Interview: “Putin is trying to turn the clock back”

2 Mar 2022

From a historical perspective, what should we think of the Russian government’s arguments and objectives in the war on Ukraine? We asked historian and Eastern European expert Martin Schulze Wessel.

Professor Martin Schulze Wessel holds the Chair of History of Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe at LMU and is currently a fellow at St. Antony’s College in Oxford.

Prof. Martin Schulze Wessel

© Historisches Kolleg/Stefan Obermeier,Muenchen

Could you give us a historical analysis of the arguments behind and objectives of Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

Martin Schulze Wessel: Russia’s attack on Ukraine can in no way be explained by the objectives officially proclaimed by the Russian government. Putin is not really looking to push NATO back, nor is he concerned with self-determination for Ukraine’s Russian population.

My theory is that Putin is trying to turn the clock back. He has often said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geostrategic disaster of our day. He wants to revive the way things used to be. Putin wants to reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union and bring its former republics back into a constellation where the Kremlin is the center of power.

The Russian leader is using various means to pursue this goal: He has launched a war against Ukraine. In Georgia, he initially supported the secessionist movements and then triggered a military intervention. And in Belarus, he is keeping a dictator in power even after elections were lost, which means that Lukashenko has become completely dependent on Russia. The fact that Lukashenko has now made his country available as a base for military operations and is also giving direct military support to Putin makes him a war criminal in his own right.

Kiev, a few days after the attack.

© imago images/Xinhua

In an earlier interview, you said: “Putin’s recent statements reflect a tendency to place his political actions in historical contexts, with the Russian Tsarist empire playing a far greater role than the former Soviet Union.” How far back in history do his arguments go? And are they tenable?

Martin Schulze Wessel Putin talks a lot about history. Not every detail of his speeches is always wrong: He tends to mix half-truths with lies. But what he does not possess is historical insight. If he did, he would know that you cannot recreate circumstances that existed 30 years ago by force.

Over the past two years, the history of Russia has emerged as a ‘retro’ layer in his arguments. Putin glorifies the Russian past and seeks to build on this image. He takes the medieval Kievan Rus, a construct in which Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians lived together peacefully, as his starting point. Putin wants a return to the primal unity of these three east Slavic, Orthodox nations – or, to be more precise, to the unity interpreted into this construct from the Russian side in the Tsarist empire of the 19th century. And that is a very much larger project than reversing the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Read the interview with jurist Christian Walter on the Ukraine war.

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What bonds still exist between Russia and Ukraine?

Martin Schulze Wessel: There are two phases of Russo-Ukrainian history to which Putin can evoke positive references: The unity around the Kievan Rus, and the Second World War, in which Russians, Ukrainians and other peoples of the Soviet Union won victory over Nazi Germany.

It is typical of Putin’s line of argument, however, that he distorts things and leaves a lot out. As an example, I would cite the Holodomor, a famine engineered deliberately by Stalin. The Ukrainians suffered exceptionally with nearly four million deaths; the Kazakhs too, and the Russians in the Volga region. The famine was a consequence of Stalin’s forced industrialization policy during the first Five-Year Plan. To meet his development targets in urban centers, Stalin pursued a merciless policy of collectivization in rural areas combined with unrealistic quotas for cereals and other agricultural products. In doing so, he knowingly accepted that a terrible famine would ensue. And as if that was not bad enough, he linked the famine he had brought about to a terror campaign against Ukrainian intellectuals and artists.

Today, the great famine is understood in Ukraine as genocide, not least due to its combination with Stalin’s anti-Ukrainian culture war. By contrast, Russia still clings to the theory that the famine can be attributed solely to the forced industrialization that many Soviet republics experienced. The genocide hypothesis is refuted. Yet the fact that Putin today levels an absurd accusation of genocide against the Ukrainians, referring to their policy toward the Russian minority in Ukraine, is factually incorrect – a spiteful riposte to the historical accusations of genocide asserted by the Ukrainians. These statements by Putin are indicative of his pattern of interpretation, but also of the hatefulness of his rhetoric.

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