Russia’s open war against Ukraine can help nation-building: expert
March 1, 2022
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Russia’s open war against Ukraine can become the most effective tool of Ukrainian nation-building, an expert at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies believes.
“Ukraine managed to ‘settle a score’ with its communist past, and it looks like it can do the same with its Russian imperial past after this war,” said Volodymyr Kravchenko on Friday. Kravchenko is the Director of Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program (CUSP).
“Like it or not, I am afraid it may sound cynical, but most modern nations are a product of a war or a war mythology,” Kravchenko said during the “Russia’s war against Ukraine: What is at stake?” roundtable on Friday, Feb. 25.
In response to the rapidly unfolding Russian war against Ukraine, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) at the University of Alberta gathered academics and scholars to discuss key issues that have been defining the war.
“We need to understand the intellectual, historical and geopolitical dimensions of this war,” Kravchenko said. “We are witnessing a prolonged agony over the Soviet symbolic space, and its gradual nationalization by Ukraine and Russia.”
He called Ukrainian-Russian relations “very special”, which, he believes, is why Putin is “so angry” with Ukraine.
“Ukraine was deeply incorporated into the Russian world and Soviet world for such a long time. These two worlds are well-overlapped, but they are different,” he said. “In case of Ukraine, [Putin] denies the very existence of [Ukraine’s] separate identity.”
Kravchenko said that whoever controls Ukraine controls the entire eastern periphery of Europe.
“Ukrainian history contains a record of Ukrainian-Russian wars. It teaches those who are ready to be taught that Ukrainians can win the battle,” he said. To be victorious, Kravchenko said Ukraine needs allies.
The panelists identified four key issues at the core of today’s war: Ukraine-Russia relations, sovereignty, democracy, civic society and disinformation.
Frank E. Sysyn, Head of the CIUS Toronto Office agreed that wars have great influence on nation-building.
“I think what we are facing is the crisis of forming a modern Russian identity,” he said. “That is the inability to give up the idea that Russia must be something greater, and that greater must somehow involve Ukraine.”
He recalled that beginning in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, CIUS ran conferences over a considerable amount of time on the Russian-Ukrainian encounters to stimulate Russian-Ukrainian discussions.
“We found out at that time [that] it was too early, largely from the Russian side, they were not willing to engage,” he said.
He said that perhaps it may be finally time for Russia to “come to terms with being Russia”. According to Marko R. Stech, Director of CIUS Press and Scholarly Publications, that means realizing that you can be Russian only in name. “Mr. Putin would have to consider that he is not really Russian,” said Stech. “The history of his state starts in 12th century and has very little to do with Europe until the 18th century.”
The Russian culture is based on much of what Ukraine brought into the Empire, which Stech said is so important to Putin.
“That’s why, if, suddenly, he would lose Kyiv, he must deal with a different view of history,” he said.
The view of Ukrainian history often fell prey to disinformation, which Tania Plawuszczak-Stech, CIUS’s Senior Editor, said, sometimes affected even the very concept of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. However, Putin’s disinformation campaign closely follows his campaign of destruction of anything that would suggest that Ukraine had a different history that Russia, said Marko Stech.
“I would be extremely concerned about the campaign of massive destruction of all of the materials, scholarly materials, archives, libraries, and so on, if Putin would actually be able to get into power and do whatever he would like to do in Ukraine,” he said, mentioning the 1960s fire of the National Library of Ukraine.
“The fire brigades were waiting the entire day until the whole section of the ancient Ukrainian manuscripts was burned to ashes,” he said. “I believe that something very similar would happen in a current situation.”
The Editor-in-Chief of Forum for Ukrainian Studies, Oleksandr Pankieiev, believes that scholars need to counter disinformation by communicating analytical information in a simple and digestible way.
“[Russian propagandists] are taking historical nuggets and simplifying the information for the larger audience. Academics look into the deeper nature of those facts, but regular citizens consume information completely differently,” he said. “This is why Russia’s propaganda works, because those messages are so simple.”
The disinformation regime has reached every corner of its country, including the civic society. That’s why, Pankieiev said, the remnants of the civic society are struggling to survive.
“We need to look in comparison what is going in Ukraine,” he said. “Ukraine has made a huge jump towards the democratic values and it is a sign to the Russian society that it is something possible to do.”
Pankieiev said that Russia’s concept of sovereignty is different from the rest of the world’s.
“It’s the concept of 18th and 19th century meaning of a sovereign ruler,” he said, “the sovereign ruler that exercises unbelievable rights not only within his own state, but also tries to reach to the neighboring countries.”
Civic society is a driving powerful force in democracy, added Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, CIUS Director, which goes hand in hand with other powerful institutions on the ground.
“The more of a threat we’ve seen coming from the east, the more [Ukrainians] push for that particular civic identity we have been seeing on the ground unfolding [since 1991],” she said.
Kravchenko said that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could have symbolic meaning.
“Putin’s campaign against Ukraine started on the 23rd of February, which is the official Soviet celebration of the Soviet Army and Navy,” he said. “Why he didn’t decide to invade Ukraine before? I believe that he was hoping that Mr. Zelenskyy, who is native to Donbas, who is Russian speaking, who was a frequent visitor to Russia, would be an imitation of Yanukovych. And when he understood that this is not going to happen, he decided [to proceed].”
This article is written under the Local Journalism Initiative agreement