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Putin's Aggressive Nationalism Has Run Into A Problem


Putin's cataclysmic invasion of Ukraine may have caused a setback to the global current of aggressive and domineering nationalism. In a country like the US, it could weaken Trumpism, given Donald Trump's closeness to Putin and his continuing praise of the Russian president. For India, the uncertainties surrounding the Indian students still trapped in Ukraine are of continuing concern, but the larger picture doesn't merely merit attention. It may be significant.

For a few years now, the world has been passively watching a current of aggressive nationalism, which populist and authoritarian/majoritarian leaders have warmly embraced. In several nations, elections have been won, and undemocratic rule extended, by a combination of "strong leadership" and pledges to "restore past glory", crush "anti-nationals" within the country and "sinister enemies" outside, and build gigantic militaries with awesome weapons.

Vladimir Putin, ruling Russia since 1999, was among the best-known symbols of this toxic nationalism. The final five days of February 2022 have tarnished his image. Supposedly chaotic but democratic Ukraine and its heroic citizens have imposed brakes on Russia's mighty military juggernaut. In doing so, they have exposed, for the whole wide world to see, the ultimate weakness of the ideology of domination on which Putin has placed his trust.

As of writing, the picture is far from clear. The US and NATO seem to have ruled out a direct military clash with Russia over Ukraine. There is suspense and dread about the dimensions of the urban war expected in great cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv. We don't know whether casualties will rise exponentially - or whether talks might yet bring peace.

Yet some realities are unmistakable. These include, in Ukraine, the high number of dead and wounded, and not just among the Ukrainians. In Russia, the signs are in the serious body 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 heavily 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 Ukraine's pro-Russian separatist segments: "I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia."

In this sentence, Putin was being sharply critical of the Bolsheviks and the Communists, although until the 1990s, he was proud to be one of them. "They detached Ukraine from Russia," he was complaining. Putin was recalling and celebrating pre-Communist Russia, the imperialist and Tsarist Russia of the 19th century and the first 17 years of the 20th century.

It was the Putin the aggressive nationalist, not Putin the Communist, who was preparing the ground for a massive invasion of his smaller neighbour.

As The Washington Post put it, Putin was trying to dismiss "Ukraine as a recent creation, an obscure entity that came about 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 supposedly independent states, which then were able to become independent nations after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991."

It is Ukraine's existence as an independent nation that Putin finds hard to stomach. And although he may not have openly criticized Ukraine's democracy, we can be sure that he also resents the notion that a country's rulers should be replaced from time to time, as also the allied notion that people should be free to criticise their rulers.

As we try to stay abreast of the misery wrought hour upon hour by the invasion of Ukraine, our minds are invaded by frightening questions on what a proud, frustrated, and desperate ruler of a nation with fearsome weapons might be tempted to do.

But anxiety is not the sole message. The world has seen the war's evidence that times come when the world's mighty ones, the seemingly unchallengeable ones, also quake.

There's also a message about relations with neighbours. This war reminds me of a line I first came across more than six decades ago, which went something like this: "A nation's finest defence is the respect and gratitude of its neighbours." Even Russians who ardently admired Putin have surely asked themselves if invading Ukraine was the best way of earning Ukrainian goodwill.

Or global goodwill. Or the goodwill of the people of Belarus (immediate neighbour to both Russia and Ukraine), whose prolonged restiveness vis-à-vis their authoritarian ruler may have been doubled by the use of their land for the invasion of Ukraine.

The unprecedented unity with which Europe has 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 put their weight behind Ukraine and against Russia. The ethnonationalist and anti-democratic pulls that have marked Europe in recent years seem to have taken a hit.

As for the Ukrainians, will they ever forget the destruction of loved ones? Of buildings and landmarks next to which they have spent their entire lives? Will they ever forget the trauma suddenly forced on tens of thousands of families, with children, women and the elderly, compelled to flee to lands across the border while the men stay put to fight the invaders?

Interviewed by Nirupama Subramanian for The Indian Express, a Moscow-based analyst of international relations, Alexey Kupriyanov, said Indians should understand that just as they would like a cooperative Pakistan next door, Russia desires a dependable Ukraine. "I am sorry for this analogy," said Kupriyanov, "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 forcibly to replace its current government with one that is pro-Delhi, is the way to make Pakistan dependable?

The long-terms hazards of belligerent nationalism, and of the authoritarianism that invariably accompanies it, are among the things underscored by the tragedy in Ukraine. As also the fighting spirit that love of country and love of democracy seem to nurture.

At a different level, the Ukraine story invites 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 of our world's nations, Russia included, are homogeneous in language, religion, or race?

The fact that a number of Ukrainians speak Russian (in many cases as their first language), does not mean that they want Moscow to rule over them or detach them from their Ukrainian-speaking neighbours. Nationhood does not demand homogeneity or uniformity. Nor does it require authoritarian or imperial rule by a big neighbour. These too are messages that Ukraine's horrific drama is sending.