means it used and the creativity of the policies it applied, but especially due to the fragility of the civilizational background in those countries where it was put into action.
The war has forced both the population as well as the politicians of these countries to do something they had procrastinated for many years: take a step back. However, any geopolitical choice is today accompanied by a moral one. They have to choose not just between West and East, but chiefly between god and evil, morality and immorality, propaganda and fact. As a result, the new boundaries will not necessarily coincide with inter-ethnic borders, although they will by and large stick, yet only for a while, as a result of Russia’s noxious cultural policies.
The century-old Russian war against the Ukrainians and how Russian canons were made obsolete
Although it claims to be waging a war against “Ukrainian Fascism”, Russia is in fact fighting against all who consider themselves Ukrainian. To a large extent, the current war is a historical carry-over of overlapping conflicts held on the territory of Ukraine over 1918-1921. The emergence of the Ukrainian state in March 1918 under the protection of the German army, the draping of Russian imperialism in red flags in the wake of Germany’s retreat from Ukraine, have made the Russian-Ukrainian war at the time of secondary importance, overshadowed by the civilian war between the Bolsheviks and everyone else. In the end, Lenin understood he could no longer keep the Ukrainians in the fold of the empire, partially restructured in the form of the Soviet Union, unless he created a Ukrainian state. The new nationality or indigenization policy (korenizatsiia), which entailed not just the creation of a Ukrainian state loyal to Moscow, but also the widespread use of local cadres to the detriment of the Ukrainian Russified Bolsheviks and Russian colonists, confirmed the fact that Lenin understood Ukrainians had stopped being “Little Russians”. After Moscow pardoned those who had fought the Bolsheviks under the flags of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (proclaimed on the Ukrainian territories that had been part of the Russian Empire) and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (proclaimed on the territories controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to the end of 1918, mostly Galicia), by the mid-20s many Ukrainian Galicians had returned to the Soviet Union in order to capitalize on the unique opportunity Lenin had provided them with: creating their own, albeit Bolshevik, Ukrainian state. Although in the early 1930s Stalin put an end to the “indigenization” campaign, all this time he knew that feeding Soviet Ukrainians new Polish, Romanian and Hungarian territories would be the only way of buying the loyalty of the Ukrainian people towards the Soviet empire. Through national repression and territorial concessions, the same policies which continued during Khrushchev, Moscow managed to slow down Ukrainians’ nationalist drive, feeding them anti-Polish, anti-Romanian and anti-Western sentiments, the flipside of widely cultivated Russophilia.
Despite pathetic attempts from Putin’s propaganda to deny it, today’s conflict is one of ungrounded ideology between those Russians who refuse, just like Putin, to accept the idea of a Ukrainian nation and those Ukrainians who want to break with Russia once and for all, refusing to identify with anything Russian. Zelenskyy’s war is a continuation of the efforts of Pavel Skoropadsky and Symon Petliura, except that today the West is no longer using Ukrainians as cannon fodder for White Russian or Bolshevik generals just for the sake of restoring the Russian Empire.
This war will leave permanent wounds in Ukrainians’ collective memory. It will not only accelerate the construction of this nation, but it will also turn it into the most formidable obstacle to any Russian attempt at expanding in Europe.
Another significant consequence of the war is the Russian Orthodox Church’s loss of unity. Although it is organically tied to the Soviet state that created it in 1943, the Russian Orthodox Church managed to outlive the latter. Moreover, it managed to consolidate its position relatively fast, enjoying widespread political and financial support from Putin. In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, founded as a self-governing structure by Russian clerics who emigrated from Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, reestablished canonical communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, thus ending an 80-year-old schism.
Moscow’s occupation of Crimea and the Russian military intervention in southeastern Ukraine provided Ukrainians with fresh impetus at trying to create an autonomous Orthodox Church of their own, independent from Moscow. In this case as well, the supporters of the canonical independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church found a historical precedent that could legitimize their claim. In 1921, a Synod of all Ukrainians created the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, which in 1924 gained the recognition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, although at the time Ukraine was under Bolshevik occupation. The recognition of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church in 2018 under a Tomos (decree of Church independence) of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, marked one of the major achievements of Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko. Through its mere restoration, Ukraine’s Autocephalous Church ended Moscow’s canonical supremacy in Ukraine, and this time for a long time to come. Just like Romanians, Ukrainians too will have not just an Eastern-Catholic Church, but a second national church, although many of today’s controversies are expected to continue long after the war has ended.
Putin’s poisoned legacy – what the West needs to do to prevent Russia from sinking into chaos
Perhaps of the most notable consequences of losing the war will be the failure of Russia’s quest for empire, which in turn will trigger a debate on authoritarianism as a model for development. Although a number of intellectuals, mostly historians and political theorists, have in the last decade developed a complex theory regarding the “historical price” Russia and Russians need to pay to fulfil their imperial aspirations, the upcoming debate is expected to be sharper considering the price they have to pay today will be bigger. Russia has lost this war in moral and political terms, irrespective of what territorial changes it produces, while its defeats at the hands of Ukraine have shattered the image of a powerful Russian army. Those who hope for a spectacular comeback, which is what happened after the military disasters of 1941-1942, are oblivious to the fundamental differences between these two moments in history. In theory, no matter how cordial Beijing’s statements are, although not as much lately, Russia has no allies, with the exception of Iran, whose loyalty does not come cheap. Revitalizing the Russian war industry cannot be achieved as fast as Putin needs it to happen today. Stalin managed to move the Soviet heavy industry beyond the Urals, at a time when the Soviet Union was receiving deliveries of ammo, equipment and supplies from the USA and England, simply because in the 30s the Soviets had gone to great lengths to prepare the military infrastructure for when a war with the West would become inevitable. Saving the Soviet war industry from destruction was only possible because many years before Russia had built railways, roads, electric grids and even foundations. Today, things are entirely different. Even in the unlikely scenario of a total militarization of the country’s economy, Russian industry today is incapable of returning much of the Soviet military industry’s designs to mass-production. Behind the projected glow of modernity and state-of-the-art technology, the brazen display of Russian oligarchs’ luxurious lifestyle, the degree of technical advancement of Russian economy has continued to drop in recent decades, making the country reliant on imports in almost all of its sectors.
Just like they did after the Crimean War, the Russian-Japanese War or the military disasters of the Great War, Russians will again be forced to realize that autocracy is essentially ineffective and corrupt, regardless of how it manifests itself. The frustration for the lives thrown to waste for the sake of building an unlikely empire will be fueled by a collective complex of historical guilt, whereas the war crimes will be known and accepted in Russia as well, shortly after the demise of Putin’s regime. A heads-on approach to these topics should theoretically lead to a critical reflection about the country’s past, to a re-assessment of history and the questioning of Russia’s eternal problem – the state. There is little Russians can salvage or preserve from their authoritarian present. Putin has failed to create a well-oiled administration or a robust economy, leaving Russian society profoundly fragmented. Post-Putin Russia, unlike post-Nazi Germany, cannot be rebuilt with the help of industrialists who served the old regime, nor does it have an efficient administration whose know-how can be recognized by the new authorities.
The gravest threat to the re-evaluation of Russian historical experience, which can fashion a new political model for this country and which needs to absorb and streamline the already existing changes, stems from the fact that Putin’s political system is prone to anarchy and crime. Although Putin is still in charge, the fight for the redistribution of wealth has already begun deep inside the structures reinforcing his regime (which is a toxic mix of military institutions, the administrative apparatus and asset owners). Just like the dreaded 1990s, which is when Russian propaganda claims Putin built “the new” Russia, every day assets are plundered or misappropriated by various local moguls with the help of special services and corrupt magistrates, who are trying to secure a strong line to the vast financial flows created by the Russian war machine, while at the same time striving to consolidate their future.
People such as Alexey Miller, the head of Gazprom, Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, even the “pacifist” Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, and others like them are directly funding a number of military outfits similar to Wagner. If things will be allowed to continue in this direction, the future mafia-like wars in post-Putin Russia will be similar in scale to civil wars. The extent of plundering and crime will be so great, that those who will lead the hostilities will be somehow forced to find an ideological justification, which will only breed more confrontation.
All that will coincide with a new “parade of sovereignties”, this time with the participation of all national republics of the Russian Federation. Obviously, the top role will befall national leaders, which Putin’s regime seems to rely on today. Overlooking the political or cultural emancipation aspirations of their own subjects, leaders such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the iron-fisted leader of Chechnya, or Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of Tatarstan and many others like them will try to shun the changes that will grip European Russia, resorting to national slogans. Against the backdrop of Russian society surely striving to rediscover its critical spirit, with a humiliated army, overburdened by the weight of its crimes in Ukraine and with special services that are more interested in “selling” their loyalty to the new leadership, such attempts at breaking free from the Russian Federation will have a higher chance of success in the post-Putin era.
In the absence of a foreign military occupation, an unlikely scenario, that should seek to make Russia democratic, which is what happened in Germany and Japan, Russians lack the proper instruments and the historical precedents to be able to take on this historic task alone. The poisoned legacy of Putin’s regime will generate immediate negative effects, which will deteriorate the social climate and deepen the economic crisis. This will be the moment when the West will need to tip the balance by offering clear perspectives to those Russians that see themselves not just European, but Western too. Under the assumption that Russia’s unity should be preserved within its borders as of 1991, Western assistance will never be efficient and strong enough to cover the unlimited needs of a space as vast and of a population as diverse as Russia’s. Ukraine’s war of resistance creates the perfect opportunity to reevaluate every Western policy targeted at Russia and to map out new directives that should break with historical experience. Russia’s territorial unity does not guarantee control over the dangerous arsenal of this country, nor does it prevent other autocracies from accessing its still valuable technologies. The only thing that can is the civilizational consistency of vast European territories.