Putin manipulates history to justify war

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Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in 2013 with Minister of Defense, Army General Sergey Shoygu. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine in an address accompanied by a slew of questionable justifications. 

It is impossible to say precisely what the internal motivations of Putin are, but it is possible to evaluate the reasons he has given to the public. With so much information being carelessly strewn about ⁠— much of it unreliable ⁠— it is best to assess the situation cautiously.

Putin claims that his invasion is not directed toward the injury of the interests of the Ukrainian people, but rather at liberating it. He said: “The current events have nothing to do with a desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with defending Russia from those who have taken Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and our people.” 

Here Putin identifies Ukraine and its people as connected with “our,” that is Russian, people, and his use of the term “hostage” implies some responsibility on Russia’s part as its parent nation to free it from western influence. However, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky recently accused Russia of war crimes, and the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the incident. 

Along with Zelensky’s frequent pleas to the western world for assistance, all other evidence at the time of writing this seems to indicate that Ukraine does not want to be “liberated” by Russia. Even so, Putin continues to claim that this invasion is meant to rectify the relationship of Ukraine to Russia. He said: “I think everyone should think about normalizing relations and cooperating normally.”

Playing further into the theme of a historically unified Russian people, the Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in on the invasion. For a long time, the Russian Orthodox Church has been effectively considered an extension of the government of the Russian Federation, and Putin has again leveraged its support to advance his interests. 

Moscow Patriarch Kirill said, “We must not let dark and hostile external forces laugh at us, we must do everything to maintain peace between our peoples and at the same time protect our common historical Fatherland from all outside actions that can destroy this unity.”  

Kirill is very specific as to what he means by the unity of Russia. He prayed for the protection of Russia and said, “When I say ‘Russian,’ I use an ancient expression from the ‘Tale of Bygone Years.’”  

He is referencing the idea that the Russia of history was unified and strong, and was destabilized and fractured when the Soviet Union fell. He continued: “The land, which now includes Russia, and Ukraine, and Belarus, and other tribes and peoples. So that the Lord preserves the Russian land from external enemies, from internal discord, so that the unity of our Church is strengthened.”

The idea is that “hostile external forces,” i.e., the West, are seeking to disrupt the peace and unity of a broader Russia. Putin has argued that Ukraine is really a part of this “common historical fatherland” and should be brought into the Russian Federation, an integration which the West is seeking to prevent. 

Since Russia is made up of many different regions, many of which are ethnically and culturally distinct from one another, it might be questioned how unified this broader Russia really is. For much of recent history, these regions have been politically connected to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, but the cultural, ethnic and religious unity of a “single” Russia does not really exist. 

Although Kirill’s rhetoric is misleading, it is important to make note of the broader response of the Orthodox Church in Russia. More than 250 Orthodox bishops condemned the war and called for its immediate end in an open letter issued on March 1. 

The Bishops said, “We remind you that the life of every person is a priceless and unique gift of God, and therefore we wish the return of all soldiers — both Russian and Ukrainian — to their homes and families safe and sound.” Although there has certainly been manipulation of religion to political ends, much of the Orthodox Church in Russia seems not to support it.

In another justification of his invasion and to sharp criticism around the world, Putin claimed that one of Russia’s main purposes in invading Ukraine was to cleanse it of its neo-Nazi government. He described Ukraine’s leaders as “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis,” and said “[Russia] will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine.” 

This statement is part of a narrative Putin has pushed that the Ukraine’s government is committing genocide against ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. He said, “We had to stop that atrocity, that genocide of the millions of people who live there and who pinned their hopes on Russia, on all of us.” 

There is a far right, nationalist detachment of the Ukrainian National Guard called the Azov Battalion, which was formed in 2014 to fight against Russian-backed separatists, though that hardly seems to constitute the whole of Ukraine’s military and government. Interestingly, Zelensky is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.  

Putin’s connection to Nazism is imaginary. While it is certainly true that there are far-right nationalists in Ukraine, Putin’s use of the term “Nazi” seems intended simply to invoke an ambiguous image of superlative evil, or perhaps a sense of patriotism. 

Putin emphasized the historic sacrifice of the Russian people against the Nazis and used it to justify the war. By identifying the western influence, which he claims holds Ukraine hostage, with the Nazis, Putin seems to implicate the West as the newest belligerent, empiric enemy for Russia to oppose.  

Putin’s justification for the war in Ukraine is riddled with historical and factual falsehood. He employs this tactic in an attempt to persuade the world that his invasion of Ukraine is meant as a benevolent gesture, and that he is justified in doing so. Putin’s attempt to manipulate the truth shows that he has no good moral grounds for the war, and reminds us to be cautious when making judgements. 

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