The invasion and the war had been well prepared in ideological and military terms. Putin’s timing was not arbitrary: The USA is losing its world superpower status and displayed weakness by withdrawing from Afghanistan. Putin certainly also considered it advantageous that Europe was exhausted by the refugee crisis and the pandemic, that France was preparing for elections and that Germany had a new and inexperienced government coalition.
The fact that democracy and liberality were thriving on his own doorstep was the biggest threat to Putin. NATO did not threaten Russia, but the fact that Ukraine was a successful democratic and liberal country did. And this at a time of economic decrease, increasing poverty and demographic regression in Russia.
The Russo-Ukrainian War is not Putin’s first war. Just think of the First and Second Chechen Wars in the late 1990s (with the destruction of Grozny), the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008, the Syrian Civil War (with the destruction of Aleppo), the annexation of Crimea (2014) and the Luhansk and Donetsk regions where Putin sent either the Russian army or mercenary forces (the Wagner Group). In military terms, the invasion was hence well-tested and also well-prepared by a massive troop build-up near Ukraine’s borders in autumn 2021. However, Putin seems to have underestimated the Ukrainians and their will to fight.
Since 2014, the Ukrainian government has thrived, even if several reforms need reinforcement. Ukraine has been ruled by six presidents in the last twenty years, Russia only by one. 400 parties are registered with the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, and the Parliament adheres to democratic rules. Since 2014, linguistic (e.g. Hungarian) and religious minorities have been protected by law. The federalization of Ukraine has also been increased step by step. The Ukrainian higher education and research systems are linked to the European Higher Education Area through the Bologna Process and Horizon 2020. An economic and political association agreement between Ukraine and the EU was signed in 2014. Here is an example of how well the Ukrainian administration functions: A few weeks ago, the Ukrainian Tax Service announced that Ukrainian farmers who seize Russian military equipment do not have to pay taxes for it.
Considering the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky is an elected president (voted for by over 73% of the population) and of Jewish descent, the alleged ”denazification” is a paradox and part of Putin’s propaganda. Putin uses enemy images from World War II and the Soviet Era and redefines terms such as “denazification”. His denazification propaganda aims at increasing Russians’ support for the war in Ukraine. He frequently reminds Russians of the Ukrainian nationalists who fought against the Soviet Union in World War II and collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Putin’s goal is the restoration of the Russian Empire, an empire covering every country in which Russian is spoken. A Russian Empire without Ukraine is unthinkable to him. Ukrainian is just a dialect to Putin and most Russians. In the Tsarist Empire, the Ukrainian language was already considered a dialect, “Little Russian”, and in the 19th Century it was banned from education and administration by some forty laws. In the Tsarist and Soviet Empires, the Ukrainian language was considered inferior to Russian.
World War I caused the collapse of the Tsarist and Austrian Empires, which after the failed attempt to establish an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic led to the foundation of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1918/1919.
What followed were forced collectivization and a famine in 1932 and 1933, the Holodomor. Stalin wanted to take control of the Ukrainian peasants and to increase agricultural yields in order to finance industrialization. This cost the lives of four million Ukrainians from 1926 to 1933. Ukraine considers the Holodomor a man-made famine, a genocide of the Ukrainian people engineered by the Kremlin. It is still a controversial subject among Ukrainian and Russian historians.
Born in Vienna in 1968, Andreas Wenninger studied East and South-East European History in Vienna. Since October 2000, he has been the head of the Austrian Cooperation Office in Lviv, serving as the Austrian Attaché of Science and Education. In 2010 the Austrian Cooperation Office became a branch office of Austria’s Agency for Education and Internationalisation (OeAD). Andreas Wenninger had previously taught and conducted research at the Department of East and South-East European Studies at the University of Vienna and at the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe.
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