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Ukraine invasion advances Putin’s nationalist vision

  • 25 February 2022
  President Putin of Russia has embarked on an unprecedented military campaign in Ukraine without direct provocation or justification. In the West, there is a feeling of disbelief and confusion. How can Putin do this? And how can the Russian people accept this invasion?

Putin is an autocrat with great political skill, imperialist ambitions, and capacity for violence. His power relies on these. Putin is adept at creating crises and rivalries that he resolves, fuelling Russian nationalism. For example, Putin established his power by suppressing rebellion in Chechnya following terrorist attacks. The journalist and historian David Sattler claims that these bombings may have actually been orchestrated by the Russian FSB to justify Putin’s rise to power.

In Ukraine, Putin claims Russian-speakers are being persecuted and that separatist regions need protection. The claims, of course, are exaggerated, but they appeal to a particular modern sensibility to protect the victimised.

René Girard argues that the biblical religions contain a ground-breaking awareness of the violence against scapegoats which has unfolded slowly but inexorably, culminating in modernity’s concern for victims. This concern has had a transformative and positive effect, especially for the protection and rights of the persecuted and minorities.

However, it has also resulted (perversely) in new justifications for mob behaviour: victim-sympathy has been weaponised in political and online purges of those accused of being ‘persecutors’ of selected victims. Modern political ideologies and nationalisms are exemplars in this regard, as they are driven by the struggle for ethnic, nationalistic or revolutionary ‘justice’ for their preferred victims.

The claim to protect the victimised allows Putin to make a further claim: that he is only defending his people, not being an aggressor. Girard argues that this is a common way to justify warfare by obscuring the aggressive intent of the party claiming defensive action.

"Putin’s vision of Russia is a political and religious amalgam as part of which he sees himself as consolidating and promoting an integrated Russian identity. This identity is fundamentally tied to Ukraine, especially Kyiv."

Alongside protecting persecuted Russians, Putin also claims that Ukraine is part of the same political and spiritual space as Russia. He feels this space is threatened by Ukraine’s increasing political autonomy from Russian influence and its alliance with the West, which the Ukrainian people have repeatedly supported.

It has also been threatened by the breakaway of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin’s vision of Russia is a political and religious amalgam