Writing about the fast changing war launched by Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation against Ukraine is fraught with challenges once you’ve got past expressing the hope that the fighting will soon end and the job of rebuilding a shattered nation can begin – and that’s before we even consider the Crimea question!

I specialise in writing about international higher education and research collaboration and have been fascinated by Russia’s past since visiting the Soviet Union at the age of 17 while studying the Russian Revolution for my History A-level.

As a journalist, it has been a lot easier writing about Western universities turning expressions of solidarity into support on the ground through twinning arrangements with Ukrainian higher education institutions through initiatives, such as those spearheaded by Universities UK and the Cormack Consultancy.

Easier that is than thinking about how to support Russians against the war if all ties with the country are cut, as I considered in a blog a few weeks after Putin’s began his invasion on 24 February, 2022, which I promised to return to to try to work out Putin’s end game.

So far, the narrative has been straightforward, with Ukrainians as the good guys and victims of senseless aggression by Putin and his close associates in the Kremlin who want to rebuild the Russian Empire of Tsar Peter the Great, or if not that, then the Soviet Union of Stalin – but without the Communism.

So, it was a bit of a shock when I covered a recent international networking conference hosted by the Science | Businesspublication for University World News.

The event in September 2022 began as expected with a representative from Ukraine’s higher education and research community spelling out the horrific destruction caused by the Russian invasion so far.

Unexpected question about cooperation with Russia

But then it took an unexpected turn as Olga Polotska, executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine, was quizzed about the impact of the war on Russian science and cooperation between Ukrainian and Russian researchers.

Seemingly taken aback, Polotska replied: “Honestly speaking, I am not very interested,” before giving her inquisitor a crash history lesson on the deterioration of relations between Ukraine and Russia, particularly during the past decade.

For many in the West the conflict is seen as only starting in February this year, with the aborted attempt by the Russian Army to capture Ukraine’s capital Kiev and cement eastern Ukraine to the Russian motherland. 

Fighting since 2014

Like Germany’s former Chancellor Frau Angela Merkel, they seemed to forget that Russian-backed separatists had been fighting the Ukraine’s army for control of the Donbass in eastern Ukraine for a decade or more or that Russia successfully annexed Crimea in 2014. 

Merkel, as history and POLITICO recalls, signed an accord for a gas pipeline – Nord Steam 2 – to take gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic with tacit US approval, in mid-July 2021, which would allow Russia to circumvent overland routes through Ukraine.

It seemed the West had forgiven Russia for being a bit naughty in grabbing back Crimea, the strategically important peninsula and home to the Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Of course, even Putin critic and the last leader of USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, a hero to many in the West, thought it acceptable for Russia to take back Crimea.

I’ll come back to Crimea in a moment when I offer some thoughts on what might be going on in the minds of Putin and his inner circle.

Do science sanctions need a rethink?

But first let me return briefly to the Science | Business conference when Olga Polotska found herself in a minority of one on the panel discussing whether science sanction against Russia need a rethink.

Polotska had argued that “science cannot be silent about crimes against humanity” and said: “Now is the time to cut off all ties and connections with research in the Russian Federation.”

But others disagreed! Mathieu Denis, acting chief executive and science director of the International Science Council (ISC) said mobility programmes “should be open to Russian scientists fleeing their country because of the war” and questioned whether the sanctions were doing more harm than good, especially in terms of monitoring climate change. 

Fellow panellist Professor Luc Soete, formerly of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said he understood why those in Ukraine want to have nothing to do with Russians, but argued that it might be more effective to encourage a brain drain out of Russia.

Daan du Toit, from South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, accepted that sanctions had been used against the apartheid regime in South Africa, but argued the United Nations and dialogue was key to resolving conflict, as it had been for the eventual peaceful transition to democratisation in South Africa.

Yuko Harayama, from the Japanese Association for the Advancement of Science, said the war seemed far away in Europe to many Japanese and suggested some Russians in Japan were against the war. 

To which, Olga Polotska responded that her research foundation sent over 40,000 emails to Russian researchers appealing to them to condemn the unlawful aggression by the Russian Federation in the second week of the war.

Most of the emails were ignored, but of the replies “only 12% were relatively supportive or neutral”, while the other 88% supported the war and often used “very humiliating” and what she called “obsolete language” about the re-unification of Ukraine and rebuilding the old Soviet Union.

So why did Putin do it?

So that brings us to why Putin risked the wrath of the world in launching his ‘special military operation’, which has now escalated into a mass call-up of Army reservists and Russian men with no or little military training likely to be sent to the front. 

There has been a dash to the border to escape the draft and arrests and demonstrations have been reported in a number of Russian cities and Russian students and researchers are appealing on social media to be allowed to complete their studies or research in the West.

So what on earth is driving Putin on and failing to try to negotiate some kind of settlement?

Well, history seems to blame, or at least the selected bits that Putin turns to in a bid to justify his war aims, as The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding tried to explain in a short video.

To Putin, Russians and Ukrainians are brothers, which may or may not have had a ring of truth at one time, but judging by the ferocious fight being put up by Ukraine’s army and volunteers to save their nation that is anything but the case for most Ukrainians today – despite the hasty so-called ‘referendums’ in occupied parts of the country on re-unification with the new Russian empire.

And if you rely on history to decide the future, there is a strong case for saying that Russia, China and much of central Asia should be returned to Mongolia as Genghis Khan and his Mongol fighting sons once ruled them as part of the largest empire the world has ever seen.

The Crimea question

Image from Gov.UK

Now, I said I would return to the case of Crimea and why Putin may have got away with grabbing it back to mother Russia without too much of a fuss by the West, which may have encouraged to try his luck again by attempting to occupy Kiev and the east of Ukraine.

Here, I rely partly on a blog on ‘Why did Russia give away Crimea sixty years ago?’ by Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

“Crimea was treated more like a chess piece by Khrushchev in his battle to succeed Stalin”

Although this was dressed up at the time in the Soviet press as a “noble act on the part of the Russian people” to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the “reunification of Ukraine with Russia”, it now appears that Crimea was treated more like a chess piece by Khrushchev in his battle to succeed Stalin and win over the votes of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

He is one of the few observers of the Russia-Ukraine conflict who bothered to go back to the power struggle after Stalin’s death in 1953, when Crimea was handed over, lawfully under the then Soviet constitution, from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR).

Despite 75% of its 1.1 million people being ethnic Russian to 25% being Ukrainian, the move went through without a fuss in 1954, and Crimea – the site of major military Russian bases from Tsarist times – was shifted from one Soviet republic to another.

None of that mattered when the USSR was one country, but for Putin it meant his military bases on the Black Sea were in another country that was becoming increasingly independent of Great Russia and more western-looking.

Of course, none of this justifies Putin’s aggressive invasion from the north and east of Ukraine launched by the Russian Federation earlier this year.

Why does Putin think Lenin was to blame?

And if Putin in looking to history to justify his aims, he know only too well that he cannot rely on Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Vladimir Lenin, leader of the RussianRevolution in 1917

Just days before the February 24 invasion, Putin made a long rambling speech in which he seemed to blame Lenin for creating Ukraine. 

It was baffling to many at the time, but what he was doing was attacking Lenin for writing in 1919 that the programme of the Bolsheviks “included the right of nations to self-determination” and that the Soviet Union was designed to be “a free association of nationalities, liberated from the yoke of the Tsars”.

Lenin’s words were un-earthed by a publication called In Defence of Marxism on 22 February 2022, and specifically addressed the ‘national question’or, in other words, the question of whether the Ukraine was to be a separate and independent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic bound in alliance (federation) with the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, or whether the Ukraine was to amalgamated with Russia to form a single Soviet republic.

To Lenin, it was up to Ukrainian workers and peasants, even if Stalin and other Russian rulers up to Putin may have had different ideas.

So, no wonder Putin tried to discredit the founding father of his beloved Soviet Union just days before launching his ill-fated invasion in February.

The clear message is that Putin cannot rely on history to justify his current war aims and that makes an eventual peace settlement all the more difficult, even if the West puts pressure on Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy to concede Crimea to Russia in the hope that will end the hostilities. 

Such a settlement won’t please anyone, but sometimes that is how wars end!

  • Main image from the Times of India
Related links:
Science sanctions against Russia: Time for a reappraisal? University World News  13 September 2022
How should universities react to Putin’s Ukraine War? De la Cour blog posted by Nic Mitchell,  March 16, 2022