Western scholars endorse Vladimir Putin’s points in his interview


Much has been said about “The Vladimir Putin Interview”, hosted by American political commentator Tucker Carlson, which premiered on February 8 (the full transcript can be read here). It was the first interview granted by the Russian president since he launched the ongoing military campaign in Ukraine. Most Western media reports have talked about it using words such as “propaganda” and “disinformation”. The Guardian’s piece described it as “Putin lecturing the conservative host on his distorted views of Russian and Ukrainian history.” In fact, whether one likes Putin or not and whether one agrees with his conclusions and decisions or not, most mainstream Western historians and experts would acknowledge at least the premises and historical facts mentioned by the Russian leader as accurate – rather than “distorted”.

Take Putin’s much criticized claim that Russians and Ukrainians even today are “one people”, for instance – a claim he had been making years before the said interview, often using the word “narod”, that is a “people” or a community with a shared history, not “natsiia” (nation).

When the Russian president started talking about his country’s special relationship with neighboring Ukraine, he talked about the beginning of the Russian state in 862, and Rurik, in a digression that lasted over twenty minutes and has been much mocked by Western commentators. His main point, though, not just during that part of the interview but throughout the whole conversation, was to highlight that the Russian-Ukrainian statehood ties go way back and also to stress the relative novelty of the independent Ukrainian state. Those are really basic points about Eastern Slavic history.

Consider this: in a survey taken six months before the war, over 40 percent of Ukrainians nationwide (“and nearly two-thirds in the east and south”), agreed with Putin that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, according to Nicolai N. Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, writing for Foreign Policy – not Tucker Carlson, mind you, and certainly not a “Putin’s propagandist”. This is no “ancient History”, either.

Back to History, anyway, let us take, for instance, Chris Hann’s 2023 academic article called “On peoples, history, and sovereignty”. Mr. Hann is a Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, and an expert in Eastern and Central European peoples. In his aforementioned article, the ethnologist makes a distinction between “historical” and “non-historical” peoples, because, he writes, “it might reasonably be supposed that a people such as the Ukrainians, who have only been known as such since the nineteenth century, is more exposed to geopolitical vagaries than those with a longer continuous pedigree of statehood and Hochkultur.” The Hegelian (and Marxist) idea that some peoples “lack a history” (geschichtslos) does not imply, it should be stressed, any kind of “inferiority”. In those terms, “historical nations” are merely those that possess a long tradition of statehood and clearly defined national identity. For centuries, Ukrainian identity has been part of a larger Russian identity, and to this day, millions of Ukrainians think of the categories “Russian” and “Ukrainian” as being aligned and compatible – and not fully separated.

In the interview, Putin went so far as to rhetorically describe the ongoing conflict as having “an element of civil war” so as to emphasize his point about there being a deep historical connection – but Putin himself concedes that being supposedly part of the same “people”, does not necessarily entail being part of the same state: “I say that Ukrainians are part of the one Russian people. They say, ‘No, we are a separate people.’ Okay, fine. If they consider themselves a separate people, they have the right to do so, but not on the basis of Nazism, the Nazi ideology”. This brings us to another key point often made by Russian authorities – and scholars of all political persuasions, by the way.

One could say, in fact, that Putin was quite “timid” to talk about the topic in his exchanges with Carlson. He did not mention the infamous Azov regiment, for example, described by CNN, in 2022, as a “far-right battalion” with “a key role in Ukraine’s resistance”, which has “a neo-Nazi history.” This is not just a paramilitary militia turned into an official unit within the Ukrainian National Guard, but a larger social movement. Political scientists Ivan Gomza and Johann Zajaczkowski detail the far-right politics of the Azov movement in their chapter “Black Sun Rising: Political Opportunity Structure Perceptions and Institutionalization of the Azov Movement in Post-Euromaidan Ukraine”, published in 2019, by the Cambridge University Press.

Again, this is not “Russian propaganda”, but actual facts about the Ukrainian regime today. Ivan Katchanovski, in turn, who was a Visiting Scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, wrote, in 2016, on how Fascist groups, albeit a minority of the Ukrainian voters, have had a key role in national politics: “The far right achieved significant but not dominant role in the Ukrainian politics during and since the ‘Euromaidan.’… Far right organizations and their armed units had a key role in major cases of political violence during and after the ‘Euromaidan,’ and they attained an ability to overthrow by force the government of one of the largest European countries”.

He adds that “as a result of the far right involvement in the violent overthrow of the Yanukovych government by means of the Maidan massacre the far right organizations achieved their strongest influence in Ukraine since its independence in 1991” and  “because of their involvement in the government overthrow, the war in Donbas, integration in the government and the law enforcement, and ability to overthrow the government, the influence of the far right organizations in Ukraine became greater compared to other countries in Europe.”

Putin’s several mentions of Poland have also confused even educated people in the English-speaking world – but, as I wrote elsewhere, it is just impossible to talk about Ukrainian identity and nationalism without mentioning their complicated relations with the Poles since the 16th century. In addition, Ukraine today glorifies the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which, in collaboration with Nazi Germany, committed genocide against Poles, according to respected Western and Ukrainian historians such as Yaroslav Hrytsak, a fact that, predictably, is not well received in Poland.

Of course, any head of state giving an interview during a conflict will be also engaging in PR and it would be naive to think otherwise. With that in mind, it is still true that even after peace is achieved, as long as ethnic Russians and philo-Russians remain marginalized in Ukraine and as long as NATO enlargement goes on, there still will be room for tension and conflict – internally and internationally. It is about time to talk about those issues. Or one can just shrug them all off as merely “Russian propaganda.” The latter would be an ill-informed stance, though.



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