Essay / 5 April 2022

How to Hide an Empire: Naming and Nature of Russo-Ukrainian War

Focus: Ukraine

Rifle bullets on the globe. Image by Jernej Furman. Source

To understand the current horror in Eastern Europe, it is imperative to consider two important and interrelated questions: (1) the proper way to designate what is going on and (2) a particular predisposition that both hinders using this proper designation and incited the horror in question. My concise answer to both question is that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war has been provoked by Russian imperialism. Unfortunately, however, the imperial nature of the war is often unnoticed by the Western general public. This should be changed because any viable conflict resolution must account for the origins of the crisis.

Let’s start with the naming. Although even laypeople acknowledge the importance of proper naming—for instance, it is politically correct to say “partner” rather than “girlfriend / boyfriend”—Western pundits and media often lack cultural and historical sensitivity to properly describe the events we are discussing. People use “neutral” phrases like “the crisis in and around Ukraine” (see OSCE), “the Ukrainian crisis” (see German Chancellor Olaf Scholz), “the conflict in Ukraine” (see the Institute for the Study of War), “Russian invasion of Ukraine” (see Council of Foreign Relations), “the war in Ukraine” (see BBC News), and “the Putin’s war” (see Financial Times and Foreign Policy). None of them is fully appropriate and some are outrageously wrong.

Conflict by definition, is “a competitive action of incompatibles.” You can have a conflict of ideas and that of interests. The notion, however, is far too diluted and too cerebral to describe a maternity hospital wrecked by an aerial bombardment and civilian cars being machine-gunned within the “evacuation corridors.” Conflict is a hypocritical word. It fits a peaceful discussion regarding art and politics at a coffee-house but misses the target to meaningfully describe the day-to-day realities in the 500-thousand city of Mariupol pounded by indiscriminate shelling every two minutes.

Ukrainian crisis is utterly misleading. There is, in fact, a Russia-provoked crisis in Ukraine, but there is much more going in the barricaded streets, in torched armored vehicles, in civilian hospitals cut of electricity, in dead bodies of Russian invaders that are not being collected by their comrades and devoured by seagulls on the banks of the Bug river… Moreover, the so-called “Ukrainian crisis” reverberates in Russia itself, with old ladies fighting for the last packs of sugar available in the supermarket and middle-class consumers unable to pay with their credit cards because they are suspended.

Invasion is equally limited. It is a military term that describes a particular type of operation. West European statespersons might be especially inclined to use this notion because they expected Russian to achieve an easy victory. When Russia started its assault, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister asked the German ambassador for help. The answer was: “My dear friend, let’s admit frankly, there is no point in any assistance—everything will be over in three days.” This is precisely the image of invasion—a rapid, effective movement far inside the enemy’s territory. Think about Hitler’s invasion of the USSR: Germans took Mykolayiv and Kherson moving from the West in the first month of the action. Almost a month after the Russian attack, they are still only trying to encircle Kyiv—some 40 miles from the northern border. Mykolayiv remains unoccupied although they approached it from the south. In other words, the invasion turned into a positional war.

As you can see, war, that is a massive armed conflict between different states, is the most fitting term. However, neither “the war in Ukraine” nor “the Putin’s war” are appropriate.“War in Ukraine” describes a territory, a terrain, a theater of operation—in other words, it robes agency from Ukraine as one of the belligerents. The naming implies a space where opponents contest for some gains. It smacks colonialism resembling 19th-century discourse with its glorified wars in Africa. I do not think people who use the phrase sincerely suggest we should be back to “politics red in tooth and claw”; rather, they lack cultural sensitivity and proper perspective.

Finally, this is not a “Putin’s war.” First, because we seldom use the ruler’s name to designate interstate wars in historiography. We say the “1st Silesian War,” albeit two illustrious monarchs, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria, governed the competing states. No one says Bismarck's War to describe the Franco-Prussian war even though Bismarck masterminded it. In cases we do use names, they are often attached to rebel leaders who incited uprisings (think Rákóczi’s War or King Philip’s War), not to rulers who quelled them. True enough, American historiography does refer to the King William’s War (War of Augsburg League in European historiography) and the Queen Anne’s War (War of Spanish Succession in European historiography) but these are mere U.S. historiographic conventions. They reflect an American focus on the New World and its theater of operations. In other words, it is another reincarnation of the myth of American exclusivity. Yet, events in the American theater were intrinsically interrelated with what was going on in Europe, or—as in the case of the French and Indian War (Seven-years War in European historiography)—in Asia and the Pacific.

Second, this is not a “Putin’s war” because wars are generally called by the sides they involve. The reason is simple: war is an armed conflict between states. Each belligerent wields a state apparatus, operates with an army comprising thousands of people, and is supported by an economy that brings together millions. Thus, states make war—rulers can only kindle them. Populations are implicated—sometimes aversely, sometimes enthusiastically—in the war effort. I argue that it is utterly misleading to imply there is a “Putin’s War” in a meaning—as Financial Times does—to separate the Russian people and Putin’s regime.

Several opinion polls in Russia have been taken since the war erupted. All reservations regarding the Russian public opinion surveys notwithstanding, the population supports the war. 72% of respondents express pride, joy, and hope regarding the leadership and the war it launched. There is a hashtag we-are-not-ashamed in Russian social media with thousands of users posing with photos of devastation in Ukraine. The letter Z—a military insignia currently used by Russian troops for identification—is spontaneously put on cars and vestments by the common Russians. In factories and theaters, people line in Z and chant songs of victory. Recently, a chief pedagogue at Gnessiny Music School taught his students (pieces of Mussorgsky or Balakiriev, I assume) in a sweater emblazoned with Z—the highest symbiosis of great culture and great delusion. Finally, Ukrainians with relatives in Russia are revolted by misunderstanding and support shown by their “close ones” for the regime.

The reason for such behavior, I argue, is the imperialist attitude harbored by both Russian elites and the Russian population toward Ukraine. Both elites and the populace are outraged by the independence of Ukraine, the nature of the Ukrainian political project that is antithetical to the Russian one, and the loss of territories that were instrumentalized as the foundational stone of the Russian identity. In Russian collective memory and the collective myth, Kyiv is the “mother of Russian cities” and “the cradle of Russian civilization.” In addition, Ukraine used to consume goods and cultural products from Russia in huge amounts. And nobody likes to lose a client and a market. Hence—the war.

People in the West tend to ignore the imperial nature of the Russian state. They think of the British or the French colonial empires—with huge overseas possessions and strict racial division of power. Natives rarely served administrators in the British Raj, let alone build a successful career in London. Ukrainians, however, served in the low and middle ranks of the imperial apparatus under Romanovs; some even governed the state during the Soviet times. So, where is imperialism? Ukrainians participated in the Russian political project. That is the way of thinking often adopted by Western observers.

Idiosyncratically, however, pundits use the adjective “Russian” to describe any period of the common Russo-Ukrainian history, even the Soviet times. For instance, you can read a lot about “Hitler’s occupation of Russia,” albeit Germans failed to conquer even one-tenth of the territory of the Russian Socialist Republic. In contrast, the Ukrainian Socialist Republic was entirely occupied, and the Ukrainian population suffered the horrors of the German Diktat. The very same territories—Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson—are currently being smitten by Russians. So—to recapture—there was a Russian empire but people have troubles with discerning the nature of colonial rule imposed by Russia.

Pundits tend to ignore the imperial nature of the Russian state due to improper parallel they use. They often think of European oversea empires as the only possible type of imperialism. However, throughout history, colonial possessions were acquired predominantly in the neighborhood. Think about the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire. First, they conquered neighbors and next allowed them to assume the highest offices within the state apparatus. For example, several Roman emperors came from Iberia, Spain, the first Roman colonial possession ever. Best Ottoman wazirs were of Greek and Albanian origins. My point is: What the land-empires did was not a racial division of labor nor merciless exploitation of territories—proper to European oversee empires—but the imposition of their cultural and political models.

Ottoman subjects paid taxes to sultans, and Roman subjects lived by Roman laws. I am not going into the discussion of whether it was beneficial or detrimental to Celts or Greeks. I want you to recall that anytime a colonial possession deviated from the cultural and political rules imposed from the metropole, there was war and severe punishment. Ukraine has deviated from the Russian autocratic pan-Slavonic project. Hence, the logic of devastation and waste-land-policy adopted by Russia.

I am building the argument that Russian imperialism is responsible for the Russo-Ukrainian war. An unexpected proof of my point is what social scientists dub “a natural experiment” that is currently ongoing in Eastern Europe. Belarus has been governed by a ruthless dictator significantly longer than Russia. Lukashenko’s dictatorship jailed political opposition, killed people in the streets, has a vast repressive apparatus. However, the Belarusian people lack the imperial attitude toward Ukraine. So, unlike simple Russians who are “too powerless to meaningfully oppose the war,” Belarusians sabotage railways and their military mutinies instead of killing Ukrainians. Revealingly, a Belarusian opinion poll shows that 98% of respondents consider a war possible war between Belarus and Ukraine a catastrophe. 78% feel they are responsible for what the Belarusian regime is currently doing!

The contrast with Russian public opinion is undeniable. Russians publicly support the war. They rally behind their leader. Individually, they do not feel any responsibility for the war. Russians are killing Ukrainians in the Russo-Ukrainian War because Russian imperialist sentiments make simple Russians both susceptible to the regime propaganda and disdainful of Ukraine. Most of them are not victims but accomplices in the ongoing crime. Only those who overtly oppose the war hold the moral high ground. Unfortunately, they are a tiny minority. The Russian nation is heading toward a spiritual hangover akin to that the German nation experienced after 1945. Tragically, Russians are drinking “Bloody Mary Cocktails” infused with Ukrainian blood to shed their imperialism.

The text of a speech at a seminar “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: On the Ground, in the Media and in the Region” held on March 21, 2022 at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, U.S.

The text was originally published at the Krytyka portal. View here.


Ivan Gomza

Head of the Department of Public Governance at Kyiv School of Economics. Trained as a political scientist, he received his Ph.D. in 2012 after studying at the Joint Franco-Ukrainian PhD Program at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. His scholarly interests comprise democratization, authoritarian regimes, contentious politics, and good governance.