Some history possibly related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

I rarely post about contemporary events, particularly ones involving any kind of armed conflict. Too often we don’t have a clear view of what’s happening, and what we do know comes through the fog of war. Which I definitely think is the case in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s often years, sometimes decades, before we find out about much of what’s happening in times like this.

However, I do sometimes like reading history related to these events. Often that history may offer insights into what’s happening. I suspect and hope government officials are aware of these factors, but I’m only seeing them discussed glancingly in the public commentary.

The question is, why invade Ukraine? Much of the commentary has focused on Putin and rumors about his state of mind. Other commentary on his comments years ago that the fall of the Soviet Union was a catastrophic mistake. So maybe this is about him trying to rebuild the Soviet Union. Or maybe it’s deeper than that, more about trying to rebuild the old Russian Empire.

The history here is interesting. The beginnings of the Rus’ people seem to be in early Varangian (Viking) migrations into the relevant regions. In the early centuries Rus’ was actually centered on medieval Kiev (modern day Kyiv). But Kievan Rus’ was cut short by the Mongol invasions and occupied for centuries.

Moscow managed to stay outside of that occupation, although they had to pay tribute to the Mongols and their successor state, the Golden Horde. Muscovite Russians later felt like Ukrainians were lost brethren being brought back into the fold. But the two groups had been separated for centuries, and the Ukrainians never subsequently felt like part of the family. Russia’s often brutal treatment of Ukraine throughout its history hasn’t helped.

But this sense of Russian brethren largely fits with a lot of the rhetoric Putin issued prior to the invasion. He seems to see Ukraine as part of greater Russia. But this leads to the question, why have the Russians historically cared about Ukraine? Was it just bloody-minded expansionism? Or was there something more strategic involved? And is Putin motivated by similar concerns today?

In modern times, most international trade takes place on the seas. This wasn’t always true. The ancient Silk Road ran overland through Asia. But when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, it cut off the Silk Road. This forced Europeans to find alternate routes to eastern lands, which they did by developing new navigation techniques and exploring new sea routes.

The result is that world trade shifted to this new theater. It meant that countries that were landlocked, without access to the oceans, were at a major disadvantage in terms of trade. Having access to oceans dramatically increases the number of trading partners you can have, substantially increasing the standard of living for a country’s residents.

A cursory glance at Russia on a map wouldn’t lead you to think this is an issue for them. They appear to have extensive coastlines. However, most of their coastline is on the Arctic Ocean. The ports there are remote, and the waters at those ports are frozen most of the year. Russia also has access to the pacific ocean, but this is in the far east. 80% of Russians live west of the Ural Mountains. Anything shipped through those eastern ports would have to be transported across the vastness of Siberia.

Click through for source

Early in its history, Russia understood this, and made gaining access to warm water ports a priority. Tsar Peter I (the Great) managed this in the early 1700s when he successfully conquered territory on the shores of the Baltic Sea. He considered this territory so critical he built a new city there, named it Saint Petersburg, and made it his new capital. (It would remain the capital of the Russian Empire until the Communists took over in 1917.)

Click through for source

But while the Baltic Sea was a vast improvement over the White Sea and Arctic Ocean, there were still issues. Baltic ports are still frozen for part of the year. And Saint Petersburg is at the inner extreme of the Baltic Sea, with passage between several other countries that could complicate Russia’s access to the broader oceans. The Russian Empire partially alleviated some of these concerns by later conquering the Baltic states and Finland, giving them broader and more secure access to that sea. But it’s worth noting that today, Russia’s access is again somewhat narrow.

Peter also wanted access to the Black Sea. Much further south, it has ports that generally don’t freeze. And it would give Russia easy access to trading in the Mediterranean. (In modern times, the value of this access is enhanced by the Suez Canal.) Peter I wasn’t able to accomplish this in his time, but later rulers did. By conquering Ukraine and adjacent regions.

Click through for source

That explains Russia’s historical interest in this region. But what’s with the contemporary situation? Again, looking at a map, Russia seems to have access to the Black Sea on its own, with no need for Ukrainian territory. But similar to the Baltic Sea situation, that access is on the northeastern shores of the Black Sea. Any navigation has to pass by Ukraine, notably the Crimea.

On top of that, Seveastopol, the largest city in Crimea, has historically been the base of operations for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Which seems to explain Russia’s interest in this region, and why they siezed it in 2014. The Russian mindset may be that a hostile Ukraine would be a risk to access of Crimea and more broadly through the Black Sea.

(Interestingly enough, another vulnerability for anyone accessing the Mediterranean through the Black Sea is that it involves passage through the Bosporus, the Strait of Istanbul. Russia realized this in the 19th century, and once tried to make alliances in order to seize it from the Ottoman Empire. Turkey undoubtedly was aware of this history and their strategic situation, which is probably why they joined NATO pretty early in its history.)

It’s probably also worth mentioning that the fertile productivity of Russian lands has never been great, maybe related to distance from the seas and the resulting temperatures. However, the productivity of Ukraine’s soil is relatively high. I suspect Russia is dependent on grain from Ukraine to at least some degree, which introduces another danger from a hostile Ukraine.

So maybe this explains why Putin felt it was in his interest to unleash death and misery on Ukraine, even knowing it would cause economic pain for his country. He may be betting that the pain from sanctions is relatively short term and weighing it against the longer term benefits of controlling Ukraine. Maybe. Although if he does decide to nationalize the assets of companies that pull out, it may be a very long time before they trust Russia enough to invest in it again, so the pain might be far longer than he’s contemplating.

None of this necessarily gives us clues on how this ends. One thing I was struck by when reading the history of this region, is how often efforts at western liberalization seem to fail. The Russians knew in the early industrial period that they were at a major disadvantage with most of their population being stuck in illiterate serfdom, but efforts to rectify this always seemed to run up against ruling class interests.

In the late 1800s, as progress finally started to be made, it resulted in a more educated population, but one with seething resentments, that eventually culminated in the 1917 revolutions, and ultimately a return to an authoritarian state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it looked for a short time like Russia might finally be headed for democracy, but the chaos and pain that ensued drove the population back into the hands of an autocrat, who could at least make the trains run on time and pay the bills.

That seems to be a recurring pattern in Russian history. Plurality rarely appears to work. The lesson always seems to be that a strong authority is more important than one that takes into account everyone’s interests. Of course, that means one man’s miscalculations can be very costly for an entire society.

Overall, this history makes it hard to be optimistic about how things might turn out. This is a case where I really hope I’m missing something.

I got a lot of the information for this post from Russian History: A Very Short Introduction, and Russian History from the Captivating History series. The second one in particular I found pretty informative and recommend checking out if you’re interested.

Featured image source

30 thoughts on “Some history possibly related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

  1. While it may be debatable what is driving Putin in his military adventure, it is clear enough why a lot of Russians are more than ready to believe the official Russian version.

    On the one hand, there is the long-standing and pervasive notion of Kievan Rus being the true cradle of Russia, which is deeply embedded in Russian self-mythologising. To what extent this is historically true is debatable. E.g. I am assured by a family member who is an expert in the matter, that foundational figures, such as Count Igor, were in fact Normans, as is apparently evidenced by some surviving historical documents.

    On the other hand, there is still a deep undertow of resentment towards Ukranians stemming from the history of WW2, in which (according to the folk memory) Ukranians aligned themselves with Germany to attack Russia. There is an element of truth in this, since there apparently were Ukranian units fighting alongside Germans. How representative they were of the population as a whole is not easy to judge and there are (of course!) opposing views on this on the two sides.

    The upshot is that Russians are by default well inclined to accept the notion of some Nazis having taken control of what really ought to be an integral part of Russia, which is now being liberated by the glorious (how else!) Red Army. And, as always, history will be written by eventual winners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is Count Igor the Igor that was the son of Rurik? If so, then I can see the point about him being Norse. Although it may be a bit semantic whether he was Norse or Russian at that point. From what I’ve read, the Rus’ were a Norse tribe in origin, who would become more differentiated over time.

      I have read about some Ukrainians fighting for the Germans. But I think it’s important to realize just how brutally Stalin treated that region in the decade before WWII, which makes the decision of those Ukrainians a bit more understandable. Ukraine in general was between a rock and a hard place during WWII, brutalized by both sides. So the Russian memory is selective, although probably not any more selective than any other nationalistic memories.

      One thing the invasion is doing, is making a fresh generation of Ukrainians despise the Russians. Apparently their animosity isn’t just aimed at Putin, but at the Russian people overall for following him. Of course, as I noted in the post, the Russians followed Putin because he reduced the pain and chaos of their domestic situation, so they’re inclined to rationalize that he knows what he’s doing now.

      Overall, it’s not a good situation, nor one that seems like it will get better over time, no matter which way the war ultimately turns out.

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      1. > From what I’ve read, the Rus’ were a Norse tribe in origin, who would become more differentiated over time.

        Indeed. IIRC, the word Rus has a parallel in Finnish, suggesting that Kievan tribes originally came from Sweden. But history is one thing, national mythology is another.

        > So the Russian memory is selective, although probably not any more selective than any other nationalistic memories.

        IMHO it is more than selective. It has been deliberately manipulated by Soviet and now Putin’s propagandists. But I should declare my skin in the game. My father was born and grew up in Mariupol and *his* father (a Russified Greek) was executed in Stalin’s “Greek purge” of the area.

        > Overall, it’s not a good situation, nor one that seems like it will get better over time, no matter which way the war ultimately turns out.

        Agreed. Regardless of the fate of Ukraine, Putin (apparently now referred to as Putler in demotic Czech) has achieved the exact opposite of his presumed intentions and merely confirmed to countries bordering Russia that they need a serious amount of protection and that NATO membership is what they really need. Which, in turn, will feel Russian paranoia about being “encircled”. I see no good outcomes.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem is not all land is created equal. Siberia is beautiful and has a lot of natural resources, but it also has long bitter winters and few people choose to live there. From what I understand, most of its inhabitants are descendants of political exiles.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Anonymole, I think you are on to a reasonable insight here. During the Cold War some military strategists argued that the Soviet strategy was various combinations of three steps forward and two back. When the USSR tried to take back Finland in 1939, the Finns reacted much like the present day Ukrainians. The Soviets ultimately backed off, settled for a strategic 10% of Finland’s Baltic territory, Karelia, displacing a total of 400,000 Finns, a port in the Arctic, and a peace treaty that hobbled Finland’s foreign policy until recently. I think there may be a similar end-game here.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s a pretty good analysis of the sea lanes Mike. And a decent nod at the history of Kievan-Rus and the Mongol Horde. I was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, though, from 2003-2005 during their Orange Revolution so I’ve been super steeped in so much more of their history and the current fighting against Russian aggression, disinformation, and corruption. I don’t have time to write a coherent narrative about all this, but here are a few more things to consider:

    — Russia is a kleptocracy, which began with the laissez-faire privatisation idiots of the West who helped Russia sell of billions and billions of assets after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which went directly into the hands of criminals who have squelched democracy and transparency ever since. Putin is believed to be the richest man in the world now, sitting on top of this, taking payments from all the mafia oligarchs in return for letting them and them alone stay in power.
    — Ukraine has been just as corrupt for decades since the fall of the USSR, but, being closer to the EU, and having to pay fealty to Russia, they have had more revolutions to try to become a transparent and fair democracy without all that corruption. That’s largely what the Orange revolution was about while I was there and that has been repeated in 2014 and now.
    — Because Ukraine was (indeed!) the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, it is a source of agricultural wealth. Hitler sent trains and trains of rich soil from Ukraine to Germany when he conquered it for a time. Yes, some Ukrainians welcomed Hitler because they hated the Bolsheviks. They also seem to have willingly killed lots of jews. This is the root of Putin’s “de-nazification” statements. He’s invoking that old grudge against the Ukrainians (who, as a small nation with no difficult borders have been having to choose one imperial ruler over another for centuries).
    — Don’t forget that Stalin already caused incredible amounts of pain to the Ukrainians in retaliation for this. His forced famine (google Holodomor) killed millions who were then replaced by Russian speakers, this further exacerbating the Russification of Ukraine.
    — Currently, the major pipeline bringing Russian gas and oil to Europe goes through Ukraine. This is huge % of Russian GDP. The operators in Ukraine there take huge cuts off the top of this transport and funnel it back to Putin with his blessing. The Nordstream pipeline was going to give this control entirely to Russia, but with climate change concerns, that pipeline project was already on a knife edge. (It has now been cancelled of course.)
    — If Ukraine actually became a free and transparent country (as required for EU entry), all of this wealth from Ukraine would be threatened. Much more problematic, however, is the inspiration it would give to the Russian people themselves, who do have such close ties to their Ukrainian neighbours. And if Russian corruption falls, Putin dies. Simple as that. He’s fighting for his wealth and his life.

    Two other historical articles I found helpful recently were these ones:

    https://quillette.com/2022/03/08/resistance-is-in-our-blood-a-personal-history-of-ukraine/?fbclid=IwAR3tYnKU_6guW3ZMtT9m2VpVsro_x9zczzoGepcRNxcduP8EK-rEfSXiYLc

    https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/ukraine-lenin-putin/?fbclid=IwAR00mAeDps3zT7ufzRUHstVpXpApsOpx26K4PZXoXhqsJYHUdVgLMUYu31k

    Feel free to ask me questions about Ukraine. I still have a lot of friends and old co-workers who live there and / or have family there. It’s important what’s going on and the more we know the better.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Ed! Sorry the spam filter gave you grief. Thanks for letting me know.

      Definitely I think anytime Russians get worked up about some Ukrainians fighting with the Nazis, we have to remember that didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Holodomor had only happened a few years earlier at that point. It definitely doesn’t excuse their decision to do things like kill Jews, but it shows the kind of world they were living in at the time. But it’s also worth noting it’s been 80 years, and the current president of Ukraine is Jewish. Which just means anyone accepting that as a valid reason was looking for an excuse to be convinced.

      I didn’t know that about the major pipeline. And thanks for the confirmation about Ukraine being the breadbasket. Both explain a lot about this situation.

      Unfortunately, even if Ukraine manages to come out of this with their democracy intact, my reading of Russian history doesn’t make me optimistic about it inspiring the Russians to do something about Putin. There are certainly at least some Russians who vehemently oppose this war, and paying a personal cost for doing it. But it’s not clear there are enough.

      The problem is that for many of them, western liberal democracy means the chaos and pain they endured in the 90s. Given that period, it shouldn’t surprise us that many see autocracy as the lesser evil. Although if the average Russian’s personal circumstances become bad enough, who knows what might happen.

      I can’t think of any question to ask right now, but I’ll let you know if any occur to me. Thanks for the offer!

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  3. As you say, there are a lot of opinions out there about this war, but it will probably be years or decades before the full story behind this can be told.

    I recently watched a video from Real Life Lore about the factors that might be behind this conflict. It raised some of the same points you did, but there’s also the issue of Ukraine potentially joining NATO. Russia and Ukraine have a long border over some very flat terrain. If Ukraine became a NATO member, it would be almost impossible for Russia to defend that border from a NATO invasion.

    Again, we really can’t know at this point what’s really behind all this, and the full story probably won’t come out until the war is over and some time has passed. But given how much Ukraine’s potential NATO membership was in the news before the invasion, I think that probably is a big part of it.

    Here’s the video I mentioned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=If61baWF4GE

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Yeah, when I said a hostile Ukraine, I was expressing Russia’s conception of a Ukraine in NATO. Strangely enough, there was talk at one time of bringing Russia themselves into NATO, but I think Putin has made that untenable. I remember the eagerness with which eastern European countries joined NATO when they had the chance. They knew where they lived.

      But you make a very good point about the flat terrain. Historically that’s been Russia’s challenge. It’s very easy to see them as an evil empire, but if you read their history, a lot of their eastern expansion came from responding to raids from the Eurasian steppe. Although I’m sure at points that was more rationalizing than reality, it was rationalization based on a reality that did exist at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The problem is much deeper than some geographic or geopolitical considerations. The roots are in the many-centuries history of the empire located in what was later known as the Soviet Union. Almost nobody is looking into the core of the problem. And the core is the mentality of the so-called Russian people. That mentality is a mentality of imperial slaves, including learned helplessness.
    Here is a hugely oversimplified explanation of such a mentality. The enslaved people are helpless in the empire, and they accept that structure. To keep their human character integrity, they will mentally consider themselves superior (because they are citizens of the empire) to other people. At the same time, they will do everything possible not to get out of enslaved status but to make other people as similar slaves as they are or worse. If somehow the slave managed to become the emperor, he would continue the tradition, would be crueler, and will try to expand his empire as much as possible. Genghis Khan was initially enslaved.
    Many parts of current Russia, where people enthusiastically support aggression against Ukraine, were centuries ago conquered by Moscovia. One prominent example is Siberia.
    With such a mentality, the goal of such a society is to conquer a whole world and make sure nobody can live better than they are. Ukraine is just one step on this ladder.
    Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were conquered by the Soviet Union, but their people did not live long enough under Soviet occupation to become slaves. Unfortunately, people inside Ukraine’s borders lived longer in the empire. That is why it was so hard for them to get out of that “imperial slave” mentality. From outside, not deep enough, view during several last decades, Ukraine’s behavior looked like Russians, if not worse. That is why the West underestimated the Ukrainian people. Ukraine was free long before Moscow existed. And they had a big influx of West Ukrainian people who did not have an “imperial slave” mentality.
    Unfortunately, most West strategists and analysts missed and still are missing the mentality part of the puzzle. The explanation that it is just Putin, who suddenly became mad, is totally out of reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might be right. I don’t know enough about the Russian psychology to comment intelligently. I did read some stuff about the later Russian Empire trying to Russianize some of their subject populations. But it was trying to accomplish something by fiat that should have happened organically over the centuries. Most nation-states today are essentially medieval empires whose subjects got used to each other.

      But for some reason, that didn’t happen in the Russian Empire. I actually wonder how much it might have happened even in many parts of Russia proper. I think the issue might have been that most of those populations didn’t really have much of a vested stake in the social order, so they never grew to think of themselves as part of it. Russia’s restriction on the mobility of common serfs might have been to blame. Maybe.

      Anyway, apparently one country that resisted that Russianization effectively was Finland. From what I read, the people there didn’t fight back violently, they just didn’t comply, en masse. The Russians didn’t know how to deal with that. An uprising they could have crushed. But simple passive resistance left them baffled, and they eventually stopped trying with the Fins.

      I’m pretty impressed with the Ukrainians. For whatever reason, they definitely seem vested in their country. Russia might eventually “win” this war, but if so it will be a costly occupation. Hopefully that’s clear to them at this point and they’re just trying to position for a better bargaining position.

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      1. > I think the issue might have been that most of those populations didn’t really have much of a vested stake in the social order, so they never grew to think of themselves as part of it. Russia’s restriction on the mobility of common serfs might have been to blame.

        You remind me of a Russian joke from late 1970: A Russian tourist in mountains in Soviet Georgia is having his boots fixed and the cobbler says “I hear you had some kind of trouble in Piter [i.e Leningrad at the time of the joke] back in 1917. Would you happen to know how it played out?”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Continuation to my Comment above –
    Residents of Russia support the attack of the Russian Army on the countries of the European Union. This is supported by 86.6% of the citizens of the aggressor country.

    This is evidenced by a sociological study conducted in March by the Active Group and published on March 16.
    “86.6% of Russians allow and support potential attacks on the territory of the countries of the European Union, including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and others,” the report says.

    Respondents were also asked in which country the “special operation” for denazification should be continued, as Putin’s propagandists call the war unleashed in Ukraine. At the same time, the Russians could choose several answers.
    Thus, according to the results of the survey, 75.5% chose Poland, 41% – the Baltic countries, 39.6% – one of the Warsaw Pact countries (Bulgaria, Hungary, former Czechoslovakia), 32.4% – Georgia, 28.8% – Moldova. The option “in one of the NATO countries” was chosen by 4.3%, the USA – 0.7%.

    The opinion poll was conducted on March 11-14 by the method of telephone interview via the Viber messenger. At the same time, the subscribers were not informed that they were calling from Ukraine. The number of Russians surveyed is 1557. The sampling error does not exceed 2.5%.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe so. Although a lot depends on what we accept. Putin’s actions are typical of a pre-WWII mentality. But that was in a world with far less economic interdependencies than the current one. He seems determined to push on, but he’s paying a price 19th century Tsars didn’t have to deal with.

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      1. On a petty level, 3 local councilors somewhere around where I live are notoriously corrupt. Again at a petty level the local churchwardens believe they own their church and will tolerate no interference. On the roads you face aggression on almost any journey you embark upon. Now scale that up a bit and you get Putin, Pol Pot and Stalin…. And all the rest of the merry gang. The causes of such behaviour? Well, there is little need for detail or soul searching. Dogs piss on trees to mark their territory. It is the way animals behave. And a particularly nasty animal is currently pissing on the Ukraine.

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