Justice in Russian-style, or how Russia tries to justify annexation


Originally published in Latvian on www.delfi.lv

Mārcis Balodis, researcher at the Centre for East European Policy Studies

Russia’s hasty preparations for the annexation of occupied territories have been one of the most significant events in the Ukrainian war in recent weeks. Consequently, various talking heads have been active in attempting to justify why Ukraine’s territory allegedly “belongs” to Russia and why such a step was allegedly required.

From the past to the present

The most significance can be attributed to another historical monologue of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he delivered on 30 September. He made reference to the often-heard accusation levelled against Western countries, namely that they want to turn Russia into a colony for plundering. The West, in his opinion, does not want to accept the possibility that Russia could be a large and powerful country that refuses to submit to some abstract values and principles.

He emphasised that Russia’s current war in Ukraine is a struggle for Russia’s greatness not only in the present, but also for future generations. As a result, he came to the “reasoning” that annexing Ukrainian territories is the restoration of historical justice.

The pseudo-referendums held in Ukraine’s four regions are said to be proof of the historical unity of the territories’ residents and their common destiny with Russia, for which Russia’s ancestors fought more than once and, importantly, won.[1] He was also supported by the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former President Dmitry Medvedev, who has also called the annexation of the territories to Russia a restoration of historical justice, which will simultaneously help protect the residents of these territories.[2]

The connection with historical events is not considered secondary, and the Russian information space frequently reminds people of the historical connection of these territories (as well as practically all of Ukraine’s territories) with Russia, for which Russians have laid down their lives for generations. According to the Kremlin, the residents of these territories have passed down their love for Russia from generation to generation, which is now manifesting itself in a desire to return to Russia. Inconspicuously, it is also reminded that the country fell apart due to the ineptitude of the USSR’s leaders, as a result of which people were allegedly separated from their true homeland.[3]

The idea of defending Ukraine’s territories is supplemented by long-repeated accusations about the fascist nature of the Kyiv regime, which continues to engage in illegal and even terrorist activities against its citizens. The director of the “New Society Institute”, Vasiliy Koltashov, even claims that there are people tattooed with swastikas roaming the streets of Ukraine, even killing Ukrainians for no reason, while the Ukrainian security service is equated with the Gestapo, which the rest of the world appears to ignore. And this explains the “need for Russia”, that is, Russia ending such terror and helping the residents, as opposed to the West, which allegedly have not helped at all.[4]

Historical nihilism

This argumentation will sound familiar to those who remember the events in Ukraine in 2014, and for good reason. Putin, like other Russian officials, is using the same arguments to justify the annexation of four regions this year that were used to justify the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Through them, Russia attempts to disguise its imperialist ambitions as concern for human rights and the right to self-determination. It is true that since 2014, Russia and Putin personally have gradually attempted to portray Ukraine as a non-independent, artificial country in order to sway public opinion against Ukraine in the long term.

Putin’s essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” was published in July of last year, in which the Russian president attempted to demonstrate that a separate Ukrainian nation does not exist at all. According to him, the modern territory of Ukraine has always been in close political and cultural connection with Russia, to the point where Ukraine as a separate nation cannot be established.

Whereas modern Ukraine as a country is said to be the result of the USSR era, which is said to have been created in the historical lands of Russia. Additionally, any attempt to demonstrate Ukraine’s existence as a separate nation from Russia is explained by a long-standing tradition of relying on fabrications that have nothing to do with reality. Moreover, in the President of Russia’s opinion, these fabrications even continue today, as the Kyiv government attempts to rewrite or forget its own history, causing Russia to be unfairly labelled as an aggressor. Therefore, Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its own national identity are even equated with forced assimilation, the counter-reaction to which was the population’s “separatism” in Crimea and Donbass in 2014.[5]

Essentially, at its core the essay is an overt attempt by the Kremlin to deny Ukraine as a nation as well as Ukrainian sovereignty. The title of the essay is deceptive in that it leads the reader to believe that historical unity exists at all. The sentiment expressed in the essay clearly reflects Russia’s nihilistic attitude toward Ukraine in general; for example, Boris Yeltsin’s administration only agreed to formally recognise Ukraine as a sovereign state if Ukraine agreed to hand over control of the Sevastopol port to Russia. The same approach was continued by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with the goal of not only gaining control over a portion of Ukraine’s territory, but also directly limiting Ukraine’s sovereignty,[6] since any political development and movement of Ukraine towards the West would be impossible without Russia’s involvement.

Ukraine’s global position

Although the histories of Ukraine and Russia are inextricably linked, there is no basis for claiming that Ukraine as a nation was created during the Soviet era. According to Timothy Snyder, an Eastern European history researcher, the concept of Ukraine as a nation-state has existed since the 17th century and gained prominence in the 19th century, similarly to national movements elsewhere in Europe.[7] The idea that Russia has a special right to take over Ukrainian territories simply because they were previously inhabited by Russians or belonged to Russia is equally unfounded.

These territories are part of the sovereign Ukraine and cannot be redistributed without the consent of Kyiv. Using the logic of “true” ownership of historically inhabited territories, Mongolia could lay claim to the majority of the Eurasian continent, based on the Golden Horde’s territories. It goes without saying that the armed pseudo-referendums conducted by Russia do not adhere to any requirements to be regarded as valid representations of the local population’s will.

Russia’s nationalism and concerns about human rights in Ukraine are merely a pretext for foreign policy. The concept of one nation under one – Russian – flag is a tool that can be used to appeal to the sympathies of the population not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia’s domestic political environment. Domestic audiences are presented with a specific political framework in which Ukraine is presented as territory stolen or lost from Russia, the recovery of which is a legally and morally justified and supportable step.

This is why Putin’s essay is significant in this context, as it contributes to forming the “correct” understanding of Ukraine as an entity that has temporarily borrowed Russian territory. However, such nationalism is only emphasised on territories and countries outside of Russia, while the message is muted within the country. Russia is a multi-ethnic country where strong ideas about Russia as the defining nation can cause ethnic tensions, particularly given the various ethnic and religious groups, for example, in Chechnya. As a result, in relation to Ukraine, Russia can use the supposedly existing unity between Russians and Ukrainians, while internally such chauvinism is dangerous. Similarly, in the case of Ukraine, Russia can advocate for the respect of human rights by referring to unproven accusations levelled against the Ukrainian people, whereas in Russia, human rights are viewed as an impediment to the implementation of state policy.

Therefore, Russia’s ideas about restoring historical justice and protecting the Ukrainian people serve multiple interconnected purposes. Undoubtedly, in the context of the current conflict, territorial annexation is a clear request to Kyiv and the West to cease resisting Russian aggression. At the same time, it is a continuation of a long-standing trend of limiting Ukraine’s ability to decide on its own development.

Distancing Ukraine from Russian influence is unforgivable in Russia’s eyes, not only because of imperialist ambitions, but also because it would raise important issues that would be detrimental to Russia. The successful democratisation of Ukraine and the subsequent strengthening of the rule of law and respect for human rights would raise the question of why Russia is unable to do so. This would be in stark contrast to Russia’s own postulated “special” mission as a country that does not truly apply Western liberal values.[8] Although Russia actively promotes Ukraine as a NATO bridgehead, on a political level, Ukraine’s membership in the European Union is far more risky for the Kremlin because it would directly challenge the Russian governance model as the only correct one.

There is no doubt that Russia’s “excuses” for annexing Ukrainian territories are merely mental gymnastics that will not find widespread support in the international community. It is true that ironically Russia’s actions over the last eight years have been the primary cause of Ukraine’s political and social transformations, fundamentally weakening any historical ties that have existed between Ukraine and Russia. In a similar manner, Russian aggression dispels concerns about the type of global order it seeks to establish.

This publication has been financed by the European Media and Information Fund (EMIF) that is managed by the “Calouste Gulbekian Foundation”:  The sole responsibility for the content lies with the author(s) and the content may not necessarily reflect the positions of EMIF or the foundation.

[1] Vladimir Isachenkov, “With pomp, bluster and ceremony, Putin defies West in speech”, APN News, skat. 05.10.2022., https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-putin-race-and-ethnicity-racial-injustice-moscow-23bb0ba759d877c4525082e921544910

[2] Archive Today, “Дмитрий Медведев”, skat. 05.10.2022., https://archive.ph/vIqsd

[3] Baltnews, “Суверенитет, свобода, созидание: как Россия борется за большое историческое будущее”, skat. 05.10.2022., https://baltnews.com/Russia_West/20220930/1025756304/Suverenitet-svoboda-sozidanie-kak-Rossiya-boretsya-za-bolshoe-istoricheskoe-buduschee-.html

[4] Василий Колташов, “«Добро пожаловать домой!»: Вступление в состав России спасет Донбасс от террора Киева”, Eurasia Expert, skat. 04.10.2022., https://eurasia.expert/vstuplenie-v-sostav-rossii-spaset-donbass-ot-terrora-kieva/

[5] Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, President of Russia, skat. 04.10.2022., http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

[6] Katarina Wolczuk, Rilka Dragneva, “Russia’s longstanding problem with Ukraine’s borders”, Chatham House, skat. 04.10.2022., https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/08/russias-longstanding-problem-ukraines-borders

[7] Robin Pomeroy, “What we need to know about Ukraine’s history: Professor Timothy Snyder on the Radio Davos podcast”, World Economic Forum, skat. 04.10.2022., https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/07/timothy-snyder-ukraine-history/

[8] Владимир Рыжков, “Новая доктрина Путина”, Россия в глобальной политике, skat. 05.10.2022., https://web.archive.org/web/20220616024626/https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/novaya-doktrina-putina/