ANN ARBOR, Mich. (theconversation.com) — The first casualty of war, says historian Ronald Suny, is not just the truth. Often, he says, “it is what is left out.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin began a full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and many in the world are now getting a crash course in the complex and intertwined history of those two nations and their peoples. Much of what the public is hearing, though, is jarring to historian Suny’s ears. That’s because some of it is incomplete, some of it is wrong, and some of it is obscured or refracted by the self-interest or the limited perspective of who is telling it. We asked Suny, a professor at the University of Michigan, to respond to a number of popular historical assertions he’s heard recently.
Putin’s view of Russo-Ukrainian history has been widely criticized in the West. What do you think motivates his version of the history?
Putin believes that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are one people, bound by shared history and culture. But he also is aware that they have become separate states recognized in international law and by Russian governments as well. At the same time, he questions the historical formation of the modern Ukrainian state, which he says was the tragic product of decisions by former Russian leaders Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. He also questions the sovereignty and distinctive nation-ness of Ukraine. While he promotes national identity in Russia, he denigrates the growing sense of nation-ness in Ukraine.
Putin indicates that Ukraine by its very nature ought to be friendly, not hostile, to Russia. But he sees its current government as illegitimate, aggressively nationalist and even fascist. The condition for peaceful relations between states, he repeatedly says, is that they do not threaten the security of other states. Yet, as is clear from the invasion, he presents the greatest threat to Ukraine.
Putin sees Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia, believing that if it enters NATO, offensive weaponry will be placed closer to the Russian border, as already is being done in Romania and Poland.