There is no doubt that geopolitical rivalries with the United States, in the threatening guise of NATO expansion, fuelled the tensions with Russia that erupted in full-scale war against Ukraine. Moscow has a justified, centuries-long fear of invasion from Western Europe, which was catastrophically confirmed by Hitler’s apocalyptic 1941–45 ‘war of annihilation’ against the Soviet Union. But the NATO factor is only one side of the story. It is equally evident that a resurgent, post-Soviet Russia, under its increasingly authoritarian president Vladimir Putin, has been girding itself for war under the banner of re-establishing a Great Russian Empire, in the first instance in the graveyard of Ukraine. ‘Ukraine is not even a state’, Putin is reported to have declared in 2008 to his US counterpart George Bush in Bucharest, threatening that should Ukraine join NATO, ‘this state would cease to exist’.
Ukraine’s ‘contingent’ existence as an independent state has emerged as central to both Putin’s increasingly Russian nationalist worldview and his rationale for war. By questioning Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation state, Putin laid the groundwork for Moscow’s so-called ‘special military operation’—what most would call his invasion. Indeed, as James Meek has insightfully argued, by denying that ‘Ukraine was a country’ and then forcibly annexing Crimea in February–March 2014 on the grounds that it was an ‘integral part of Russia’, Putin ‘made peace impossible: how can you negotiate with an invader who denies he’s invaded, and denies the existence of the invaded country?’
Soon after armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Donetsk in the Donbas region on 7 April 2014 and declared an independent ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, Putin gave succour to Russian separatism, not just in the Donbas but in the whole of south-eastern Ukraine. During his annual Direct Line phone-in held later that April, he ‘reminded’ his listeners that ‘what was called Novorossiya back in the Tsarist days—Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows? They were won by Potemkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars [against the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century]’.
Three consistent themes about Ukrainian and Russian nationhood were hammered home by Putin in the lead-up to the current war: first, that Ukraine is an artifice of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; second, that in creating a Soviet Ukraine, the Bolsheviks sundered the natural affinities between ethnic Russians; and third, that Ukraine can only meaningfully exist within the realm of a greater Russia.
These themes were elaborated in Putin’s now famous essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, published in July 2021. Not incorrectly, Putin asserted that the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians share a common ancestry born of ninth-century Kievan Rus’, which bequeathed them a common culture, language and faith: Orthodoxy. However, in sketching the 1000-year history of this Slav ancestry, Putin clearly sees its ultimate fragmentation into separate states as the sinister work of external forces playing ‘divide and rule’. Thus for Putin, there was nothing organic about the emergence of a distinct Ukrainian nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century: it was primarily fomented by Catholic Polish elites in league with ‘part of the Malorussian intelligentsia’, and aimed at weakening Greater Russia. In a similar vein, following the October 1917 Revolution, Bolshevik hostility towards ‘so-called Russian great-power chauvinism’ saw them conjure separate Soviet republics, thereby creating Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians ‘instead of the large Russian nation, a triune people comprising Velikorussians, Malorussians and Belorussians’ (respectively Great Russians, Little Russians and White Russians). As a result of this championing of ‘one government for all of Ukraine’, including the ethnically Russian Donbas, ‘Russia was robbed’ by the Bolsheviks, Putin declared.
As the current carnage ravages Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas region, it is clear that Putin aims to correct what he sees as a major historical injustice committed by the Bolsheviks against the integrity of the ‘Slavic peoples’. ‘The true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia’, he concluded in 2021 in ethno-nationalist terms that bordered on the fascistic: ‘For we are one people’ bound by ‘spiritual, human…civilisational…and blood ties’. Less than a year later, on the eve of unleashing his 24 February ‘special military operation’, an angry Putin made it clear that from the Kremlin’s perspective Ukraine had forfeited its right to exist as a separate state. He has acted accordingly.
Where did this chauvinistic irredentism come from, to what extent does it explain the war in Ukraine, and what does it tell us about Putin’s regime? The demise of the Soviet Union provides some answers. The centrifugal nationalisms that tore the Soviet Union apart unleashed once dormant ethno-national passions, mobilised by political elites at the helm of newly fledged, independent nation states, notably Slavic Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which had scuttled the Union in December 1991. Nationalist discourses strove to fill the vacuum left by the vanquishing of Soviet Marxism-Leninism and to legitimate the new, fragile political systems. Kyiv, in the 1990s, rekindled a quiescent nationalism, repudiating what it had viewed as its Russian overlords and enshrining Ukraine as the victim of Stalinist genocide through starvation (the ‘Holodomor’). There is no question that Stalin subordinated Ukrainian culture and language to the Russian and condemned millions of Ukrainian peasants, together with Kazakhs and Russians, to death in the course of his lethal forced collectivisation of agriculture. Whether this can be interpreted as Soviet Russian genocidal colonialism and, accordingly, resurgent post-Soviet Ukrainian nationalism viewed as ‘post-colonial’ emancipation, is open to challenge. It assumes an exploitative coloniser relationship of the European imperial type. But Russia is better viewed as a ‘subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric world’. To put it bluntly, Ukraine is not Africa and Russia is not Britain. Soviet Russia did not ‘underdevelop’ Ukraine. On the contrary, Ukraine—especially the Donbas—became a Soviet industrial powerhouse. Nevertheless, Ukrainian extreme nationalism equates Russia with Stalinism.
In the twenty-first century, especially after the so-called February 2014 Euromaidan ‘Revolution of Dignity’, the ousted pro-Russian President Yanukovych, Ukrainian neo-fascist movements such as Svoboda, Right Sector, and the infamous Azov Brigade increasingly determined mainstream nationalism, which entailed ‘decommunisation’: banning the Communist Party of Ukraine, marginalising the Russian language, and lionising Nazi collaborators such as Stepan Bandera and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Although the extreme right parties fared poorly in the 2019 presidential elections, securing only some 2 per cent of the national vote, up until then they had occupied key governmental positions, especially in the security apparatuses. Moreover, because these particular parties have been highly mobilised and resourced for violence, their political legacy and influence are disproportionate to their small numbers, inscribing belligerent anti-Russianism on Ukrainian nationalism under the seemingly benign presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky. Putin’s onslaught has only reinforced this.
Russia too endeavoured to fill the post-Soviet void with patriotic elixir. In the aftermath of the hapless Boris Yeltsin’s interregnum, Putin’s Russia has worked overtime to establish itself as the key successor state to the defunct Union, embracing Imperial Russian statist nationalism and symbolism while repudiating Soviet socialist credos. In particular, Putin has cloaked Russia in the glory of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, shorn of its Communist Party iconography. But even before Putin began promoting his statist nationalism he was fuelling anti-immigrant ethno-nationalism with his ruthless 1999–2009 war on Muslim Chechnya, infamously vowing to ‘waste [the terrorists] in the shithouse’. During his first two presidential terms, he encouraged popular ethno-nationalist sentiment through the Nashi (Ours) youth movement and ‘Russia Marches’ by aggressive anti-immigrant nationalists on the annual ‘National Unity Day’, 4 November, which he substituted for the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. However, when ethno-nationalists joined mass protests against parliamentary electoral fraud, he moved to bring ethno-nationalism to heel during his 2012 campaign for a third presidential term, simultaneously championing ‘the mission’ of the Russian people and Russian statehood.
In the wake of the popular challenge to his presidential victory, Putin elevated the Russian Orthodox Church and its values to buttress his regime, couched not in terms of him personally, but as him defending Russian state, society and civilisation against an ominous, decadent West. This was redolent of Tsar Nicholas I’s (1825–1855) troika: ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality’. Orthodoxy also had appeal to ethnic Russians outside the Federation. Not long after annexing Crimea, Putin stressed to his Russian audience that Crimea was where St Vladimir, ruler of Kievan Rus’ (980–1015), was baptised in an Orthodox ceremony that ‘predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’. The Orthodox Church does not dictate every Kremlin policy, but Orthodoxy certainly shores up the Kremlin’s domestic authority and its stance against the West, especially in the current conflagration. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has sanctified Russia’s war on Ukraine, denouncing ‘the forces of evil’ dividing these Slav peoples and any ‘capitulation or weakness’ in combatting Western ‘values’ on the Donbas front. ‘It is not just a matter of politics,’ he has sermonised, ‘it is about the salvation of man and the place he will occupy to the right or the left of God the Saviour’.
The groundwork for Putin’s revitalisation of pre-revolutionary Russian values has been years in the making. As early as 2004, in his first presidential term, Putin began to up his anti-Western rhetoric and turn his face towards Eurasia. With his overtures for Russia to join ‘Greater Europe’ rebuffed, feeling threatened by NATO expansion, and shaken by the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ in Kyiv that forced a presidential election recount, Putin has increasingly identified with the mid-nineteenth-century Slavophile tradition in Imperial Russia that pitted itself against the ‘Westernisers’. The Putinist state has therefore embraced some of the most reactionary Russian thinkers, among them the fiercely anti-Bolshevik philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954). Expelled from the Soviet Union by Lenin in 1922, in exile Ilyin became a key White, pro-fascist ideologue whose writings Ilya Budraitskis argues provide ‘a complete moral philosophy for an authoritarian Orthodox state’ and rationale for the state, as an ‘organ of the Good’ as Ilyin put it, to resort to ‘force torture and executions’. In 2004, Putin authorised the return of Ilyin’s remains from Switzerland to Moscow, where they were consecrated.
Among those contemporary philosophers who have been influenced by Ilyin and have influenced Putin even more is Alexandr Dugin. Born in 1962, Dugin played a leading role in establishing the Eurasia Party in 2002 and the National Bolshevik Front in 2006, replicating the ‘national Bolshevism’ espoused by the former anti-Bolshevik Nikolai Ustryalov (1890–1937) who came to embrace the Russian Revolution, and Stalin’s etatism, as the ‘saviour’ of Russian civilisation. Inspired by Dugin’s ‘Fourth Political Theory’, these organisations espouse an admixture of ‘Neo-paganism, Slavic Nativism, and Eastern Orthodoxy’. Rejecting Western liberalism and individualism, Dugin’s ‘Theory’ has influenced far-right European politicians such as Marine Le Pen. Eurasianism is crucial to Dugin’s thinking and has undoubtedly impacted Putin’s outlook. Expounded in Dugin’s 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics, which has become a compulsory text in Russian military curricula, his Eurasia doctrine argued for Russia to re-establish its lost majesty and drive ‘Atlanticism’, with its alien free-market liberalism and democracy, out of Eurasia. A ‘clash of civilisations’ doctrine with Russian Orthodoxy at its spiritual heart, Eurasianism found twenty-first-century political expression in the Eurasian Economic Union proposed in 2011 by Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, and signed into being in 2015. Eurasianism centred on a resurgent Russia has a long and not particularly progressive anti-Western Slavophile pedigree. Ironically, Stalin’s forging of a Soviet dictatorial citadel that encompassed central Asia and the Far East but was severed from Europe, rather than Bolshevik socialist internationalism, was welcomed by many Eurasianists as the unexpected fruit of the ‘Russian’ revolution.
Dugin foreshadowed the current conflict as early as 2008 when he declared that ‘Russia is preparing to cease to recognise Ukrainian territorial integrity, as it did with Georgia’, and that ‘an armed conflict may soon begin in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine that will result in these territories becoming a Russian protectorate’. The protectorate Dugin referenced was historically ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia). After the February 2014 ‘Euromaidan revolution’ in Kyiv, the ethno-geographical idea of an ingathering of ‘Novorossiya’ beyond the Russian Federation’s current borders became more prominent in Moscow’s political discourse. Indeed, Putin’s ethno-statist Russian nationalism rocketed after Euromaidan, displacing his hitherto relatively cautious diplomacy and nationalist rhetoric. The Euromaidan ousting of President Yanukovych by violent nationalists and the installation of a pro-European, pro-NATO, viscerally anti-Russian administration in Kyiv was a defeat for Putin, dashing his hopes that Ukraine would also join the Eurasian Union. It was in this context that Putin annexed what he called ‘historically Russian’ Crimea, simultaneously denying Russia’s Sebastopol naval base to NATO, rousing astronomical popular support among his domestic Russian constituency, and fuelling ‘the disposition’ of ‘the Russian diaspora abroad…to be with your Historical Homeland’, as Foreign Minister Lavrov put it on 14 April. Shortly thereafter, the Donbas witnessed the independence declarations of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’.
All of this laid the stepping-stones for Moscow militarily reclaiming ‘Novorossiya’ as part of its Eurasia aspirations—but not immediately. Multi-ethnic Russia was cautious about fanning the flames of non-Russian succession, notably in the brutalised North Caucus. Hence Moscow’s guarded references to Russian ‘compatriots’ (sootechestvenniki) abroad and ‘citizens of Russia’ (rossiyane) at home, rather than ethnic Russians (russkie). Indeed, Moscow rebuffed the initial hopes of Donbas separatists and Eurasianists like Dugin and the veteran extreme-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the expansion of Russia’s borders to encompass ‘Novorossiya’. A decade on, however, Putin did a volte-face on Donbas independence and ‘Novorossiya’.
In 2022, Putin seems to be enacting Dugin’s irredentist delirium in the most violent form. Having suddenly recognised on 21 February the independence of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, he sent in Russian tanks as ‘peacekeepers’, ostensibly to provide ‘humanitarian protection’ to the ethnic Russians of the Donbas supposedly threatened with ‘genocide’. As feared, it was the prelude to outright invasion of Ukraine three days later, under the banners of the ‘denazification’ and ‘demilitarisation’ of a nation state that from Putin’s perspective was still born with the Soviet revolution. Having failed to bring about regime change in Kyiv by a lightning strike that he seems to have thought would be welcomed by Ukrainians anxious to be liberated from their NATO-sympathising Nazi overlords, Putin refocussed his lumbering war machine on demolishing south-east Ukraine. It is the ‘Novorossiya’ project in the making, albeit by reducing the Donbas region to rubble, as exemplified by Putin’s Stalingrad-like destruction of Mariupol and its besieged Azov steelworks.
Mariupol is the strategic port city that, once in Russian hands, opens the way to Russian control, and ultimately annexation, of south-eastern Ukraine, all the way from Kharkiv to Crimea and beyond. It is no accident that on 22 April 2022 a senior Russian commander declared that taking ‘control’ of southern Ukraine would give Russia ‘another route’ to Transnistria, the separatist region of Moldova ‘where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed’. The military threat is clear: Russian forces could attack the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Odessa, creating one more bastion for Novorossiya.
Where have we heard this kind of ethnocentric irredentism before, as justification for annexation, occupation and war, and what does it tell us about the Russian state under Putin?
It certainly echoes the drive for ethnically pure nation states that characterised inter-war Europe, if not the bio-ethnic purity that notoriously justified Hitler’s annexation of the Czech-Sudetenland and Austria in the name of a Greater Germany. Is Putin therefore a fascist? Many would say so. Classic fascism of the Italian and German kind, however, was a weapon of predatory capitalist imperialism which aimed to challenge the hegemonic European powers and to devour the Soviet Union and its peoples. Contemporary Russia may be militarily strong, nuclear armed as it is, but its rudimentary capitalism has none of the global military reach or economic strength of its chief foe, the United States, and the NATO weaponry that it wields—the ‘new militarist imperialism’, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has put it, requiring the ‘unassailable predominance of US military power’.
For the moment at least, Russia is intent on subjugating Ukraine for strategic reasons, not colonising it and exploiting it. Ideologically, ‘fascistic’ might therefore be a more appropriate categorisation of the Putin state. Influenced by extreme right-wing, home-grown ideologues, Putin has certainly resurrected Tsarist-era Imperial state and ethnic nationalism, under the banner of which he is waging a fearsome war of aggression against his fellow Slavs. Ironically, in the spirit of White anti-Bolshevism, ex-KGB operative Putin has repudiated not only Lenin and the October 1917 Revolution but also the Stalinist Soviet state of which he is the post-Soviet offspring. For Putin, Ukraine was a Bolshevik crime against Greater Russia.
Ultra-nationalism alone does not necessarily explain the current conflict. Russia has legitimate concerns about NATO and Ukraine. But nationalism pays domestic political dividends. Under the cover of war, Putin is presiding over an increasingly dictatorial state that brooks no opposition to his ‘special military operation’, crushing any opposition before it can mobilise and silencing any dissent, not least from the resurgent if beleaguered post-Soviet Left. An eclectic new generation, the Russian Left—anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyists, social democrats, trade unionists, Antifa activists and academics—has emerged in the twenty-first century unburdened by the Stalinist heritage, exposed to international Marxist influences, and reaching out to the regions. Aimed against the Left, and civil-society liberal activism in general, Putin’s strident Russian nationalism is a potent domestic weapon to shore up his regime, which in recent times has seen ‘coloured-revolution’ style challenges on its periphery, in Kazakhstan (in 2022) and more dramatically in Belarus (2020–21). In both cases, Russia provided crucial regime support. Putin’s call to defend Russian civilisation against a decadent, expansionist, liberal West, in the spirit of the Great Patriotic War against fascism, is intended to rally popular support for the Russian state intent on reclaiming Novorossiya by force of arms. In Crimea, a successful bloodless reunification saw Putin’s popularity soar. A decade on, however, a faltering, grinding war may yet prove the undoing of his ‘vertical of power’.
Despite appearances, the contemporary Russian state is more vulnerable to civic dissent than it appears. With an economy no larger than Australia’s under unprecedented Western sanctions, Russia cannot sustain either a prolonged war or the occupation of an insurgent nation 44 million strong, especially not a fraternal Slav nation. Unnerved by mass protests in 2011–12 against election fraud and the spectre of Ukrainian presidents being unseated by ‘coloured revolutions’, Putin has effectively crushed civic activism and organisations under formidable laws aimed against ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’. But not quite. His invasion sparked anti-war protests across Russia, mainly among younger city-dwellers. But even these could not be tolerated. Some 15,000 people are reported to have been detained, and another law has been introduced threatening up to fifteen years in prison for even mentioning ‘invasion’ or ‘war’. All independent media have been closed. Such draconian measures point to political weakness, not strength. Nothing is predetermined, of course. The Russian state still has plenty of reserves both material and social, and unfortunately there is no guarantee that should the Putin regime fracture, progressives will be the beneficiaries. Putin’s pendulum could yet swing further to the Right.
 Tony Wood, ‘The Matrix of War’, New Left Review, 133–134, 2022, p. 58.
 James Meek, ‘Did I Invade? Do You Exist?’, London Review of Books, 44(1), 2022, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v44/n01/james-meek/did-i-invade-do-you-exist
 Alistair Bonnett, ‘Russia’s colonial legacy and the war in Ukraine’, Geopolitics, 2022, https://geographical.co.uk/geopolitics/geopolitics/item/4299-ukraine-invasion-russia-s-colonial-war
 Putin, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’.
 Viatcheslav Morozov, Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
 Wood, ‘The Matrix of War’, pp 43–45.
 Branko Marcetic, ‘A US-backed, far Right-led Revolution in Ukraine helped bring us to the brink of war’, Jacobin, 2022, https://jacobinmag.com/2022/02/maidan-protests-neo-nazis-russia-nato-crimea; Lev Golinken, ‘Neo-Nazis and the far right are on the march in Ukraine’, The Nation, 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/neo-nazis-far-right-ukraine/
 Branko Marcetic, ‘A Ukrainian sociologist explains why everything you know about Ukraine is probably wrong: An interview with Volodymyr Ishchenko’, Jacobin, 2022, https://jacobinmag.com/2022/02/us-russia-nato-donbass-maidan-minsk-war
 Roger Markwick, ‘The Great Patriotic War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Collective Memory’, in D. Stone (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History,Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp 692–713.
 Pål Kolstø, ‘Introduction: Russian Nationalism is Back—But Precisely What Does That Mean?’, in Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud (eds), The New Russian Nationalism: Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism 2000–2015,Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, pp 1–17.
 Ilya Budraitskis, Dissidents Among Dissidents. Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia,New York: Verso, 2022, p. 65).
 Tamash Kraus, Sovetskii Termidor. Dukhovnye predposylki stalinskogo povorota [Soviet Thermidor. The Intellectual Preconditions of the Stalinist Turn], Budapest: Metsenat, 1997, p. 89.
 Santiago Zabala and Claudia Gallo, ‘Putin’s philosopher: Who inspired him to invade Ukraine?’ Aljazeera, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/3/30/putins-philosophers
 Slawomir Mazurek, ‘Russian Eurasianism—Historiosophy and Ideology’, Studies in East European Thought, 54 (1–2), 2002, pp 105–123.
 Roy Allison, ‘Russian ‘Deniable’ Intervention in Ukraine: How and Why Russia Broke the Rules’, International Affairs, 90(6), 2014, p. 1270.
 Allison, ‘Russian ‘Deniable’ Intervention in Ukraine’, pp 1288–89.
 Madalin Necsutu, ‘Via southern Ukraine, Russia eyes “another route” to Moldova’s Transnistria’, BalkanInsight, 2022, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/04/22/via-southern-ukraine-russia-eyes-another-route-to-moldovas-transnistria/)
 Roger D. Markwick and Nicholas Doumanis, ‘The Nationalization of the Masses’, in Nicholas Doumanis (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of European History 1914–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp 365–387.
 Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Logics of Power: A Conversation with David Harvey’, Historical Materialism, 14(4), 2006, pp 26–27.
 Boris Kagarlitsky, ‘Fascism in the Era of Postmodernism’, Russian Dissent, 2022, https://russiandissent.substack.com/p/fascism-in-the-era-of-postmodernism?s=r
 Budraitskis, Dissidents Among Dissidents, pp 167–86.
 Budraitskis, Dissidents Among Dissidents.