Medvedev: The Russian-Ukrainian War will continue until Ukraine becomes a second Belarus
The war in Ukraine is more than a military conflict. Indeed, the war involves a variety of competing historical and political narratives. This is exemplified by the thoughts of the Russian leadership, who question Ukraine’s right to statehood.
Dmitry Medvedev has penned two statements on Ukraine. The first was written as Russia’s president in a blog in August 2009, whilst the second was released during his time as deputy head of the Russian Security Council in October this year. In both, he essentially said that the countries’ poor bilateral relations will remain until Ukraine effectively becomes a second Belarus. Medvedev stated that Russia could not deal with “nationalists” in power, whether that be Viktor Yushchenko in 2009 or Volodymyr Zelenskyy now in 2021. As a result, Moscow would “Wait for the appearance of a sane leadership in Ukraine, which does not aim for total confrontation with Russia or organise foolish “Crimean platforms” created to trick the country’s population and flex their muscles before the elections, but at building equal and mutually beneficial relations with Russia. It is only worth dealing with such leadership in Ukraine.” Medvedev also added the warning that “Russia knows how to wait. We are patient people.”
None of the articles that discuss these events have provided links to Medvedev’s blog, yet taken together the blog and article point to a long, drawn out military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russian leaders see Ukraine as not only an important part of their Eurasian sphere of influence but as the Little Russian branch of the “pan-Russian nation” (the other two branches being the “Great Russians” and “White Russians”), the Russian World and Holy Rus’. In the eyes of Russia, Ukraine has no independent right not to be a part of these entities, as its destiny alongside Russia was predetermined a millennium ago during the time of Kyivan Rus’ (Russians continue to use the outdated term “Kyivan Russia” despite the fact that the term “Russia” was not invented until 1721). Meanwhile, the majority of Ukrainians – including President Zelenskyy – believe that Kyivan Rus’ was the first Ukrainian state.
Following this Russian nationalist logic, the only normal state of affairs for Ukraine is to resemble today’s Belarus. Anything else would be seen as Russophobic and the product of a country controlled by Western Ukrainian neo-Nazis, who have turned Kyiv into a US puppet state.
In August 2009, this “unnatural” situation was supposedly controlled by Yushchenko, while today it is Zelenskyy who is responsible. Ironically, both are Eastern Ukrainians, with Yushchenko coming from Sumy and Kharkiv whilst Zelenskyy is from the city of Kryvyy Rih in the Dnipropetrovsk region. Their spouses’ roots are also in Eastern Ukraine. The fact that they are not Western Ukrainian though is irrelevant as Russian leaders use the Soviet definition of “nationalist”, which means anybody who is anti-Soviet, opposed to Ukraine being part of the Russian World, supportive of the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan, or in favour of NATO and EU membership.
In 2010, the election of Viktor Yanukovych brought to fruition what Russian leaders believed should be the natural state of affairs in Ukraine, with a pro-Russian leader resembling the illegitimate president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Both Yanukovych and Lukashenka express nostalgia for the USSR. This is similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2005 lamented the disintegration of the USSR as the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Yanukovych and Putin were also united by their kleptocratic approach to government.
Yanukovych implemented all the domestic and foreign policy demands laid out in Medvedev’s 2009 blog. These included policies on national identity, such as rejecting the claim Stalin used the1933 Holodomor (Death by famine) as a genocide against Ukraine and instead claiming the famine was also felt in Russia and throughout the USSR. Yanukovych also accepted Russia’s demand for a de facto indefinite naval base in Sevastopol and Ukraine no longer seeking NATO membership.
Russian leaders had high hopes for Yanukovych with regards to Putin’s goal of the “gathering of Russian (i.e., eastern Slavic) lands”. The plan consisted of three parts and firstly involved turning down the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement within the EU’s Eastern Partnership. This was accomplished after two years of intense pressure in November 2013. The second step involved Yanukovych’s re-election in January 2015, which would only have been possible with far greater fraud than even the 2004 elections. Thirdly, Yanukovych was to make Ukraine a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. By accomplishing this, Putin would have managed to unite the Russian World, with the Eastern Slavs forming the core of Eurasia as they did in the USSR.
Of course, the last two stages of Putin’s plan for Yanukovych were halted by Euromaidan Revolution. This represented the second time that the Russian president was humiliated, with the first being the Orange Revolution that overturned Yanukovych’s victory in the fraudulent 2004 election. Putin’s response was to invade and occupy Crimea and attempt to dismember Ukraine by stoking rebellion in south-eastern Ukraine and invading the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Although attempts to fully seize Ukraine’s south-eastern region failed, Russian leaders have continued to make territorial claims on numerous occasions against Ukraine. Russian leaders claim that Ukraine is an artificial Soviet creation that includes “ancient Russian lands”.
Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired lieutenant general of the SVR (Russia’s external intelligence agency), and director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “The Soviet government created a geopolitical monster in the ancient Russian territories in Ukraine. This was carried out by the special services of the Kaiser’s Germany and the Bolsheviks Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. They created Ukraine by cutting off from Russia the Russian cities of Kharkiv (founded by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich), Donetsk (founded by Emperor Alexander II), and Mykolayiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa (all three founded by Empress Catherine II). And Khrushchev also gave them Crimea. What does Ukraine have to do with it [Crimea]?”
Medvedev’s views of Ukraine are, like most of those espoused by the Kremlin, rooted in Tsarist and Soviet mythologies that has little to do with reality. The export of the “Donetsk mafia model” to the whole of Ukraine was thwarted by the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions. The election of Yanukovych represented Russia’s best hope for the creation of a second Belarus in Ukraine. But, he fled to Russia, the Party of Regions disintegrated in February 2014 and the Communist Party is banned under Ukraine’s decommunisation laws from participating in elections. Around 16 per cent of the country’s voters now live under Russian occupation in Crimea and Donbas and therefore cannot participate in Ukrainian elections. Most of this group voted for pro-Russian forces prior to 2014. The majority of the Ukrainian security forces’ casualties are from Eastern Ukraine and especially Dnipropetrovsk. There are now two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees from Donbas. Because Russian speakers are experiencing the brunt of Moscow’s military aggression, it is unlikely that they will vote in huge numbers for the Opposition Bloc and Opposition Platform-For Life. These two parties are the successors to the Party of Regions. It is likely that they will therefore continue on as minority parties that are unable to win parliamentary or presidential elections.
Medvedev’s article, much like Putin’s from July of last year, shows the degree to which Russian nationalism has consolidated around Tsarist and White Russian émigré views of Ukraine as an artificial entity created by Russophobic western powers. Medvedev asserts that it “makes no sense for us to deal with [Ukrainian] vassals. Business must be done with the overlord [i.e., the US].”
Describing Ukraine as a US puppet state is a staple part of Russian media and disinformation. Medvedev writes that “Ukrainian leaders of the current generation are absolutely dependent people” because Ukraine “is under direct foreign control”. Another common theme in Russian disinformation is the assertion that Ukraine will never be let into NATO and the EU. This is closely related to the belief that Ukraine is simply being used by Washington for its own anti-Russian crusade: “Ukraine itself has no value on the line of direct confrontation between Western forces (including potentially military ones) and our country.”
Russia’s arrogance and chauvinism shown towards the non-Russian successor states of the former USSR is driven by the fact that it sees the region as its exclusive sphere of influence. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy is not only a “Little Russian” but also an unprofessional politician due to his previous career in acting and comedy. Ukraine is supposedly a “business project” controlled by corrupt elites who have no national identity. This claim is astounding as the biggest kleptocrats in the former USSR are Russian leaders. Zelenskyy is also allegedly a puppet of both Western Ukrainian neo-Nazis and America who is forced to adopt anti-Russian policies at the behest of Washington.
Zelenskyy is attacked even further through the use of traditional Soviet propaganda. He is often portrayed as a “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew who has forsaken his background in favour of an alliance with the neo-Nazis who control him. It should be noted that Soviet propaganda routinely linked Zionist “rootless cosmopolitans”, neo-Nazi Ukrainian émigrés and Western Ukrainian dissidents together. Medvedev asks of Ukrainian leaders: “Who are they, which country are they citizens of, where are their roots, what is their historical identity, ethnicity, what gods do they pray to? Who do they think they are? Are they Ukrainians? “Europeans”? Russians? Jews? Tatars? Hungarians? Karaites?”
Medvedev then draws on traditional Soviet anti-Zionist (i.e., antisemitic) discourse when talking about Zelenskyy: “The current president of this exhausted country is a person with clear ethnic roots, who spoke Russian all his life. Moreover, he worked in Russia and received significant funds from Russian sources. Nevertheless, at a certain moment, having become the head of state and out of fear of another “Maidan” directed against his personal power, he completely changed his political and moral orientation. In fact, he renounced his identity. He began to earnestly serve the most rabid nationalist forces in Ukraine…” Medvedev compares Zelenskyy to “members of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany, [who] for ideological reasons, would be asked to serve in the SS.”
There are four conclusions that can be drawn from Russian leaders’ rhetoric and discourse on Ukraine and Ukrainians. The first is that Russian leaders continue to utilise deep-rooted stereotypes drawn from the pre-Soviet era. These refer to the non-existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians and their eternal membership of the pan-Russian nation, the Russian World and Holy Rus’. The second stereotype is that Ukrainians are by default controlled by Western Ukrainian neo-Nazis, who have made Ukraine into a US puppet state. The third is that the poor state of Russian-Ukrainian relations are the result of Ukrainian attitudes and policies. On no occasion did Putin or Medvedev ever suggest that the occupation of Crimea and Russian military aggression, which has killed 20,000 civilians and members of the security forces, may have a role to play in this poor state of relations. The fourth is that Russia must continue to undertake military and other forms of aggression against Ukraine until the natural state of affairs has been restored. This would see a second Belarus controlled by an ideological successor to Yanukovych. Despite this, Ukrainians see the conflict as a Russian-Ukrainian war and will continue their fight no matter how many Normandy Format meetings take place.
As former President Leonid Kuchma explained, his experience of dealing with both the so-called democratic President Boris Yeltsin and nationalist President Putin showed him that Russia has only ever sought to achieve “submission” through a “complete victory so the enemy is left with nothing”. However, it is clear now that any potential capitulation to Russian demands to renounce the existence of the Ukrainian state and nation will never be accepted in the country. The West should therefore understand the deep roots of the war related to national identity. This is why the conflict will therefore continue for many years to come.
Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His latest book Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War is due for publication by Routledge in January 2022.
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