Can Russia’s war against Ukraine be regarded as a genocide? Has Europe learned from the mistakes of the past, when it reacted sluggishly to the aggression of the Russian Federation? And will Ukrainians ever be able to reconcile with the Russians? – says the historian, UCU professor Yaroslav Hrytsak in an interview with DW.
Mr. Yaroslav, could you imagine as a historian that Ukraine would face such a full-scale Russian invasion? Was war inevitable?
It is inconvenient for me to boast, but I have written twice – on the eve of 2020 and 2022 about this. I wrote that the time is similar to 1913 or 1938. I did not say that war was inevitable. But I said that we were very close to war. In terms of Russia’s rhetoric, Russia’s behavior, as the West has behaved. It was obvious that we were going from 1932-1933 to 1939. The question is for how long we will go on this time.
Now you can often see a comparison of current events with World War II – how correct is that?
These comparisons are not entirely correct. It is more correct to compare this war with the First World War. Of course, every comparison falters. How is this war similar to World War II? Because this is a conventional war. Much has changed since the Second World War, and military technology has improved. But the combats are still being fought as in World War II, i.e. tanks, planes, bombs. I do not see high technology here. And this is the only thing that makes our war similar with the Second World War. But unlike it, we don’t have big battles. We do not have big fronts. Battles are local, fronts are broken. This is a situation reminiscent of the First World War. How else is this war similar to the First World War? Because there is a feeling that the war will end quickly. This feeling was in the First World War. People then believed that the war would be quick and victorious, and we would all return home by Christmas. But they returned four years later and there were 10 million dead. The most important thing is the war of attrition. Borders and fronts are stabilizing. Sooner or later it will go into trench warfare. Military operations will not play a big role. Stronger rears and bigger reserves will be of most importance. That is we should not make any illusions to ourselves. This war will not end quickly. How long, I do not know. But how fast… We are not talking about weeks, probably. It is very important to switch to the rails of the military economy.
How correct is it to say that this is a genocide of the Ukrainian people?
Genocide has very different meanings. Lemkin, who was the author of the concept of genocide, used it in a broader sense than in the UN document. He used the meaning that genocide is an act that leads to the destruction of the people and their culture, including destruction of identity. In Lemkin’s imagination, the world was like a harp. It is possible to play complex melodies when there are all the strings on it. The disappearance of one string (of one nation) means that the harp becomes imperfect. For Lemkin, genocide is not only the physical destruction of Jews, Armenians, and Ukrainians during the Holodomor, it was also the destruction of their culture. Moreover, this could be destruction by prohibitions – of language or by deportation, for example. Because in other territories these peoples cannot exist and reproduce like in their homeland. In our case, Putin said very clearly: “Ukraine does not exist, there is only one Russia”. Ukrainians and Russians are one nation. This means that he will do everything to reduce Ukrainians to the level of some ethnic group, not a nation. And this is an act of genocide.
What is the purpose in exterminating Ukrainians?
This is what you should ask Putin. But he no longer thinks in rational terms. Putin talks to God, but this god is the devil. He thinks he is called to a great story – to do something that will save the whole world from the threat of a rotten West. Putin is not at war with Ukraine in his imagination. Putin is at war with the West in Ukraine. And on his side is such a pure cool Orthodox Russia, which is called to save the whole world. It has nothing to do with reality. This means that he will not give up. If there were rational categories, it would be possible to sit down for negotiations. And he says: no, kill them to the end.
Does he sincerely believe that Ukraine was invented by Lenin?
Yes. He believes that Ukraine alone cannot exist. It does not have the strength to do so, Ukrainians and Russians – one nation, one religion. Therefore, he believes that Ukraine was invented and supported by enemies. It can be the Bolsheviks, Jews, Germans, now – the Washington Regional Committee (Biden). A collective West that is constantly fabricating Ukraine for the evil of Russia to bring Russia to her knees every time.
Speaking of the whole world, you and your colleagues have repeatedly said that this war will be changeable not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe and the world. First, what’s wrong with them now? Secondly, how can Ukraine influence them?
Timothy Snyder said very briefly that Europe is prose, Ukraine is poetry. You can live on prose alone, but without poetry it will be difficult. Ukraine is opening new worlds for Europe now, unfortunately, under tragic conditions. But we know that the biggest changes are happening in response to tragic challenges.
What my colleagues tell me are German politicians from the Green Party: in Germany, taxes on the army have been reduced every year. They believed that war was no longer possible. There is such a general illusion – we have been without a war on the European continent for 80 years, it can never happen again. The best way to ensure peace is to have a strong army. Europe did not do that, it is almost disarmed now.
Secondly, it must be honestly said that if Russia hates the West, the West is in love with Russia – great Russian culture, great people. We see this in the case of useful idiots, but not only there. In that context, Ukrainians did not look very good. Ukrainians were savages, nationalists, anti–Semites, and so on. And even 2014 did not change that. Only now they begin to open their eyes…
And third and very important: this is not the Europe we imagined. This is a Europe that cannot make decisions, because every decision takes a very long time. We never thought of Europe as a bureaucracy but as a Europe of values. Europe, which leads to emancipation, the liberation of people. Why do we like Europe so much? Because Europe is emancipation. She has a lot of problems, of course, she had wars and crises. But almost every crisis ends in emancipation, whether of nations, classes, women, or African Americans. Relatively speaking, freedom is a symbol of Europe. And this is something that never existed in Russia.
If we talk about Europe, are they behaving differently now?
Yes, now they are behaving in a completely new way. Of course, the West deserves criticism and they accept it normally. We would like the West to support us more actively. We deserve it, and this criticism is fair. I want to say that this is not the main thing in my opinion. Two other things are most important to me. First, Ukraine has had many warriors and revolutions over the last 100 years of its history – but it has always been alone; the West was mostly on Russia’s side.
Now, for the first time in our history, we have the geopolitical support of the whole West. And it is not just a matter of separate support for Washington or Brussels, but for Washington and Brussels together. This is very important for us. What Putin was counting on was that the West would silently swallow his aggression against Ukraine just as it had swallowed it against Georgia. He had this feeling, but it’s good that he’s so wrong. Putin is a poor strategist. Hopeless. He believed that when this aggression against Ukraine took place, the West would be weak, divided, and this would allow Putin to talk to everyone individually – with France, Italy, America. He did not succeed. The West proved very strong here.
You said that any war is not only destruction but also an acceleration. But we see that our infrastructure and economy have been destroyed. What will the acceleration in Ukraine look like?
The main acceleration will be Euro–Atlantic integration. Now we are clearly moving in the direction of the West. But we have never been given a Euro–Atlantic perspective. It seemed that we had left the Russian coast, and the other shore was not visible. Now the opposite is happening. Now this shore is close. We have a semi–open door for European integration now. Most likely, it will happen soon enough.
Why do so many Russians support this war, including the educated population?
There are various reasons. First of all, Putin has had a TV button for 20 years. The level of intoxication of Russian society through the media is very huge. As a journalist, you know very well how mass propaganda works. Even the sharpest mind gets used to this narrative.
But this is a partial explanation. The big explanation is Russian culture. Great Russian culture, which makes Russia great, because Russia cannot be small. But this is an illusion: Russia is small. In fact, it’s all a big bubble. Russia is large in territory, but not in potential. Russia is great in culture, but not in politics. In terms of politics and potential, Russia is small and terrible. And when this bubble bursts, the impression is that something went wrong: we were told that Russia is great! I can collect quotes from Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Brodsky, Belinsky – these are not secondary minds. These are the ones who set the tone. Nobel laureates. The level of anti–Ukrainianness and anti–Polishness there is simply outrageous. Both Poles and Ukrainians are the ones who prevent Russia from being great. Russian culture is a large but toxic culture.
So this is a mentality in a sense?
We can call it a mentality. I’m not saying that Russia should be like that. We know Herzen’s and Sakharov’s Russia. But Solzhenitsyn’s Russia is already quite like Putin’s. This is very important. Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky are two Nobel laureates who think not like Sakharov but like Putin. This is a tragedy of great Russian culture.
Another trauma that happens to Ukrainians is that their relatives from Russia simply do not believe them.
If you are intoxicated, and very strongly, it is difficult to find an antidote. There is a thesis that Putin is to blame. It is as if he came and manipulated the Russian consciousness. No! There are studies that show that the Russians really wanted someone like Putin, and very much so. There is an article by Richard Pipes, the famous historian “What do Russians want?” 25:00 In this article, on the basis of social polls, he proved that the Russians in the 90’s wanted someone with a firm hand who would put things in order and make Russia great again.
And pay attention – both Russia and Ukraine went through difficult 90s. But they came up with completely different results. Ukraine has emerged as a democratic state with changing governments, a state that chooses a European orientation. And Russia is a country where the government does not change, where the name of the next president is known for several decades to come, and where they continue to talk about Orthodoxy, autocracy, and other nonsense. About things that in the modern world look like an anachronism of the 19th century.
Is there a chance for reconciliation of our peoples and under what conditions should it happen?
In 1943, the French politician Robert Schuman, who is considered the father of Europe, said that we must put an end to this, we need to reconcile with the Germans. But on one condition – when the war is over and when Hitler is no more. And what happened after the war, the Franco–German armistice began with the Treaty of Steel and Coal. The key issue was the control of the territory of Alsace–Lorraine – whether it was German or French. The same was the dispute between the French Germans – whose empire was Charlemagne’s? French or German? Was Charles the Great French or German? We have something similar with the Russians now. We see how elegantly the French and Germans came out after the war. They declared that Alsace–Lorraine was a common territory of coal and steel. And the European Union began to work around this. And Charlemagne is neither a Frenchman nor a German, but the father of a great united Europe.
I assume that the same formula can be used to build relations between Russia and Ukraine. And to declare Volodymyr the Great the father of Eastern Europe, Eastern part of common Europe. And it is quite possible. But not now. Because in order for Volodymyr the Great to become the father of Greater Europe, it is necessary to get rid of Volodymyr the Small, who is now sitting in the Kremlin.
This is not possible now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work and think about this reconciliation. But peace will come at the price of our victory.
But I am convinced, you know, being a Ukrainian, knowing history, that Putin has no chance. It’s only a matter of time and price which, unfortunately, we will have to pay. It is not our choice, but that’s what we will have to do.
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