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Interview with Serhii Plokhy: the end of the Russian empire

According to the Harvard historian, there is one country in Europe where they fight – and die – under the EU flag

Ukrainian-American historian and author Serhii Plokhy (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

On June 26, Vladimir Putin made his first TV address since a failed mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin two days earlier, had failed to unseat him. The Russian president claimed the leaders of the revolt wanted “to see Russia choked in bloody strife”, and promised to bring them to justice.

What does that rift in Russia mean for Ukrainians? Serhii Plokhy, the author and historian, says it demonstrates that the more effective the Ukrainian actions are on the battlefield, the greater the likelihood of mutinies on the Russian side. “The half-hearted coup showed how weak the [Russian political] system is,” he explained from his home near Harvard, where he is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute.

“It also gives Ukrainians a hope that if they succeed with the current counteroffensive, the end of the war can come sooner than anyone can imagine. One of the triggers for the coup was the failure of the Russian winter offensive, and enormous casualties suffered by Wagner and other units on the Ukrainian front.”

In the days leading up to his failed march on Moscow, Prigozhin used his personal Telegram channel to criticise Putin’s motives for waging war in Ukraine. Prigozhin pointed out that the war had nothing to do with Nato enlargement or so-called Ukrainian aggression. Rather, it stemmed from Putin’s obsession with dominating Ukraine, so that a Moscow-friendly regime could seize Ukraine’s resources for its own material benefit.

Plokhy says Prigozhin’s public protest contradicted Putin’s claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people. “That narrative is now dead, and Prigozhin’s rhetoric demonstrates it,” says Plokhy. “Prigozhin takes Ukrainians seriously, as a separate army, separate state and a separate nation, and this is the most important change that the war has produced in the Russian thinking about themselves and their neighbours,” he says. “Prigozhin’s [statements] about the war will greatly impact the thinking of many Russian nationalists and will become a foundation for future attacks on Putin and his policies.”

Plokhy is visibly emotional speaking about the war in Ukraine. “It’s very personal and traumatic for me because the frontline is currently going through my grandparents’ ancestral village.” He was born in Nizhny Novgorod, in Russia. “But as a one-month-old infant I moved to Zaporizhzhia.”

Today located in an area of Russian-occupied southern Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant is the largest in Europe, and includes six of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors. On June 22, Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that Ukrainian intelligence had received information indicating that Russia was considering a “terror attack” on the Zaporizhzhia plant.

Plokhy has written extensively on nuclear accidents and the potential prospect of a nuclear calamity in books like Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima (2022), Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2021), and Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (2018).
He spent the earlier part of his academic career in the Soviet Union, before emigrating to Canada in the mid-1990s and eventually settling in the United States. In The Russo-Ukrainian War, published in May, he notes that Russia’s takeover of the Chernobyl nuclear site and the Zaporizhzhia plant in the first days of Russia’s invasion presented a severe challenge to the safety of nuclear installations worldwide.

“People typically talk about the threat of a nuclear [disaster] with weapons, but the most urgent nuclear threat is with the 440 nuclear power plants that are currently in operation across the world,” he says. “There are no proper protocols or international laws developed enough to deal with these power plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna makes all sorts of appeals and tries to talk reason, but it doesn’t produce much results.”

Last December, Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a public statement pointing out how the shelling by Russian forces of Ukrainian nuclear power plants has put Europe on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, while also violating Moscow’s legal obligations agreed under the Budapest Memorandum. Under the terms of the deal, signed in the Hungarian capital in December 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, which happened to be the third largest in the world. Ostensibly, the document assured Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, while also enabling Ukraine to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state. “The Budapest Memorandum actually created a huge security vacuum in the centre of Europe,” says Plokhy. “Because Ukraine was forced to transport its nukes to Russia at the time that Russia was making territorial claims on Ukraine.”

In The Russo-Ukrainian War, Plokhy dissects the complexities of this history, which he began writing in March 2022 and completed in February. He believes the first 12 months of Putin’s war have provided sufficient clues as to what the end point may look like. “Unfortunately, we don’t know how long it will take to end the war and how much blood will be spilled,” he says. “Fortunately, though, we know how the war in Ukraine will end: the empire disintegrates.”

Plokhy says Ukraine’s defence of its sovereignty against Moscow’s belligerence has become the latest conflict in the long history of wars of national liberation that can be traced back to the American Revolution. It also belongs, he argues, to a list of wars that accompanied the decline and disintegration of world empires. All those conflicts concluded “with the political sovereignty of former colonies and former empires” and their transformation “into post-imperial nation-states.”

He also draws parallels between the Russo-Ukrainian war and the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. Yugoslavia was formed on the ruins of the Ottoman empire in 1918 and reconstituted after the second world war, but ceased to exist in the 1990s with the secession of its key republics. Like the Russians in the Soviet Union, the Serbs in Yugoslavia ran the largest republic of the federation. As Yugoslavia was collapsing, the Serbs, led by their leader, Slobodan Milošević, tried, but ultimately failed, to build a Greater Serbia, via fervent nationalism, force, and aggression. The result was lengthy and destructive warfare, involving war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

“History, as Mark Twain said, never repeats itself, it rhymes,” says Plokhy. He then cites examples of Russian troops committing war crimes in Ukrainian cities like Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol in their mission to “denazify” and Russify the Ukrainian nation.

“Sometimes genocide can be difficult to prove,” says Plokhy. “But in the case of this war [in Ukraine], you just need to go directly to the official pronouncements and speeches that were made by Putin [leading up to the war], which claimed that Ukrainians don’t exist, and they’re not supposed to exist.”

He points to countless incidents where state-sponsored cultural genocide has occurred in Ukraine, with the Kremlin’s blessing, since the war began. “The Russians have not burned books in the occupied territories yet,” says Plokhy. “But they certainly destroy them in a manner that is similar to what was happening during the Third Reich.”

Plokhy, whose other books include The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015) and The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2014), says Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was based on a vision of territorial expansion comparable to imperial Russia during the 19th century. “Many intellectuals in the Russian empire believed in the idea of a so-called big Russian nation: this [supposedly] consisted of great Russians, little Russians (the Ukrainians) and white Russians (the Belarussians),” Plokhy explains.

That imperial worldview proved useful for many Russian nationalists trying to come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (whose mother was Ukrainian) was among a cohort of Russian intellectuals who began promoting the idea that Ukraine in its entirety should become part of the Russian state. “Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist and his ideas about Ukraine made quite a strong impact on Putin during the 1990s,” Plokhy explains.

Today, Putin continues to claim that Ukraine has never been, and cannot be, a proper nation. “Even the Bolsheviks did not question the existence of a nation in Ukraine,” says Plokhy. “But what you see in 2014, and in 2022, is [Putin] bringing back the Russian imperial narrative. The failure of the Russian military campaign in Ukraine today should be attributed to Putin’s misreading of that history.”

Plokhy notes that the Russo-Ukrainian war was started by Putin with the aim of erasing differences between Ukrainians and Russians. In fact, the opposite happened. “The war has actually erected walls between Ukraine and Russia that were not there before,” he says. The conflict has also created political and economic barriers between Europe and Russia that will grow even taller as the US and the European Union continue to reduce their exposure to Russian oil and gas. “Economically, Russia is in trouble,” Plokhy warns. “This divorce between Europe and Russia will survive Putin. Even if Russia changes leaders today, the damage has already been done. The trust from [Europe] is not there any more.”

Plokhy also speaks about Russia’s geopolitical future. “The war started with the idea [from Putin] to create a multi-polar world. But the implosion of Russia has seen [global geopolitics] move back to the bi-polar world,” he says, “with China on one side and the United States on the other. Russia is getting closer to China, which puts Russia in the weak position as junior partner.”

Plokhy believes that “Ukraine will emerge from this war more united and more certain of its identity than at any other point in its modern history.” But postwar Ukraine will, undoubtedly, be a very different nation. He points to a potential scenario that could see Ukraine emerging on the political map of Europe “as a new cold war Germany – its territories divided not just between two countries, but two global spheres and economic blocs.”

Will the 2024 US election have a significant impact on who wins the war? “Well, let’s not forget that Donald Trump was impeached for the first time on the issue of delivering weapons to Ukraine,” says Plokhy. “There is also a bipartisan majority in the US Congress and the US Senate in support of Ukraine. There is a good chance that alliance will continue, whoever is in the White House.”

Regarding Ukraine’s future, Washington’s dollars and influence clearly matter for both weapons and economic aid, Plokhy admits. Still, “over-exaggerating the importance of the United States or the west in general suggests to me some form of imperial thinking,” he says.

“To be not Russia. To be a democracy. To integrate in the European and Nato structures, this is a Ukrainian choice,” Plokhy says. “I don’t know how this will sound in post-Brexit Britain, but there is just one place in Europe right now where people are prepared to fight, and even die, under the EU flag: Ukraine.”

The Russo-Ukrainian War by Serhii Plokhy is published by Allen Lane

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