The “Russian Idea” and the coronavirus in Putin's calculations about Ukraine

O presidente russo, Vladimir Putin, assina decretos para reconhecer as repúblicas de Lugansk e Donetsk

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs decrees to recognize the republics of Lugansk and Donetsk

)| Photo: EFE/ Aleksey Nikolskyi/ SPUTNIK/KREMLIN

Last Monday’s events ( ) might make it into the history books. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, gave a nearly hour-long televised speech about Ukraine. After that, he announced that he had directed parliament to recognize regions controlled by pro-Russian separatists in the east of the neighboring country. The recognition was met with statements of repudiation by other powers and an emergency UN Security Council meeting. Along with all these events, there is a new data that can contribute to the understanding of the actions of the Vladimir Putin government.

European markets opened their operations this Tuesday (29) Fall. The UK and US, among others, are announcing sanctions against Russia. In Washington, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, spoke of “destroying the ruble” and “crushing the oil and gas sectors” in Russia. In other words, the day promises and a column on international politics that only addresses the recent developments of the crisis risks being obsolete in a matter of hours. A broader look is important.

The end of the USSR

Putin’s speech could be a column topic in its own right indeed, since, basically, he seeks a historical justification for Russian actions in Ukraine. Putin has more than once called the end of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. Many people mistakenly consider this a moral or ideological judgment, as if Putin were a communist or a staunch supporter of the Soviet state model. His criticisms, in his speech, to Lenin and Khrushchev are already indicative of the answer.

When Putin speaks of the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”, he refers to a Russian nationalist and irredentist vision, that the end of the USSR was an accelerated and disastrous process, which modified or inaugurated borders and bequeathed a series of pending issues to the successor states. It is not necessary to be bound by Russian examples to see this, just look at the various conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or the skirmishes between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Part of the reason for these conflicts is the legacy of internal Soviet borders, with populations living on the “wrong” side of the border.

The Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy, the author of the work

The Last Empire. The end of the USSR, more than an ideological event or the “end of History” weakly prophesied by Francis Fukuyama, was the end of a state whose territorial existence dates back to the 18th century. The biggest empire in continuous extension in history, since, on the eve of the Great War, the Russian Empire was even bigger than the USSR. The end of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire also bequeathed a series of border disputes, population and irredentist movements. Such disputes are part of the origins of World War II.

The narrative Putin’s national-historical approach is basically a way of justifying the incorporation of Russian populations in other states into the territory of the Russian Federation. Modesty aside, our readers have been well informed about this in recent years, as the column has more than once explained this foreign policy platform, the Karaganov Doctrine. We talked about this both in the last month of December and in the first collaboration, in the distant month of March 2018. If the reader does not know this text by 2019, allow the reading suggestion.

Foreign policy pillar

One of the pillars of Putin’s foreign policy is a direct consequence of what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. Formulated by Sergey Karaganov, former presidential adviser to both Yeltsin and Putin, the doctrine, little commented on in Brazil, seeks to value the Russian language, Russian nationality and the proclamation of defense of Russian speakers distributed by the former Soviet Union. This is the geopolitical version of “My homeland is the language” by Fernando Pessoa. This defense, including military, of a Russian identity, of a “Russian idea”, was used to justify the war against Georgia, in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea, in 2018.

And here is an important question to understand the next developments. Putin recognized the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, both territories controlled by pro-Russian separatists on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Is this an acknowledgment of the territories actually already controlled or is it an acknowledgment of all the territories the separatists claim? Basically, the entirety of the oblasts ), regions, from Lugansk and Donetsk.

The difference includes dozens of thousands of square kilometers, almost 2 million people and strategic locations such as the port of Mariupol. It can also mean that military forces, from the territories already controlled, forcibly take the rest of the oblasts, escalating the war in eastern Ukraine and carrying out an invasion of the country by Russian armed forces. Confusion about what has been recognized may be intentional, to “force the hand” in a negotiation process. It is still unclear.


There is also another possible ingredient in Putin’s calculations, which implies a clarification of the column . In December, it was written here in our space that there would be no internal Russian agendas that drive a conflict with Ukraine and that, although there is support for Putin’s foreign policy and the military successes of the last two decades, the risk of a drawn-out war against a population with such close historical and cultural ties to Russia is not wanted.

It was also commented when internal political crises make an armed conflict serve the interests of the dominant idea or the government of the moment. The example of the Falklands War, started by the Argentine dictatorship in its aftermath, was given as a way of trying to “unite” the Argentine population in a patriotic cause and distract them from the economic and ethical decline of the regime. Well, it needs to be fixed. Today we know that this reason may exist in the Russian case and in the interests of the Putin government.

The Russian Federal Statistical Service, Rosstat, published, on 29 of January, a balance of the number of deaths in the country in 2018 . The Russian population naturally dwindled by 1 million in just one year. About 29 a thousand Russians died in December of 2021, a number 42% higher than that of December , pre-pandemic. That is, deaths caused by the coronavirus can be much higher than those officially recorded, in a country with a very low population density and an aging population. In Belarus, which is far from being a great example of fighting the virus and where several Russian forces are stationed, there are reports of an increase in cases and transmissions to the native population.

Pursuing Russian patriotism, a sense of national identity and territorial irredentism are, it is repeated, pillars of Putin’s policy. It’s not from today. In this case, however, one can also speculate on the influence of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on Russia. Recognition of separatists in eastern Ukraine can also serve as a distraction from internal problems. On the other hand, if the announcement of the annexation of Crimea was met with street parties, the reaction of concern and widespread international repudiation may indicate that it is still a very expensive venture.