5th Feb 2023


How Putin's Russia invented a Ukrainian threat, and why

  • Ukraine is as much of an objective threat to Russia as Canada is to the United States (Photo:
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As talk of "security guarantees" for Russia is once again making the rounds, it's important to remember that, the Kremlin's claims to the contrary, Ukraine has not posed, does not pose, and will not pose a threat to Russia's security—even if it joins Nato sometime in the near future.

Ukraine is an important security interest of Russia only because Russians have made it into an important security interest. If so, Russians could just as easily "unmake" it and, instead, treat Ukraine as nothing more than a neighbour.

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That Vladimir Putin and his entourage think otherwise about Ukraine has little to do with reality and everything to do with ideology. Russians see a threat where there is none because they have constructed an imperial worldview that makes Ukraine into a threat.

Consider some obvious facts.

The Russian Federation is the world's largest country and has a population of 145 million. Ukraine is a fraction of Russia's geographic size and its current population, probably some 30 million, is only one fifth of Russia's. Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons; Ukraine has none. Russia has a huge, if less than competent, army; Ukraine's is one fifth as large. Russia has virtually limitless energy resources; Ukraine does not. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; Ukraine is not.

In sum, Ukraine is as much of an objective threat to Russia as Canada is to the United States.

This crass imbalance in hard-power resources was even larger in the past, when Ukrainians possessed no state, no army, and no economy of their own.

And barring a Russian collapse, there is absolutely no reason to think that Ukraine will suddenly exceed Russia in terms of power and become a threat anytime in the near future.

This would be true even if Ukraine were to join the Atlantic Alliance. At present, Nato members Norway, Finland, Poland, and Lithuania border on the Russian Federation. The Kremlin rarely rails against the supposed threat that any of them poses to Russia, and it would have no objective reason for regarding Ukraine as such either.

Even Nato poses no objective threat to Russia's security. Most of its members have completely neglected their militaries since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

European populations are unwilling to fight wars, and their policy elites have only begun thinking strategically by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. True, the US poses an objective threat to Russia, but it always has and always will. Neutralising the threat both sides pose to each other requires talking about the strategic nuclear arsenals the Russians and Americans possess, and not about security guarantees.

Since Ukraine is so manifestly not a threat—indeed, it couldn't be a threat even if it wanted to—why do contemporary Russian elites see it as such?

A history lesson

Historically, Muscovite and Russian elites viewed the territories that comprise modern Ukraine with indifference or greed, not fear. Ukraine was too far away to matter to the nascent Muscovite state that had its hands full dealing with the Mongols and destroying the Novgorod Republic in the 13th-15th centuries.

The nest two centuries saw Moscow conquer Siberia. Ukraine's turn came in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it became a bone of contention between Poland and Muscovy.

It was only in 1709, when the Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa had several thousand of his troops fight alongside Sweden's Charles XII that his Ukraine posed a tiny threat to Peter the Great's huge realm.

But the Swedes were defeated at Poltava and thereafter Ukrainians remained stateless until 1991, even as their country remained a target for contending imperialisms, especially those of the Ottomans, Russians, Austrians, and Germans, in the three partitions of Poland and the two world wars.

The Russian denial of Ukraine's right to exist as a separate nation and state goes back centuries and remained in place, with only slight modifications, during the Soviet period. The claim that Ukraine is a mortal threat to Russia is new, largely an invention of the Putin era (though with roots in Stalin's genocidal campaign against Ukrainians in the early 1930s). Here's the logic behind this illogic.

Putin believes that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. He openly regards the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia to be contemporary Russia's predecessors. He has fully appropriated the view that Russia must be great and powerful. And he has made these ideological claims central to his own legitimacy.

Given such a mindset, it's no surprise that Putin has embarked on an "in-gathering" of formerly Soviet or Imperial Russian territories: Belarus, that sliver of Moldova known as Transnistria, southeastern Ukraine, and two parts of Georgia.

Thus far: there may be more to come, as the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Kazakhs fear.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has willingly submitted to Russian hegemony. Moldova and Georgia are too small to upset Putin's project.

Ukraine, in contrast, is the key.

Its steadfast opposition to absorption by Russia has remained in place since 1991, so much so that the Ukrainians staged two democratic revolutions in defence of their sovereignty and are now fighting for their survival against Putin's armies.

Ukraine's resistance and independent Ukraine's very existence is thus a threat to Putin's imperialist project—not because it actually threatens Russia's existence, but because they are perceived by Putin as threatening his and his imperial project's existence.

This means that all talk of security guarantees for Russia is nonsense, and the West would do well to ask the Kremlin just which of its immediate neighbours—not counting Moscow's fair-weather ally, China—poses a serious threat to Russia's security.

Instead, security guarantees should be granted to the countries that actually face mortal threats to their existence—Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.

The one bit of good news is that, since the view of Ukraine as a threat is a figment of the Kremlin's imagination, there is hope that, with time, Putin's successors may rid themselves of their imperialist ravings and come to treat Ukraine as what it is—a neighbour.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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