Not one inch, unless it is from Lisbon to Vladivostok: NATO-Russia mythmaking and a reimagined Kyivan Rus

Putin NATO

First published in Journal of Applied History.

“I am absolutely convinced that Ukraine will not shy away from the processes of expanding interaction with NATO,” Vladimir Putin announced in 2002. “The decision is to be taken by NATO and Ukraine. It is a matter for those two partners,” the Russian president insisted.1 This comment is not an aberration. In fact, a careful examination of recent history reveals that the NATO “threat” to Russia has been exaggerated. That Russia would inflate fears of NATO to pursue its global aspirations is understandable. What is less comprehensible is the degree to which influential Western thinkers, particularly on the anti-imperial US left, have promoted this narrative. The purpose of this paper is twofold.

It first documents how many prominent Western leftists are ironically boosting Putin’s expansionist ambitions.2 The Left, of course, is an ambiguous, contested term that defies precise classification. Walzer attempts to delineate a “left foreign policy” as including those who are anti-militarist, consider domestic concerns (equality at home) over global affairs; and view US foreign policy primarily as an instrument to enforce an exploitative neoliberal order.3 This paper foregrounds this “left.”

It first illustrates how US-centric tools obscure global conflict through what critical geopolitics’ practitioners call “thin geopolitics”, a framing that “thinks in universal abstractions and operates with only the most superficial regional geographical understanding.”4 Both US policymakers and radical leftists frequently employ thin geopolitics. For US policy makers this translates into the tendency to present conflicts to the public as a battle of good against evil, or a benevolent superpower protecting against anti-democratic forces. Radical left analysts similarly center US behavior, but as a destabilizing force. The Ukraine conflict, then, serves as a case study of critical geopolitics insofar as significant segments of the US left rely on what Toal calls a “thin geopolitics” that overemphasizes American motives at the expense of investigating the nuanced, regional geopolitical dimensions.5

Another reason to foreground the anti-imperial left concerns Hill’s and Stent’s observation that Russia has initiated an information war, fostering a battle over who “owns history.”6 Manipulative disinformation is distributed throughout global media outlets to exacerbate existing societal divisions as part of Moscow’s hybrid war tactics. A Harvard University study finds that the radical left (and right) are especially susceptible to this disinformation.7 We should not overestimate this influence or its impact, yet should not ignore it either. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, likewise complains that Russia controls the “information space,” particularly with respect to peace negotiations. Hill and Stent explain that maintaining Western “resolve” will be difficult as the war drags on.8 Domestic politics deserve consideration, they suggest, as the 2024 presidential elections are on the horizon in both the US and Ukraine. In the US, an increasingly splintered society coupled with an overall decline in confidence in American institutions makes it vulnerable to disinformation and division.9 A possible resurgence of Trumpism, a mood of “America first”, will likely erode US support for Ukraine’s military effort. That the US radical left adopts a foreign policy analysis that intersects with conservative isolationism (and at least some of Kremlin disinformation) presents a potential domestic backlash in terms of Ukraine policy.

This potential is understudied in part because many scholars dismiss the anti-imperial left as marginal. These marginal voices, however, during the Vietnam and Iraq wars gradually become more accepted in the mainstream.10 The analytical tools that drove anti-imperial analysis of those conflicts centered on the problem of imposing a Western order on those who viewed outside interference as a threat to its sovereignty. That model is unreliable in the Ukraine case because its US-centric gaze loses sight of the fact that Russia is the foreign force imposing its will on Ukraine, and one that threatens its sovereignty. The left’s anti-imperial analytical tools could prove useful if applied to Russian imperialism. Consider that Ukrainian historian Taras Bilous, a self-described socialist, who reports the US left has largely ignored its left counterparts in Ukraine, advocates such an approach. Yale historian Timothy Snyder turned to leftist, anti-colonial author Franz Fanon to situate his arguments on Russian colonialism.11 Instead, the US anti-imperial left adopts a blame NATO stance that both obfuscates Russia’s imperial motives and boosts its disinformation.

The academic anchor for the anti-imperial left’s analysis of the RussoUkrainian war includes influential liberal Stephen F. Cohen. A former Princeton University professor and director of its Russian Studies program, Cohen was also a columnist for the left-leaning The Nation. Another academic who is often cited is the realist Professor John Mearsheimer. Radical left academic Peter Kuznick, professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, has at times advanced this narrative. He co-authored with Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States, that for an American history survey text contains an unusually frequent mention of Ukraine. Readers learn that Ukraine is dominated by Nazis and that US/NATO policy was “more than Putin could stomach.”12

The blame NATO scholars have a far wider audience than imagined. It has been popularized by Hollywood icon Oliver Stone’s film Ukraine on Fire in addition to his aforementioned book. Social media messaging further provides a wide audience. Consider journalist John Pilger beckoning his 200,000 followers to read Cohen.13

The fundamental premise here is that NATO expansion caused the Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. This one-dimensional narrative holds that US-NATO’s encirclement of Russia violates a 1990 promise that it would not expand “one inch eastward.” While Russia tried assiduously to work with NATO, the narrative goes, the military alliance ignored its grievances, having become increasingly unbearable until Putin’s “red line” was crossed and his restraint in international affairs was no longer tenable.14 This blame NATO platform generally identifies two pivotal turning points in NATO-Russian relations. The first is Putin’s 2008 warning at Bucharest that NATO opening the door to Ukraine and Georgia was a direct threat. The other crucial turning point is the “CIA-orchestrated” Euromaidan protests and subsequent 2014 coup against Ukraine’s democratically-elected president, Viktor Yanukovych.15 These cursory historical renditions simplify a complex sequence of events. The purpose of this paper is to historicize the blame NATO narrative.

It will also illustrate how the blame NATO claim intersects with much of Putin’s historical myth-making, which posits a cooperative Russia as a victim of an ever-expanding existential threat, while providing cover for Putin’s evolving redemptive, expansionist worldview. That is, the second, related aim of this paper is to document Putin’s desire to restore a glorious Russian empire. Indeed, this paper will first demonstrate how NATO encirclement as the catalyst for Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine overlooks the intricate details of Russia’s interactions with NATO in recent history. It shall then document the role of ultranationalist thinkers in accelerating Putin’s historical-spiritual mythology. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be properly understood without an examination of his redemptive historical myth-making. Putin channels ultranationalist discourse, such as the Izborsk Club and the neo-fascist Alexander Dugin, in calling for quasi-religious rebirth of Russian dominance, an agenda that seeks to swallow “Little Russia” into a renewed Russian empire that stretches from “Lisbon to Vladivostok,” a phrase popularized by Dugin and repeated by Putin.

A broken promise and the prophet of wounded nationalism

The sentiment that Russia is a victim of a broken promise has led to some peculiar interpretations. The foreword to Oliver Stone’s book on Putin makes the astounding assertion that the Russian leader is “prophet of a wounded Russian nationalism,” who holds a “wariness” toward imperialism. Cohen likewise frames Moscow as betrayed and wounded, having argued that the Crimea annexation is where Putin “vented Moscow’s longstanding resentments” after NATO “lied” so “many times.”16 Such assertions propel Putin’s betrayal and redemption narrative. In successive speeches on the eve of war, Putin complained about an “empire of lies” that “promised” NATO would “not expand one inch to the east,” but it “deceived us,” a performative gesture to lay the groundwork that Russia is an aggrieved victim.17 Leaders often wield betrayal narratives during wartime to fortify nationalistic power and pride.

Scholars who find culpability with the West for Moscow’s invasion frequently cite former US Secretary of State James Baker III’s “broken promise” that NATO would not move one inch east during negotiations over the reunification of Germany (GDR) in February 1990. There is a rich scholarly debate concerning Baker’s remark.18 There is no need to repeat this complicated debate here, yet it appears a verbal promise was made but it was never formalized in the final written agreement. Several officials, including Baker, Gorbachev (who vacillated on the matter) and Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s Foreign Affairs minister from 1990–1996, argue that the statement was limited to GDR’s borders and not inscribed in the annals of history.19

It is with great irony that Putin moves us closer to a resolution. The “not one more inch” betrayal, Putin begrudgingly admits, was “not enshrined on paper … In politics everything has to be enshrined on paper.”20 Whatever one concludes about this diplomatic episode, the point is that Putin downplayed its significance when the drum beats of war were less audible. That Putin allows that it carried little weight because it was not formalized in the final agreement would not be possible if the statement was indeed an eternal deception regarding Russia’s survival. American critics of NATO are unrelenting in the disproportionate attention they give to this nominal promise. Such framing bolsters Russia’s historical distortion because it is rarely accompanied with so much as a nod to Helsinki (1975) or Budapest (1994). Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in the 1994 pact in exchange for “commitments” to uphold its territorial integrity, an agreement that was enshrined on paper. The US-Helsinki Commission at this time became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), fifty-seven states that included Russia. The US-funded institution also reaffirmed its standards in the 1994 Budapest Summit Declaration concerning security, economic and human rights concerns.21

NATO expansion: Existential threat or partner?

Russia’s engagement with US/NATO following the collapse of the Soviet Union must be analyzed in the context of a timeline of diplomatic cooperation and tension. Analysts frame these interactions as managed or controlled confrontation.22 A historical comparison between NATO’s major episodes of expansion (and actual moments of threat) to Moscow’s reaction reveal that claims that the alliance threatens Moscow’s survival are inflated. As Sushentsov puts it, Moscow’s grievances about NATO enlargement “were undermined by its own involvement” in “a partnership with NATO.” A leaked 2006 US State Department memo reaches the same conclusion that, “at the same time Russia was working to keep Ukraine out of NATO, Russia was reinforcing its own relationship with the alliance.” The comparison of NATO provocation against Moscow’s reaction will elucidate that Russia has its “own greedy security interests,” as Sushentsov writes, that will “not likely go away if America goes home.”23

A complete timeline of the controlled confrontation between the West and Russia is beyond the parameters of this paper. NATO enlargement occurred alongside a period of the European Union’s enlargement. One significant post-Cold War signpost can be marked in 1999 when NATO welcomed the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Russia demurred but refrained from classifying it as a threat to its survival, and its measured response related to Russia’s aspiration to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).24 At nearly the same time, US/NATO forces bombed the former Yugoslavia causing Russia to suspend relations with NATO, severing the “security and cooperation” of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Putin rebuked the US/NATO unilateral action in defense of Kosovo; nine years later the US formally recognized Kosovo’s independence, a move that the Russian president insists should apply to the Kremlin’s unilateral “protection” and declaration of independence in Crimea and Donbas as well as Georgia separatists.

In 2004, ten Central and Eastern European states entered the European Union (EU). That same year the European Neighborhood Policy was launched to facilitate market access through Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA s), which was received negatively in Moscow. In March 2004 NATO welcomed seven new members from eastern European states, its largest expansion in history. Moscow’s reaction included objections, but emphasized cooperation. Putin met with NATO’s secretary general nine days after the accession agreements were deposited in the US treasury that year. If there was ever a moment to protect Russia from the dire threat of NATO’s encirclement, this was it. Instead Putin underscored that the most important task was cooperating with the West to eradicate terrorism and achieve success in NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan. Equally striking is that Putin again emphasized as he did in 2002 that, “Every country has the right to choose the option that it considers most effective for ensuring its own security.” In short, Putin asserted that the countries that represented the largest NATO expansion in history had every right to do so, and that cooperation against terrorism was the vital concern. Of special importance is that Putin did not bang the table, or broadcast that the historic expansion was an existential threat.25

Later in 2004, a different threat appeared in what is called the color revolutions or popular uprisings that challenged rulers in the post-Soviet space, including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin was disturbed that Moscow’s support for Yanukovych’s election in Ukraine was overturned after election monitors documented fraud, a moment that sparked protests.26 Putin responded by broadening authoritarian rule at home as opposed to halting cooperation with NATO.27

Events in 2007–2008 did strain Russia-NATO relations. According to Mearsheimer, a turning point in Russia-NATO cooperation occurred in April 2008 at the Bucharest summit; others mark the demarcation line at the Putin’s February 2007 Munich speech.28 Bucharest was a “line in the sand,” Mearsheimer insists, where Putin made clear NATO enlargement was “categorically unacceptable,” owing principally to the fact that it was a threat to Russia’s survival. The distinguished scholar issues a broad-brush stroke in boldly declaring that “everything that happened since then fits into that basic paradigm.”29 At first glance, the assertion that 2007 (or 2008) changed everything appears accurate. It is true that Putin’s 2007 Munich and 2008 Bucharest speeches are significant. There were consequential events that disturbed Moscow in these years. The world financial crisis sent economic shockwaves across the globe, the US formally recognized Kosovo, NATO issued membership action plans for Ukraine and Georgia, and Russia invaded Georgia in August that year to “protect” pro-Russian separatists in South Ossetia. As a result, NATO ended its cooperation with Russia and Moscow did the same.

The historical record, however, indicates that several events since 2008 do not fit this reductionist paradigm. Less than three months after the Georgia conflagration, this turning point was already being steered in a more cooperative direction. In a November 2008 speech, then President Medvedev did register Russia’s disdain toward US plans to spread missile defense systems in Europe as well as NATO encroachment. Yet, the Russian leader found hope amidst the incendiary situation. The Georgia crisis “demonstrated that it is possible to find solutions with Europe,” a “good future” awaits as relations with Europe “deepened.”30

Roughly one year after the April 2008 Bucharest summit, the Russia-NATO Council (RNC) was restored. Sergey Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed the “importance of building trust” and “resuming military cooperation” with NATO “to overcome the problems that have arisen” over the Georgia conflict. Cooperation with the US-NATO-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the Afghanistan war, Lavrov noted, was “long since resolved” because the April 2008 Russia-NATO plan was “already being implemented.” In fact, the then US Ambassador to NATO, who was alarmed at Putin’s Bucharest rhetoric, discloses that Moscow agreed at the contentious summit to permit NATO forces to ship non-lethal supplies through Russia to wage war in Afghanistan.31 Subsequent agreements opened Russian air space for NATO to deliver supplies, military equipment and troops. That Russia assisted a NATO war on territory that it once bordered undermines the notion that Moscow viewed the Atlantic alliance as a dire threat.

In the winter of 2009, Putin added that in spite of the recent disputes Russia and NATO would work together, which later included several joint military exercises. Following one such exercise in 2013, a Russian General spoke of “a very strong” and “trusted relationship” with NATO. Consider that much of this cooperation occurred in the aftermath of the so-called “red line” turning point.32

In short, the claim that NATO expansion provoked Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine obfuscates the historical record. It is one factor in a matrix of causes. There was a long period of debate regarding the nature of the alliance and its role in a post-Soviet global order. It is true, as the anti-imperial left maintains, that several US officials issued robust warnings that Moscow strongly opposed Ukraine’s accession to NATO on the grounds that it was a strategic threat. Whereas former US Ambassador Burns’ warning is habitually referenced, what is just as frequently omitted is how he cautioned that the Kremlin magnifies the NATO threat to advance its agenda. “It is also politically popular,” Burns observed, “to use NATO’s outreach … as a means of generating support from Russian nationalists.”33 As we shall see, this support from nationalists, who appear prominently on Kremlin controlled media, provide the ideological foundation for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy.

From humiliation to the resurrection of Empire

Another claim among US anti-imperialists is that Putin’s “actions are mostly reactive” to US/NATO interference. Not only does this perspective downplay Russia’s cooperation in the aftermath of the “red line” moments, it is a superficial explanation for Moscow’s strategic imperatives. Scholars Faure, Korneychuk, and Synder find that the 2011–2013 protests against election fraud in Russia are a more instructive sign post for grasping Russian strategy. It marks the “conservative turn,” elucidating that Putin’s primary fear is the threat of democratic action, or what functionaries consider the “plague” of the Orange Revolution, spreading to the homeland. Extremist Alexander Prokhanov likewise finds the ascendency of the conservative turn at this moment as it coincides with the formation of his far right, ultranationalist Izborsk club. Putin’s clearer articulation of nationalist tropes such as Eurasianist, “state civilizational” (code for empire) and messianic discourse come into greater focus as well.34 What emerges in this period is that an amalgamation of ultranationalists proved useful at times to quell domestic dissent, while complimenting and extending Moscow’s hybrid war in Ukraine that disrupts its neighbor’s democratic development.35

This hybrid war is advanced through an informal network that integrates far right ideologues, media outlets, paramilitary extremists and the Kremlin. This intermingling of extreme nationalists with Moscow’s informational and actual warfare advances Moscow’s strategy to destabilize Ukraine. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that Putin is not simply reacting to NATO but actively provoking conflict. This evidence includes the Vladislav Surkov leaks, Frolov leaks, Glazyev tapes and wikileaks.36 We will focus on the Surkov disclosures because an extensive review of the record is beyond the scope of this paper.

Many on the US left attribute Putin’s actions to NATO enlargement and the US overthrow of Ukraine’s president in 2014 because they pay insufficient attention to the documentary evidence of Moscow’s extensive infiltration of Ukrainian politics.37 Consider Cohen’s insistence that “everything that followed,” such as the annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, was “triggered” by the US sponsored coup of Ukraine’s president in 2014. A leading left pundit, borrowing the founder of intelligence contractor Stratfor’s words, adds that “the most blatant coup in history,” started “the whole thing.”38

Fragmentary accounts that detach Yanukovych’s overthrow from the recent history of Moscow’s pervasive interference in Ukraine are incomplete. A noteworthy entry point indeed for this balance is the Surkov leaks. Surkov, a former deputy prime minister who managed Moscow’s covert operations in eastern Ukraine, is a contentious figure who has fallen in and out of favor with the Kremlin. A public relations executive who theatrically orchestrates Kremlin propaganda, Surkov believes that there is “no Ukraine” only “Ukrainianism,” a “mental disorder.”39 In 2106, cyber-hackers released a trove of Surkov’s emails that illustrate the internal operations of the Kremlin’s hybrid war against Ukraine. Surkov’s destabilization campaign ran alongside efforts of the Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and the General Staff of Armed Services (GRU).

The leaked emails unveil a pattern of blackmailing of police, politicians and journalists, the creation of, or influence over, proxy civic associations, paramilitary groups and media outlets, curating of political candidates, interfering in elections as well as attempts to alter the Ukrainian constitution. These clandestine operations indicate the Kremlin’s active, sustained infiltration of Ukrainian society before and after Euromaidan and the US “coup”. The initial goal was to capture Novorossiya, the lands of south and eastern Ukraine to reunite the quasi-mythological Russian world.40 That plan failed so Moscow relied on working toward federalization through destabilization. The clandestine plotting fits with Putin’s public remarks at the time concerning the illegitimacy of Ukraine’s constitution, the possibile “federalization and decentralization” of its neighbor, and how Russia “lost” Novorossiya.41 In short, the Surkov leaks uncover the overarching goal to weaken Kyiv was not the isolated work of a few rogue functionaries or a reaction to NATO.42

The email cache further discloses how the Kremlin, ultranationalist ideologues, and separatist leaders coalesced to manufacture conflict. The brief sketch below serves as an example of this convergence. It does not suggest that Dugin or other ideologues are “Putin’s brain” or similar hyperbole, but that the comingling of these entities enables the Kremlin’s sustained strategy to divide Ukraine.

Consider that Kremlin-connected, far-right oligarch Konstantin Malofeev appears to have helped to fund Surkov’s operations and supplied a list of preferred separatist leaders to Moscow’s technologist. It included Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a self-described former FSB officer, who was shortly thereafter appointed as the Defense Minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), among others on the roster who also received posts.43 Strelkov is also associated with Prokhanov (Izborsk Club), having appeared in his reactionary periodical Zavtra, promoting the New Russia project, “Crimea is part of Novorossiya.”44

Malofeev and Strelkov traveled together to Crimea in January 2014 before Russia’s annexation in March that year. “Everyone was talking about” uniting with Russia, Malofeev reports, including Sergey Aksyonov whom he “recommended” to lead Crimea. Aksyonov was indeed appointed as the head the Republic of Crimea in April 2014. Sometime thereabout Strelkov arrived in Donetsk with the task of repeating the “Crimea option.” But, the commander noticed it was “completely peaceful.” In a startling and now infamous admission, he reported that “no one wanted to fight,” and that his forces “triggered” the war because “if our detachment had not crossed the border … everything would have ended.”45

Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen and “Moscow political strategist” who was Malofeev’s public relations consultant, was anointed Prime Minister of the DPR.46 Borodai reported to Surkov regarding the enlistment of humanitarian volunteers for the Kremlin’s project, while Dugin’s International Eurasian Movement recruited and advised separatists for deployment to Donetsk.47 Malofeev’s secret influence is complimented by his media outlets, Tsargrad TV and the Katehon think tank. Dugin was on the Supervisory Board of the latter and an editor at the former. The ideologue is regularly featured broadcasting messianic conquest at both outlets.48 Like Surkov, Dugin informs audiences that “Ukrainianism” is an “artificial construct,” thus “Great Russians will create an empire” that will “win back the territories of Kievan Rus,” in a “revolution from Crimea to Lisbon.”49 Putin’s March 2014 Crimea speech echoed these themes in slightly muted tone, while employing the victim motif.50

Given his proximity to those who staged the destabilization of Ukraine, let us turn to Prokhanov for a distressing summary of the ‘betrayed victim that is defending itself from Western domination at home and in the near abroad’ trope. Russia will defeat the “Kyiv fascist scum,” Prokhanov grumbles, and restore its empire that was “skinned up and humiliated” in 1991. Betrayed at Bolotnaya Square (election fraud protests) by liberal dissenters in the domestic sphere, and the Jewish at Euromaidan next door who, in his unsavory words, “provoke the second holocaust.”51 Putin somehow publicly lauded Prokhanov as taking a “great professional path,” with his “commit[ment] to civic principles and ideals,” and a hope that “your plans will be realized.”52 It is at once obvious that Putin welcomes the confluence of ultranationalist ideologues and Kremlin planners, which undermines analysis that posits Russia as a besieged fortress.

To be sure, Russia’s destabilization attempts in Crimea and Donbas occurred long before the events of February 2014. A confidential US State Department cable in 2008 documented Russian efforts to “destabilize Crimea” and “weaken Ukraine,” having identified several operatives present in the 2014 interventions, including Dugin’s Eurasian Youth Union (EYU), which was “particularly active.” This meddling entailed fomenting ethnic division against the Tartar population, supporting a “completely artificial” paramilitary group, funding protests, and influencing media reports.53 US critics who highlight the role of the 2014 coup pay scant attention to Russia’s well documented, aggressive hybrid war against Ukraine as well as the public articulation of imperial discourse.

In this historical context, the ruminations of US anti-imperial scholars, and those who popularize their works, appear as travesty for the events of 2014 and farce in 2022. Stone’s film Ukraine on Fire declares that “the truth is Ukraine has never been a united country.” The scholar Cohen intersects with the disparate Stone on this misconception, having derided the “fallacy” that “there exists a ‘Ukrainian people’ who yearn to escape centuries of Russian influence.”54 Serious historians document that there is ample evidence for both a Ukrainian people and reasons to escape Russian rule. Memories of what Subtelny calls the “traumatic thirties” marked by Soviet deportations and deaths of kulaks, the Great Famine/Holodomor of 1932–1933 and Stalin’s purges left “deep social, psychological, political, and demographic scars that it carries to this day.”55

A US-centric evaluation that centers NATO expansion displaces this historical trauma, while blurring insights for understanding Russian aggression. Putin and the Russian media rely on such rewriting of history to advance imperial ambitions. In July 2021, Putin’s historical essay proclaimed that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” They share “the same historical and spiritual space.” Elsewhere his wartime rhetoric repeated this falsification that Ukraine is “not just a neighboring country … it is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” and that “Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.”56

Putin continues that one goal of the invasion is to “denazify Ukraine.” Ria Novosti, the Russian Information Agency, elaborates on what that means in language akin to Surkov, Dugin or even Putin. The paper explains that denazification means “de-Ukrainianization,” because Ukraine is “impossible as a nation-state,” merely an “artificial anti-Russian construction.” Denazification as the goal of the special operation “is understood as a military victory over the Kyiv regime.”57 Russian state media is replete with messages that Ukraine is largely an artificial entity that should be subsumed in the Russian world. Ukraine “never had stable traditions of real statehood,” Putin adds, because “it is our historical land.”58

Many US critics fail to examine these irredentist claims, historical falsifications, covert operations and hybrid war against Ukraine briefly outlined in this paper. The US anti-imperial left largely relies on a conceptual framework that compresses this history into a singular plot regarding NATO’s outreach. These US critics have strenuously documented American colonialism, yet its incessant focus on Western interventionism as the causal agent for Russian aggression distorts recent history.

This “thin” approach evades how Russia’s self-conception and actual foreign policy is expressive of an imperial mindset.59 In this way, debunking Putin’s narrative is important, not only as an exercise in correcting the historical record, but as a form of discourse analysis that broadens our comprehension of the Russian leader’s motives for war.60 Conventional international relations theory, particularly realism, has built-in constraints in terms of grasping Putin’s full range of motives. As Lebow contends, these approaches “tend to treat war as an ahistorical process in the sense that they do not situate it in society but treat it as an independent institution.”61

If we situate Putin’s colonial discourse in the context of a broader imperial consciousness, it aids in understanding the causes of the invasion. Even a casual investigation of Putin’s utterances illuminates a desire to restore Russia as a great empire. Putin treats the collapse of the Soviet Union as a humiliation, what he considers the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.” The fall of the USSR brought with it a loss of geopolitical prestige, what Lebow problematizes as “standing,” a visceral combination of honor and status that he attempts to quantify as a leading cause of war across the centuries.62 Russia’s loss of prestige as a result of its humiliating collapse, the narrative goes, includes a loss of its historical lands that require recovery.

Laruelle quantifies the increase of Putin’s cultural and historical references to empire since 2011, or what we identified as the conservative turn. This “identity project” is part of Putin’s effort to “reinvent Russia as an imperial power.” Sagramoso contends that, following Toal, the Crimea annexation caused a “shift” in the “intellectual foundations” of Putin’s foreign policy from great-power, regional competition toward a “strong imperialist mindset,” which complements and extends Laruelle’s finding. Putin’s foreign policy, Sagramoso reminds us, is dictated by a cluster of factors including national interests, historical legacies, worries over the borderlands, but it is embodied in Moscow’s “imperial legacy”.63

Moscow’s rhetoric and actions carry the hallmarks of imperialism. US-centric approaches that focus on NATO expansion lose sight of regional complexity as well as more straight-forward episodes such as Strelkov admitting to triggering a war in 2014 to Moscow’s brazen attempt to seize Kyiv in February–March 2022. Indeed, Plokhy reminds us that Ukraine represents a “struggle over historical and cultural fault lines” that permits stakeholders to flatten all its complexity into a “contest of East and West, Europe and the Russian world.”64 Such an approach minimizes the role of popular uprisings central to these events, while trivializing Ukrainian citizens as bystanders in a Great Powers contest, or pawns of neo-Nazi co-optation.65 That the Russian propagandists and policymakers outlined here see Ukraine as a “mental disorder” trapped between Moscow and the West should encourage such scholars to embrace a saner approach to the Russo-Ukrainian war.


[1] “Press Statement and Answers to Questions at a Joint News Conference with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.”, May 17, 2002 (accessed March 29, 2022).

[2] I use the terms left and anti-imperial left to denote authors whose work documents the economic roots of US interventionism. This paper is not concerned with the nuanced debates over “campism,” Marxist vs. bourgeois anti-imperialism and all the factions therein, but the general tendency among US left foreign policy critics to adopt a US-centric framework for the evaluation of international affairs that limits their analysis of the conflict under discussion. These US-centric frameworks shed light on the Vietnam War and Iraq War, for instance, but are an inadequate explanatory model for the Russo-Ukrainian war.

[3] M. Walzer, A Foreign Policy for the Left (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Walzer states the left “got things right” on Iran in 1953, Central and South America for much of the twentieth century, and Iraq in 2003.

[4] G. Toal, Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the contest over Ukraine and the Caucus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 276–278. Laffey states that anti-imperial critics, citing Noam Chomsky, specifically are a “significant resource for thinking about contemporary world policy.” M. Laffey, “Discerning the Pattern of World Orders: Noam Chomsky and International Theory after the Cold War.” Review of International Studies 79 (1) (2003), 588.

[5] G. Toal, Near Abroad, 274–301.

[6] F. Hill and A. Stent, “The World Putin Wants: How Distortions About the Past Feed Delusions About the Future.” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2022. Walker and Ludwig describe this information war as “sharp power”. C. Walker and J. Ludwig, “The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence.” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2017 (accessed October 2, 2022).

[7] The authors document Russia’s Internet Research Agency’s, popularly known as the “Russian trolls,” “infiltration” or interaction with social media accounts of left and right-wing users. The IRA mostly targeted the right, but the left remains an understudied group in this regard. D. Freelon and T. Lokot, “Russian Twitter disinformation campaigns reach across the American political spectrum.” The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review 1 (1) (2020).

[8] “It’s not just a war. It’s much worse. Zelensky’s first interview with Russian journalists since the war began.” Medusa, March 28, 2022, (accessed October 1, 2022).

[9] Pew Research Center, “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2022.”, 6 June 2022 (accessed August 28, 2022). It notes that US public confidence is at “historic lows.”

[10] D. Cortright, “Protest and Politics: How Peace Movements Shape History.” In The Handbook of Global Security Policy, eds. M. Kaldor and I. Rangelov (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), 482–503. Interestingly, some political scientists have situated anti-imperial left writers, naming Chomsky, as a fit for critical geopolitics. A. Fathollah-Nejad, Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2021), 7.

[11] T. Bilous, “A Letter to the Western Left.” Commons: A Journal of Social Criticism, March 13, 2022, (accessed October 4, 2022); T. Snyder, “The War in Ukraine is a Colonial War.” The New Yorker, April 28, 2022. (accessed October 4, 2022).

[12] O. Stone and P. Kuznick, The Untold Story of the United States (New York: Galley Books, 2019), 679, 683, 806 and 850. The authors cite both Cohen and Mearsheimer to support their statements. His colleague Professor Anton Fediashin appeared with Kuznick on the Chinese CGTN network, both offering measured comments regarding the conflict, including criticism of Putin. I am not advocating a wholesale dismissal of the scholars named, but a nuanced assessment of how they advance mythologies. (accessed October 2, 2022).

[13] J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.” Foreign Policy, September/October (201), 1–12. Mearsheimer updates and extends this argument in “By Invitation | Russia and Ukraine: John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukraine Crisis.” The Economist,, March 19, 2022 (accessed May 18, 2022). S. Cohen, War with Russia? Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate, 2nd ed. (New York: Hot Books, 2022). Cohen, now deceased, appeared on a New York radio program with some two million listeners, and was also a television commentator. O. Stone, director, Ukraine on Fire (Burbank: CA, Cinema Libre Films, 2016). Pilger, an Australian columnist, has a wide reach and condensed the blame NATO platform in a tweet to his 200,000 followers, having demanded that people read Cohen’s aforementioned book to “read the truth.” Mythos Labs, Analyzing Disinformation/Propaganda Related to Russian Aggression against Ukraine, January 18, 2022, 4. There are also many far-right voices that intersect with these left thinkers who also recycle these arguments.

[14] The 1990s witnessed a series of cooperative measures, including the 1994 Partnership for Peace, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act and into 2002 with Putin signing on to “NATO-Russia Relations: A new quality,” the latter in the context of the Russian’s leader desire to cooperate to quell global terror.

[15] These themes are consistently offered and condensed in S. Cohen, “Reheating the Cold War.” The Nation, January 20, 2017, (accessed October 1, 2022). Several of Cohen’s assertions, often repeated, include that the US overthrew Yanukovych, NATO encircled Russia despite it being “open” to “diplomatic engagement.” J. Kuzmarov and J. Marciano, The Russians are Coming, again: The first cold war as tragedy, the second as farce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), 28–30 and 169. The authors’ historical critique of US intensifying Cold War fears, excessive intervention and the “thin” geopolitical analysis of the US mainstream media are helpful, but their interpretations of Ukraine succumb to similarly superficial, largely decontextualized, presentation. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.”

[16]The Full Transcripts of the Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin (New York: Hot Books, 2017), 3. Robert Scheer, an influential documentarian, calls Putin a wounded prophet. His and podcast feature anti-imperial voices such as Chris Hedges, Oliver Stone and Ray McGovern, who offer sophisticated analysis alongside reductionist claims that NATO provoked Putin, and cite the US policymakers noted in this paper as supporting evidence. Stone claims in a featured interview that “invasion” is the wrong term for Putin protecting Donbas. S. Cohen, War With Russia? (New York: Hot Books, 2022), 3, 25. Cohen admits Putin’s speech contained some “untrue” and “alarming” statements, but quickly moves on to explain how Putin grew exhausted from the West’s repeated lies and reached his limit.

[17] For statements of empire of lies, no fault and humiliation see “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.”, February 21, 2022 (accessed March 22, 2022). For deception and con artist comment, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.”, February 24, 2022 (accessed March 24, 2022). “Meeting on socioeconomic support for regions.”, March 16, 2022 (accessed April 9, 2022).

[18] M. Sarotte, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of a Post-Cold War Stalemate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021); M. Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia.” The Washington Quarterly (April 2009), 39–61; S. Savranskaya, T. Blanton and V. Zubok, “Masterpieces of History”: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (Central European University Press, 2010). The official US record of Baker’s comment is available as, “Memorandum of conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow.” February 9, 1990, U.S. Department of State, FOIA 199504567 (National Security Archive Flashpoints Collection, Box 38), (accessed March 5, 2022).

[19] Gorbachev has made contradictory comments on the matter perhaps guarding against appearing duped by the West, but is unequivocal here that NATO expansion was not considered, see M. Korshunov, “Mikhail Gorbachev: I am against all walls.” Russia Beyond,, October 16, 2014 (accessed March 24, 2022). A. Kozyrev puts it bluntly: “The argument about NATO [encirclement] is just propaganda,” the former official quips, “NATO was very useful” for Russian hardliners because it provides “the great enemy.” However, “if NATO dissolved tomorrow, they would still claim the West was the enemy of Russia.” M. Weiss, “Russia’s Ex-Foreign Minister on his ‘Totalitarian’ Country.” New Lines, March 9, 2022, (accessed April 8, 2022).

[20] Stone, The Putin Interviews, 40.

[21] Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), Budapest Document 1994: Towards a Genuine Partnership in a New Era (December 1994), (accessed October 3, 2022).

[22] D. Alexander and D. Elena, “A Brief Sketch of the Foundations of a Theory-Driven Confrontation.” Информационные войны 29 (1) (2014), 24–33; A. Litvinenko and V. Gorbulin, “The big neighbor has made its mind: What should Ukraine do next?.”, September 18, 2009 (accessed October 2, 2022).

[23] Sushentsov performs “analytical tasks” for the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. A. Sushentsov and W. Wohlforth, “The Tragedy of US-Russian Relations: NATO centrality and the revisionists spiral.” International Politics 57 (2020) 427, 438–439 and 446. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act is one example of the historical evidence of mutual participation that undermines the encirclement narrative. The authors are concerned with NATO centrality and how broader issues of security are informed by two “egoistic security” actors whose grand strategies are in conflict rather than the US is “the bad guy” that victimizes Russia, thus offering a more balanced approach to US-NATO-Russia statecraft. This formulation fits with Russia’s aim for “multipolarity,” a counter-balance to NATO. S. Gwaltney, “Ukraine/Belarus/Russia: GOU Views on Russia Defense Relationship.” US State Department Confidential Cable,, March 16, 2006 (accessed June 5, 2022).

[24] W. Drozdiak, “Putin eases stance on NATO expansion.” Washington Post, October 4, 2001. The anti-imperial left has explained that the WTO enables US corporations to dominate “crucial sectors of foreign economics” for the benefit of multinational corporations. N. Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), 72. Russia’s eventual membership did not, as far as I can tell, lead to a critique of its desire to control foreign economies. The IMF “works together” with the WTO. When Putin appealed to the IMF to call Ukraine’s $ 3billion debt, as far as I know, the left did not criticize the international organ’s domination of foreign economies. Worse yet, Ukraine calls that debt a “bribe” because it was offered to Yanukovych among a set of coercive measures to prevent Ukraine from signing the European Association Agreement. K. Rapoza, “IMF Says Russia Right About Ukraine.” Forbes, December 16, 2015, (accessed October 1, 2022).

[25] “Meeting with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.”, April 8 2004 (accessed March 22, 2022). That same month Putin was asked directly what he “fears most” with respect to the European Union and NATO enlargement. Here again was the opportunity to remind the world of the existential dangers of NATO’s encirclement. Putin instead said, “we have always viewed this process in a positive light.” “Press Conference following Talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.”, April 21, 2004 (accessed March 24, 2022).

[26] The US anti-imperial left incessantly mentions that Yanukovych was overthrown by the US but omits his problematic history. It also evokes diplomatic cables that warned of NATO expansion at the exclusion of cables that reported Yanukovych’s “falsification effort,” to “steal” the 2004 election “with advice from the Kremlin’s top political consultants” that included “confusing voters” and using “misleading information,” particularly in Donbas. The cable also notes that “foreign advisors from the US” are assisting Yanukovych and are “pro-business.” Later it was disclosed that Yanukovych consulted Paul Manafort whose strategies entailed sowing ethnic division, especially in Southeast Ukraine. S. Gwaltney, “Ukraine: Party of Regions Election Strategy: A New Approach?.” Charge d’affaires confidential US State Department cable,, March 15, 2006 (accessed June 2, 2022).

[27] In 2005, Surkov’s euphemism for stronger domestic control, “sovereign democracy” was formulated and the Nashi youth group, and Dugin’s Eurasian Youth League were formed, while state media was consolidated and United Russia subsumed greater control over legislatures. See A. Umland, “Russia’s New ‘Special Path’ After the Orange Revolution: Radical Anti-Western and Paratotalitarian Neo-Authoritarianism in 2005–2008.” Russian Politics and Law 50 (6) (Nov-Dec 2012), 19–40. In foreign policy, Putin welcomed authoritarian regimes in the Commonwealth of Independent States crushing protest. The Kremlin posits the color revolutions, Arab spring and Euromaidan as Western led conspiracies.

[28] Then US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker expressed concerns over both the Munich and Bucharest summits, noting that Putin’s rhetoric constituted a “profound new meaning” in that he threatened Crimea’s territorial integrity as an “artificial” creation of the Soviets. He concluded NATO needed to increase its effort to protect Ukraine as a result. K. Volker, “Ukraine, MAP, and the Georgia-Russian Conflict.” US Department of State, secret memo,, August, 14, 2008 (accessed June 28, 2022). Russian neo-fascist theorist Alexander Dugin calls it a “turning point in Russian history” that summoned a new “self-awareness”. A. Dugin, Putin on Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed From The Right (United Kingdom: Arkos Books, 2014), 80. O’Hanlon conjoins the 2007 and 2008 speeches and situates them in the context of the events that caused Russia-NATO relations to “fall apart.” M. O’Hanlon, Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe (Washington, DC: 2017), 20–21.

[29] J. Mearsheimer, “Putin’s Monroe Doctrine.” Reposted at:, n.d. (accessed April 2, 2022).

[30] “Address to the Federal Assembly.”, November 5, 2008 (accessed March 18, 2022).

[31] K. Volker, “Russian Support for Afghanistan: Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff.” US State Department, secret memo,, October 3, 2008 (accessed June 27, 2022); “Transcript of Opening Statement and Response to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs.”, June 27, 2009 (accessed March 18, 2022).

[32] AP News Agency Pool, “President Medvedev, PM Putin meet NATO chief Rasmussen.”, December 16, 2009 (accessed June 2 2022); “NATO and Russia hold joint counter-terror exercise ‘Vigilant Skies’.” NATO,, October 3, 2013 (accessed April 4, 2022).

[33] I am not suggesting that NATO expansion poses no concern, but that the threat is inflated to justify Russia’s irredentist clams. Russia’s military doctrine in this period identifies NATO expansion as a main threat among others. “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.”, February 5, 2010 (accessed May 8, 2022); W. Burns, “RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES.” memorandum to Joint Chiefs of Staff NATO,, February 1, 2008 (accessed February 25, 2022).

[34] For a succinct discussion of these trends, see J. Faure, “The Deep Ideological Roots of Russia’s War.” Le Monde Diplomatique (April 2022),; B. Korneychuk, “Principles and contradictions of Izborsk doctrine.” Socium i vlast’ 71 (3) (2018), 72–79; T. Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Duggan Books, 2018), 79–81. Scholars point to Putin’s 2011 article that casts Russia as leading a “supranational association” that unites the nations from the Atlantic to Pacific, or “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” as emblematic of a shift to these themes. See “Putin: The Eurasian Union is the path to success and prosperity.” Единая Россия (United Russia Website), October 4, 2011. For an excellent study on Izborsk’s connection to cultural institutions, government and the military-industrial complex, see M. Laruelle, “Izborsky Club, or the New Conservative Avant-Garde in Russia.” The Russian Review 75 (October 2016), 626–644. Dugin explains that the civilization state, which is also called “empire” or “great space” will be the “main actor” in a “multipolar world.” Russia is headed toward this status, Dugin asserts, which he traces to the term “Russian world” or Russiky Mir. And, the “struggle for Ukraine is the struggle for state civilization.” A. Dugin, “State Civilization.”, May 31, 2022 (accessed June 8, 2022). In 2013, Izborsk’s mobilization project promoted a “civilizational model” with a “Russian civilization-specific code,” a Eurasian system, including the “entire post-Soviet space toward re-integration.” See “Mobilization Project.”, February 17, 2013 (accessed June 9, 2022). Some scholars find these trends started earlier as the 2000 Russian Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation that discusses combating unilateralism and asserting its place on the global stage alongside strengthening the Russian state through the “consolidation of civil society.”

[35] R. Horvath, Putin’s Fascists: Russikii Obraz and the Politics of Managed Nationalism in Russia (London: Routledge Press, 2021). Horvath shows that when necessary the Kremlin utilized neo-Nazi groups to intimidate anti-Putin activists. Moscow’s Federal Agency for Youth Affairs personnel intersected with the Surkov’s Nashi group and funded activities to frustrate protestors and pay journalists and bloggers to dissuade dissent and laud Putin. See M. Elder, “Polishing Putin: hacked emails suggest dirty tricks by Russian youth group.” The Guardian,, February 7, 2012 (accessed June 9, 2022).

[36] See H. Coyansh, “Glazyev tapes debunk Russia lies about its annexation of Crimea and undeclared war against Ukraine.” Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group,, February 26, 2019 (accessed March 22, 2022); “Frolov Leaks.”, n.d., (accessed March 22, 2022).

[37] The US’s leading left intellectual, Noam Chomsky, states that he was unaware of the Surkov leaks, but assumed Russia was meddling in Ukrainian affairs. N. Chomsky, email to author, July 2, 2022. This paper does not directly critique Chomsky because his more nuanced position differs from that of Cohen or Mearsheimer who attribute Putin’s behavior almost entirely to NATO. Chomsky has clarified that US/NATO interference does not justify, nor did it cause, Russia’s illegal invasion. See “The Ukraine War: Chomsky Responds.” Counterpunch,, June 3, 2022 (accessed June 12, 2022). It is noteworthy that the blame NATO camp appears unaware of documented details of Russia provoking conflict and performing what appears to be a “coup” in Donbas. How such details would impact their analysis is subject to debate, but if Nuland’s meddling is part of the explanatory equation, the logical extension is that similar behavior on Russia’s part is also relevant.

[38] S. Cohen, War With Russia?, 18–19. R. McGovern, “What role has the US played in the Ukraine Crisis?”, March 11, 2022 (accessed June 8, 2022). Chris Hedges argues the same. Putin was “spooked by the coup,” see his “Chronicle of a War Foretold.”,, February 24, 2022 (accessed June 8 2022). Then US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s phone conversation in early February 2014 was intercepted and publicized. She mentions that the US can “midwife this thing,” or change the leadership in Ukraine, while discussing options for the next president. “Ukraine Crisis: Transcript of a Leaked Call.” BBC,, February 7, 2014 (accessed March 4, 2022). McGovern mentions Stratfor to dramatize his point on the US coup, yet internal Stratfor documents could be called on to dramatize Putin’s manipulation of Yanukovych: Putin offered support to the Ukrainian president in exchange for following Putin’s “list of new Ukrainians going into power in the SBU, military, ministries”. The reliability of this document is unknown, but the point is that McGovern selectively picks from sources when those sources contain a broader picture of the events under discussion. “Re: INSIGHT-UKRAINE-Moscow-Kiev Spat -UA111.”, September 14, 2011 (accessed March 9, 2022).

[39] For an entertaining discussion of Surkov as “the political technologist of all of Rus” from a media insider, see P. Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 65–76. Surkov quoted in “Surkov: I’m interested in acting against reality.” Actual Comments,, February 26, 2021 (accessed June 18, 2022). To be sure, a separatist paper registered with Russia’s “censorship” agency, Roskomnadzor, routinely reports that Surkov “manages” Moscow’s Donbas policy. For example, A. Rostovtsev, “Surkov and Nuland: Shock and Awe in Kyiv.” Russkaya Vesna (Russian Spring),, January 17, 2016 (accessed June 27, 2022).

[40] A. Shandra and R. Seely, The Surkov Leaks: The Inner Workings of Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine (London: Royal United Services Institute, 2019), vii, 13, 24, 28, 31, and 39; Author interview of A. Shandra, May 31, 2022.

[41] For Putin’s comments on Ukraine’s constitution, federalization and his explanation that Novorossiya or New Russia is from the Tsarist era, constituting “Kharkev, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa,” and “not part of Ukraine,” see “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin.”, April 17, 2014 (accessed May 2, 2022).

[42] There are several US State Department memos that document this interference. This brief paper does not allow for a review of the related Frolov leaks, Glazyev tapes and wikileaks that reveal Russia’s longstanding meddling in Ukrainian politics, which culminated in 2014 with what might rightly be called a “coup” in Donetsk through military occupation since 2014 and elevated in 2022. It is rather surprising the extent to which US anti-imperial writers have ignored these documents. One noteworthy classified document that states Putin sent Dugin to Turkey to promote economic Eurasianism, according to a Turkish general is E. Edleman, “Putin Visits Turkey.” Classified US State Department Memo,, December 10, 2004 (accessed June 8, 2022).

[43] Strelkov’s name is Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin, but he used the name Strelkov throughout the events under discussion, therefore I follow that usage. Some say he was the declared leader of the Slavyansk People’s Republic. The literature consistently refers to him Defense Minister of DPR as does a fellow separatist fighter, who also reports that Strelkov was an FSB colonel who was transferred to the reserves in March 2013. A. Zhuchkovsky, 85 Days in Slavyansk (Independently published, 2022), 36–37.

[44] A. Prokhanov interview of I. Strelkov, “Who are you shooter?.” Zavtra,, November 20, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2022). Borodai was not on the list provided to Surkov, but Malofeev told an interviewer that he recommended his former consultant. E. Sergina and P. Kozlov, “Interview: Konstantin Malofeev, founder Marshall Capital.” Vedomosti,, November 13, 2014 (accessed June 20, 2022). I first learned of this article in K. Chawrylo’s work. Malofeev insists the funding was strictly humanitarian and that he and Strelkov arrived in Crimea “by accident,” while simultaneously suggesting it was the will of God.

[45] A. Prokhanov interview of I. Strelkov, November 2014. Alexander Zhuchkovsky, a participant in the events under discussion who describes himself as an “organizer of the 2014 rebellion” and is under sanction for funding and training the extremist Russia Imperial Movement corroborates Strelkov’s account that he started the war. In addition, he quotes another leader of the People’s Militia of DPR, Sergey Tsyplakov, who admits that in March–April 2014 the pro-Russian movement “was at a dead end” and did not have enough people. They were in “a difficult situation,” “we had committed serious criminal offenses,” but failed “to create a revolutionary situation” until Strelkov “arrived” and “the Battle of Slavyansk began.” He also states that Malofeev “financed the expedition.” A. Zhuchkovsky, 85 Days in Slavyansk, 11, 29–30, 45.

[46] Borodai mentions support from Russian authorities and building the Russian World in Ukraine, “Interview: Alexander Boroday: We intend to create a state of real, not declarative justice.” Russkaya Vesna,, May 24, 2014 (accessed June 5, 2022). Borodai also wrote for Prokhanov’s paper and was Crimea’s press officer, see Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, 162. He was later elected to the Russian State Duma.

[47] A. Shandra and R. Seely, The Surkov Leaks, 28; D. Newman, “Ukraine rebels dream of a new Russia.” BBC News,, October 23, 2014 (accessed May 2, 2002). For additional connections between the Kremlin-funded Eurasian Youth Union (part of Dugin’s movement) assuming posts in the DPR, see A. Shekhovtsov, “Aleksandr Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism and the Russo-Ukrainian War.” In The Politics of Eurasianism: Identity, Popular Culture, and Russia’s Foreign Policy, eds. M. Bassin and G. Pozo-Martin (Lanham: Roman & Littlefield, 2017), 185–204.

[48] Dugin accepts that Strelkov and Borodai were his students in an interview, while claiming that Kharkiv streets were “covered” with his pamphlets. A. Dugin, “ ‘Sunny’ Putin defeated ‘Lunar’.”, March 31, 2022 (accessed May 2, 2022).

[49] “A Nail in the Coffin of Ukronazism: Alexander Dugin revealed who the Ukrainians are.”,, March 22, 2022 (accessed April 4, 2022); A. Dugin, “Horizons of our Revolution from Crimea to Lisbon.”, March 7, 2014 (accessed March 14, 2022).

[50] Putin explained that “Ancient Rus is our common source,’ ” and “civilizational” values “unites peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.” The Bolsheviks, Putin maintains, relinquished Russian lands to Ukraine, and “may God judge them”. NATO, who “made decisions behind our backs”, is trying to occupy our common lands, he explains. “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.”, March 18, 2014 (accessed April 2, 2022).

[51] “Russian state TV talk show interviews conservative author.” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, May 27, 2014; “Russian talk show features nationalist pundit.” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, September 24, 2014.

[52] “Putin praises achievements of ultra-nationalist anti-Semitic writer.” Times of Israel,, February 28, 2018 (accessed May 29, 2022).

[53] S. Gwaltney, “Ukraine: The Russia Factor in Crimea—Ukraine’s ‘Soft Underbelly’?.” US State Department Confidential Memo,, March 7, 2006, (accessed June 8, 2022).

[54] Cohen, War With Russia, 16–17; O. Stone, director, Ukraine on Fire (Burbank: CA, Cinema Libre Films, 2016).

[55] One can add the invasions to thwart Ukrainian independence in 1917–1920 and the 2014–2022 war. O. Subtelny, Ukraine: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 409–410, 413; S. Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2021), xv, 63–72. For a simple debunking of the argument that Ukraine does not exist as a nation, see Y. Hrytsak, “Putin Made a Profound Miscalculation on Ukraine.” International New York Times, March 21, 2022.

[56] “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.”, February 21, 2022 (accessed March 2, 2022); “Article by Vladimir Putin ‘On the Historical Unity of Russian and Ukrainians’.”, July 21, 2021 (accessed March 2, 2022).

[57] T. Sergeytsev, “What should Russia do with Ukraine?.” Ria Novosti,, April 3, 2022 (accessed May 18, 2022).

[58] “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.” February 21, 2022; “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.” February 24, 2022.

[59] M. Laruelle, “Imperializing Russia: Empire by Default or Design?” Ponars Eurasian Policy Memo 789 (August 2022); F. Hill and A. Stent, “The World Putin Wants.”.

[60] Vushko offers an excellent analysis of the relevance of history and its “bellicose politicization”. I. Vushko, “Historians at War: History, Politics and Memory.” Contemporary European History 27 (1) (2018), 112–124.

[61] R. Lebow, “International Relations Theory and the Ukraine War.” Analyse & Kritik 44 (1) (2022), 112.

[62] R. Lebow, 111–135.

[63] D. Sagramoso, Russian Imperialism Revisited: From Disengagement to Hegemony (London: Routledge, 2021), 332, 355–356. Grigas maintains that Russian/Russia’s statecraft has shown an increasing “reimperialization” of the post-Soviet space since the early 1990s. A. Grigas, Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016). Hrytsak, drawing on security experts Litvinenko and Gorbulin, holds that Russia reformulated its Ukrainian policy in 2008 following the Georgia conflict. There were three main strategic possibilities. The first was to incorporate south and eastern Ukraine into Russia (failed Novorossiya enterprise in 2014); demarcate the West (federalization/destabilization); or place a puppet regime in Kyiv. There was a “window of opportunity” that the authors predicted at somewhere about five years to take advantage of a perceived lack of commitment among Western nations to take serious steps against more aggressive maneuvers. Y. Hrytsak, “What Do We Write About When We Write About Ukraine.” Ab Imperio: Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space (1) 2022, 59–60. A. Litvinenko and V. Gorbulin, “The big neighbor has made up his mind. What should Ukraine do Next?” Zerkalo Nedeli (35) September 2019,, (accessed October 5, 2022).

[64] S. Plokhy, The Gates of Europe, 359.

[65] These frameworks pay scant attention to Ukrainian public opinion or the role of participatory democracy at Maidan. See, for example, a 2016 Democratic Initiatives/Razumkov poll that suggests increasing support for a NATO alliance among Ukrainians with 71 percent of respondents in favor: M. Zolinka, “NATO is a priority again, or Kyiv changes its Euro-Atlantic Strategy.” Ukraine in Focus,, July 12, 2017 (accessed June 24, 2022).