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The War Over Ukrainian History and Identity

March 5 2022, 2:31 p.m.

 “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” declared Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” This conception of Ukrainian history forms the bedrock of Putin’s justification for invading the former Soviet republic, independent since 1991.

On this week’s podcast, Ryan Grim talks with Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko about his country’s history, from the Dark Ages up the current war. They discuss Ukraine’s history of anarchist politics, the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that toppled pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, and the tangled question of modern Ukrainian identity.

Ryan Grim: Before Vladimir Putin launched the insane depravity that is his invasion of Ukraine, he gave a long national address that purported to tell the history of Ukraine and Russia, which, to his mind, justified the coming reconquest.

Vladimir Putin [translated]: Ukraine is not just a neighbor, it is an integral part of our history, culture, and spiritual space.

RG: Putin-watchers say that in his isolation, he has become something of an amateur historian, diving deep into the legends of the pre-Russian empire, and emerging with a warped national mythology he’s now infusing with his own embittered contempt for Ukraine and the European continent to its West. It’s a fraught and contested history, and one that isn’t yet over.

To help sort through a less mutated strain of the region’s history, I spoke with Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist and a research fellow at the Institute of Slavic Studies. He was heavily active in a number of Ukrainian new left initiatives and was a founding editor of the left-wing intellectual publication Commons: Journal of Social Criticism.

His academic work focuses on The Maidan Uprising of 2014, but he spoke to us, too, about the development of the state and Ukrainian culture over the last thousand years.

Now, I began by asking him a question that’s as trivial as anything imaginable given the unfolding invasion, but I’ve wondered why we in the West have been told to move from The Ukraine to just Ukraine, and from “Kee-ev” to “Keev”, and I’ve suspected it had something to do with Ukrainian nationalism and state formation. And Volodymyr said that was roughly right, and that there’s a tiny fraction of Keev-Kyev partisans who care an extraordinary amount about the pronunciation, but nobody else really does.

Volodymyr Ishchenko: There are much graver problems in Ukraine right now than the questions of how Kyev should be pronounced.

RG: So, to help navigate this conversation, here’s a tiny bit of background:

We talked for a while about the Kievan Rus’, which is a group of people who are at the heart of Putin’s claim that Ukraine is really just a bunch of Russians who don’t know it. The Kievan Rus’ date back to about the 9th century and are hotly contested between Ukrainians and Russians, who both try to claim them. I don’t wanna spoil too much of it, but Ischenko says that the newest historical research actually says that they’re both wildly wrong.

We also talked about Nestor Makhno, who was a Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary. He’s a fascinating and controversial figure who played a major role in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He both fought against the Germans and, later, against the counter-revolutionaries known as the Whites, and then also against the Bolsheviks, who he saw as authoritarians hijacking the revolution.

And the Euromaidan Revolution, of course, came in 2014, after the Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a free trade deal with Europe, and after huge protests and a coup, a western-leaning government took over. That precipitated Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbass or, if you prefer, The Donbass.

If you wanna jump straight to our conversation about the period of 2014 up to today, that starts at about minute 25. For the other thousand years, I’m joined now by Volodymyr Ishchenko.

RG: Volodymyr, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

VI: Thank you. And my pleasure to join this podcast in these difficult times.

RG: Yes. If you trace the history of the Ukrainian people or Ukraine, where do you go back to? Where do you source the beginning of the culture that has evolved into what is, today, Ukraine?

VI: Mm, like, there is a standard —

RG: All the way back to St. Andrew, or like?

VI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are a quite many people, but in the academic community, there are, of course, total freaks who start the history of Ukraine from several thousands years from some neolithic cultures that were found on the territory of Ukraine, and there is a folk history that they could be direct ancestors of contemporary Ukrainians, but that’s really freak science.

There is a standard school books narrative that would start the history of Ukraine, or at least of Ukrainian peoples, from the early Middle Ages, from Kievan Rus’, something like a state, that has always been contested between Ukrainians and Russians.

Russians would like, for example, in Russian imperial history, they would even claim that Ukrainians didn’t have any connection to the history of Kievan Rus’ that was supposedly a Russian state and Ukrainians appeared on the territory of Ukraine somewhere later. That was a standard narrative in the 19th century Russian Empire.

RG: Hmm.

VI: In the Soviet Union, the story was told that the Kievan Rus’ was the state of one people that was a predecessor to three brotherly people: Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. The narrative which is taught in Ukrainian schools now is trying to Ukrainianize the Kievan Rus’ legacy to say that there is a direct connection from Kievan Rus’ to contemporary Ukraine. The irony, again, is that most probably this was something — it was actually not exactly a state, but according to a very interesting Kyev historian, this was more like a trade company of ancient Norseman, who were known in Western Europe as the Vikings.

The very state appeared as a trade company of these Norseman from Scandinavia, who probably even founded the Kyev settlement or at least expanded it into some sort of a city because they needed it as a trade post. And those Norseman they were trading different things on the routes in the Eastern Europe, connecting Northern Europe, to Byzantium, to the Arab world to Eastern countries, and they traded different things, including slaves. So in the most extreme version, this was like a slaveholder trade company.

But this is an interesting narrative, but that could be taken as even offensive by many Ukrainians. But if looking at the archaeological evidence, that’s probably much closer to the realities of the emergence of the Kievan Rus’ then attempts to present it as a full-scale state, because this is always something like modernization of what existed thousands of years ago — one thousand, to be precise, and to project on those political social formations, the contemporary perceptions and contemporary concepts about how the state is supposed to be, and how the society is supposed to be.

So the next stage in Ukrainian history is, of course, the Cossacks, the warriors and tradesmen, who founded in their settlements on the banks of the Dnieper River, and not only in Ukraine, in some parts of Russia as well, and also defending the lands against the attacks from the Crimean Tatar state, from the Ottoman Empire, from some nomads. It’s a standard Ukrainian narrative. This is presented as another step in the formation of Ukrainian identity and also a statehood with the uprising against the Polish kingdom led by Cossack leader Sergei Magnitsky.

And the next stage is how, in this uprising, the Cossacks decided to sign an alliance with a Russian tsar and how the Russians actually betrayed all the clauses of that alliance and gradually subjugated Ukraine.

RG: Mhmm.

VI: And then another stage is the Ukrainian revolution when the Romanov Empire, the Russian Empire collapsed during the First World War, and the revolution, and Ukraine also had a national component. There was a Ukrainian intelligentsia that since the 19th century, as in many other parts of Eastern Europe, they started to be interested in the folk customs, in the culture of the ordinary peasants who populated those lands, tried to formalize the language of those peasants, so they formalized the dialects that were spoken on Ukrainian lands and they imagined Ukraine. They started to construct Ukrainian nationhood. And somewhere by the end of the 19th century, they started to formulate the idea that Ukraine is a separate nation, and it should become, eventually, an independent state.

So this idea was then pushed during the revolution, and there were several attempts to form a Ukrainian government — some republics, some more like military governments, another attempt to also to create a kind of monarchy under German protectorate. Those attempts were very temporary; Bolsheviks were able to win the civil war.

After the Russian Revolution, some of the leaders of the Ukrainian movement in those times, explained the victory of Bolsheviks in a way that Ukrainian peasants they were actually not so much interested in Ukrainian identity. And they even needed to explain to those Ukrainian peasants who are Ukrainians at all, because they have a completely different understanding of themselves — not exactly Russians — but they had local identities. These were mostly illiterate peasants.

But Bolsheviks were able to propose them more radical social reform.

RG: Right.

VI: [Sighs.] So should I continue? [Laughs.]

RG: Yeah, well, let me pause there. Because in the West, when people think about the history of Ukraine over the last several hundred years, one of the things that kind of stands out to people who dabble in history is the strength of anarchism in Ukraine. Not just Nestor Makhno during the Russian Revolution, but also, you know, strains of it that had existed in the past, or that perhaps we project anarchist ideas onto, with our kind of modern understanding of it. And I’m wondering if there’s anything in particular about Ukraine’s situation on the map, or anything else that led it to be more receptive to anarchist ideas at that time. And maybe it fits with what you were just saying that if these are illiterate peasants, and if they’re told that the system that we’re proposing here is that you can run your life, and run your farm, and your town as you see fit, with no boot on your neck, then that seems rather appealing.

VI: I would agree actually, with this explanation, because the anarchist movement at that moment was getting appeal mostly from the peasants who were not rich, but they were not totally poor. So they had some property, they had some land, but they were not able to become like countryside capitalists — Kulaks, as they were called during the Russian Revolution and in the old Soviet Union. So this idea of self independence, of course, they appealed to this part of the peasantry in Ukraine, and because Ukrainian land, I mean, the actual land where they grow, food was richer than the land in more northern parts of the Russian Empire, the peasants in Ukraine were actually a little bit more affluent. And that created the basis for the Makhnovist movement.

But during the civil war, they were called atamany, which could be translated roughly as warlords. So when the state collapsed, of course, there were like multiple warlords that were trying to build their own armies, mobilize the peasants, and claiming to fight for their independence. And they were competing with the different attempts for state formation, and Makhno was just one of them. We also need to understand the broader context and how much he could appeal.

So, unfortunately for Makhno his appeal was not capable of winning larger territories to start — yeah, of course, for anarchists, the whole idea of the state is very problematic.

RG: Right.

VI: Makhno was not that naive. However, his movement was still not capable to form a stable political institution — whatever we would call it within the anarchist tradition. And they lost. Eventually they lost to the Bolsheviks.

RG: Right. And so how quickly did you move from Makhno and his movement, losing to the Bolsheviks, to the Stalinist tyranny that we learned about in school?

VI: That was actually a very important period in the 1920s, a very important also for Ukrainian national identity formation, a period of so-called korenizatsiya policies, meaning that they were trying to root their power. They won in the civil war by force, and also by the promise of radical reform in the interest of the peasants and workers. So the idea was that parts of the Soviet Union that were institutionalized as quasi-independent states, Ukrainian Republic among them, would be formed from the local cadres. So Ukrainian Soviet Republic would be run by Ukrainians,

RG: Which Putin referenced recently, right, as a giant mistake?

VI: Yeah, he referred to it as a giant mistake. From the perspective of the Russian imperial narrative, maybe it was a mistake. From the perspective of Bolsheviks, it was actually not a mistake.

So they were able to stabilize the situation, to stabilize their power, and to start the revolutionary transformation. And they were able to speak to the local population in the language they understood. Basically, the Bolsheviks contributed a lot to the formation of Ukrainian national identity in the way of teaching the peasants literacy. Before the revolution, most of the Western Ukrainian peasants were illiterate. They learn how to read and write after the revolution. They learnt in the Soviet schools. And, of course, in those schools, they were told, not simply how to read and write, but the whole national narrative — who are Ukrainians at all? What are their relations with Russians? What are their relations with Poles? And so on. And that idea of the brotherly people, Ukrainian people and Russian people as brothers, that idea, that national narrative, was told in the Soviet schools to Ukrainian peasants. So that’s how they understood the history of Ukrainian people.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: And how did that affirmative policy from the Bolsheviks then intersect with the Stalinist policy? What was left after World War II of the ideas that people were taught and inculcated with and believed? And did the Holodomor affect different parts of Ukraine differently?

VI: Yeah, the Holodomor, the Great Famine of 1942 and 1943 is super important in the contemporary Ukrainian historical narrative and part of historians, and also most of the political elite, and even people in the polls, they would say that Holodomor was genocide of Ukrainian nation.

Yeah, at this moment, it’s a very difficult discussion. And one of the consequences of this invasion that started last week would be that the whole history of Ukraine would be revised. And almost everything would be seen as the steps towards what Putin did on Thursday. And, of course, there will be even more people now convinced that yes, indeed, the communists wanted to eradicate the Ukrainian nation, or at least to kill as many Ukrainians as possible. And unfortunately, any nuanced discussion on these issues will be very difficult for quite a while, however this war will end.

RG: Right.

VI: During the Stalinist period, the korenizatsiya policies were gradually revised, and especially during the Second World War, Stalin started to appeal primarily to the Russian identity; the heroes of the Russian Empires were kind of invited back. Stalin started to construct a Soviet narrative with greater emphasis on the Russian nation. And after the war, what has become interpreted as Russification has intensified.

RG: What effect did that have on the culture after the fall of the Soviet Union and the division when Ukraine becomes, then, fully independent?

VI: The impact was actually quite mixed. So, despite this gradual Russification, the Soviet state actually supported a lot of Ukrainian language culture, Ukrainian language press, Ukrainian language books, plays, movies. They received very significant state financial support.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, that support was eradicated. And what actually happened, the market started to roll. And so far as, for example, the current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he was making almost all of his show business productions, before he became a president and when he was a comedian, that that production was in Russian language, although all of his team, I suppose, were from Ukraine. Why? Why in the Russian language? Because in Russian language, you could sell your production for Russia, and almost all of the other parts of the former Soviet Union. So the Zelenskyy shows could be watched by a much larger audience. And that’s simple. That’s market logic. Very simple, very straightforward.

The problem was that the Ukrainian language stopped receiving substantial state support and it required state support. What happened after the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, and after the war in Donbass started, under the pretext of the war with Russia, the Ukrainian state started to push forward something like protectionist policies in support of Ukrainian-based artists or writers. For example, they blocked many Russian TV stations, they made it difficult to import Russian books to Ukraine, and that created kind of like a protectionist niche for Ukrainian language culture, and combined with the interest in Ukrainian-ness on the part of the Ukrainian population, also connected to the Donbass war that was seen as Russian aggression by a part of Ukrainian population, that created both the audience and also the protectionist measures to expand the Ukrainian language culture. So now it has much stronger footing than before almost 25 years of pre-Euromaidan history, when, without significant support, the Russian language still had quite strong positions within the Ukrainian public sphere.

RG: What was your view of the Euromaidan Revolution at the time?

VI: At the time, I was skeptical. And we also started to study the Euromaidan to collect systematically the data on the protest events during the Euromaidan, taking interviews with the participants of Euro Maidan, but also the participants of the anti-Maidan mobilizations, and also some of the law enforcements. So this is very significant empirical material that we are still in the process of analyzing.

But now I would see that Euromaidan is kind of like a deficient revolution, a deficient solution for the crisis of political representation. It was a huge problem for all of the post-Soviet states. And Putinism, like Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, is another deficient solution. One is that conserved the crisis, gave some stability, and that’s created those so-called pro-Putin majorities — which may not be necessarily majorities, however, there would be still quite significant number of people who would stably vote for Putin and it is, of course, very important in the way he is capable to stay in power for so many years.

The Maidan revolutions, we actually use them as a generic term, is another deficient solution for the crisis of political representation, not the one which conserves the crisis, but the one which, in an attempt to solve this crisis, to bring the masses of people to the politics to which they were alienated from and to which the didn’t believe in. They didn’t believe any politicians, they had very low trust of the government and the parliament, and the moment of revolution, the mobilization is actually the entrance of the masses to politics, something that is supposed to solve this distance between the society and the politics, which creates the crisis of political representation. But in a way to solve this crisis, the Maidan revolutions only reproduced the crisis and even intensified it.

And the problem is that those revolutions, they did have revolutionary aspirations. And the people, indeed, were able to simply change one oligarch, Viktor Yanukovych, the pre-Euromaidan Revolution president of Ukraine, to another oligarch Petro Poroshenko, post-Euro Minden, President of Ukraine, a billionaire, and who actually made quite a big profit from being the president, judging from the, his position in the Forbes list of, quote, rich people in in Ukraine.

But the people who protested, they did want to change the system. Fundamentally, they aspired for really revolutionary changes. But they articulated these revolutionary aspirations very, very vaguely. They didn’t have any well articulated and well-elaborated programs of change. They were also quite loosely organized, without strong organizations who could claim leadership in that revolutionary mobilization. There was actually quite high distrust of the opposition leaders who were speaking on behalf of Maidan. And most of the people who protested on the squares would not even perceive them as actual leaders. But that meant that the revolutionary aspirations, lacking strong leadership, strong organic leadership, really represented the participants of the revolution. Lacking in strong organizations, lacking articulated programs, they couldn’t change the institutions in the way that people aspired. And instead of that, the Euro-Maidan revolutions allowed and created the resource of revolutionary legitimacy to which different groups that participated in the Euromaidan protests, liberals, nationalists, far-rights, oligarch parties, so on and so forth, they could appeal to this revolution of legitimacy, and to promote their own agendas which were very different from what the people aspired for. So instead of getting the jobs and getting the better wages, living like in Europe, they got the agendas of the neoliberal NGOs.

RG: Right.So having studied that moment, so closely, what do you think is the most accurate way to describe the U.S.’s role in the Euromaidan Revolution?

VI: I would say that, rather than inspiring the Euromaidan Revolution, and the very cliched narrative of the CIA backed coup d’état —

RG: Right.

VI: — that was taken by some parts on the left, this is a huge distortion of what actually happened. And what happened was more the thing that I’ve been actually talking about. The Euromaidan Revolution was a deficient revolution, and it was fractured and predisposed to be hijacked by different agendas and by different agents.

And the U.S. government actually exploited rather than started the Euromaidan Revolution. But it exploited the Euromaidan Revolution for its own interests in Eastern Europe. What happened after the Euromaidan Revolution was the kind of institutionalizing of different mechanisms of control and dependency of the Ukrainian government on the Western institutions and Western governments.

So in this Russian, but also among parts of the Ukrainian opposition narrative, they described it as external management, or external administration. That was, of course, a huge exaggeration. But it’s also true that Ukraine became more dependent on foreign powers as it has ever been since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so that was perceived as a tool against corruption, because it was argued that the local Ukrainians would be easily corrupted, or they would be even, by default, involved into some clientelistic networks, and they would promote some specific particular interests of those networks. So getting more foreigners to control the Ukrainian government would allow more transparency and fewer risks of corruption.

RG: Right.

VI: And so that the Euromaidan Revolution created some legitimation for this expanding institutional dependency of the Ukrainian government, the target of which was primarily the influence of so-called Ukrainian oligarchs that could buy the politicians, that could buy the officials and which would solve the interests of specific financial industrial groups.

But the irony was this: that for seven or eight years before the war started, and after the Euromaidan, the real anti-corruption achievements, and the real risks for the oligarchs were almost invisible. So if you look at the Forbes list of the richest people in Ukraine, it’s amazingly stable.

RG: Right.

VI: Only Poroshenko made his career almost to the top. But if you look at it in 2014, and if you look at it in 2021, you’ll basically see the same people. And this is, despite all this, eight years of the anti-corruption reforms, of huge money given to Ukrainian civil society. If the people of Ukraine could not see any visible results, but only these talks about reforms and implementing the legislation that actually didn’t improve their lives, they were understandably skeptical about the course of the country’s development.

And that was, of course, the one of the reason why Zelenskyy was able to win in a huge landslide victory against Petro Poroshenko, being a perfect symptom of the crisis of political representation in Ukraine, a person with zero political experience — so even less than Trump had —

RG: Right.

VI: — was able to win against a dinosaur of Ukrainian politics. Petro Poroshenko went into politics in the 1990s. Ironically, he was initially in the same party, the Party of Regions which was the main party of Viktor Yanukovych, and which was toppled in the Euromaidan Revolution.

That also tells a lot about Ukrainian oligarch politics where it’s primarily about cynical pragmatic interests, not about any ideologies at all. But, before the war, Poroshenko was the leader of the nationalist opposition, being at the same time a Russian speaker and speaking to his children in the Russian language, and for quite alone, retaining his factory in Russia despite the war in Donbass, and speaking very nice things to Putin privately as we now know from leaked phone calls. So for him nationalism is simply a tool, an instrument to preserve his power while he was still the president.

RG: So I’m curious, at what point do you think that Putin’s invasion became inevitable? Like, how long ago? Did you think there was a moment when the die was cast, and do you think that was recently? Within the last few weeks? Or do you think that developments over the last few years guaranteed that he would take this move?

VI: Oof. That’s, of course, a difficult question. And I’m afraid now that this invasion would be now projected to the past, and many people would see that Russia was like, almost always preparing to invade Ukraine, to capture Ukraine, and everything was leading to right to what happened last week, and is still going on — and it is very difficult to discuss any alternatives.

When exactly was the final decision made? I interpreted Putin’s strategy as a kind of a course of diplomacy: He is making a threatening move, but then expects some concession, with some evidence of the desire to compromise with him from Ukraine, from the U.S., from the E.U., on the issues of the NATO membership for Ukraine, on the implementation of the Minsk accords, and if they don’t listen, he makes another threatening move, and then another, another, another. And I was not actually thinking that he would go for the full-scale invasion because of many reasons — many reasons that post-Soviet social scientists didn’t believe in this invasion — and for the reasons why the Ukrainian government didn’t really take the threat of invasion seriously, as we know, from the statements from the Zelenskyy and from other Ukrainian top officials, why Ukrainian intelligence did not take the threat that seriously, why most of Ukrainians didn’t believe in the threat.

I’m not even speaking about the Russians. Within Russia, according to the CNN poll published just before the invasion started, something like 15 percent of Russians believed it would be possible. And it was also most of the Russian expat community, many Russian journalists, even clearly oppositional to Putin, they didn’t believe in the invasion. And they were reacting to the quite outlandish statements during that media campaign about the imminent invasion in the U.S. and U.K. media, for example, that Russian tanks just 100 percent need frozen ground in Ukraine, and that the ground is supposed to be frozen in Ukraine until the end of March — as if Ukraine is in Siberia, or whatever. And these claims were also stated in reputable American media with references to some official sources. And I think it actually helped Putin to get that surprise effect, when even most European politicians didn’t really believe that that invasion would really happen. And they were skeptical of the forecasts of U.S. and U.K. intelligence, as we know.

And maybe this is one of the reasons why they’re reacting so outrageously now. If you expected that innovation to happen in October, why did you not prevent it? Why didn’t they make more moves in order to stop it? Why did you not push Ukraine to make some moves towards concessions, specifically on the Minsk accords and on NATO membership?

Before the invasion, I supposed a couple of weeks before, I wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera, explaining that if Ukraine won’t start its own independent policy within this conflict about NATO, and also the conflict with Russia, about Donbass, eventually Ukrainian fate would be decided by the great powers. Now, it is quite possible that Ukrainian fate would be decided by just one great power, or at least a wannabe great power, Russia, or they will reach some compromise.

But, I mean, it’s even painful to say. If they’d seen that since the end of October, that Putin is going to invade, that he is indeed preparing an army which is capable of this invasion, why did they do so little about that? Why were they only using it for warnings for media statements, and now claiming that they were exposing Russian plans, in order to prevent them. They did not prevent it. And now the people in Ukraine are dying.

And it’s not to say, of course, that it’s U.S.’s fault primarily; of course, the person who pushed the button is Vladimir Putin, and he is primarily responsible for all this destruction for the killings of thousands of Ukrainians, and Russian soldiers. But if you knew, why did you do so little about this?

RG: I guess this is a better question for us here in the United States, but I’m curious if you’ve had an answer to that question, as you’ve gone over it in your mind? Why the U.S. didn’t do more?

VI: I mean, I can only speculate. And of course, we will need to see how it will develop. Putin, for example, now helps to reach a peaceful settlement between Ukraine and Russia. And one of the possible ways, at least what I see at this moment from the different expert discussions, the utility of these negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, that it could be kind of like a trade; that Ukraine could get an E.U. membership, or at least a very clear prospect of an E.U. membership. That’s indeed what many people in Ukraine protested for during the Euromaidan Revolution and which would have an overwhelming support among the Ukrainians, especially now after the war started. And that would also strengthen Ukrainian institutions.

And on the other side, Russia would get the neutral status of Ukraine. So Ukraine would be something like Austria or Finland — within E.U., however not in NATO. And E.U. membership would also be kind of like a security guarantee for Ukraine. Attacking an E.U. country again would be much riskier for Putin. And there would be some compromise on the status of Crimea and Donbass. And something that Putin vaguely calls denazification, leaving himself a lot of space to actually to claim any victory on this very vague thing, because everybody understands — and within the Russian government, it’s also very clearly understood — that there are no actual Nazis within the Ukrainian government. And the position and influence of the Ukrainian far right is a much more complicated story. But, of course, if you give such vague goals, then you’ll get a very clear benefit that you can claim a victory for whatever would happen, right?

RG: Right.

VI: Perhaps he would call it DeNazification if, for example, Ukraine were to rename some streets named after Stepan Bandera, the leader of Ukrainian nationals during the Second World War, or, for example, the division of the language law that pushes Russian language from the Ukrainian public sphere. Everything can be put there. But, in extreme, it might mean the complete regime change in Ukraine and installing puppet government for Ukraine, which would of course be very unstable and could rule only based on force and coercion.

RG: How nervous are you that the Europeans are reacting in such an unusually kind of aggressive way. It’s strange to see the United States being the one saying: Hold on, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here — and the Europeans seem to be reacting much more punitively even than the U.S. Do you think that things are spiraling at this point? Or do you have some optimism that these talks could actually result in some type of settlement that you discussed?

VI: I don’t know. It’s a good question. We need to analyze it. I have the psychological answer that I just told you, that Europeans actually did not believe that much in the imminence of the invasion and now they are reacting much stronger.

It might also depend on the dynamics of European public opinion, the sympathies that many Europeans now have towards the Ukrainian people, and especially in Poland. I don’t know, actually. But the point is that we need to see how helpful would the E.U. and U.S. efforts be in reaching a peaceful solution for the war. If they were really to decide on the clear E.U. prospects for Ukraine, better if some membership plan, the plan of implementing whatever is needed for Ukraine to become an E.U. member — despite the costs. Of course that’s going to create a lot of expenses. But we also need to understand that they owe something to Ukraine. If they, in 2008, decided that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, but they never ever would go into fight for Ukraine. Now, they’re very explicitly saying, the same thing is being said by Biden, by Johnson. They would never, ever create a no-fly zone, for example, and starting shooting down the Russian airplanes over Ukraine that bomb Ukrainian cities. If you’re never going to fight for Ukraine, what was that thing about Ukrainian NATO membership if you are supposed to defend Ukraine?

And that was hugely irresponsible, and they owe something to Ukraine now, and they have to pay for this. And of course, the E.U. membership would require a lot of money allocated to Ukraine for the reconstruction of the state, for the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities, and to help the Ukrainian economy. But if they only continue to send weapons to Ukraine, and intensify the sanctions — there is, of course, a limit to which they are capable of pushing the level of sanctions, after which Putin might consider some harsher measures than simply economic sanctions against the European Union. And he has already explicitly warned about nuclear weapons.

Russia has been preparing for sanctions since 2014. All the things they are implementing now, the disconnection from SWIFT, for example, they all have been mentioned in 2014, and Russia was preparing some measures in order to survive during the sanctions. Another thing is actually China is almost explicitly supporting Russia. And without the Chinese support, Russia would never ever start a war in Ukraine.

So if E.U. policy would be simply about weapons and sanctions, and they would not help to reach the peaceful solution, that would mean that they actually want to see the war in Ukraine go on as long as possible, disregarding the civilian casualties, disregarding the casualties in Ukrainian army, disregarding the destruction of Ukrainian cities and economies. So that is what they need. They need some ‘Forever War’ for Russia in Ukraine that, of course, Russia would hardly survive.

RG: Right. Right.

VI: But they also understand that Putin bet almost everything on this war. If he is going to be defeated in this war, he would very likely lose his power — and maybe his life — in Russia. Because the support for the war in Russia is not that high and there is not that much enthusiasm for the war. The anti-war sentiments are quite significant, even though not so many people are coming into the streets — because it’s actually quite dangerous. Thousands of Russians were arrested for participation in anti-war rallies.

Nevertheless, the longer the war would continue, the more casualties in the Russian army, the stronger the anti-war sentiments would be. And it might end as the First World War for Russia, which she was losing by 1917. And at some point, Putin might end either in a violent revolution or in a coup d’état by the elites who would be tired of the sanctions and the impact on their wellbeing. So for Putin now, it is very essential to reach a quick victory. But if the policies of the E.U. and the U.S. will be only about sanctions and weapons, that means that they probably aren’t interested in this war.

RG: Right.

VI: We’ll see.

RG: Well, Volodymyr Ishchenko, thank you so much for joining me. Very much appreciate it.

VI: Thank you.

[End credits music.]

RG: That was Volodymyr Ishchenko, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

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