What is the main difference between the Russian and Ukrainian perspectives?
History and the worldviews associated with this conflict play a central role, in both the Ukrainian and Russian perspectives: history is used here as a weapon. In his speeches on 21 and 24 February 2022, Putin clearly stated that for him there is no Ukraine as a nation. He sees their population as part of “Little Russia,” which belongs to Russia. Putin's vision dates back to the 19th century and is an imperial vision. According to Putin, Ukraine's independence, made possible by Lenin in the early days of the Soviet Union, was a mistake. He believes it should always have been part of Russia.
A fact check is necessary here: Yes, Ukraine was not an independent state for a long time. What we know as Ukraine belonged to many different empires. For instance, there was Poland-Lithuania; parts of Ukraine also belonged to the Habsburg Monarchy, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. This was due to the social structure: Ukraine consisted of a predominantly rural population and others emerged as landed or administrative rulers.
Nevertheless, Ukraine sees itself today as a sovereign state with a long tradition that goes back to the Kievan Rus' around the year 1000 AD (Editor's note: The Kievan Rus' was an ancient East Slavic empire that today is Russia, Ukraine and Belarus). But Russia also claims the Kievan Rus' as the origin of their nation. It's a battle for the Kievan Rus', which is in effect a question of who owns history. Yet this question is part of a historical construction – history itself does not belong to anyone.
What is the position of the West in this question?
In the West, the notion that Ukraine was not a state, or a nation, existed too. One could hear this in heated arguments among experts on Eastern Europe. Many said, “Ukraine always belonged to Russia, they should have it.” This view ignores the fact that already in the past the people of Ukraine have seen themselves as their own national community and that there were aspirations of statehood. These aspirations can be traced back to the Cossack communities on the Dnieper in the 17th century, who developed something of a proto-nationalism. During the 19th century, a national movement and an independent national understanding emerged.
Ukraine has been independent since 1991. A majority in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic voted in favor of independence. In international law, one cannot ignore 30 years of being an independent state. There is a separate Ukrainian language, which is not a Russian dialect, and a separate Ukrainian culture.
Which consequences of this war of aggression do you see for Ukraine?
I believe Ukraine as a nation will emerge much stronger from this war. It’s incredible how they stick together. It's a sign of courage, bravery and unity that I think really amazes us all. And terrible suffering is now being done to these people. Ultimately, Ukraine will not be the military winner, but the moral winner. Yet the losses will be very severe. Territorial losses will probably also occur.