Books on Russia and Eastern Europe by UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez
Some of UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez’s works on Russia and Eastern Europe.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

Ukraine 101: UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez offers seven major, and some contrarian, takeaways

With the spotlight on Ukraine as the country faces a possible Russian invasion, UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus Peter Kenez provides some background.

With the world’s attention focused on a threatening Russian troop buildup in Central Europe, UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez offers seven major, and some contrarian, takeaways about the conflict over Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, is not a nice man.

He belongs to that unattractive group of leaders that includes Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jarosław Kaczynski of Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Donald Trump of the United States, and unfortunately many others of the same type. What they have in common is a rejection of modernity and civilization in the name of an ill-defined populism and a desire to return to the “good old days.” Putin is an autocrat who succeeded in overcoming organized opposition. He had some of his enemies murdered, whether in Russia or exile. The Russian government is corrupt and has not done enough to develop the country’s economic potential.

This is the most important point: Ukraine is a state. But is it a nation?

People living in the eastern part (closer to Russia) might or might not consider themselves Ukrainians, but even if they do, they have a different history, different economic interests than their countrymen in the west (closer to Poland). This is self-evident. If there was no Putin, people in the western part of the country still would not like people in the east. Stepan Bandera, who fought on the side of the Nazis, is a hero in Galicia, in western Ukraine, but is an enemy of people who sacrificed so much fighting against the Nazis. It is not an accident that in between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 2014, Ukranians elected one president from the east and one from the west. Ukraine should be a federal state. The Minsk agreement of 2014 promised something similar, but it has not been acceptable for the current Ukrainian government. Viktor Yanukovych, who served from 2010 to 2014 and was a Russia-friendly ruler from the east, was corrupt. Yet he was legally elected and illegally got rid of, a purging in which American diplomats might have played a minor role. The presence of American diplomat Victoria Nuland in Kiev in 2014 was noticed by some.

Russian leaders, whatever we think of them, have not engaged in undertakings that they did not know how to end; in this respect they are different from American politicians.

It is true that Soviet soldiers suffered a defeat in Afghanistan, but they went there to defend a friendly government fighting against the Taliban, which was cheerfully supported by the United States. It seems to me unlikely that the Russians would enter Ukraine without a clear idea what they were then going to do. Ukraine cannot simply be occupied by Russian forces. Why are Russian troops surrounding Ukraine? I do not know.

Countries governed by unattractive governments still have national interests and security concerns.

It should be an obligation of leaders of hostile governments to at least attempt to understand what the world looks like from the other side. “We know that Ukraine could not threaten Russia.” “We know that NATO is a defensive alliance.” These oft-repeated Western propositions might look different if you are a member of the Russian government. Their view: Having Western weapons in countries such as Poland, such as Ukraine, by people who for whatever reason really hate Russians, might seem like a provocation.

UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez
UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Germans and the French are unlikely in the foreseeable future to admit Ukraine into NATO.

Why not say that under current circumstances, Ukraine would not or could not become a member? The reason we hear is that we must not reward countries by giving them concessions for bad behavior: ”We must not show weakness. Next time the Russians will demand that the Baltic states rejoin the Russian Federation.” Really? Is that how diplomacy works? “Putin’s success will make him more dangerous.” Really? Is a weak Russia beneficial for U.S. interests? Might not the Russians look elsewhere, for example to China, for friends?

Do sanctions work?

I can imagine that you tell your child that if he misbehaves he would not be allowed to watch TV. And the threat would make an impression. But are there any examples that sovereign states changed their behavior as a result of the threat of sanctions? If not, then what is the point? It might make us feel better that we know that we have punished the wicked. Is that the goal?

Russia has since the 18th century been part of the European world. It is part of that world today.

Ideally the task should be to integrate Russia into the center of Europe. If we help Russia to develop a well-off middle class, the members of that class might demand a more democratic government than what they have now. A prosperous Russia is more likely to be an ally of the United States than a poor and humiliated one.