Russia’s attack on Ukraine, through the lens of history

Historian Benjamin Nathans offers background on Putin’s use of history in justifying his war in Ukraine

Two people walk in front of a wall engraved with scenes of WWII soldiers in Kyiv, Ukraine
People walk through the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War in Kyiv in 2022. (Image: STR/NurPhoto via AP Images) 

In speeches leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a number of historical assertions about Ukraine, everything from the country having no right to exist to claiming his troops must “de-Nazify” Ukraine and prevent genocide.

Why has Putin been harkening back to World War II, in particular referencing the Holocaust and Nazism, at this point in time? What can history tell us about what is happening in Ukraine?

Penn Today spoke with historian Benjamin Nathans, who teaches and writes about Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and modern European Jewish history, to get some background on Putin’s use of history in justifying the war.

What do you make of the comparisons made between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland?

It’s true that Putin is using the argument that he’s protecting the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine in a way that is similar to Hitler’s claim that he was protecting the rights of ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe, whether that was in the territory known as the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia or in Poland.

There’s also a parallel in the sense that Hitler came to power in a Germany that had been humiliated by its defeat in the First World War and lost a lot of territory in the peace settlement that ended that war. The Soviet Union didn’t lose a hot war, but it lost the Cold War, and it lost significant territory that had been part of the Soviet Union and before that the Russian Empire.

There’s a similar sense of grievance, of national humiliation and being unable to change the results of the Cold War. I think Putin is motivated by that and is drawing on that, although it’s still unclear how much of the Russian population shares those feelings.

Why is Putin talking so much about the past?

Vladimir Putin himself is quite obsessed with history. So part of our attention to this should be looking at how Putin is using history. What is he drawing on in terms of his own motives? But just as important is the way he’s telling the story to the Russian population.

This is where things get very interesting and very disturbing. There is no grander moment in Russia’s modern history than 1945. That is the absolute high point of Russian pride and achievement and sense of mission and purpose and greatness. Because Russia alone among European powers not only withstood the Nazi onslaught—the largest and most lethal military attack ever waged in history, Operation Barbarossa launched in June of 1941 by Hitler—and withstood that attack at a price that Americans can barely imagine, it also turned the tide and crushed Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union deserves more credit than any other single country, including the United States, for the defeat of Nazis, for the defeat of what by many people’s reckoning is the closest we’ll ever get to absolute evil.

This victory over Nazism has penetrated the psyche of Russians like nothing else. There’s so much in Russia’s 20th-century history that is catastrophic and shameful, and produced horrifying results for Russians themselves, like the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalinism. The defeat of Nazi Germany is sacred ground for Russia. Putin, long before troubles with Ukraine started, has been making the defeat of Nazi Germany the cornerstone of Russian identity. I should also point out that Putin’s older brother died as a toddler during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.

How did you take Putin’s recent speeches, as a historian?

He is very eager to create an image of Russia’s history that Russians can be proud of, and there’s nothing unusual about that. American politicians like to do the same thing. But Putin’s engagement with Russia’s history, whether during the Soviet period or before the revolution of 1917, is unusually intense.

Putin is convinced that the Soviet Union not only defeated Nazism, but saved the world from Nazism, and he’s convinced that the greatest number of Soviet sympathizers to the Nazis were in Ukraine. They were anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazi army. He is convinced that he can protect Ukraine and Russia from what he imagines to be a resurgence of Nazism in Ukraine, although there’s no evidence of any such resurgence. There are more neo-Nazis and skinheads in Russia than there are in Ukraine.

What I think is most alarming about the speeches that Putin has given in the last week is that he has taken this line of Russia’s historical greatness as the defeater of Nazi Germany and he has gone off the deep end with it. He’s claiming that this attack is about de-Nazifying the Ukrainian government. There are no Nazis in the Ukrainian government. The current President of Ukraine is Jewish, a recent prime minister of Ukraine was also Jewish. It’s like Don Quixote and the windmills, except that Putin is using tanks and missiles against innocent Ukrainians. It’s as if he can’t stop fighting the Second World War over and over again.

Over the last few months we’ve heard more and more mention of genocide in Ukraine. Putin has invented this idea that there is either actual or imminent genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine. It’s simply not true. It is true that the Ukrainian government has made various attempts to declare Ukrainian the only official language of the country, even though there are many people who are native Russian speakers, including Ukrainian President Zelensky, who is to this day more comfortable speaking in Russian than in Ukrainian. But the idea that whatever hints at discrimination against ethnic Russians in today’s Ukraine is on the verge of turning into genocide is delusional.

Some bizarre combination of factors has led Putin into this position, where he’s reliving 1945 over and over again, and now in a way that is shocking, that has actually translated into a military invasion of a sovereign country.

Some people have speculated that Putin’s isolation during COVID has contributed to these delusions, but being in power for 20 years doesn’t help either. It can foster a kind of hubris, this sense of being all powerful. He’s eliminated almost all resistance in Russia and has waged successful military campaigns in Georgia, Crimea, and Syria—so no one’s talking back to him. He’s surrounded by people who only say yes.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about what is going on in Ukraine, from a historical perspective?

When empires fall apart, they don’t go quietly into the night. When the French Empire started to disintegrate after the Second World War, the French put up a fight. As a matter of fact, they put up multiple fights. They fought in Vietnam for almost a decade until the United States took over the war for them; then they fought in Algeria, in an extremely bloody conflict until they had to retreat. When the British Empire started to fall apart in North America, they intervened militarily, and they did so again in India in the 19th century and South Africa in the early 20th century. The Italians and Portuguese intervened militarily against Ethiopia and Angola in an attempt to stop the disintegration of their empires. I should point out that all these attempts to shore up empires ultimately failed. But they involved colonies far, far away from the imperial powers. Russia’s former colonies are right next door.

It would be naive to expect the Soviet/Russian Empire to fall apart peacefully and smoothly. What everybody thought was this miraculously peaceful and sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 turns out to have been the first step in a longer process.

I think what we’re witnessing today, and what we’ve witnessed on a smaller scale in Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 and its military conquest of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, is the attempt of an empire to either slow or reverse its own disintegration. This is part of an historical pattern; it’s not as if the Russians are off the charts in doing this, but I do think there was a chance for the collapse to remain peaceful. I don’t believe that it was inevitable that this series of border wars would break out. But if you’re asking for the deepest historical insight that I can try to bring to this, it’s that we are watching an empire resist its own disintegration. And it’s going to be uglier and more violent than we had hoped.