Near the end of Monday night in New York, as most of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council took turns expressing varying levels of concern at the second invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the ambassador from Kenya, only weeks into his rotating position, gave the moment-defining speech.
“Kenya, and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of empire,” Martin Kimani observed. Its borders, like the borders of most countries, were drawn amid post-colonial chaos “with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”
He was referring to the countries in conflict, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, both birthed from the dissolution of the Soviet empire. And he was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view – reiterated in a marathon speech that preceded his order to invade Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions – that his country has a historic territorial claim on all or part of Ukraine and other former Soviet possessions containing ethnic Russians.
Mr. Kimani’s speech resonated further because it recognized that the wars of territorial expansion Mr. Putin has pursued since 2008 represent a direct threat to all of us living in former colonies. They challenge the worldwide understanding, observed since the end of the Second World War, that borders are to be kept as they are and countries forge their identities out of the ever-shifting peoples within them – not by using force to redraw maps.
“At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later,” Mr. Kimani continued. “Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited … Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward … We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
Militarily powerful countries have invaded weaker ones many times during our lifetimes. What makes Mr. Putin’s invasions of Ukraine unique, however, is that they are wars of territorial expansion – built on his repeated claims that modern Russia is a continuation of the very empire that had once imprisoned the Russian and Ukrainian people.
This is profoundly dangerous fiction.
In December, both Ukraine and the Russian Federation marked their 30th anniversary of becoming internationally recognized, nominally democratic countries. Both were carved out of the empire that had occupied them, and both bear only hazy resemblance to the previous entities that had borne those names. Both are equally “real.”
Of course, both had been home to Ukrainian and Russian people, as well as people from many other backgrounds, for many centuries before, and had carried the name “Russia” and “Ukraine” before. Ethnically, Kyiv was Russian before it was Ukrainian; Crimea was majority Tatar before it was majority Slavic. But that doesn’t give either Moscow or, say, Istanbul claims on either of them.
And the ethnic and linguistic makeup of their populations had been shifted and transformed by the ethnic cleansings that followed the 1945 Yalta Conference, by the mass relocations ordered by Soviet leaders, and by the migrations that followed the Soviet collapse. Neither was ever purely “Russian” or “Ukrainian,” and their borders, by dint of history, are arbitrary – as are all national borders.
Mr. Putin’s fictions are not only harmful to citizens of the former colonies around Russia, but to the citizens of Russia – which is by many measures the most multicultural, multiracial country in Europe. Russia’s citizens include Europe’s largest Muslim population and one of its largest East Asian population. By identifying his country solely with a “we” of ethnic Russians, he puts them all in danger.
Donetsk and Luhansk are integral parts of Ukraine – as much as is the great western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which was carved out of Poland in the chaos of 1945. The overwhelming majority of citizens of these two territories, poll after poll has shown, see themselves as Ukrainian by nationality – including a majority of those who speak the Russian language. The notion that these are “independent republics” is not just an invention of Moscow, but is supported by a measurably small minority of the region’s residents.
But it wouldn’t matter if they were majorities (as, for example, the Moscow-supporting population of Crimea is). If maps were redrawn according to majority ethnic populations and their identifications, then, as the Kenyan ambassador put it, “we would still be waging bloody wars” long after our colonial era ended.
Mr. Putin’s manufactured chaos in eastern Ukraine has already cost 14,000 lives in an eight-year war. If we don’t do everything possible to reduce Mr. Putin’s legitimacy and remove his tools, we could all be endangered by his fictions.
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