Why Putin wants to destroy Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is so savage precisely because he believes Russians and Ukrainians are one people. To understand his decision to invade, we should listen to how he himself explains it—and we should listen even more intently when the rationale that he offers seems so absurd.

Two of Putin’s justifications are particularly striking. The first—that Ukraine is ‘anti-Russia’—is patently bizarre. The second—that ‘Russians and Ukrainians are one people’—seems incongruous in the context of the first, and even more so given Russia’s murderous behaviour in Ukraine.

Yet, in politics, it is often the absurd that is most revealing. Both statements have deep historical roots and a psychological logic that connects and explains them. The history concerns the rise of the princes of Muscovy, first to pre-eminence, and then mastery among the principalities of medieval Rus.

Muscovy initially established its power by acting as a tax collector for the Mongol khan. After learning ruthless despotism from their Mongol masters, and then expanding their domain with Mongol help, the Muscovy princes turned against the Mongols, expelled them and consolidated ‘the lands of Rus’ under the grand dukes of Muscovy and their successors, the ‘tsars of all the Russias’.

But autocracy wasn’t the only form of government in the Russian lands as Muscovy rose in power. The commercial Republic of Novgorod in the country’s northwest is the best known example of medieval Russian constitutionalism, but far from the only one. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which despite its name incorporated present-day Belarus and Ukraine, had well-developed representative institutions by the standards of medieval Europe. The Lithuanian Seimas and the provincial assemblies of the gentry had more power than their Iberian and British counterparts in the 16th century. Critically, Lithuania was largely a Slavic state. Its official language was Old Belarusian, not Lithuanian, and much of its aristocracy was Orthodox and ethnically Rus.

Finally, there’s the political tradition of the Dnipro Cossacks. Originally comprising mainly peasants who fled slavery and decamped to the empty borderlands ‘at the edge’ (u kraina) of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Cossacks justly considered themselves ‘a knightly people’, winning their freedom through military exploits against the Crimean Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Muscovites and Poles. They elected their hetman, or head of state, and a ruling council for almost 200 years until Catherine the Great suppressed these institutions in 1764.

The blood-soaked destruction of Novgorod by Ivan the Terrible is well known, as are the partitions of Poland. Less often mentioned is the 1775 destruction of the Cossack Sich, or state, and the massacre of 20,000 people. Each of these episodes contributed to the establishment of autocracy throughout the lands of Rus (the so-called Russkiy mir).

The Russian tsarist ideology that emerged during these bloody struggles to justify despotic rule is central to understanding today’s conflict in Ukraine. Such an ideology was essential, because limits on arbitrary executive power were just as attractive to the nobility of Muscovy as they were to Lithuanian nobles, residents of Novgorod, Cossacks, English barons or American colonists.

The tsarist narrative wove together two main themes: the tsar is ‘the little father of all the people’, protecting an enslaved peasantry against their noble masters, and the Russian people are particularly unsuited to exercising constitutional freedom. Constitutionalism would supposedly benefit only a selfish nobility, who could use their resulting power to exploit the peasantry even more. And, since Russians—unlike Westerners—were intrinsically unable to govern themselves effectively but rather needed a ‘strong hand’, factional conflicts would weaken the state, expose it to foreign threats and possibly lead to its disintegration.

We can now see why Putin is right when he says that Ukraine is ‘anti-Russia’. If Russian statehood is defined by despotism, and if Russians and Ukrainians are one people, then by successfully governing themselves, Ukrainians have proved that the founding myth of Muscovite Russia has been a huge historical error.

Just like other Europeans, Russians also can have both personal freedom and an effective state. And since an effective Russian state will most likely be militarily powerful, they may not need autocracy even to ensure geopolitical influence. That’s why, as a Russian television commentator recently put it, ‘the very idea [of being Ukrainian] needs to be totally eradicated.’

For Putin and the elite around him, the war against Ukraine is a civil war, a struggle for the very idea of Russia and for the rightness of its history as they define it. As in all civil wars, it is the closeness of the antagonists that fuels the savagery now being perpetrated upon Ukraine’s people.

Those Russians who embrace this inverted Manichaeism, in which dictatorship is good and freedom is evil, also accept an insidious psychological bargain. They give up personal freedom for submission to, but membership of, a powerful state that others fear. ‘I fear my state, but it is my state,’ many Russians say to foreigners and to themselves. ‘You fear my state, but it is not your state.’ But what happens to this bargain if foreigners lose their fear?

That’s why defeat by Ukraine, if it occurs, would be an epochal event for Russia. Even the West’s victory in the Cold War didn’t spell the end of Russia’s authoritarian ideology. Western democracy may have proved itself to be more powerful than Soviet despotism, but that didn’t mean a democratic Russia could be well governed, much less powerful. But defeat at the hands of Ukraine would be another matter entirely.