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  • Rongsheng Liu

The Structural Historical Root of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

An eternal conflict between nationalism and imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe


In 2014, John Mearsheimer vociferously blamed NATO’s eastward expansion and “Open Door” policy toward Ukraine for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in Donbas in 2014. Mearsheimer, claimed that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.” Eight years later, Russia’s all-out unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, his argument has triggered renewed debates about whether NATO’s aggressive expansion in Eastern Europe causes Russia’s “legitimate” security concerns, a narrative used by Putin to defend the atrocities he is currently committing on Ukrainian people.

However, contrary to Mearsheimer’s narrative, Russia’s historical trajectory in Central and Eastern Europe shows that the truth may be quite the opposite. From the imperial era to post-Cold War, a recurring theme of modern history in this region is the conflict between Russia’s continuing efforts to gain imperial territory or spheres of influence to mitigate its supposed “insecurity”, and the strong nationalist movements in central and eastern European nations against Russia’s control to fight for genuine independence and self-determination. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the newest example of the deep structural roots of Russia’s prolonged wars and turmoil in Central and Eastern Europe.

Since the 19th century, the nascent nationalists influenced by a Europe-wide nationalism movement after the French Revolution, especially in Poland (Synder, 2003), started to resist Russia’s imperial expansion. Having experienced a temporary setback in the first years of the Soviet regime, due to the eagerness of exiting from WWI, massive destructions caused by the Revolution and civil war, and the focus on stabilizing domestic political and economic situations, the Soviet Union regained its momentum after the victory against Nazi Germany along with the Allies. Combining a traditional sense of insecurity with the “world revolution” blueprint and communist ideology, it promoted an imperial-revolutionary policy in Central and Eastern Europe after WWII (Zubok, 2007) to strengthen the power of the Communism camp and create a buffer zone to resist westward attacks.

Meanwhile, having experienced the taste of independence as nation-states under the Treaty of Versailles and suffered from the catastrophes of two World Wars, the nationalistic sentiments in Eastern Europe only grew stronger, mixed with the eagerness of discarding the Soviet model of development and “return to Europe” to embrace democracy and civil rights. The outbreak of the Cold War made it even harder to achieve nationalists’ dream, though there were still some glimpses of their tenacious efforts, for example, 1956’s Hungarian Revolution, 1968’s Prague Spring, and 1980’s Solidarity movement in Poland.

Danube Revolution

After World War II, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet army as a defeated country and had to pay reparations to the Soviet Union. The new leader Mátyás Rákosi’s Stalinization campaign, which included massive purges within the Party, the arrest of dissidents, collectivization, and socialization of the economy greatly terrorized the Hungarian people. Stalin’s sudden death and Khrushchev’s Secret speech destabilized Soviet control of Eastern Europe, and the de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union also encouraged Hungarian people to express their resentments against the Rákosi regime.

In October 1956, inspired by similar protests in Poland, Hungarian people started to ask for the reinstatement of the popular ex-Premier Minister Imre Nagy, demanding to establish a genuine multiparty democratic system and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. The first symbolic move of these “freedom fighters” was tearing down the Stalin statue made of “the bronze from melted down statues of Hungarian kings and queens”, chanting Petofi’s “we will never again be slaves” to show that they got rid of Soviet’s arbitrary manipulation (Crampton, 1997, p296).

Despite the initial oscillation, Soviet leadership decided to send troops to put down the revolution, claiming that “If we depart from Hungary, we would then be exposing the weakness of our positions (to the imperialists)” and smearing Hungarian revolutionaries as “fascists” (Wilson Center Digital Archive, Working Notes from the Session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 31 October 1956). Clearly, the Soviet Union didn’t tolerate the erosion of its sphere of influence and feared that it would embolden the West to undermine Soviet security, although there is evidence that America kept an extremely cautious attitude and had no intention to intervene (FRUS, January 4th, 1955). The Hungarian revolution is one of the first cases of an Eastern European country fighting for an independent and democratic future behind the Iron Curtain, but it failed because of Soviet military intervention.

Prague Spring

In the 1960s, the stagnant Czechoslovakia economy, the Novotny government’s conservative stance, and Czechoslovakia’s limited autonomy from the Soviet’s hand triggered prevalent disgruntlement among the public. Consequently, the reformists in the Party successfully installed Dubcek as the Party Secretary (Kemp-Welch, 2010, p221-222). He promoted a comprehensive reformist “Action programme” to recognize that “Czechoslovakia’s path towards socialism would be individual … and determined by undeniable democratic traditions.”(Crampton, 1997, p328) This is a clear vindication of Czechoslovakia as a successful democratic nation-state between the two World Wars against the more authoritarian version of socialism imported from the Soviet Union.

Although Dubcek remained self-restrained by reiterating the leading role of the Party and the continuing alliance with the Soviet Union, compared with his Hungarian peers, the elements of socialism with national characteristics and radical political reforms including the cancellation of censorship and promising to restore civil rights still alarmed the Kremlin. Soviet leader Brezhnev felt it necessary to stop the “domino effect” of liberalization from Czechoslovakia to other socialist satellite states, ending Soviet domination of this area. Consequently, he defended the upcoming invasion of Czechoslovakia as “self-defence” to keep the “socialist solidarity.” Moscow’s arbitrary violation of the sovereignty of Eastern European countries was manifested best in the “Brezhnev Doctrine” which stated that “socialist governments have the obligation to intervene if other socialism regimes are threatened”.

Disguised by the notorious doctrine, the Warsaw Pact’s army invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, and the entire reformation process was interrupted. Again, Soviet fear of western threats to its security was unfounded for the West kept silent during the whole event and Soviet true anxiety laid in the potential independent developing path of Czechoslovakian reforms, while the collateral damage of the Soviet Union’s image in the eyes of the Czechoslovak population had already been done.

Polish Solidarity

Poles’ anti-Russia nationalistic sentiments are among the most salient in Eastern Europe. The partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union in 1939 left deep-seated grudges; the Katyn Massacre and Soviet inactivity during the Warsaw Uprising did no good to ameliorate their feud. In 1956, the lingering economic hardship and prevalent anti-Russia nationalism triggered a major crisis of choosing the successors of PUWP (Polish United Workers’ Party), which ended up with the election of popular nationalist communist Władysław Gomułka. In spite of the relatively loose control of the Soviet Union after that, the deteriorating economy and rigid political system gradually rekindled Polish people’s resentment, especially in its working class, culminating in several strike movements in the 1970s and nurturing the first national non-Communist organization in post-war Eastern Europe – the Solidarity.

Although the Solidarity did not claim to be a political organization and kept its distance from radical anti-Soviet nationalists, its demands for free trade unions, political freedom, and economic reforms required an open democratic society and to be unchained from the “thralldom to the Soviet Union”. Since its establishment in September 1980, almost “half of the adult population” in Poland had joined before its disbandment (Crampton, 1997, p368). The massive scale and power of the Solidarity unsettled the Kremlin, who urged the Polish leadership to introduce the martial law insistently and conducted massive military manuovers along Polish borders (Paczkowski, 2015, pp.26-28). Under Soviet pressure, Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in December 1981 and delegitimated the Solidarity.

Despite the desperate crackdown, the Solidarity managed to run underground until the abolishment of martial law and Perestroika made it possible to hold the Round Table negotiation in 1989, leading to the breakdown of the Communist system in Poland and the initiation of “return to Europe.”(Sabatovych, 2018, p147)

From Euromaidan to Donbas

All of the three events above showcase the conflicts between the Soviet Union’s determination to dominate its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the desire within these countries to achieve genuine democratic systems and self-determination of the people. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, former satellite states in Central Europe swiftly moved westward to establish democratic systems and embrace Europe, while the post-Soviet republics became the new battleground between the renewed call for rejuvenating the “Great Russia” by imperial expansions, the restoration of anti-Westernism ideology and authoritarian political system, and an emerging anti-Russian nationalism in some of the republics resulted from the fear of Russia’s invasion, the sluggish economic growth, and the internal cleavage between ethnic-Russian and the majority. Ukraine is the most exemplary case here.

Ukrainian nationalism was relatively weak in the 1990s. Some scholars contend that “the Ukrainian nomenklatura used Ukraine’s sovereignty as a tool to preserve its rule rather than a source of liberal change” in the process of dissolution (Sabatovych, 2018, p142). The high percent of ethnic-Russian population, the historical and economic close ties with Russia, and the persistence of the oligarchical regime eroded democratization and the formation of national identity simultaneously.

However, similar with Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and Poland in the 1970s, Ukrainians’ resentment towards the deteriorated economy, corruption, and authoritarian regimes gradually accumulated, until the oligarchy president Victor Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, which triggered the Euromaidan protests, expressing the anti-corruption, anti-oligarchy, pro-democracy, and pro-EU appeals. Euromaidan did not create a common national identity between ethnic-Russian and ethnic-Ukrainians but even widened the divisions between them (Pop-Eleches and Robertson, 2018).

Nevertheless, due to the anxiety of losing influence in Ukraine, and especially over strategically significant Crimea, Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea and instigated the Russian-speaking separatists’ revolts in Donbas. These moves have ironically awakened Ukrainian civic nationalism and strengthened their common identity, with Russia as the new national enemy. A poll conducted in 2015 showed that the support for closer EU integration and identifying with Ukraine rather than Russia or the Soviet Union as a homeland increased while the support for closer Russian ties and listing Russian as a state language declined (Pop-Eleches and Robertson, 2018, p112). Furthermore, faced with ominous threats of Russia’s invasion and the ongoing battles in Donbas, Ukraine started to further seek the security protection of NATO despite the constant elusions of the latter.

The Only Way Out

After revisiting the history from 19th century to today, it is clear that the contradiction between Russia’s ambitions of imperialism expansion and neighbouring countries’ struggle for its independence and self-determination is the structural root of the regional conflicts, no matter in the imperialism era, two World Wars, the Cold War, or the post-Cold War present. On the stage of Eastern part of Europe, The failure of recognizing the agency and capacity of nationalists in this region led to prolonged imperial warfare and finally ended up with WWI; the failure of establishing credible collective security agreements led to the outbreak of WWII; the failure of repressing nationalist sentiments by force led to the breakdown of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR.

Unfortunately, Mearsheimer’s account has ignored all of them. It refuses to acknowledge the proactive agency of Central European countries, especially Ukraine, to integrate with Europe and be protected by NATO from their fearful neighbour’s invasion. It also refuses to acknowledge that a collective security agreement under nuclear credibility is the most effective way to deter the aggressor and avoid the escalation of conflicts. It finally wrongly assumes that Russia would discard its imperial ambitions and the illusions of insecurity without NATO’s expansion. Instead, for now, the only possible way to maintain peace and prevent the ongoing catastrophic war and bloody humanitarian crisis from escalating beyond Ukraine is to acknowledge and protect Eastern European countries’ legitimate security concerns and their pro-democracy nationalism against a revisionist and belligerent Russia by credible collective security agreements like NATO. The fact that the current war happens in Kyiv, not in Vilnius, although Lithuania is a much easier target than Ukraine, has partially proved the point’s validity.


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