I was not much impressed when, in the summer of 2021, I read Vladimir Putin’s 6,000-word essay setting out his claim that Russia and Ukraine had been a single economic system for centuries. For one thing, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” didn’t mention the two great north-south rivers connecting Russia to the Black and Caspian Seas – the Dnieper and the Volga – that for a thousand years have been the geographic basis of that claim.
Nor, except for a fleeting allusion to past “mistakes,” did Putin mention the twentieth century event that looms largest in the background of the current war. The Holodomor, Ukrainian for murder-by-starvation, was a man-made famine in that killed millions of Ukrainians in the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1933. Experts still argue about whether the famine was a deliberate act of political repression undertaken by Josef Stalin, or a side-effect of the USSR’s collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture, but no one any longer disputes the magnitude of the death toll: between 3.5 million and 5 million helpless victims.
I was, however, quite struck when I read last week George Kennan’s heretofore-unsurfaced formulation in a 1948 State Department policy-planning document. Kennan, author of the cautious doctrine of containment, was for sixty years America’s premier expert on the Soviet Union until the USSR collapsed in 1991.
The economy of the Ukraine is inextricably intertwined with that of Russia as a whole. There has never been any economic separation since the territory was conquered from the nomadic Tatars and developed for purposes of a sedentary population. To attempt to carve it out of the Russian economy and to set it up as something separate would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial area from the economy of the United States.
With that, I experienced a gestalt-flip, the sort of thing that happens when you are confronted with an ambiguous drawing: a vase that turns into two profiles, or a rabbit is suddenly seen as a duck. To the ordinary Russian citizen today, perhaps even before being primed by home-front propaganda, the Ukraine war is a war of secessions. In fact, it bears a certain resemblance to the American Civil War – a question of union versus independence.
Never mind that it was the Confederacy that started the war in 1861, shelling the Union stronghold at Fort Sumter. Never mind that the South’s slave-based cotton industry was at stake, not Ukrainian wheat and gas. Never mind that slavery, not sovereignty, was the moral question.
The narrow legal issue was whether the South had the right to secede from the Union, and operate as an independent nation on its own. The South said yes. The North said no. Four years later, after more than a million casualties, the North prevailed.
The difference is that, in the case of Ukraine, the secessionists are backed by a powerful ally, the US in the foreground, with the NATO alliance standing behind. Ordinary Russians are primed to see a foreign invader, determined to establish its system on Russia’s southern border, and, eventually upon Russia itself
The bitterness with which both sides have fought the war insures there will be no Appomattox Courthouse ending. There is probably worse to come. But I’ve never been persuaded by parallels to the Monroe Doctrine, or labored comparisons to Bay of Pig fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis. Kennan’s opinion from 75 years ago that Ukraine was part of Russia has made it easier for me to see the war through Russian eyes.