Ukraine is more integrated into NATO than any other country

Welcome to Global Insider’s new Friday feature: The Conversation. Each week, a POLITICO journalist will share an interview with a thinker, politician, power player or global personality. Editor-in-Chief Matthew Kaminski opens us with a discussion with a leading historian about the roots of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Serhii Plokhii has a professorship in Ukrainian history at Harvard named after Mykhailo Hrushevskyfounding father of the idea of an independent Ukraine that lived at the beginning of the previous century. The birth and struggles of a real independent Ukraine in the last 30 years have made the once obscure issue of Plokhii a matter of great general interest. And like his Yale colleague Timothy SnyderPlokhii has written about the region for a wider audience, producing notable books on Yalta, the Chernobyl accident, the collapse of the USSR, and, following the 2014 Maidan uprising in Kyiv, a new history of modern Ukraine.

The Russian attack on Ukraine last February prompted Plokhii to write a book about the present called “The Russo-Ukrainian War” (leaving Norton in May). He is avowedly “not a journalist, I can’t do that”, but he says he realized that by talking about this conflict his mind found many answers in the past. His work is a “story in the moment”. This moment, he adds, is “a turning point in the history of international relations” and, of course, “in the history of both Russia and Ukraine.”

We spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, where Plokhii had a notable presence at various Ukrainian events, followed by Zoom from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this week. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The subtitle of his new book is “The return of history.” Let’s start with what the story means for Vladimir Putin. How can you explain his obsession with Ukraine, dating back to the beginning of his time in the Kremlin beginning in 2000?

I think that obsession stems from the era that Putin was a part of, and that is the decline and fall of communism and the Soviet Union. And as a result of that, the fall of Russia’s great power and superpower status. That is something that was certainly unexpected for Putin’s generation. They came to life in the 1970s, when the United States was losing the war in Vietnam and Soviet influence in the Third World was growing.

After the Soviet collapse, the Soviet generation turned superficially to religion and no less superficially to history to understand what went wrong and how to fix it. What they found by turning to religion, and then to history, was an Imperial Russian religion and an Imperial Russian history.

[Putin’s] The idea that the Russians and the Ukrainians are the same people comes from the same texts and from the same sources as his ideas about the greatness of Russia. Putin’s thinking is very, very imperialist, not just in terms of going somewhere and acquiring territory, but also in the way he envisions the Russian nation.

But he is not the first to use military force. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, invaded Chechnya in 1993 and sent “peacekeepers” to minor conflicts on the periphery.

What you see with Putin, which is new, which was not the case with Yeltsin, is the use of military force outside the borders of the Russian Federation: first in Georgia in 2008 and then with the annexation of Crimea and [invasion of] the Donbas in 2014. And that’s because the sources of that war, at least psychologically, historically, are different than the Chechen war, even though the Russian military tactics and atrocities are very similar.

The Georgian war and the Ukrainian wars are about reestablishing Russian control of the post-Soviet space. The goal is really to emerge as an alternative power center to the US, the European Union and China.

For any autocrat, the regime’s survival is the top priority. Even with his anger over the “color revolutions” in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, Putin saw a unique threat in Ukraine, an East Slavic country with the same religion, a similar language and much shared history. Ukraine at the beginning of its independence journey did not define itself against Russia. I always thought that Putin saw Ukraine’s path to the West more clearly than many Ukrainians saw themselves at the time.

Putin really believes in some things that he says publicly. And one of those things is his belief that the Russians and the Ukrainians are the same people. So if you think that you are in the same town, then part of this town that chooses the democratic path, turning towards Europe, is a real threat to you, not to Russia, but certainly a real threat to your regime, which is based on anything but democratic ideas and democratic principles.

Putin was right to see it as a threat and it was a bigger threat than Ukraine’s joining NATO or moving NATO to Russia’s borders, how it is now about to move to Finland.

What are the scenarios for Ukraine right now?

We don’t know when the war will end. But there are a couple of things that are already clear.

Ukraine will remain an independent state. And when I say independent, not conditional independence limited by Russia.

The high probability is that Ukraine will integrate into Western structures. Ukraine today is more integrated into NATO than any other NATO member country. Because the Ukrainians can actually use all the weapons that every major country makes, while the armies in each individual NATO country can use only their weapons.

What is not clear is, of course, where the borders of that independent Ukraine will be.

Place President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukrainian and world history.

Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious: he is the only Jewish president anywhere in the world outside of Israel. And he is the president of the country that has historically been seen as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. That’s pretty historic in its own right. And Zelenskyy was not parachuted from somewhere. There were two Jewish prime ministers before him. There was a Jewish speaker from parliament. All of them were chosen.

On the world stage, Zelenskyy became the closest thing we’ve ever had to Churchill, a standard-bearer for democracy and a symbol of courage and resistance to unprovoked aggression.

The outlook for Russia is also uncertain, and yet certainly dark. The 1991 hope that Russia would one day become part of the world’s major industrial powers—a member of the G-8—is dead, apparently for a long, long time. When was Russia last time this isolated from Europe and the world? Is his emerging pariah status completely unique?

What we see now is disassociation with the West, and trade is an important part of that story. This is really the end of the era that began not only with the fall of the Berlin Wall; it began in the early 1970s with the first oil and gas agreements between West Germany and Russia.

But before that there were long periods of isolation. Immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, Russia was completely isolated, with no allies in the League of Nations. For a long period of time after World War II during the Cold War, the only allies the Soviet Union had were the “allies” they occupied and controlled. So there was more isolation in the 20th century, from the West in particular.

Russia is in the process of rethinking and reinventing itself as a non-imperial state. What that means is that the Russians now, for the first time in history, have to live in a state where they really are the majority, where they have very clearly defined minorities. It will be a very, very difficult process, and Russia is not unique in that regard. It is not that France has left its colonies without war. It is not that there were no wars after the disintegration of the Portuguese empire, or that the Spanish did not fight for their imperial possessions.

But one thing we know now is that there will be no miracle of the kind that we envisioned back in 1991: that there will be a great democratic leader emerging on the white horse and changing the fate of Russia. His transformation will be long and often painful.

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