So Mr. Putin changed course. Soon after the war in Georgia in 2008, in which the Kremlin seized control of two Georgian regions, he designed a new strategic policy for Ukraine. According to the plan, any steps Kyiv might take in the direction of the West would be punished with military aggression. The objective was to cleave off Ukraine’s Russophone east and turn the rest of the country into a vassal state headed by a Kremlin puppet.
At the time, it seemed fantastical, ludicrous. Nobody believed it could be genuine. But by the final weeks of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014, in which Ukrainians demanded an end to corruption and an embrace of the West, it became horribly clear that Russia was intent on aggression. And so it proved: In a rapid-fire operation, Mr. Putin seized Crimea and parts of the Donbas. But crucially, the full extent of his ambition was thwarted, in large part through the heroic resistance mounted by volunteers in the country’s east.
Mr. Putin miscalculated in two ways. First, he was hoping that, as had been the case with his war against Georgia, the West would tacitly swallow his aggression against Ukraine. A unified response from the West was not something he expected. Second, since in his mind Russians and Ukrainians were one nation, Mr. Putin believed Russian troops needed barely to enter Ukraine to be welcomed with flowers. This never materialized.
What happened in Ukraine in 2014 confirmed what liberal Ukrainian historians have been saying for a long time: The chief distinction between Ukrainians and Russians lies not in language, religion or culture — here they are relatively close — but in political traditions. Simply put, a victorious democratic revolution is almost impossible in Russia, whereas a viable authoritarian government is almost impossible in Ukraine.
The reason for this divergence is historical. Up until the end of World War I (and in the case of western Ukraine, the end of World War II), Ukrainian lands were under the strong political and cultural influence of Poland. This influence was not Polish per se; it was, rather, a Western influence. As the Harvard Byzantinist Ihor Sevcenko put it, in Ukraine the West was clad in Polish dress. Central to this influence were the ideas of constraining centralized power, an organized civil society and some freedom of assembly.
Mr. Putin seems to have learned nothing from his failures in 2014. He has launched a full-scale invasion, seemingly intended to remove the Ukrainian government from power and pacify the country. But again, Russian aggression has been met with heroic Ukrainian resistance and united the West. Though Mr. Putin may escalate further, he is far from the military victory he sought. A master tactician but inept strategist, he has made his most profound miscalculation.
Yet it’s one based on the belief that he is at war not with Ukraine but with the West in Ukrainian lands. It’s essential to grasp this point. The only way to defeat him is to turn his belief — that Ukraine is fighting not alone but with the help of the West and as part of the West — into a waking nightmare.
How this could be done, whether through humanitarian and military help, incorporating Ukraine into the European Union or even supplying it with its own Marshall Plan, are open questions. What matters is the political will to answer them. After all, the struggle for Ukraine, as history tells us, is about much more than just Ukraine or Europe. It is the struggle for the shape of the world to come.
Yaroslav Hrytsak is a professor of history at the Ukrainian Catholic University and the author, most recently, of a global history of Ukraine.
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