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Modern Russian Imperialism

On the night of Feb. 24, I was horrified when I encountered the news about the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine. The thing everyone had been discussing for weeks but refused to believe had occurred. Being from Belarus, I cherish and respect both countries and their cultures. In this article, however, I would like not to state obvious facts about the malevolence of wars in general, but rather to share some historical perspective from someone who studied the lore of the region both in the classroom and out of natural curiosity. 

The most common misconception I’ve heard is that Vladimir Putin is an insane person and a megalomaniac. I want to assure everyone that, though he is a megalomaniac, he knows exactly what he is doing: reclaiming Russian influence in Ukraine, something that he explicitly stated in his speech. From my point of view, this is simply another act of Russian Imperialism, a concept that is not unique, but rather something that was inherent in all Russian rulers. In the times of Russian Tsardom and later Empire, they justified it as a “collection of Russian lands,” a mysterious phenomenon that supposedly only they could comprehend. Soviet leaders justified their actions in newly established Belarusian and Ukrainian republics in 1918 by the “noble” act of spreading communism. Now, Vladimir Putin claims that he wants to ensure self-determination of various peoples inside Ukraine. If this notion is widely known, then why does this act of aggression come to us as a surprise?

To answer this question, we must examine the last decade of the 20th century. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, and every country was adapting to the new way of life. It might surprise some people, but Russia in 1990’s was a slowly developing democracy with competitive elections and thriving political culture, despite an enormous economic crisis. Naturally, foreign policy was not high on the agenda. Ukraine was undergoing similar processes, with one exception: their holy grail was integration into the European political system. Soon after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, skyrocketing oil and gas prices enabled Russia to overcome its economic struggles and finally focus on foreign goals. Putin, as Josef Stalin before him, believes in an inevitable threat that NATO and the West pose to Russia. Thus, from his perspective, there must be buffer Eastern European states controlled by Russia that would act as a vanguard. During 2000’s he was successful in keeping Ukraine close through diplomacy. However, in 2013 Ukrainians finally decided to combat a pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych and succeeded in 2014. This endeavor frustrated Putin, who “taught Ukrainians a lesson” by annexing Crimea and supporting separatist states in Donbass region. Despite these deeds, Ukrainians showed their unity, resilience, and determination in continuing their path to ultimate independence from Russia. Now Putin has taken final measures and has attacked.

I know Ukrainian people. In 2014 they stood weaponless while being shot by snipers during the protests. I can only imagine how hard and how viciously they would fight for their land and liberty. They have already shown that by withstanding the first two days of the invasion. I also know Russians. Not everyone there wants this. Many people believe, as I do, that Ukraine and Russia can coexist in harmony, independent of each other, yet still close. They have shown that as well by protesting on Thursday, facing the threat of arrest and torture by Russian law enforcement. I want to express my deepest sympathy and support for Ukrainian people. I am assured that peace and humanity shall win, that Ukrainians shall win.