Dreaming of Greater Russia

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Dreaming of Greater Russia

The author is the head of the international team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe,” Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in an essay published in July 2021. The title is “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Ancient Rus refers to the state of the Rus, centered at Kiev and formed around Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus before the eastern Europe was conquered by a Mongolian Khan. In short, Putin claims three countries — each a sovereign state now — are not unrelated in terms of their “root.”

At the annual press conference at the end of last year, Putin said that Ukraine was historically a Russian territory. He argued that although the Donbas region in the east and the Crimean Peninsula happened to belong to Ukraine when the former Soviet Union disintegrated, the residents consider themselves Russians. You get a glimpse of Putin’s tenacious “Russianism,” after he took power in 2000. He believes that the descendants of Ancient Rus are torn apart by the West, and he wants to overcome the anti-Russian wave. He advocates legitimacy by claiming, “The most despicable thing is that the Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy.”

As 100,000 Russian troops are gathering on the Ukrainian border, the sound of the war drums is approaching. After three failed meetings last week, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken flew over for a final negotiation with Russia, but hope is not very high. International relations experts are not sure about Putin’s true intention. While the West warned of strong economic sanctions, they keep a distance from military intervention. If Putin’s tanks cross the border, it is up to Ukraine to face it, after all.

By emphasizing “ancient Rus,” Putin may expect a bloodless entry, just like the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. But the last eight years that led to the Eastern Donbas civil war changed the atmosphere in Ukraine. The Financial Times recently pointed out that Russian invasion in 2014 played a greater role in establishing Ukraine’s identity and sovereignty than any other event since World War II. History shows that unity of the victimized reinforces national identity in asymmetric national power dynamics. In fact, at the time of the “one root” Putin refers to, the Duchy of Moscow claimed to be Great Russia and regarded Ukraine as Little Russia. Blurring the past and forcing “Great Russia” as a fateful brother is simply a 21st century version of imperial expansion. The world is watching how Ukrainians will answer this. 

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