The 24th of February will mark exactly one year since Russia invaded Ukraine and started the current war. At that time, the Russian leaders were convinced that Ukraine would collapse internally under the pressure, allowing them to fully occupy the country within a matter of days. However, the Russians encountered stiff Ukrainian resistance, which continues to this day and, moreover, the whole democratic world has stood up for Ukrainian independence.
“Putin miscalculated and achieved the opposite of what he wanted. What he did was forge a national Ukrainian state,” says Jiří Hanuš, a historian at the Faculty of Arts and the MU Vice-Rector for Personnel and Academic Affairs, on the first anniversary of the conflict.
These days, Ukraine is mentioned chiefly in the context of the war and ongoing military operations. The democratic world has reached a consensus that Ukraine must win this war. But there is a question of what this actually means – full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including the return of Crimea?
Yes, today we mainly talk about war and military operations, and this is of course topical and absolutely necessary. Ukraine deserves to win, and for that it needs military equipment and training. I am proud that the Czech government has clearly supported Ukrainians from the beginning of the conflict and condemned the Russian aggression. What does victory mean? An independent, sovereign country needs clearly defined borders, in this case especially in its eastern regions. Just think about Czechoslovakia in the period from 1918 to 1920 and its own territorial disputes. I sincerely wish Ukraine could restore its original borders, including Crimea, but no one knows what will actually happen. The Russians won’t be willing to surrender Crimea and will fight for a land corridor from there through eastern Ukraine to Russia. So far, President – or Tsar, rather – Putin does not seem willing to scale down his ambitious aims, which are unacceptable for Ukraine. He may eventually want to negotiate some kind of territorial concessions in exchange for peace and some degree of freedom for Ukraine. It is hard to say at this point.
Support for Ukraine from the Czech Republic, the European Union and the United States has so far been unequivocal and unprecedented, especially compared to their earlier reactions to the annexation of Crimea. Still, we hear some voices saying that this is not “our war”. That our support for Ukraine must have its limits. One can assume that if the conflict drags on, such voices may grow louder. What would you say to our allies in the West who espouse similar views?
First of all, these opinions are voiced not just in the West – by that I mean in the US and Western Europe – but also here in Czechia. I understand such attitudes in Western countries to a certain degree. We are situated close to Ukraine, and we are also one of the countries that have had some direct historical experience with Russia or the USSR. It is not surprising that more distant countries – both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic – look at the conflict through a somewhat different lens. On the other hand, there is a phenomenon we call “appeasement” present in Europe, which means choosing peace at a heavy, often disproportionate, price. I have noticed that such attitudes are emerging in this country as well. I consider such opinions to be very dangerous. My counterargument, both here and abroad, would be the same: if you appease the aggressor, it will end badly for everyone involved. There are many historical precedents. I would also challenge the view that the Russian-Ukrainian war is not “our war”. While we certainly don’t have troops on the ground, we have sent our equipment there and our minds are with Ukraine. In a broader sense, it is our war as it is about the security of Central Europe, about maintaining the rules-based international order, and about containing Russia’s imperial ambitions.
What will Ukraine need from us when the conflict ends?
If the war ended with Russia pulling back, then it would depend on the outcome of further negotiations, on what the Ukrainians themselves would want, and naturally also on the other actors such as the West and the US. Let us bear in mind that Ukraine will remain in the same position on the map, that is in close proximity to Russia and Belarus – countries where the processes that have changed Ukraine did not take place. The geopolitical problem remains. Ukraine will require massive aid from the West, including from us here in Central Europe. It will be necessary to rebuild the destroyed cities, infrastructure and institutions, including the universities. Ukraine will also need our assistance to complete its transition to a truly democratic country in our meaning of the word “democratic”: that is, with a rule of law, a free market, clearly defined property relationships and little corruption. These will all be huge challenges.
What has happened in Ukraine that has not taken place in Belarus?
Unlike Belarus, Ukraine has moved a lot closer to the West and Europe. The political course there in the last thirty years has not always been straightforward and there have been setbacks, yet Ukraine has looked more to Europe and European culture compared to Belarus. This is due to its history, especially the events taking place in the western part of the country. And now the situation has changed completely because the Ukrainian political nation has been forged in this war. Putin miscalculated and achieved the opposite of what he wanted. What he did was forge a national Ukrainian state. If before the invasion Ukraine was often divided and unsure of where to go, now it is absolutely certain about where it wants to belong. The Russians really shot themselves in the foot in February 2022 and they will pay a heavy price for that mistake. It’s not a very good analogy, but it strikes me that the Ukrainians will want to become a kind of “Israel of Eastern Europe”, with Russia playing the role of the Arab countries. It could play out like that, of course, but it would mean a total transformation of Europe as a whole. A Poland armed to the teeth, a NATO presence in Ukraine and a kind of iron curtain between Ukraine and Russia. It is a chilling prospect, but it is a better option than Russia occupying eastern Ukraine and threatening other countries.
It will probably depend a lot on what happens in Russia itself.
Certainly. Various scenarios are conceivable. Putin and his cronies may stay, or there may be some, perhaps even far-reaching, changes. But I am somewhat sceptical in this regard. I can imagine a positive change being achieved in Ukraine, which is heading in a good direction, although it is not out of the woods yet. In Russia, a true democratic change is far less conceivable, at all levels. The regime is authoritarian, civil society has been trampled out of existence, many smart and educated people have left the country and the population is exposed to strong imperial indoctrination and lacks access to information, which is especially true in smaller towns and rural areas. Moreover, there is a bad lingering aftertaste of what happened in Russia under the guise of democracy and capitalism during Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s. In Russia, a post-communist mindset is combined with anachronistic imperialism and ideologically weaponised history. The mix as a whole would make one weep.
What do you mean by ideologically weaponised history?
I visited Moscow about eight years ago and I went to the State Historical Museum. There was an exhibition about the 20th century. What struck me was not that any events or figures were missing, quite the opposite. Everything was there: the White Guard, collectivisation, Stalin, Sputnik, Gorbachev... And everything served to demonstrate the greatness and importance of Russia. No ethical boundaries were drawn at all. Stalin – one of the darkest figures in world history – was included among people who wanted to make the country great, powerful and important. Perhaps ideological weaponisation of history isn’t the best of terms. It is rather a loss of the ability to make moral judgments. This is the true catastrophe of Russian society. You can understand the ideological weaponisation of history as the use or abuse of history for certain ideological ends, especially with regard to the state. Even before the war, Putin started presenting a version of history where there was no place for Ukrainian nationhood, claiming that there was no Ukrainian language and so on. Not that he was the first person in the world to think in such terms and say things like that about another nation, but it was a sign of the conflict to come.
The Russians are still obsessed with war, meaning their victorious “Great Patriotic War” in which they defeated fascism.
Allow me a personal anecdote from my youth. As a student, I still had to go through all the Communist-era madness such as compulsory classes in Marxism-Leninism. We had a teacher who wasn’t much older than we students; he had studied in Moscow and they trained him well. In the 1980s, students were already quite cheeky, so we asked him where he got his confidence that the Marxist-Leninist worldview was correct. He answered something that I remember to this day. He said his view was correct because the Soviet Union had won the war against the fascists and, therefore, the ideology has proven itself in practice. It wasn’t just that he thought theory can be proven by lived experience, that wouldn’t have been so bad. But he was actually unable to see the true nature of the world we live in, where a bad guy can just as easily win an unjust war and live out his days in peace. He was simply brainwashed. It seems to me that this attitude has again prevailed in Russia, even though the Soviet Union is long gone. The brainwashing goes like this: “yes, Lenin and Stalin had their faults, but so what – they were our chaps who meant well with Russia and made something out of it.” It’s terrible when you think about it.
The current paradoxes are similar: the Russians say that the Ukrainians are their brothers, but that they are also fascists whom they want to liberate; at the same time, they are demolishing their country, which they think is Russian because Russian people live there. This behaviour is impossible to parse rationally, it betrays a total confusion of thought and language. And if they won this war, they would put this nonsense in the textbooks and claim that their victory proved they were right. That’s called “dialectic”.
Aren’t you afraid that Ukrainians will now hate Russians in perpetuity and that their newly found nationhood will be built on hatred?
This is, of course, a serious problem to be discussed. When I said that Ukrainians will have a hard time after the war, I had this in mind as well. War means the awakening of hatred, which takes a long time to heal. I have no doubt that the war in Ukraine is already inflicting wounds that will take decades to heal. Realism, not optimism is in order here. On the other hand, nation-states were formed in the 19th and 20th centuries in opposition to their imagined enemies – this is not just true for the Ukrainians. The Greeks had their Turks, the Slovaks had their Hungarians, the Italians had their Austrians, and we Czechs had our Germans. Nationalism was founded not only on positive values but also on negative contrasts with other nations and states. This is the famous “us versus them” dichotomy. These, moreover, seem to be anthropological categories that have applied to all historical world cultures to some extent.
Are there any hopeful historical parallels documenting that the Ukrainians can defeat Russia and achieve their full independence?
There is the Soviet-Finnish war that took place at the beginning of the Second World War, the so-called Winter War. The Finns did not win, but they offered a long and fierce resistance. The war actually started due to Stalin’s miscalculation, just like Putin’s war today. While the Finns were eventually forced to surrender about ten per cent of their territory, they gained considerable international prestige and, after the war, their independence from the USSR. I hope the Ukrainians achieve the same, albeit without the loss of ten per cent of their territory, of course. But the road to that end won’t be easy.