Serhii Plokhy: ‘Russia thought it was invading the Ukraine of 2014’

The Ukrainian historian tells Mike Higgins about how the war is giving rise to a new Ukraine and why China’s role – not nuclear weapons – is ‘the big unknown’.

The World Today Published 2 June 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 5 minute READ

Serhii Plokhy

Mykhailo S. Hrushevs'kyi Professor of Ukrainian History, Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University

The ‘shock, pain, frustration and anger’ caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, spurred the Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy to write his new book, ‘The Russo-Ukrainian War’. Plokhy is the author of ‘Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy’, which won the Baillie Gifford Prize, and ‘The Gates of Europe’ among other books. He is Professor of History at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. 

We have been careful to frame the conflict in Ukraine as the latest Russian invasion of the country. Why do you call your book ‘The Russo-Ukrainian War’?

Calling it something like ‘Russia’s War in Ukraine’ gives all the agency to the aggressor. It may have started as an invasion by Russia of a sovereign country that was perceived to be a failed state, but what Russia encountered was a nation that has fought back with amazing resilience. That title gives agency to Ukraine.

The Russo-Ukrainian war started in February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas. With its all-out attack in 2022, Russia thought it was invading the country of 2014, but it encountered a nation transformed. In those eight years, Ukrainian civil society and the state had rediscovered how to act as partners and a strong sense of political identity that crossed cultural, religious and ethnic lines developed. 

What does Russia’s centuries-long preoccupation with Ukraine reveal?

Ukraine is important for Russia for two reasons. The first is to do with Russia’s imperialism. Ukraine was the largest republic of the Soviet Union after Russia, so when it voted for independence in 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart. Recently, [Vladimir] Putin’s plan to rebuild Russia as a great power and a pole in our multipolar geopolitics has been dependent on whether he would be able to bring Ukraine into his Eurasian Union.

Russia’s myth of origins is rooted in Kyivan history, which drives Putin’s belief that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people 

The second reason is the national identity of Russians themselves. Intellectuals from what we would call Ukraine were key to creating the modern, Europeanized Russia. The first printed textbook of Russian history was published in Kyiv in the 1670s. In the late 18th century, more than 60 per cent of all Russian bishops and close to 70 per cent of medical doctors were Ukrainians. So, Russia’s myth of origins is rooted in Kyivan history, which drives Putin’s belief that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people.

This misreading of history is also partly responsible for Putin’s belief that Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops with flowers instead of resistance. The first Russian soldiers to invade Ukraine last year came equipped with victory parade uniforms and rations for only a few days. 

Many Russian speakers and ethnic Russians live in the east of Ukraine. Why did the Russian army apparently target their communities?

The decision to heavily bombard Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which is probably 90 per cent Russian-speaking, and wipe out Mariupol, where 40 per cent were ethnic Russians, that came from the very top. Putin’s belief is that those who resist are not true Russians, so must be destroyed. The terrible irony is that a war started with the idea of liberating Russians led to ethnic Russians in Ukraine becoming the biggest target.

Portrait of Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy

Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy. Portrait: Simon Simard.

What has surprised you most about Ukraine’s resistance to Russia?

The strengthening every day of the Ukrainian national identity. You could see it forming after 2014, but it took this horrible war to realize that the cake was ready, so to speak. Before 2014, Ukraine’s presidential election results would split 50:50. In 2014, Petro Poroshenko won by a landslide, and then Volodymyr Zelenskyy defeated him by a landslide in 2019. That actually reflected a sense of growing unity.

In March last year, the most difficult time, 75 per cent of Ukrainians believed in victory. I remember thinking, ‘Guys, what are you smoking?’

But I couldn’t have imagined the level of mobilization in the weeks after the 2022 invasion. In March last year, during the most difficult time, never less than 75 per cent of Ukrainians believed in victory. I remember thinking, ‘Guys, what are you smoking?’ And this number just went up. But you can’t build something from nothing – the narrative that the two decades after independence were wasted is too pessimistic.

Historically, Ukraine is made up of parts of different empires, with different linguistic and cultural traditions. There are weaknesses in the country’s democracy, but democracy is the only institution that allowed Ukrainians to live together.

When Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines say to reporters that they are fighting for freedom and democracy, they are saying that not to get more ammunition from the West but because they have no other way to formulate what their identity is. If you want to see a textbook case of the formation of a political nation, go to Ukraine today.

Is there room for debate within Ukraine about the war, and when the time for negotiation with Russia might be right?

Before February 2022, Ukrainians reached consensus that they can probably live without Donbas and Crimea. But once the war started all bets were off. If you are already fighting, what is wrong with the idea of reclaiming all of our territories? They will negotiate at some point, but for now the biggest questions are being answered on the battlefield.

The idea that Ukraine is ‘Little Russia’ has been destroyed

A lot depends on the outcome of the Ukrainian offensive. By this autumn Ukraine will be in a different place. Even if the front line doesn’t move an inch, that’s a particular outcome.

But when people ask me about the long-term projections, I say the fate of the war was decided in 2022: Ukraine stays an independent state and moves closer to Europe; Russia weakens and moves closer to China; grey zones in Europe disappear.

You write that Russia has no option now but to reject its dreams of a greater Russian nation including Ukraine. But if we take Russian polling at face value, the war has considerable support. How can Ukrainians and Russians ever be friends again?

The idea that Ukraine is ‘Little Russia’ has been destroyed. Any new relationship would have to be based on Russia recognizing not just that Ukrainians are equal and separate but they have to find new roots for their historical identity.

Coexistence and cooperation emerged between Britain and France, Germany and Poland and so on after major wars – but rarely does it come during the lives of those who endured the conflicts. Ukraine and Russia have close geographical, cultural and historical links and they will have to talk. But it must be on a different basis and that will take time. 

Why do you think it has taken Germany and France longer to offer substantial support to Ukraine?

They are in the same category when it comes to the policy of appeasement of Putin’s Russia, but they come from different directions.

[Emmanuel] Macron’s position is not new: France has long wanted, to integrate Russia into Europe to reduce America’s role in European security. I don’t see them changing that policy.

With Germany, the model has been, you make peace with Russia by making money with Russia. In the 1990s, Germany paid a lot of money to Russia to bribe its way to reunification. Then they responded to the 2008 war in Georgia with the Nord Stream I gas pipeline and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 with Nord Stream II.

The big unknown is not nuclear weapons – they can’t change the course of the war – it is China

Following the 2022 invasion, many in Germany hoped nothing would have to be done. But the support for Ukraine from Britain, the US and eastern European countries shamed Germany. Now the Zeitenwende [turning point] rhetoric seems to be turning into real policy with the promise of $3 billion worth of aid. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Germany take on a more assertive role not only economically but also when it comes to politics and security. They are slowly moving there. 

How about China’s role? How surprised were you when President Xi Jinping called Zelenskyy? 

I was surprised in the sense that I am generally surprised in a positive way by Zelenskyy. He names and shames people in public who are not supportive, and he gets his way. In terms of the war, I was pleased that conversation with Xi took place, because the big unknown is not nuclear weapons – I don’t see how they can change the course of the war – it is China.

Xi calling Zelenskyy is an indication that China is trying to position itself as a potential peacemaker, as they have recently done between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At least in the short run that means we are less likely to see China supplying Russia with military equipment.

You mention nuclear weapons. If Ukraine in the 1990s had managed to hold on to any of its arsenal, at the time the world’s third-largest, recent history would have looked very different, wouldn’t it?

Ukraine was not in a position to keep its nuclear weapons as a young, politically uncertain state in an economic crisis. It was caught between America, the global superpower, pressing them to give up their weapons and Russia, the regional superpower, making territorial claims. But how wise was western policy after that?

The Budapest Memorandum was a breach of trust and a geopolitical blunder

In 1994, when it gave its nuclear weapons up – to Russia, to add insult to injury – Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum by which the US, Russia, the UK, China and France promised to respect Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty. But there were no commitments to protect Ukraine if those promises were broken. If that huge security vacuum wasn’t an invitation to war, then what is? It was breach of trust and a geopolitical blunder. 

Should NATO expedite Ukraine’s membership as soon as possible?

Yes. The argument against is that we shouldn’t offend Russia. But if NATO is such a big concern for Russia, when Finland joined Putin would have withdrawn every soldier from Ukraine and sent them to the Finnish border. He hasn’t moved a single one. He knows NATO is not going to attack.

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What is not wise is proposing to Ukraine, as was done recently, that all members agree that it will one day be a NATO member. That is almost exactly the wording in 2008 when Ukraine requested membership and its application was postponed indefinitely – which allowed Russia to deal with Ukraine’s NATO problem any way it wanted. That was a major misstep.

Ukrainians have a joke for this: the time for Ukraine to join NATO has already passed, it’s the time for NATO to join Ukraine.

‘The Russo-Ukrainian War’ (Allen Lane) by Serhii Plokhy, £20, is out now