Historian Serhii Plokhy: “The fate of the war is already clear: Ukraine will be independent and Russia will be tremendously weakened” |  International

Historian Serhii Plokhy: “The fate of the war is already clear: Ukraine will be independent and Russia will be tremendously weakened” | International

Serhii Plokhy, one of Ukraine’s foremost historians, has spent his entire career trying to unearth his country’s dramatic, yet also fascinating, history and rid it of what he calls “imperial misrepresentations”. Born 65 years ago in the Russian city of Nizhnii Novgorod, but raised in Ukraine and with dual U.S.-Ukrainian citizenship, he has directed the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University since 2013.

From his office in Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA) he receives EL PAÍS via video call to talk about his book The Gates of Europe, which spans from Herodotus’s earliest references to the steppes, mountains, and forests north of the Black Sea in the 5th century BC. C. until the Russian annexation of Crimea and the occupation of part of Donbas in 2014. But, forced by the sad current circumstances, Plokhy talks in this interview not so much about the past as about the present and future of his country. In 2021 he added to that book —which Peninsula now publishes in Spanish, with a translation by Marta Rebón and Ferran Mateo— a preface in which he warned that the conflict with Russia posed the greatest threat to international order since World War II. A year later, President Vladimir Putin launched a brutal invasion that has no sign of ending.

Ask. Two years after writing that preface, time seems to have proved him right.

Answer. Historians are not very good at predictions. I was not trying to anticipate the future, I was only describing what my eyes saw. The war we are talking about now began in 2014, when we saw an absolute game changer in international relations, with parallels with Europe in the 1930s. Since World War II we had not seen powers seizing territories and including them in their borders.

Q. Before February 24, did you see a full invasion by Russia as possible?

R. I was not surprised that Putin continued his war. Because from the beginning it was obvious that not only Crimea was at stake, but control of all of Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. And Russia did not meet any of these goals in 2014. What I did not expect is the scale of the war, unprecedented in Europe since World War II. Another surprise has been to verify that Russia was not prepared. Little did I know that Putin would embark on a suicide mission to the Ukraine, his own country and much of Europe, just as Hitler did in 1939.

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Q. Putin is now in a very difficult situation. What leeway does he think he has?

R. The fate of the war is clear. The borders — that is, whether Russia gets Crimea or southern Ukraine — will be decided on the battlefield. But the most important question about the future of the two countries has already been decided. Ukraine will continue as an independent state and is closer than anyone could have imagined to NATO and the EU. And the tremendous weakening of Russia is also decided, with a major turn in its economic ties with the EU. The Putin regime has turned out to be extremely ineffective in defending the interests of Russia itself. The question to be clarified now is whether that regime falls. But in general, Russia has already lost.

Q. You assure that the West did not know how to react to the Russian aggression of 2014. Have the EU and the US been more forewarned in 2022?

R. Yes, there is a big change. The West now understands that if Russia is not stopped the destruction of the old international order will continue. In 2014, Europe took the same attitude towards Russia as it did towards Germany in 1938 or 1939. They thought that maybe the annexation of Crimea was not quite right, but in the end it didn’t matter much because the population there was Russian. It is the same policy that allowed Hitler to annex Austria or seize the Sudetenland. In 1939, the war in Poland changed the calculation, as now the war of 2022. It has become clear that history did not end with the fall of the USSR. That you have to defend yourself. We are in a new world in which security is among the main concerns of politicians. The situation now is very different from last January. That is one of the global consequences of this war.

“I did not imagine that Putin would embark on a suicide mission to Ukraine, Russia and Europe”

Q. The war has also boosted the Ukrainian national identity. Putin has achieved the opposite of what he wanted.

R. Yes. He believes that Ukraine is a small part of the Russian nation. His intention was to go down in history as the unifier of the Russian lands, but no politician in this century has done so much to establish a separate Ukrainian-Russian identity. Ukrainians already came together in 2014 overcoming their religious, linguistic and ethnic differences. The last eight years have been tremendously important in forging this identity. When Russia sent in its troops in 2014, it found a confused country with a virtually non-existent military. And those who planned the war counted on that answer. But then the formation of a strong Ukrainian identity, around the idea of ​​independence and democracy, accelerated.

Q. As we speak, many Ukrainians are cold because of the Russian attacks, a strategy with no military objective other than suffering. In his book he talks about the Holodomor, the famine of the 1930s, as an attempt by Stalin to turn the Ukraine into a “model Soviet republic.” Do you see any parallels?

R. The civilian population is now again under attack from Moscow. They try to leave the Ukrainians without electricity, without food. As a historian I can say that this type of attack does not usually break any country. Neither in World War II nor in the Balkans. The chances of Russia achieving its goals with these tactics are slim.

“The possibility that Russia will achieve its objectives with attacks on civilian infrastructure are minimal”

Q. Is the current conflict explained by the disorderly collapse of the Soviet Union?

R. In the 1990s, the West insisted that Ukraine cede its nuclear weapons to Russia, which must guarantee its independence and sovereignty. This war is the result of the security vacuum that was created in the center of Europe by taking away the weapons and not replacing them with anything that could stop the aggression.

Q. Was it a mistake to accept that resignation?

R. Ukraine came under very strong pressure, both from the US and from Russia. It was in the midst of a crisis, it needed financial assistance, and its institutions were not fully formed. I don’t think I had any other choice.

Q. Russia claims that after the fall of the Soviet Union it received guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward. And that this expansion constitutes an existential threat.

R. It isn’t true. That was discussed, but never put into a document. The US did not knock on the doors of Warsaw, Budapest and Sofia, but these countries pressed to protect themselves from Russia. Even after the Georgian war and the annexation of Crimea, Europe continued to do business with Russia and Germany built the Nord Stream gas pipeline. From the perspective of the time, the countries of Eastern Europe seemed unrealistic and paranoid. We now know that they understood the situation better. Today history repeats itself, with Ukraine calling NATO. Putin is doing more for NATO expansion than any four-star general could imagine. Look at Finland and Sweden. Both in the 1990s and now, the strength of NATO is explained by an attempt by Russia’s neighboring countries to protect themselves from aggression.

“This war would not have started without the European money that Russia has received through the energy market in the last 15 years to rearm”

Q. What responsibility do you attribute to Germany for its closeness to Putin?

R. German policies were fundamental. They thought that closer economic ties with Russia would make it more dependent, and therefore less prone to new crises. But Moscow interpreted it differently: it saw Europe as more dependent, which allowed it more room for action. The European energy market provided funds for the rearmament of Russia in the last 15 years. This war probably would not have started without that European money. Nor would it have started if the response to the annexation of Crimea had been different. But the Nord Stream 2 plans continued. That was the response from Germany, the most powerful country in Europe.

Q. As a historian, how do you view Putin’s obsession with history?

R. His speech takes us back to a concept of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, with justifications for war linked to the fall of empires. Also, in Putin’s arguments I recognize Russian imperial historians. Russians and Ukrainians as one people was the dominant concept before the 1917 revolution. Putin talks to the ghosts of the past and tries to turn them into the monsters of the future.

Q. Ukraine is already a candidate to join the EU. But it has a long way to go on issues like corruption or the role of the oligarchs.

R. When the war is over, the country will have to be rebuilt. A kind of Marshall Plan would be a great opportunity to address issues like corruption or oligarchs. Ukraine must not be rebuilt as it was before the war, but with a stronger economic and legal foundation.

Q. What role do you attribute to President Volodimir Zelenski in this conflict?

R. Zelensky has been the most popular politician in Ukraine since 1991. His popularity fell before the war, but he was still more popular than his predecessors. And the war has made him immensely popular. These months he has been an important symbol. We see that other leaders who won wars, such as [Winston] Churchill, did not continue in the period of peace at the head of the country. The same could happen to him, but I think his political career is not going to end with the war.

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