Here is a gripping (if long) analysis of the Ukraine/Russia conflict by Claire Berlinksi.

She quotes at length from a text called The Resolution of the Ukraine Question that briefly appeared in the Russian media when it seemed to be thought that Ukraine would collapse within a couple of days. This piece lays out in a lot of detail the almost psycho-mystical imperial goals of the Ukraine invasion:

Russia is restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together—in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians. If we had abandoned this, if we had allowed the temporary division to take hold for centuries, then we would not only betray the memory of our ancestors, but would also be cursed by our descendants for allowing the disintegration of the Russian land …

… the complex of a divided people, the complex of national humiliation—when the Russian house first lost part of its foundation (Kiev), and then was forced to come to terms with the existence of two states, not one, but two peoples. That is, either to abandon their history, agreeing with the insane versions that “only Ukraine is the real Russia,” or to gnash one’s teeth helplessly, remembering the times when “we lost Ukraine.”

Returning Ukraine, that is, turning it back to Russia, would be more and more difficult with every decade—recoding, de-Russification of Russians and inciting Ukrainian Little Russians against Russians would gain momentum. And in the event of the consolidation of the full geopolitical and military control of the West over Ukraine, its return to Russia would become completely impossible—it would have to fight for it with the Atlantic bloc.

Now this problem is gone—Ukraine has returned to Russia. This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but it will be reorganized, re-established and returned to its natural state of part of the Russian world. Within what boundaries, in what form will the alliance with Russia be consolidated (through the CSTO and the Eurasian Union or the Union State of Russia and Belarus)? This will be decided after the end is put in the history of Ukraine as anti-Russia. In any case, the period of the split of the Russian people is coming to an end.

It goes on to rant against ‘Anglo-Saxon’ would-be domination of Europe within a wider global ideological realignment:

Because the construction of a new world order—and this is the third dimension of current events—is accelerating, and its contours are more and more clearly visible through the spreading cover of Anglo-Saxon globalization. A multipolar world has finally become a reality—the operation in Ukraine is not capable of rallying anyone but the West against Russia. Because the rest of the world sees and understands perfectly well—this is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists, this is Russia’s return of its historical space and its place in the world.

China and India, Latin America and Africa, the Islamic world and Southeast Asia—no one believes that the West leads the world order, much less sets the rules of the game. Russia has not only challenged the West, it has shown that the era of Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over. The new world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not)—but not on its terms and not according to its rules.

Phew! Just to point out that the emergence of a ‘multipolar world’ maybe doesn’t mean (or have to mean) that any country can invade and steal another? Or is the claim that that this shiny new multipolar world is run by only by the laws of the jungle, and that that’s good?

Underlying all this is a serious questions about identity. Is there a ‘natural’ Russian part of the world? And if so, where is it? Or, to put it another way, are Ukrainians ‘really’ Russians who somehow have lost their way?

* * * * *

There’s been a centuries-old tradition of calling Ukraine ‘Little Russia’ (or ‘Russia Minor). A version of this terminology reflecting the historic ebb and flow of influences and allegiances is echoed in Poland today, with two of its Voivodeships called Małopolskie (Lesser-Polish) and Wielkopolskie (Great-Poland).

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Little Russia that’s good enough for current purposes. Note especially this:

The term Little Russia (Rus’ Minor) is now anachronistic when used to refer to the country Ukraine and the modern Ukrainian nation, its language, culture, etc. Such usage is typically perceived as conveying an imperialist view that the Ukrainian territory and people (“Little Russians”) belong to “one, indivisible Russia.”

Today, many Ukrainians consider the term disparaging, indicative of imperial Russian (and Soviet) suppression of Ukrainian identity and language. It has continued to be used in Russian nationalist discourse, in which modern Ukrainians are presented as a single people in a united Russian nation.

Note too that down the centuries Moscow has taken different approaches to the issue of whether distinct ‘Ukrainian-ness’ and the Ukrainian language should be encouraged or discouraged.

In the early years of the USSR non-Russian minorities were encouraged to express themselves as long as they were loyal to the Communist Party, as part of a policy of ‘indigenisation’ within the broader goal of solving Stalin’s ‘National Question‘ (ie how in Marxist terms to analyse and give organised expression to the patchwork quilt of ethnic communities and languages across the vast Soviet space).

But in the 1930s it flipped again. The Russian language and ‘Russian-ness’ was reimposed on Ukraine with savage Soviet-style violence: hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were murdered or imprisoned, and most Ukrainian-language outlets suppressed. Russian alone was taught in schools.

Hence the attempts today by successive Ukrainian governments to do what they can to uphold and embed a distinct Ukrainian language and wider identity.

The Kremlin’s apparent plan to revert to older policies of Russifying Ukraine by any means necessary reminds me of a conversation I had with the then leader of the Bosnian Croats in Sarajevo:

“Of course, all the Bosnian Muslims are really Croats and Serbs who got forcibly assimilated by the Turks!”

“Ah! If they’re really Croats and Serbs, why have you been killing them in the war?”

* * * * * *

One key point in all this historic and almost philosophical complexity is that the Russifying Kremlin ideologues don’t come to this with clean hands. They insist on a ‘natural’ Russian space for themselves while denying any idea of natural spaces for non-Russians, not least in Russia itself. There are stringent laws to head off any would be ‘separatism’ from Russia’s many linguistic and cultural minorities.

Indeed, as the historical record shows, what is ‘natural’ depends primarily on who is able to impose one or other view of what’s natural, particularly when it comes to the language people speak and think in. Moscow has made various brutish attempts down the centuries to crush any distinct Ukrainian identity, and we are now seeing just another episode of such wretched bullying.

Of course in crude military terms Russia might prevail for now and crush organised Ukrainian resistance, albeit at a formidable cost. the fact that over a million Ukrainians have already fled the country is a bonus to Moscow. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing. Anything to dilute the numbers of Ukrainians in Ukraine.

But whereas (say) thirty years ago when the Cold War ended the understanding in Europe and the wider world of Ukraine and Ukrainians was close to zero, now it’s completely different. Putin has given the general cause of a distinct Ukrainian identity a startling international boost. Resources and (all being well) weapons will flow into Ukraine to help raise the cost of Russian occupation. Ukraine is a sizeable country (ie bigger than France or Spain), so controlling all of it as in Soviet times will be close to impossible.

In short, we’re witnessing a crude violent Russia land-grab of the sort that takes back to the 1930s (or 1830s, or 1730s). Maybe those Kremlin fanatics are right. This is the way the world now works. Only might is right. But if so, it’s just a matter of time before Russia itself falls prey to disintegration as other ‘natural’ forces take their turn express themselves.

Finally, given that in his speech launching the war Putin himself asserted that the Ukrainians were guilty of genocide, we need to remember that this latest forced would-be Russification of Ukraine would be a far more heinous example of genocide – and one driven by a permanent member of the UN Security Council.