Ronald Suny – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 04 Oct 2023 02:00:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Death of the Armenian Dream in Nagorno-Karabakh was Predictable but not Inevitable Wed, 04 Oct 2023 04:04:42 +0000 By Ronald Suny, University of Michigan | –

(The Conversation) – Thirty-five years ago, more than 100,000 Armenian protesters took to the streets to convince Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Nagorno-Karabakh – an ethnically Armenian enclave stuck geographically in the neighboring republic of Soviet Azerbaijan – ought to be joined to Armenia.

In recent days, more than 100,000 people have taken to the streets again. But this time it is Karabakh Armenians fleeing their homes to find refuge in Armenia. They have been decisively defeated by the Azerbaijanis in a short and brutal military operation in the enclave. Their dream of independence appears over; what is left is the fallout.

As a longtime analyst of the history and politics of the South Caucasus, I see the chain of recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh as depressingly predictable. But that is not to say they weren’t avoidable. Rather, greater flexibility from both sides – and less demonization of the other – could have prevented the catastrophic collapse of Artsakh, as Armenians called their autonomous republic, and with it the effective ethnic cleansing of people from lands they had lived in for millennia.

A legacy of Lenin

What began as a struggle to fulfill the promise of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin, that all nations would enjoy the right to self-determination within the USSR, turned into a war between two independent, sovereign states that saw more than 30,000 people killed in six years of fighting.

The 1988 demonstrations were met by violent pogroms by Azerbaijanis against Armenian minorities in Sumgait and Baku. Gorbachev, wary that a shift in territory would foster similar demands throughout the Soviet Union and potentially enrage the USSR’s millions of Muslim citizens, promised economic aid to and protection of the Armenians, but he refused to change the borders.

The dispute became a matter of international law, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of recognized states, in 1991 – with Azerbaijan declaring independence from the Soviet Union and rejecting Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy vote. The legal principle of territorial integrity took precedence over the ethical principle of national self-determination.

This meant that under international law, state boundaries could not be changed without the mutual agreement of both sides – a position that favored Azerbaijan. All countries in the world recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, even, eventually, Armenia.

An unsolved diplomatic problem

But that didn’t mean the status of Nagorno-Karabakh was ever settled. And for all their efforts, outside powers – Russia, France and the United States most importantly – failed to find a lasting diplomatic solution.

The First Karabakh War, which grew out of the pogroms of 1988 and 1990, ended in 1994 with an armistice brokered by Russia and the Armenians victorious.

Moscow was Armenia’s principal protector in a hostile neighborhood with two unfriendly states, Azerbaijan and Turkey, on its borders. In turn, Armenia was usually Russia’s most loyal and dependable – and dependent – ally. Yet, post-Soviet Russia had its own national interests that did not always favor Armenia. At times, to the dismay of the Armenians, Moscow leaned toward Azerbaijian, occasionally selling them weapons.

Only Iran, treated as a pariah by much of the international community, provided some additional support, sporadically, to Armenia.

The United States, though sympathetic to Armenia’s plight and often pressured by its American-Armenian lobby, was far away and concerned with more pressing problems in the Middle East, Europe and the Far East.

What might have been

The disaster that has befallen Nagorno-Karabakh was not inevitable. Alternatives and contingencies always exist in history and, if heeded by statespeople, can result in different outcomes. Analysts including myself, advisers and even the first president of independent Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, proposed compromise solutions that might have led to an imperfect but violence-free solution to the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yet the triumphant Armenian victors of the 1990s had few immediate incentives to compromise. Instead, after the First Karabakh War, they expanded their holdings beyond the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh, driving an estimated one million Azerbaijanis out of their homes and making them hostile to Armenians.

The greatest error of the Armenian leaders, I believe, was to give in to a fatal hubris of thinking they could create a “Greater Armenia” on territory emptied of the people who had lived there. After all, wasn’t this how other settler colonial states, such as the United States, Australia, Turkey, Israel and so many others had been founded? Ethnic cleansing and genocide, along with forced assimilation, have historically been effective tools in the arsenal of nation-makers.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani nationalism smoldered and intensified around the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Many decision-makers in Azerbaijan viewed Armenians as arrogant, expansionist, existential enemies of their country. Each side considered the contested enclave a piece of their ancient homeland, an indivisible good, and compromise proved impossible.

Armenian leaders also failed to fully comprehend the advantages that Azerbaijan held. Azerbaijan is a state three times the size of Armenia with a population larger by more than 7 million people. It also has vast sources of oil and gas that it has used to increase its wealth, build up a 21st-century military and finesse into greater ties with regional allies and European countries thirsty for oil and gas.

Armenia had a diaspora that intermittently aided the republic; but it did not have the material resources or the allies close at hand that its larger neighbor enjoyed. Turks and Azerbaijanis referred to their relationship as “one nation, two states.” Sophisticated weapons flowed to Azerbaijan from Turkey – as they did from an Israel encouraged by a shared hostility with Iran, Armenia’s ally – tipping the scales of the conflict.

Democracy versus autocracy

Armenians carried out a popular democratic revolution in 2018 and brought a former journalist, Nikol Pashinyan, to power. A novice in governance, Pashinyan made serious errors. For example, he boldly, publicly declared that “Artsakh” was part of Armenia, which infuriated Azerbaijan. While Pashinyan tried to assure Russia that his movement was not a “color revolution” – like those in Georgia and Ukraine – Vladimir Putin, no fan of popular democratic manifestations, grew hostile to Pashinyan’s attempts to turn to the West.

While Azerbaijan had grown economically – with the capital city of Baku glittering with new construction – politically, it stagnated under the rule of Ilham Aliyev, son of former Communist Party boss Heydar Aliyev.

The autocratic Ilham Aliyev needed a victory over Armenia and Ngorno-Karabakh to quiet rumbling discontent with the corruption of the family-run state. Without warning, he launched a brutal war against Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020 – and won it in just 44 days thanks to drones and weapons supplied by his allies.

The goal of the victors then was equally hubristic as that of the Armenians a generation earlier. Azerbaijan’s troops surrounded Nagorno-Karabakh and in December 2022 cut off all access to what was left of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, starving its people for 10 months. On Sept. 19, 2023, Baku unleashed a brutal blitzkrieg on the rump republic, killing hundreds and forcing a mass exodus.

This ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh – first through hunger, then by force of arms – completed the Azerbaijani victory. The defeated government of Artsakh declared it would officially dissolve the republic by the end of 2023.

Learning from defeat and victory

War sobers a people. They are forced to face hard facts.

At the same time, victory can lead to prideful triumphalism that in its own way can distort what lies ahead.

Aliyev appears to have tightened his grip on power, and Azerbaijanis today speak of other goals: a land corridor through southern Armenia to link Azerbaijan proper with its exclave Nakhichevan, separated from the rest of the country by southern Armenia. Voices have also been raised in Baku calling for a “Greater Azerbaijan” that would incorporate what they call “Western Azerbaijan” – that is, the current Republic of Armenia.

Armenians might hope that Azerbaijan – and the international community – take seriously the principle of territorial integrity and protect Armenia from incursions by the Azerbaijani army or any more forceful move across its borders.

They might also hope that the U.S. and NATO, which proclaim that they are protecting democracy against autocracy in Ukraine, will adopt a similar approach to the conflict between democratic Armenia and autocratic Azerbaijan.

But with Russia occupied with its devastating war in Ukraine and stepping back from its support of Armenia, a power vacuum has been formed in the Southern Caucasus that Turkey may be eager to fill, to Azerbaijan’s advantage.

A chance for democratic renewal?

The immediate tasks facing Armenia are enormous, beginning with the housing and feeding of 100,000 refugees.

But this might also be a moment of opportunity. Freed of the burden of defending Nagorno-Karabakh, which they did valiantly for more than three decades, Armenians are no longer as captive to the moves and whims of Russia and Azerbaijan.

They can use this time to consolidate and further develop their democracy, and by their example become what they had been in the years just after the collapse of the Soviet Union: a harbinger of democratic renewal, an example of not just what might have been but of what conceivably will be in the near future.The Conversation

Ronald Suny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ukraine war has exposed the Folly – and unintended Consequences – of ‘Armed Missionaries’ Mon, 20 Feb 2023 05:08:27 +0000 By Ronald Suny, University of Michigan | –

( The Conversation) – The evening before Russia invaded Ukraine, it seemed to many observersme included – nearly unimaginable that Putin would carry through with weeks of a threatened military attack. As I wrote at the time, Putin is not as erratic or rash as he is sometimes painted.

I had failed to take into account that Putin is, in the words of French statesman and revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, an “armed missionary.” Writing in 1792, Robespierre explained, “The most extravagant idea that can take root in the head of a politician is to believe that it is enough for one people to invade a foreign people to make it adopt its laws and constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first advice given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies.”

Those words seem fitting as Vladimir Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine reaches a grim first anniversary on Feb. 24, 2023.

Putin’s decision marked the beginning of a year of massive destruction and death in Ukraine and of extraordinary costs – both economic and in lives lost – for Russia.

It was also a colossal blunder on Putin’s part: It has weakened Russia significantly, solidified the NATO powers around the leadership of the United States and created a more unified, nationally conscious Ukraine than had existed before the war.

Imperial overreach

As a fading power, Putin’s Russia has refused to accept its own limitations, both economically and militarily. In invading its smaller neighbor, Russia made a bid to upset the international system headed by the United States. It also sought to establish its own hegemony over Ukraine, and by implication, over much of the former Soviet Union.

But Russia’s failure to “decapitate” the Ukrainian government, which in turn inspired heroic resistance by Ukrainians, proved a disastrous example of what might be called “imperial overreach” – when a state tries to expand or control other states beyond its own capacity to do so.

It has produced a weakened Russia – an isolated pariah state perceived as a threat to democracies and the rules-based liberal international security system.

Meanwhile, Putin’s diatribes against the West have evolved from complaints about the expansion of NATO to attacking the permissive culture of the West.

Putin deploys rhetoric about dangerously subversive liberal, democratic values and practices – echoing right-wing politicians like Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni, the far-right Italian leader. It appears that a new “International” – just as ominous to the liberal West as the Communist International was – is being formed of illiberal and authoritarian states, with Russia a key member.

This view of the Ukrainian war as a cultural struggle plays in the Russian media as an emotional rallying cry to mobilize the basest fears of Putin’s people.

Propaganda disguised as news, social media posts and the screeds of government officials are being deployed to shape ordinary Russians’ perceptions of the war.

Toward a multipolar world?

The consequences of Putin’s miscalculation are not limited to the war itself, or to Europe. Rather, they have had reverberations far beyond the battlefields of Ukraine and the homes of Russians whose sons have been slaughtered or fled abroad.

Putin’s imperial aggression against Ukraine – implausibly proclaimed to be a defense of a united Russia and of Ukrainian peoples against Nazi usurpers – has a long genealogy.

Ever since his famous speech at the Munich Security Forum in 2007, Russia’s president has railed against the “unipolar” military and economic dominance of the United States. What he wants is “multipolarity” – that is, the ability of other great powers to hold sway over their neighborhoods.

In such a multipolar world, Ukraine and Georgia would never join NATO and much of the former Soviet Union would fall under the umbrella of Russia. China would have paramount influence in East Asia, likewise India in South Asia. And perhaps this is Iran’s ambition in much of the Middle East.

To countries hostile to the United States – and even to some friendly states – this multipolar rearrangement of the international order has considerable appeal.

Yes, the war in Ukraine has solidified the Western alliance around its idea of the rules-based international order that has been in place since 1945. But it has also awakened the aspirations of “the Global South” – those countries in neither NATO nor the former Soviet bloc, largely in the Southern Hemisphere.

Countries from Latin America and Africa to Pacific Island nations have urged a greater dispersion and sharing of international clout. The two most populous countries in the world, India and China, have expressed their support for a new multipolar international order and have not been openly critical of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Redefining regional, global power struggles

The war in Ukraine has also had ripple effects on other global tensions.

With Taiwan as a potential flashpoint and saber-rattling by North Korea, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are gravitating toward closer military cooperation with the United States in East Asia. China and North Korea are moving in the opposite direction, closer to Russia.

The Ukraine war is also reshaping the long-festering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both states desire sovereign power over the disputed region of mountainous Karabakh. But with Russia bogged down militarily and economically, Putin has been disinclined to aid Armenia, its one loyal ally in the South Caucasus. This is despite the fact that Azerbaijan has repeatedly violated the borders of its neighbor.

Azerbaijan, by contrast, has been increasingly aided by its regional allies Israel – spurred by a shared hostility to Iran – and Turkey. Both have supplied Azerbaijan with advanced weaponry, giving the country an upper hand in the conflict.

The Ukraine conflict also has an effect on the great global power struggle to come: China and U.S. With EU states and regional rivals to China forging closer ties with Washington, Beijing may eye a growing threat – or even an opportunity to exert its influence more aggressively as regional power dynamics evolve.

American policymakers in both the Trump and Biden administrations have warned that the rise of China, economically and militarily, is a serious threat to the continued position of the U.S. as the strongest, richest state on the globe. To its competitors on the global stage, the U.S. also looks like an armed missionary.

The uncertainty of the Ukraine war, and the still uncertain ways in which it is reshaping geopolitics, will do little to dislodge those fears. Rather, it may encourage international relations scholars, such as Harvard professor Graham Allison, who believe in the “Thucydides’ Trap.” Based on the ancient Greek historian’s explanation for the origins of the Peloponnesian War, the theory has it that when an emerging power threatens to displace a regional or global hegemon, war is inevitable.

As someone trained to look to the past to understand the present and possible futures, I believe that nothing in history is inevitable; human beings always have choices. This was true for Putin on the eve of the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, and it is true for policymakers around the world today.

But the decision to invade Ukraine underscores a clear danger: When statesmen perceive the world as a Darwinian zero-sum game of winners and losers, a clash between the West and the rest, or as an ideological conflict between autocracies and democracies, they can create the conditions – through provocation, threat or even invasion – that lead to wars with unintended consequences.The Conversation

Ronald Suny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mikhail Gorbachev: The contradictory Legacy of Soviet Leader who attempted ‘Revolution from Above Thu, 01 Sep 2022 04:04:18 +0000 Mikhail Gorbachev was a contradictory figure; his legacy, complex. Hailed in the West as a democrat and liberator of his people – which he genuinely was – he increasingly became despised by many within Russia for destroying the Soviet Union and dismantling a great power.

Either way, he was consequential. Indeed, his death at 91, announced by state media in Russia on Aug. 30, 2022, comes as the ripples of the transformation he helped engineer continue to be felt. The invasion of Ukraine is, in part, an attempt to reverse the loss of status felt in post-Cold War Russia by the disintegration of the Soviet Union that occurred under Gorbachev – something Vladimir Putin views as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” In a sense, the unraveling of the Soviet Union that began 30 years ago is still going on now, in the bloody war in Ukraine.

Of course, that is not how he is perceived in the West. After enduring Western suspicions when he first came to power that he was simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an insincere reformer who was really a hard-line communist, Gorbachev managed to convince the skeptics abroad of his sincerity. U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found in Gorbachev someone she could “do business with.” Then, through her, U.S. President Ronald Reagan came around to the view that Gorbachev was indeed an authentic dismantler of the Soviet command system.

Early fears in the West evolved into anxiety about Gorbachev’s survival as he embarked on his great project. He was a reformer aspiring to be a revolutionary from above, wanting to liberalize and democratize his country to save socialism.

But in the process, he ended up undermining socialism as the major alternative to Western neoliberal capitalism. His rushed reforms to modernize the Soviet Union were overtaken by developments on the ground that saw the socialist project fall, to be replaced by a new era in Russia marked by growing nationalism and renewed authoritarianism.

Who was Mikhail Gorbachev and where did he come from?

Born in 1931 in southern Russia as the son of peasants, the young Gorbachev learned about the horrors of Stalinist repressions from his grandfathers, both of whom had suffered imprisonment. Physically strong and exceptionally bright, Gorbachev went on to study law at Moscow State University and soon embarked on a steady rise as a Communist Party official.

A faithful apparatchik, he knew the pathologies of the system: the stultifying, self-serving bureaucracy, repression of free expression, bloated military spending, and lack of initiative and productivity of workers and peasants. Once he achieved the highest position in the party of general secretary in 1985 he embarked on a pell-mell program of reform. It was centered on two ideas, that of “perestroika” – the restructuring the political and economic system – and “glasnost” – the end of censorship and the introduction of freedom of speech and the press.

But from the start, the economic reforms proved to be flawed. Mammoth problems, including the fall in the world price of oil – the USSR’s greatest source of foreign exchange – a devastating earthquake in Armenia and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster impoverished the country and eroded Gorbachev’s popularity at home.

Article continues after bonus IC video
Opposing views on Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy | DW News

His foreign policy achievements – the withdrawal from war in Afghanistan, liberating the Soviet satellite states in East Central Europe and the reduction of nuclear arms – won him friends abroad.

But many of his closest comrades at home, particularly in the military and KGB, the state security service, were appalled by his surrender of what they considered the gains from the victory over fascism in World War II.

On Gorbachev’s watch, the Soviet Union rapidly declined from a superpower into a pathetically weak state begging for financial help from the George H.W. Bush administration, which never came through. He allowed the two German states, separated during the Cold War by the Berlin Wall into a Western and a Soviet-controlled sector, to reunite without gaining much from the deal.

He mistakenly thought he had a firm agreement with the United States and Germany not to move NATO an inch eastward but failed to get it in writing. Ignoring protests by Gorbachev’s successor, Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin, President Bill Clinton responded to the wishes of East European states to join the Western alliance, taking advantage of the USSR’s weakness.

Gorbachev’s political demise and that of the Union

In the 1970s and 1980s the image of the USSR in the West was of a giant nuclear-armed Communist country, a revolutionary, expansionist state, seriously threatening the “free world.” But many who studied it and traveled there, like me, could readily see that it was economically stagnating, socially conservative and politically quite fragile.

By the late 1980s Gorbachev was caught between a conservative elite, which feared change, and self-styled democrats, led by his nemesis, Yeltsin, who clamored for more radical change.

As head of government, Gorbachev was faced with an insoluble dilemma: how to achieve the democratic ends he desired without resorting to undemocratic means, force and violence. Unwilling, except on rare occasions, to use armed force to keep order or save the union, he was ineffective against nationalist resistance in many of the non-Russian republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Lithuania.

His intentions to turn an empire, in which one nationality dominated over subordinate peoples, into a genuinely democratic federation of equal nations was approved by more than three-quarters of those who voted in a referendum in March 1991.

But a few months later, that plan foundered when some of his generals and secret police agents launched a coup against him. The plotters failed, but the winner of the three-day standoff was not Gorbachev, but Yeltsin.

In early December, three inebriated leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in a forest setting in the absence of Gorbachev, where they came up with a hastily conceived plan to break up the USSR and abolish Gorbachev’s presidency. The Soviet world ended “not with a bang, but a whimper,” to borrow from the poet T.S. Eliot. A weak, ineffective Commonwealth of Independent States was established in which there would be no role for Gorbachev.

On Christmas Day, Gorbachev resigned, a dignified but pathetic figure, now powerless and reduced to running his foundation and writing his memoirs.

Freedom expanded, but at a cost

Gorbachev’s revolution from above had from its beginning been dependent on reform advocates preventing the conservative elites from undermining his program. Most importantly, he tried to mobilize intellectuals through “glasnost” to pierce the defense of the decaying system. But most writers and academics abandoned gradual approaches for a more rapid transformation.

While unleashing the pent-up resentments and discontents festering in Soviet society, Gorbachev underestimated his ability to control the growing revolution from below.

That freeing of the public sphere brought out striking miners and incensed consumers angry at privileged party potentates and violently gave voice to the suppressed discontents of non-Russians in the various constituent republics of the USSR. Ultimately, the Soviet empire disintegrated, not from a popular, massive uprising from below, as many in the West imagine, but from the mistakes and political infighting at the top, which progressively weakened the center’s authority.

Gorbachev tried to do too much, too fast without the resources to achieve his goals. By 1990 his own weakness and indecision had derailed the revolution from above.

A great emancipator, Gorbachev left a mixed legacy. He expanded freedom for millions but at the same time unleashed roiling waves of nationalism and left the upturned soil for renewed authoritarianism.The Conversation

Ronald Suny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Russia in Ukraine: Basing Land Claims on Ethnicity/History rather than Int’l Law always leads to Bloody Conflict Fri, 25 Feb 2022 05:06:37 +0000 From: The Conversation:

The first casualty of war, says historian Ronald Suny, is not just the truth. Often, he says, “it is what is left out.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin began a full-scale attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 and many in the world are now getting a crash course in the complex and intertwined history of those two nations and their peoples. Much of what the public is hearing, though, is jarring to historian Suny’s ears. That’s because some of it is incomplete, some of it is wrong, and some of it is obscured or refracted by the self-interest or the limited perspective of who is telling it. We asked Suny, a professor at the University of Michigan, to respond to a number of popular historical assertions he’s heard recently.

Putin’s view of Russo-Ukrainian history has been widely criticized in the West. What do you think motivates his version of the history?

Putin believes that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are one people, bound by shared history and culture. But he also is aware that they have become separate states recognized in international law and by Russian governments as well. At the same time, he questions the historical formation of the modern Ukrainian state, which he says was the tragic product of decisions by former Russian leaders Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. He also questions the sovereignty and distinctive nation-ness of Ukraine. While he promotes national identity in Russia, he denigrates the growing sense of nation-ness in Ukraine.

Putin indicates that Ukraine by its very nature ought to be friendly, not hostile, to Russia. But he sees its current government as illegitimate, aggressively nationalist and even fascist. The condition for peaceful relations between states, he repeatedly says, is that they do not threaten the security of other states. Yet, as is clear from the invasion, he presents the greatest threat to Ukraine.

Putin sees Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia, believing that if it enters NATO, offensive weaponry will be placed closer to the Russian border, as already is being done in Romania and Poland.

It’s possible to interpret Putin’s statements about the historical genesis of the Ukrainian state as self-serving history and a way of saying, “We created them, we can take them back.” But I believe he may instead have been making a forceful appeal to Ukraine and the West to recognize the security interests of Russia and provide guarantees that there will be no further moves by NATO toward Russia and into Ukraine. Ironically, his recent actions have driven Ukrainians more tightly into the arms of the West.

The Western position is that the breakaway regions Putin recognized, Donetsk and Luhansk, are integral parts of Ukraine. Russia claims that the Donbass region, which includes these two provinces, is historically and rightfully part of Russia. What does history tell us?

During the Soviet period, these two provinces were officially part of Ukraine. When the USSR disintegrated, the former Soviet republic boundaries became, under international law, the legal boundaries of the post-Soviet states. Russia repeatedly recognized those borders, though reluctantly in the case of Crimea.

But when one raises the fraught question of what lands belong to what people, a whole can of worms is opened. The Donbass has historically been inhabited by Russians, Ukrainians, Jews and others. It was in Soviet and post-Soviet times largely Russian ethnically and linguistically. When in 2014 the Maidan revolution in Kyiv moved the country toward the West and Ukrainian nationalists threatened to limit the use of the Russian language in parts of Ukraine, rebels in the Donbas violently resisted the central government of Ukraine.

After months of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebel forces in the Donbas in 2014, regular Russian forces moved in from Russia, and a war began that has lasted for the last eight years, with thousands killed and wounded.

Historical claims to land are always contested – think of Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis – and they are countered by claims that the majority living on the land in the present takes precedence over historical claims from the past. Russia can claim Donbass with its own arguments based on ethnicity, but so can Ukrainians with arguments based on historical possession. Such arguments go nowhere and often lead, as can be seen today, to bloody conflict.

Why was Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent such a pivotal event in the conflict?

When Putin recognized the Donbass republics as independent states, he seriously escalated the conflict, which turned out to be the prelude to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. That invasion is a hard, harsh signal to the West that Russia will not back down and accept the further arming of and placing of weaponry in Ukraine, Poland and Romania. The Russian president has now led his country into a dangerous preventive war – a war based on the anxiety that sometime in the future his country will be attacked – the outcome of which is unpredictable.

A New York Times story on Putin’s histories of Ukraine says “The newly created Soviet government under Lenin that drew so much of Mr. Putin’s scorn on Monday would eventually crush the nascent independent Ukrainian state. During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian language was banished from schools and its culture was permitted to exist only as a cartoonish caricature of dancing Cossacks in puffy pants.” Is this history of Soviet repression accurate?

Lenin’s government won the 1918-1921 civil war in Ukraine and drove out foreign interventionists, thus consolidating and recognizing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But Putin is essentially correct that it was Lenin’s policies that promoted Ukrainian statehood within the USSR, within a Soviet empire, officially granting it and other Soviet republics the constitutional right to secede from the Union without conditions. This right, Putin angrily asserts, was a landmine that eventually blew up the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian language was never banned in the USSR and was taught in schools. In the 1920s, Ukrainian culture was actively promoted by the Leninist nationality policy.

But under Stalin, Ukrainian language and culture began to be powerfully undermined. This started in the early 1930s, when Ukrainian nationalists were repressed, the horrific “Death Famine” killed millions of Ukrainian peasants, and Russification, which is the process of promoting Russian language and culture, accelerated in the republic.

Within the strict bounds of the Soviet system, Ukraine, like many other nationalities in the USSR, became a modern nation, conscious of its history, literate in its language, and even in puffy pants permitted to celebrate its ethnic culture. But the contradictory policies of the Soviets in Ukraine both promoted a Ukrainian cultural nation while restricting its freedoms, sovereignty and expressions of nationalism.

History is both a contested and a subversive social science. It is used and misused by governments and pundits and propagandists. But for historians it is also a way to find out what happened in the past and why. As a search for truth, it becomes subversive of convenient and comfortable but inaccurate views of where we came from and where we might be going.

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Ronald Suny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.