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Professor Andrzej Nowak’s reaction to President Putin’s recent speech. Sources of Ukrainian-Russian tensions

I have listened attentively to President Putin’s statement. He talked for a long time – that Ukraine already has nuclear weapons, that it is already a NATO member, that American Tomahawk missiles are already deployed in Poland, and all this is aimed at Russia, which America wants to destroy. President Putin spoke these words calmly, with care, like Uncle Vova at a social gathering. He concluded: that Russia cannot be blackmailed. And … he announced the actual adjoining of Donetsk and Luhansk to the Moscow motherland. For the time being, he has recognized their “independence” and has signed a pact of friendship and mutual assistance with them a minute after his declaration. That means, of course, the introduction of Russian troops there. And all this is a response to the invitation of President Macron to the new Munich, that is the conference of powers: “eternal France” and her historic friend – Russia and, what can we do, America. Now the Russian president dictated the conditions, just like in Munich 84 years ago: you recognize the annexation of the Sudetenland (sorry: Lugansk, Donetsk, and, of course, Crimea), I will graciously agree to peace. Will Macron proclaim triumphantly, as Chamberlain did 84 years ago, for “peace of our time, peace with honor”?  Will Biden accept such a peace? We will see soon. Meanwhile, let me refer you to a short conversation with the Polish Press Agency PAP about the historical reasons why Putin will not give up Kyiv.


Sources of Ukrainian-Russian tensions. Professor Nowak: Ukraine, referring to libertarian traditions, is dangerous for Russia

“The sources of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine should be sought in the 9th century, when Kyiv was the center of the eastern Slavic state. Moscow did not become a political center until the 14th century,” says historian Professor Andrzej Nowak from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and the Polish Academy of Sciences. The interview was conducted on February 18.

Polish Press Agency: For some time now, the eyes of almost the entire world have been turned to the border between Ukraine and Russia. Possible scenarios for the development of events are also considered. Where are the historical sources of Ukrainian-Russian tensions?

Professor Andrzej Nowak: We should go back to the 9th century, that is, to the moment when the first state of the Eastern Slavs was being created. Kyiv had become its main center, so the concept of Kyivan Rus is already the first controversial concept in Russian-Ukrainian relations because both Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have a common root precisely in Kyiv. So, the question has been asked: to whom does Kyiv belong?

In the following centuries, the center of strength of the Eastern Slavs moved northwards, and finally from the 14th century to Moscow, which wanted to lay claim to the role of the unifier of the Ruthenian lands. However, the unification without Kyiv, the mother of the Ruthenian cities, seemed incomplete to Moscow, hence the claims of the imperial center, which had formed around Moscow in the 15th century, to take over this area with ruthlessness.

However, some Ruthenian lands from the 14th century found themselves in a historical relationship with the Polish Crown …

Poland’s king Casimir the Great inherited the territories of today’s western Ukraine, which resulted in a shift of the borders of the Crown to the east. However, even more critical in this context are the effects of the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Lithuania concentrated under its rule a large part of the lands of Western Ruthenia, and thus actually the entire area of ​​today’s Belarus and most of Ukraine. As a result of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, over the next several centuries, these lands were under a powerful influence coming from the West and under the influence of the specificity of Polish political and civil-libertarian culture.

Of course, Ukraine has developed it in its own way. Let us note that Cossack freedom is certainly not the same as the freedom of the gentry of the Commonwealth. However, the reference to freedom as the most important identifying feature of the Cossacks’ political community is essential.

From the Middle Ages on, other influences passed through Poland, such as the Magdeburg Law related to self-government in cities, which is a symbol of belonging to Western Europe. Ukraine has also benefited from this influence, as evidenced by a monument to this law erected in Kyiv.

In this way, the second element of tensions between Russia and Ukraine emerged, i.e., a dispute between two political principles. On the one hand, we have the principle of self-tenure represented by Moscow, in which the ruler is the absolute master of everything. On the other extreme, we have the principle of Cossack freedom and the model of municipal self-government. The situation in which, next to Russia, Ukraine continues and develops its state, referring to the libertarian traditions (its own -Cossack, the Commonwealth, and also Europe), is a deadly threat for autocratic Russia. An alternative would be strengthened, which the Russians could want to use and want this libertarian model, tested in the “fraternal” East Slavic republic – and to taste of it. That is why the present Russian authorities are also trying to destabilize the Ukrainian state in such a way as to nip such an alternative in the bud.

Is this tension visible in other areas, apart from the dispute over the territory and political principles?

I would also pay attention to the identity dispute. The takeover of Kyiv by Moscow in the second half of the 17th century in the course of wars with the Commonwealth and the subsequent partitions of Poland did not resolve this dispute, as part of the Ruthenian / Ukrainian lands remained beyond the reach of Russian rule. I mean Lviv (Lwów), Stanisławów and Tarnopol, that is, the area that Austria seized as a result of the First Partition. For nearly one hundred and fifty years, these lands, about which Ukraine also argued with Poland, were still within reach of a strong cultural and civilizational influence coming from the West. This additionally strengthened the identity of Western Ukraine, independent of Russia.

Moreover, in the 19th century, a modern Ukrainian national project began to emerge, targeting both Russia and Poland. Supporters of this project did not want to come to terms with the subjugation to Russia. Ukraine was becoming, in a sense, a modern nation, which was a huge challenge for Russia. Geopolitically, Russia could not be a European superpower without Ukraine because this rule over Ukraine gives Russia full access to the Black Sea and then to the Balkans. Without it, Russia is losing a large part of its imperial influence in Europe.

Looking at the present conflict between Russia and Ukraine, we wonder what actions Putin will decide to take. What scenario, in your opinion, is the most realistic?

The historian is no better off than the non-historian concerning future scenarios. What I dare to say, I am saying only in my own name and not in the name of the historian’s profession. The most likely scenario for me is that Russia will launch an attack, but a limited one, that is, one that the West will not recognize as full-scale aggression. Unfortunately, some Western politicians, including German and French ones, give Putin the option of such a solution.

In the relatively most straightforward form, this attack may take the form of the official entry of the Russian army into the so-called republics, that is, to rebel centers in Lugansk and Donetsk. Blood will then be shed, albeit on a small scale. The significant scale of this war would mean a confrontation with the West, not military, but economical, and potentially devastating for Russia. So in total war, an offensive against Kyiv, or even more so against Lviv – I doubt it, for I do not think those who rule Russia are crazy.

However you do believe, don’t you,  that deaths are unavoidable…

This is due to my assessment of Putin’s mentality and the peculiar culture of violence that characterizes his parent organization: the KGB. As a man from the “criminal Leningrad”: from the Soviet era and precisely the KGB, Putin recognizes not only strength as a determinant of his own position. For this, he needs to demonstrate violence, the highest manifestation of which is precisely the ability to kill. However, this ability is kept within certain limits because it is limited by the ability of others to kill. After all, the U.S. could bring Russia to its knees if it wanted to. However, Putin wants to show strength and violence to his “electorate” in Russia itself, to intimidate its neighbors (including those slightly further from “old Europe”), but not to provoke America to retaliate.

Putin also plays out the West’s not always unequivocal attitude towards Moscow’s actions.

Russia pays close attention to the mood in the West. It is trying to actively influence it with an extensive network of influence, including through media publications or the powerful Russia Today (RT) TV. Russia also makes suggestions to various groups of influence. Let us look at the group of the so-called “realists” in the United States who repeat that since they do not want Mexico to be a Chinese republic or a Chinese army to be stationed there, it should also be understood that Russia has the right not to wish that U.S. troops are stationed in Ukraine or even in Poland, which Russia considers a threat. What the Ukrainians or the Poles want,  these “realists” should not even consider. All that matters is what the empires, including Russia, want.

However, Russia refers not only to purely imperial American concepts but also to German ones. I listen carefully to the journalistic programs of the first Russian television program. These programs strongly emphasize that the West is no longer a whole. We can hear that Germany is Russia’s natural ally in Russian programs. It is said that “the heart of the German bourgeois beats with the same rhythm as the heart of a Russian,” with a restrain towards America, but the desire for mutual, German-Russian economic cooperation.

The manifestations of a split in the West allow Putin to hope that the reaction to the limited Russian aggression will not cause some collapse of the Russian position in the future but will even strengthen this division.

So what is Russia’s goal in relations with the West?

Russia wants to humiliate its Western partners. Putin even assumes that within a few months, at least some Western politicians will conclude that in Ukraine, even if people die, it is not a big deal; it is not worth adjusting the permanent course of closeness with Russia. This lack of reaction will show the West’s powerlessness.

This model of humiliation can be seen, for example, in the context of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, where Putin, not Germany, dictates the terms. We also saw this model concerning French President Emmanuel Macron when he refused to undergo a genetic test for COVID (thus sharing the genetic code of the French head-of-state with the Russian security services) when he flew to Putin for an audience. As a result, he did not receive the “honor” of shaking the hand of the president of Russia, who at the same time demonstratively embraced the president of Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.

In this game by Putin, Ukraine is the biggest victim. What, in your opinion, is this country’s future in the coming years?

At the moment, two things are happening simultaneously that will determine the future of Ukraine. One of them is subjecting Ukraine to extremely open and brutal pressure from Russia, which is to finally make Ukrainians throw themselves into the arms of Russia and say: “Yes, we want to be one state together and belong to one community.” This is the maximum plan that Russia is considering, i.e., reunification based on subordinating Ukraine to Russia. However, I believe that this is an unlikely scenario, as the vast majority of Ukrainians would undoubtedly be against it today, especially in the event of bloodshed.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian state cannot organize itself effectively. I am saying that not everything is to be blamed on Russia and Putin because Ukraine also has some problems with itself. However, Russia is trying to increase these problems to a level beyond which it becomes impossible to stabilize political life in Ukraine and organize it in a way that would show a good alternative for Russia. What I mean is needed here is the strengthening of the Ukrainian economy, creating a higher standard of living for Ukrainians while maintaining political freedom in the country. Unfortunately, I am afraid that this scenario is also challenging to implement in the coming years.

All this means is that the model we are dealing with now can continue in the coming years. However, we should remember that history unfolds along such paths that often surprise us (PAP).

Interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak was conducted in the morning hours of February 18.







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