There are three possible objectives in a war of conquest: assimilation, imposition, and accommodation.
The first was demonstrated by the Holy Roman Empire as it sought to tie its origins to the Hungarian state which, following centuries of Habsburg supervision, became formally absorbed by the Austrian Empire in 1867 as the state attempted to eliminate all undesirable nationalities within its boundaries through the process of Magyarization. The second was practiced by Napoleon in his quest to create the “United States of Europe” guided by the institutions he introduced to post-revolutionary France. The third was executed by the Mongol khanates who often did not exceed demands for tribute payments in their administration of an ethnically diverse empire.
Conquering states can be placed in one of these three categories based on the declarations made by their leaders and the policies they pursue during peace and especially war. Russia has usually been no exception. Ivan the Terrible’s seizure of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 15th century, the conquest of Siberia starting in the 16th century, and Catherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea in 1783 would fall into the imposition category. All were accompanied by efforts to settle Russians in newly occupied regions, spread Orthodoxy, and impose military service requirements on conquered peoples.
On the European front, successive tsars leaned toward accommodation. Mikhail Speransky, Alexander I’s progressive minister whose reforms were rapidly overturned when historians like Nikolay Karamzin blamed the statesman for eroding Russia’s idiosyncratic past, drafted a constitution in 1809 that made the tsar a constitutional ruler in Finland until the empire’s 1917 collapse. Alexander I, who threatened to declare war on his allies with whom he had just defeated Napoleon when they initially refused to grant him the Duchy of Warsaw, wanted to keep Poland separate from Russia but remotely controlled by the empire. This accommodation lasted until his successor, Nicholas I, abolished Poland’s local autonomy.
And, of course, Russia has at times decided on assimilation, especially when it assumed a civilizing mission to prove its worth to Europe, as Dostoevsky advised. In the Caucasus, the imperial army hoped to make Russians out of the Georgians who steadfastly held to their traditions. The Soviet Union’s suffocation of independence movements and political expression also falls under this category since it strove for a wholly integrated union of assimilated socialist republics with instructions emanating from Moscow. Most recently, the Chechen Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s ended with the absorption of the republic of Chechnya into the Russian Federation—with some flexibility still provided to minimize dissent.
Where does Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine fit into this framework? The problem is that, even if the above categorization is substituted by a comparable method of analysis, the answer is not clear even to Russians themselves. This has triggered an internal crisis within the Russian Federation with consequences affecting the country’s educational, cultural, media, and political pillars. It has become especially visible in Russia’s increasingly vocal debates about its history.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2021 article on the “Historical Unity Between Russia and Ukraine” reignited this historical discussion with a pro-assimilation stance. He undermines any Ukrainian claim to independent statehood because its history, language, and culture are inextricable from those of Russia. Putin’s argument justified Moscow’s initial objective of taking Kyiv because such a victory would have paved the way for the installation of a pro-Kremlin puppet leader disposed to eroding expressions of Ukrainian nationality.
Ukraine’s resistance and Russia’s subsequent recalibration of its war aims made a strategy of complete assimilation impossible because it has become infeasible for Russian officials to declare that Ukraine is inseparable from its eastern neighbor. In addition, Ukrainian citizens overwhelmingly do not see themselves as Russian. As a result, Russia is attempting to scale back its assimilation tactics to Ukraine’s eastern territories where it expects Russian-speaking Ukrainians to more easily integrate into Russian society.
Accordingly, in March 2022, Putin changed his tune and explained that the main goal of his “special military operation” was the “liberation of the Donbas.” But then, three months later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expanded the war beyond the Donbass while Putin spoke of restoring Russia’s historical lands in the tradition of Peter the Great. To clarify Putin’s objectives, Russian propagandists assured listeners that he never intended to take Kyiv. This is contradicted by Russian troop activities around the capital during the first days of the invasion, statements made by Putin in 2014 about his ability to quickly snatch Kyiv, and, most recently, comments made during a meeting hosted by the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank. Putin said that without Western aid, Ukraine would only “live one more week” since its defense system would crumble, implying that Russia would extend its war beyond the confines of the four annexed oblasts in eastern Ukraine. Yet during the same speech, Putin also said that Russia is not waging a territorial war, but one based on the upholding of moral principles, so it has no intention of taking more land.
In short, Russia’s strategy in Ukraine has oscillated to such an extent that the media and ordinary citizens are having trouble staying on the same page. Others have stopped trying, occasionally embracing perspectives that clash with the official line. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, for example, has pushed for the annihilation of Ukrainian cities and the erasure of “nationalism” writ-large in Ukraine, which contradicts Putin’s claim that Russia is not at war with the Ukrainian people but only the “Zelenskiy regime.”
In parallel, since the start of the war, hundreds of cultural sites in Ukraine have been destroyed, which would, in theory, pose a problem to an invading country that views these objects as parts of its own identity. Yet in April of this year, Lavrov noted that Russia is taking special protective measures to preserve “Russian” culture in the war. This would appear to exclude the landmarks treasured by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which declared its independence from its Russian counterpart in May of last year. Unsurprisingly, then, Russia damaged a culturally significant cathedral belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church earlier this year. Moscow has been forced to accept the idea that Ukraine’s detachment from Russia is not restrained to the top echelons of Zelenskiy’s administration.
The result of these contradictions is that Russian citizens are questioning whether Putin has a long-term strategy. One day, he compares himself to Peter the Great. The next day, he insists that Russia is eradicating neo-Nazism in Ukraine. Peter the Great’s goal was to put Russia on an equal footing with its competitors by gaining access to the Black Sea, the Ottoman Empire’s backyard, and solidifying Russia’s role in the Baltic Sea with the construction of St. Petersburg, which repelled the Swedish empire from Lake Ladoga. After Mazepa, the head of the Ukrainian Cossacks, betrayed Peter for Sweden’s Charles XII due to repeated Russian incursions on Ukrainian territory, Peter razed the Cossack Hetmanate capital to the ground and required Ukrainian traditions to be modified based on Russian imperial standards. Is this Putin’s ambition in Ukraine?
Putin’s talk of neo-Nazism suggests that it is not. It aligns more with the ideological purity demanded of Soviet leaders such as Stalin who disemboweled the Russian state to punish Nazi collaborators, often through unfounded claims. While Peter and Stalin shared the desire to expand the Russian Empire, the latter aimed to accomplish this through total ideological subservience to the dictator. Stalin’s motivation for the ironclad control of Russia’s neighboring states was the extermination of foreign influence originating in the West—ideas viewed as hostile to the regime’s survival. Peter the Great, on the other hand, placed a heavy hand on Russia’s periphery so that a cohesive Russian Empire could challenge other great powers without fear of internal dissent, as had happened during Mazepa’s betrayal. Putin, notwithstanding his allusions to Peter, is drifting in Stalin’s direction when he repeats his allegations of neo-Nazism.
At least, this seems to be what local officials and citizens have concluded. The days of discomfort surrounding Stalin’s terror are over, the party line has ruled. Monuments to the generalissimo are opening in record numbers once again after a hiatus that began with Nikita Khrushchev. Consequently, Stalin is climbing up public opinion polls. According to a survey released in August by Russian Field, an organization that conducts social and political research in Russia, Stalin was the third-highest ranked historical leader behind Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (Gorbachev and Yeltsin are ranked the lowest). By comparison, in December 2021, Stalin placed third in a list of Russia’s top “anti-heroes.” Times have changed.
Russians love imperialists, no matter their flavor. This is why Putin feels comfortable straddling between Peter and Stalin. Yet in tending toward the latter, certain Russian officials have jumped to the chase and offended those who are still not quite ready to welcome Stalin’s return.
This fracture is at the heart of the recent outcry over a new high school textbook written by former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and political scientist Anatoly Torkunov. Beyond justifying Putin’s rhetoric of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, which may disturb parents in Russia’s more well-off cities, the textbook also includes Chechens in a list of groups that collaborated with Fascists during World War II. As a result of the Chechens’ actions, the textbook explains, they were punished and expelled to Siberia. Magomed Daudov, the chairman of the current Republican parliament of Chechnya, voiced the republic’s outrage upon reading these lines, which completely absolve Stalin of his role in ordering the deportation. The authors were required to modify the paragraph.