“The Russian Offensive and a New World” is a document that was released through Russian news outlets on the third day of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, February 26, and then quickly withdrawn (original was available at https://ria.ru/20220226/rossiya-1775162336.html). It appears to have been intended as a declaration of victory, which Russia apparently expected to have been achieved in three days. Although the author is unknown, the document is broadly consistent with President Vladimir Putin’s statements, made at various points during his presidency, last summer, and on the eve of the invasion, about Russia and Ukraine. It gives us an idea of his motivations and intentions in what is turning out to be a protracted war. That will be important once negotiations begin for a settlement — one in which the West is likely to have a role.
“The Russian Offensive and a New World” discusses the historical and current relationship between Russia and Ukraine, and contemporary relations between Russia and the West. Because its historical narrative is fundamentally mistaken, the argument that follows, and the vision of world order based upon it, is fatally flawed. By understanding this, the West can fashion a competing vision, on which a stable world order could be constructed.
Putin’s historic vision ignores the fact that the supposed unity of Russia and Ukraine is essentially the dominance of autocratic Russia over democratic, European-oriented Ukraine. Uniting them today would only be possible by slaughter and mass destruction.
The document basis its vision of Russian-Ukrainian unity on medieval Rus’. One can accept the notion that Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine have a common origin in that polity. But to claim that this justifies unifying all three under Russian tutelage would be like the Germans arguing to the French in 1914 or 1939 for a restoration of the Holy Roman Empire under German leadership. If anything, the reference would support unification under Ukrainian rule: the center of Rus’, after all, was Kyiv.
The document uses the venerable phrase “Great, Little, and White Rus’,” corresponding to what we now call Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. This formula appears in the titles of Russian tsars such as the mid–17th century ruler Alexei Mikhailovich. But when Ukraine’s predecessor state, the Zaporozhian Cossack host, entered into a risky alliance with Russia’s predecessor state of Muscovy in 1654, the Cossacks had already developed their own democratic customs. Moreover, a few centuries of Polish-Lithuanian rule, with its “republic of nobles” and rule of law, had inculcated the Ukrainians with a Western political culture. Muscovy, on the other hand, had expanded by destroying more democratic rivals, extending serfdom, and strengthening autocracy. The Russian-Ukrainian divergence was already well under way.
No wonder, then, that the Ukrainian Cossacks sought allies among the Poles, the Moldavians, and even the Tartars. When Russian emperor Peter I (Ukrainians balk at calling him “The Great”) learned that the Cossack hetman (chief) Ivan Mazepa, frustrated by decades of Russian encroachments on Ukrainian liberties, had made a pact with Swedish King Charles XII, he destroyed Mazepa’s capital of Baturyn, slaughtering men, women, and children and utterly razing the city — a dress rehearsal for Grozny, Aleppo, and now Mariupol. After Peter defeated Mazepa and the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, Mazepa’s associate Pylyp Orlyk promulgated a constitution with democratic institutions and separation of powers, thus preceding our own by over 75 years. By the 19th century “the Ukraine” was merely a region of Russia. After the empire fell in 1917, it took the Bolsheviks three invasions to conquer the fledgling Ukrainian Republic.
Putin’s historic vision, then, ignores the fact that the supposed unity of Russia and Ukraine is essentially the dominance of autocratic Russia over democratic, European-oriented Ukraine. Uniting them today would only be possible by slaughter and mass destruction. It would be an unstable union, one to keep the most hardened emperor awake at night. Such a rickety “Russian world” could hardly be a reliable or predictable partner for the West — and certainly not the basis for a stable world order.
What would be the alternative? Ukraine would have to be allowed to join the European Union — though not necessarily NATO, as long as adequate security arrangements were provided. Ukraine’s integration would broaden, strengthen, and diversify the EU, with Ukraine contributing its technical, industrial, and agricultural potential — as well as its salutary spiritual and cultural influence. That in turn would enable Europe to resist what “The Russian Offensive,” in one of its more truthful passages, refers to as “Anglo-Saxon” (read: American) dominance. It would be a healthy development, helping Europe to take more responsibility for its own security. In fact, a Europe less dependent on American support would be better equipped to join the US in counter-balancing the undemocratic alliance of Russia and China.
This alternative vision can only be realized, however, if Russia takes one of three paths: retreat into renewed isolation, radical reform, or revolution. None of these is likely to happen unless Russia is defeated. At the moment, the West is not willing to make that happen.