“What’s really happening in Ukraine?” This question has hit my inbox ever since Russia moved troops to the Ukrainian border. Friends look to me because much of my career has centered on Ukraine: I was a U.S. Army Russian linguist, spent four years as an Evangelical missionary in Ukraine, studied Ukrainian history in graduate school, and served in U.S. Embassy Kyiv for two years. I was there for the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, and Russia’s 2014 invasion.
So what’s really happening? Putin is a throwback to a bloodier era in Europe when autocrats settled historical grievances by force. Except for Milosevic trying to build Greater Serbia via ethnic cleansing, such wars have been extinct since 1945.
Extinct, anyway, until Vladimir Putin came to power. There is no real mystery here. Putin explained his motivations in his famed 2005 annual address — the breakup of the Soviet Union was a “major geopolitical disaster.” In 2021, he went further, saying the independence of Ukraine and the other Soviet republics was the breakup of “historical Russia.” By historical Russia he means the Russian Empire, with “Great Russians” ruling over Belarusians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and a host of other nations. As with most Russian nationalists, Putin cannot be happy with a country; Russia can only be great as an empire.
The alternative theory, that Putin is afraid of having NATO and the EU on his border, simply doesn’t fit the data. NATO members Latvia and Estonia already border Russia. No serious person thinks Europe has a military interest in Russia — Germany, the largest country, could not muster 44 tanks for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. It also fails to explain his aggression elsewhere on Russia’s borders.
Nearly every external action Putin has taken since 2005 has helped restore his “historical Russia” — the brutal subjugation of Chechnya, military incursion in Georgia, strong-arming Armenia into the Eurasian Economic Union, occupation in eastern Moldova, and military intervention in Kazakhstan. (Military action also helps distract the Russian public and boost his domestic approval ratings.)
He also weaponizes history, denying that Ukraine is a true nation. After Russia incorporated Ukrainian lands in the 17th century, it crafted an imperial ideology of three peoples in one — Great Russians, White Russians (Belarus), and condescendingly, Little Russians (Ukrainians). No one asked the “Little Russians” their opinion, and Putin is not interested in it now.
One of Putin’s talking points is that Ukrainian is just a dialect of Russian. In truth, it has the same overlap with Russian as Dutch does with English, so if you believe Putin, try reading an Amsterdam newspaper.
Ukrainians speak three languages — Ukrainian, Russian, and a mixture called Surzhyk. Many speak more than one. Putin tries a sleight of hand in which anyone who speaks Russian anywhere in the world is “Russian” and thus in need of his protection. At the risk of violating Godwin’s Law, I’ll note that a former corporal in Germany used the same excuse to “protect” abused Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Russophone Ukrainians overwhelmingly see themselves as Ukrainian first, not Russian. Even a majority of those who accept Russian ethnicity still hold loyalty to Ukraine. Putin and his state-run (and military-intelligence fueled) propaganda machine claim they are “liberating” these Russian speakers.
This is undistilled propaganda. Russian speakers in Ukraine were and are vastly freer than in Russia itself. They have no interest in joining Putin — even before the invasion only 7 percent of eastern Ukraine wanted union with Russia. The past few weeks have demonstrated this with perfect clarity. Witness the steadfast courage of the eastern Ukrainian cities in fighting the invaders. Even since Kherson fell, the citizens have not given up, courageously protesting daily and demanding the Russians leave. If you need more proof, witness the two million, mostly Russian-speaking refugees who have left Ukraine. They’re running from Russia for safety, not toward it.
I genuinely pity the poor conscripts who were sent in, their heads filled with lies about Ukrainian Nazis and the suffering of their fellow Russians. This is clearly seen in a recent video of a captured soldier sobbing while local residents curse him in Russian. What a nauseating feeling it must be to realize you’ve killed for a lie.
And what about the “Nazi regime” the Russians have come to oust from Ukraine? President Zelensky is Jewish, and until Volodymyr Hroysman left office in 2019, the country also had a Jewish prime minister, making Ukraine the only country outside of Israel with both a Jewish head of state and head of government. This is in a country where Jews comprise 0.13 percent of the population.
Does anti-Semitism exist? Of course, it does everywhere. A Pew study found 11 percent of Ukrainians hold such views — compared to 18 percent of Russians, 15 percent of Italians, and 38 percent of Greeks.
But what of this Azov Regiment? In 2014, when Putin seized Donbas and Crimea, Ukraine had a hollow army and was unable to defend itself. Volunteer battalions sprang up to fill the gap. One of the most effective was the Azov Battalion (now a regiment). It was led by despicable people — true neo-Nazis. If you watch Russian TV, you might think it represented all of Ukraine. However, it is 2,500 men in a 200,000-person military.
More importantly, Azov’s founders left in 2014 to form a political party, the National Corps. It failed utterly. For the 2019 elections, they united with the other hard-right parties in Ukraine under the Svoboda (Freedom) banner. The coalition won a pathetic 1.62 percent of the presidential vote and 2.15 percent for parliament, securing a single seat in Ukraine’s 450-member parliament.
There is no need to speculate if Ukrainians support “fascism” — they voted overwhelmingly against it.
Want to see fascism? Just turn your eyes eastward a bit. Over twenty years, Putin has led Russia steadily in that direction: forming a cult of personality dictatorship; demolishing free elections, free press, and civil society; persecuting ethnic and religious minorities; centralizing academia, media, and social life into extensions of the State; and using flimsy historical pretexts to launch wars of aggression.
As for Putin being a defender of Christendom, that’s equally foolish. First, the Biblical leadership model is hardly that of a kleptocrat whose entire regime functions as a money-sucking Ponzi scheme and is kept in power by physical force and assassination of dissidents.
Second, Ukraine is much more actively Christian than Russia, with 31 percent of its population being “highly religious,” compared to 17 percent in Russia. It also has a thriving Protestant church, one Putin has persecuted harshly in occupied Donbas, declaring the Baptist Church in Luhansk a terrorist organization.
In the end, this war is the aging autocrat’s final attempt to rebuild the Russian Empire and correct the wrong turn history made in 1991.
You might be tempted to ask why it matters to America. First, because America still stands for freedom and basic human rights. But more directly, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are part of historic Russia. They’re also NATO members and America is treaty-bound to defend them. If we don’t stop Putin indirectly in Ukraine, we might well have to face him on the battlefield.
J. Wesley Bush has worked for 11 years in the international affairs sphere. All opinions are entirely his own.