Over a week ago Russia launched a military invasion against Ukraine - the biggest in Europe since World War Two. At the dawn of the so-called “military operation”, as Russian state media insists on calling it, president Vladimir Putin held a speech in which he tried to advocate and justify his undeniable breach of international law with a number of historical claims and assertions - from the supposed genocide against the Russian population living in Ukraine to the claim that Ukraine does not have the right to exist as a sovereign and independent state. Does any of them hold up when compared to actual history?
Putin made a lot of references to World War Two, namely the Holocaust, asserting that there is a great need for Ukraine to be “de-Nazified”, and since no one else in the international sphere dares to take action, Russian troops are to take down the “Nazi government” not only by force, but by necessity. Where did he get the idea that such an issue exists?
Back in July 2021 an article by Putin was published on the Kremlin’s website. In it, the Russian president argued that Ukraine is a “fictitious state” created by Lenin in 1922 on territory that is historically Russian, therefore stating that Ukraine does not deserve sovereignty. According to him, Ukrainian leaders have since tried to rewrite history to fit their own anti-Russian political agenda. The reality is much more complex than what he made out of it, with many neighboring countries claiming jurisdiction over modern day Ukraine in the past centuries. It is, however, an undeniable fact, that the first time the name Ukraine appears in historical documents is in the 12th Century, and later, in the 16th Century, it appears on the maps. Moreover, it was in the 9th Century that Kyivan Rus was established on the territory that now comprises Ukraine, with Kyiv as the capital. So Putin’s argument about the legitimacy of Ukraine as a sovereign state is very easily refuted with a simple look in the history books.
What about his continuous claims that Ukraine is a country that desperately needs to be saved from the current Nazi regime controling it? Putin’s version of history tells us that during WWII, when Ukraine was under German occupation (1941-1944), many independence fighters worked in coalition with the Nazis whom they viewed as saviours from the Soviet opression that began in 1917. He then follows this by cynically stating that any Ukrainian push towards sovereignty and independence is a manifestation of their Nazi beliefs. The events that he discussed are a very complicated and debated topic, as neither the independence fighters that worked with the Nazis, nor the Soviet supporters can be deemed inherently “good” or “bad”.
There were, in fact, Ukrainian nationalists that fought for their independence alongside the Germans, but the reason for that is the oppression caused by the Soviet regime that began in 1922. Ukraine experienced a great famine in the 1930s that was a direct result from Soviet policy, causing a big rise in anti-Russian beliefs. This issue is still an open case, but it needs to be examined and discussed at the domestic level - not from the outside. It is important to remember that refuting the claim that Ukraine is currently a Nazi state is not equivalent to downplaying Ukraine’s part in the Holocaust during WWII. Even though the war is regarded as a battle mainly between Russia and Germany, many of the actual fighting took place in modern day Ukraine, and it logically follows that, after the German occupation of the country, a number of concentration camps would be operating there. A shocking statistic is that 1 out of every 4 Jewish people executed during the Holocaust lost their lives specifically in the Ukrainian camps. It is also undeniable that the Nazis received support from some important Ukrainian figures, even if it was simply because Ukrainians belived that they had a better chance at independence under Nazi Germany than under the Soviets. Once again, it is crucial to underline that acknowledging these facts is just as important as it is to deny the assertion that Ukraine is under Nazi control today.
This narrative, however, is used by the Russian government as the driving force for their invasion of Ukraine - they are viciously trying to present themselves in a benevolent and honorable light, as soldiers fighting against a brutal regime to free the people. This is yet another easily debunkable fact, seeing as the president himself, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish and has ancestors that died during the Holocaust. In an interview with Penn Today, historian Benjamin Nathans makes it clear that the highest point of contemporary Russian history is the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. “The victory over Nazism has penetrated the psyche of Russians like nothing else.”, says Nathans, pointing out the fact that the Eastern giant’s 20th Century history is full of “catastrophic and shameful” events. It makes sense for a country to cling to a victory of such grandeur and to talk about it with such pride. However, current president Vladimir Putin seems to be taking Russian pride to the extreme, especially when it comes to fighting Nazism. Nathans highlights Putin’s intensity when it comes to engagement with history and focuses specifically on the above mentioned parallels that he made in his speech - between post-war Ukrainian nationalists and current pro-European Ukrainian leaders. His only argumentation for that is the current state of affairs in Ukraine, where the previously mentioned nationalists from the WWII period are now, once again, generally being seen as heroes by the masses, after being denounced during Soviet rule. With new laws of decommunization, Soviet monuments have been removed and many streets, buildings, and public spaces have been renamed to honor Ukrainian nationalists.
This is, however, a phenomenon that was a direct result from the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Furthermore, many scholars have publicly expressed that they are against such initiatives, as the Soviet one-sided view of history is not worse than the opposite side of the spectrum, when the focus is only on nationalist fighters that were directly connected to the Holocaust. Whatever the case may be, as already stated above, this is a domestic issue, not an international one. Using this as a justification for the invasion, and trying to convince the rest of the world that the Russian president is simply acting on the basis of an imminent threat to his country’s security, are arguments that hold barely any logical weight. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine right now definitely does not seem like a savior helping a distressed nation - it much more looks like a colonizer trying to hold on to a colony, as Harvard historian Markian Dobczansky states in an article published in the Smithsonian Magazine.
When Putin speaks about a genocide against the Russian people of Ukraine, he is talking about the supposed threat against native Russians in Crimea and the Donbass region. After then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine to seek shelter in Russia, and the Rada appointed an acting president, Russia secretly sent Russian troops to Crimea. Amidst the chaos and the lack of a de jure government in Ukraine, Russia managed to illegally annex the peninsula in March 2014 and it has since then been regarded as part of Russian territory. While Russia does have a historical claim over Crimea, in 1954 it was officially transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and has been an official part of Ukraine even after the fall of the USSR. Therefore, Russia’s actions in 2014 were yet another breach of international law. The Kremlin tried to make it seem legal and administratively official by holding a mock referendum, where the results were forged to align with Russian ideas. The annexation prompted the region of Donbass to announce its independence from Ukraine in the form of two pro-Russian People’s Republics - Luhansk and Donetsk. With support from the Russian military, the republics have been in conflict with Ukraine’s national military since 2014, and more than 14,000 people have died in the Eastern parts of the country.
In order to prevent a genocide, Putin performed the biggest land-grab in Europe since WWII and caused a bloody and prolonged civil conflict. To make matters worse, in his speech from 21st February 2022, on which the majority of this article is focused, Putin publicly recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics as independent countries, and consequently launched the invasion of Ukraine. Now, two weeks later, we are witnessing a brutal aggression against civilians, raising fears of genocide - not the one Putin was extremely worried about, but the one that he personally caused. His actions clearly state that he is not willing to recognize any ex-Soviet countries historical agency if it does not follow his own visions, which in turn strictly follow his political agenda.
Putin is essentially using Russian pride against the Russians themselves, turning history into political propaganda with the sole purpose of reaching his own goals. “It’s as if he can’t stop fighting the Second World War over and over again.”, historian Nathans says in his interview. This information war that he is waging not only on Ukraine, but on the West in general, is nothing short of a delusional hunger for power. Putin is ready to go to unimaginable lengths in an attempt to slow down, or even reverse, the almost unavoidable breakdown of Russia - a very typical and expected result of the fall of an empire. We are now seeing the effects of the seemingly peaceful collapse of the USSR. Whether this historical propaganda is actually working in terms of national support is a question that is difficult to answer with a simple “yes” or “no”, but the amount of anti-war protests happening in Russia, and the newly imposed laws limiting freedom of speech and freedom of media tilt the scale towards no.
Monika Evgenieva Dimitrova
Cengel, K. (2022, March 4). The 20-th Century History Behind Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine. Smithsonian Magazine.
Pifer, S. (2020, March 17). Crimea: Six Years After Illegal Annexation. Brookings.
De Groot, K. (2022, February 25). Russia’s attack on Ukraine, through the lens of history. Penn Today.