Putin’s aggressive nationalism ran into a problem

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Putin’s cataclysmic invasion of Ukraine may have caused a reversal of the global tide of aggressive and controlling nationalism. In a country like the United States, this could weaken Trumpism, given Donald Trump’s closeness to Putin and his continued praise for the Russian president. For India, the uncertainties surrounding Indian students still trapped in Ukraine are an ongoing concern, but the bigger picture is not just worthy of attention. It can be important.

In recent years, the world has been passively observing a current of aggressive nationalism, which populist and authoritarian/majority leaders have warmly embraced. In several countries, elections have been won and an undemocratic regime extended, thanks to a combination of “strong leaders” and promises to “restore past glory”, to crush the “anti-nationals” inside the country and the “sinister enemies” outside, and to build gigantic military with impressive weapons.

Vladimir Putin, in power in Russia since 1999, was one of the best-known symbols of this toxic nationalism. The last five days of February 2022 have tarnished his image. The supposedly chaotic but democratic Ukraine and its heroic citizens have put the brakes on the mighty Russian military juggernaut. In doing so, they have exposed to the eyes of the world the ultimate weakness of the ideology of domination on which Putin has placed his trust.

At the time of writing, the picture is far from clear. The United States and NATO seem to have ruled out a direct military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. There is suspense and dread about the scale of urban warfare expected in major cities like Kiev and Kharkiv. We don’t know if the number of casualties will increase exponentially – or if the talks could yet bring peace.

However, some realities are undeniable. These include, in Ukraine, the high number of dead and injured, and not only among Ukrainians. In Russia, the signs are in the severe blows to an economy dangerously dependent on oil and gas, the start of incoming body bags and the cold wind of global isolation.

The Russian people are paying dearly for one man’s sense of grievance.

On February 21, three days before the full-scale invasion, this is what Putin said in the televised speech where he ordered Russian troops into pro-Russian separatist segments of Ukraine: “I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was created entirely by Russia or, to be more precise, by the Bolsheviks, communist Russia.”

In this sentence, Putin sharply criticized the Bolsheviks and the Communists, although until the 1990s he was proud to be one of them. “They detached Ukraine from Russia,” he complained. Putin recalled and celebrated pre-communist Russia, the imperialist and tsarist Russia of the 19th century and the first 17 years of the 20th century.

It was Putin the aggressive nationalist, not Putin the communist, who was laying the groundwork for a massive invasion of his smaller neighbor.

As The Washington Post In other words, Putin was trying to dismiss “Ukraine as a recent creation, an obscure entity that arose after what he described as a struggle between Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin over the contours of a national state. He harshly criticized Lenin for pushing for a confederation of so-called independent states, which were then able to become independent nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

It is the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation that Putin finds difficult to bear. And while he may not have been an outspoken critic of Ukrainian democracy, we can be sure that he also doesn’t like the idea that a country’s leaders need to be changed from time to time, so than the related idea that people should be free to criticize their leaders.

As we try to stay abreast of the misery wrought hour after hour by the invasion of Ukraine, our minds are flooded with chilling questions about what a proud, frustrated and desperate leader of a nation with weapons formidable might be tempted to do.

But anxiety is not the only message. The world has seen the proof of war that the times are coming when the powerful of the world, the seemingly indisputable ones, also tremble.

There is also a message about relations with neighbors. This war reminds me of a line I first encountered over six decades ago, which said something like this: “A nation’s best defense is the respect and gratitude of its neighbors. Even Russians who ardently admired Putin surely wondered if invading Ukraine was the best way to win over Ukrainian goodwill.

Or global goodwill. Or the goodwill of the people of Belarus (Russia’s and Ukraine’s immediate neighbor), whose prolonged turmoil over their authoritarian ruler may have been doubled by the use of their lands for invasion of Ukraine.

The unprecedented unity with which Europe opposed the invasion is another remarkable aspect of this developing story. Countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Finland that have prized neutrality or non-alignment for decades, if not centuries, have thrown their weight behind Ukraine and against Russia. The ethnonationalist and antidemocratic tendencies that have marked Europe in recent years seem to have taken a hit.

As for Ukrainians, will they ever forget the destruction of loved ones? Buildings and monuments next to which they have spent all their lives? Will they ever forget the trauma endured by tens of thousands of families, with children, women and the elderly, forced to flee to lands across the border while the men remain behind to fight the invaders?

Interviewed by Nirupama Subramanian for The Indian Express, a Moscow-based international relations analyst, Alexey Kupriyanov, said Indians should understand that just as they would like a cooperative Pakistan next door, Russia desires a reliable Ukraine. “I’m sorry for this analogy,” Kupriyanov said, “but for us Ukraine is the same as Pakistan for India.”

Even if that were true, are there many Indians who think that invading Pakistan and trying to forcefully replace its current government with a pro-Delhi government is the way to make Pakistan reliable?

The long-term vagaries of belligerent nationalism and the authoritarianism that invariably accompanies it are among the elements highlighted by the Ukrainian tragedy. As also the fighting spirit that the love of the country and the love of democracy seem to nourish.

On a different level, the story of Ukraine draws the world’s attention to the diversity that exists in almost every nation. Ukraine’s ethnic diversity seemed to be one of Putin’s excuses for the invasion, but how many nations in our world, including Russia, are homogeneous in terms of language, religion or race?

The fact that a number of Ukrainians speak Russian (often as their first language) does not mean that they want Moscow to rule them or detach them from their Ukrainian neighbors. The nation demands neither homogeneity nor uniformity. Nor does it demand authoritarian or imperial rule from a large neighbor. These are also messages that the horrible tragedy in Ukraine sends.

(Rajmohan Gandhi currently teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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