“Putin is trapped in imperial paradigms that hark back to the past”

23 Aug 2023

On 24 August, Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day. An interview with historian Martin Schulze Wessel about Ukrainian national identity and Putin’s role models.

When Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day on 24 August, the Russian war of aggression will have been going on for a year and a half. In an interview, Professor Martin Schulze Wessel, Chair of Eastern and South Eastern European History at LMU, speaks about the significance of the national holiday for Ukraine, Putin’s historical models, and historians on the front.

Moskau. Das Museumsdiorama Zar Modell, in dem die bekanntesten Orte aus allen Regionen Russlands im Maßstab 1:87 präsentiert werden.

The museum diorama Tsar Model in Moscow presents the most known places from all regions of Russia in 1:87 scale.

© IMAGO / Russian Look / Komsomolskaya / Pravda

Professor Schulze Wessel, you said in an interview 18 months ago that Putin’s speeches pointed to a looming war. A few days later, he marched into Ukraine. How far did Putin get with this initial assault?

Martin Schulze Wessel: Putin has often described Ukraine as being part of Russia and counted on widespread collaboration and submission, which was a fundamental miscalculation. Instead, he came up against a mature Ukrainian nation united in its determination to defend its independence. In his speeches, Putin likes to harp on the supposed weakness and decadence of the West, two well-worn themes from Soviet days, but this turned out not to be the case. The West, and specifically Germany, has often been too hesitant in providing military support to Ukraine, but to date the West has taken a largely united line against Russian aggression. Putin did not expect this before his attack in February 2022. His policies are based to some extent on non-rational political calculus, following historical scripts: He is guided by the role played by the great tsars in Russian history, such as Peter the Great. While he instrumentalizes history to his own ends, he’s also the prisoner of a skewed historical discourse from the late 19th century.

Does his military strategy also follow historical models?

Putin’s warfare is founded on a conception of history from the late Russian Empire, on the idea of a hallowed empire and a Russian nation that extends beyond the ethnic Russian population to incorporate Ukraine and Belarus and other “once Russian” territories. At the beginning of the war, Putin no doubt saw himself as a conqueror in the tradition of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, both of whom led major wars of conquest that considerably expanded the territorial possessions of Russia.

When this bold move failed, were there any other historical models Putin turned to?

He did not fully depart from his historical ‘script,’ but took other historical episodes as imperial models. A few weeks after the start of the war, as it was already apparent that the war was not going to plan for the Russians, he gave a speech to young Russian entrepreneurs and scientists where he compared his war with the “conquering and fortifying” of Peter the Great in the Northern Wars against the Sweden of Charles XII. This was a war that also did not go to plan and began with painful setbacks. The historical script that Putin is drawing on now is sort of a “Plan B” as my colleague Serhii Plokhy from Harvard University put it. Now that rapid victory has eluded him, he’s gearing for a long war in which territory is consolidated. The setting provides a further historical reference point. Putin’s historical mental maps partially encompass the territories won by Catherine the Great, who conquered the northern Black Sea coast and the Crimea. Dubbed ‘New Russia’ at the time, the conquest of these lands was already a strategic goal for Putin back in 2014.

Prof. Martin Schulze Wessel

© Historisches Kolleg/Stefan Obermeier,Muenchen

Many aspects of this war become easier to understand when we look at the history. But can the historical lens also distort?

We should not attempt to extrapolate from history the course of the current war. Moreover, if we just overlay the 18th and 19th centuries, then we overlook certain things – for example, that Putin is conducting a war of annihilation against the Ukrainian population and civilian infrastructure, and that his war of aggression meets the criteria for genocide, when we recall the massacre in Bucha and in many other places, along with the targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure, the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, and the declared intention to destroy Ukraine as an independent nation. It’s curious how Putin keeps alleging genocide by his enemies. At the time of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, he was claiming that the Georgians intended to commit genocide on Abkhazians and Ossetians, while during the first attack on Ukraine in 2014 he leveled a similar accusation with regard to the alleged assimilation policy of Ukraine toward the Russian minority in Donbas. In this way Putin demonizes Ukraine, just as he vilifies its leaders as fascist and satanic.

The Russian population seems to accept this narrative, at least in part. Can this attitude – difficult as it is for the Western world to comprehend – be explained historically?

One reason why the Russians are not rebelling more – aside, that is, from Putin’s increasingly brutal repressions – is the deeply rooted sense that the West is pursuing policies that are hostile to Russia. According to this view, Ukraine – and formerly Poland – are acting as puppets of the West, without their own historical dignity and independence. Russian society is very receptive to these anti-Ukrainian tropes. Through state television, Putin has extensive influence on public opinion. That being said, the applause of the population of Rostov for Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny shows how thin the ice is for Putin.

Has the national holiday, which commemorates the day Ukraine declared its independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, gained in importance since the Russian invasion?

The value of independence has become greater because Ukraine is sacrificing so much to defend it. But this does not mean that Independence Day is being celebrated with more pomp and ceremony; indeed the opposite is the case. Zelenskyy has wisely eschewed military parades, insisting that the military is needed elsewhere: at the front. Instead, the wreckage of Russian tanks were displayed in Kyiv. A victory parade belongs after the war, not during it.

You yourself studied in Moscow and later founded the German-Ukrainian Historical Commission. What effects have the war had on your cooperation with Russian and Ukrainian researchers?

Institutional cooperation with Russian historians is neither possible nor useful at the present juncture. Russia’s universities and research institutes were called upon to declare their approval for Putin’s war policy and have acceded to this demand. We’re striving by contrast to establish deeper cooperation with Ukrainian scholars. This includes exiles on the one hand, particularly the academics – most of whom were female – who came to Germany after the war started. With a relief fund, which was set up here at the Historical Seminar in short order and was the largest of its kind in Germany, around 30 researchers were provided with grants and living accommodation in Munich or were placed with other institutions.

Now LMU is planning to establish a joint historical research center together with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. The fact that some of the Ukrainian doctoral researchers meant to work at the center are at the front demonstrates how interconnected war and science are, as the joint research we have planned depends on these young people returning alive and healthy from the war.

Prof. Martin Schulze Wessel has been Chair of Eastern and South Eastern European History at LMU since 2003. His main research interests include the history of empires in Eastern Europe, Ukrainian history, Russian historiography and historical thought, transnational relationships between Eastern, Central, and Western Europe, and the religious history of East-Central and Eastern Europe.

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