Why is Russia so persistently aggressing on Ukraine?
Author: Valeriy Prymost is a journalist and author of a number of books, including "Приднестровский беспредел" (Transnistria Havoc, a book about the war in Transnistria available in Russian), "Єврей - це фах" (Being a Jew is a Profession, a book on elements of Jewish history in Ukraine in Ukrainian), and "Украина у края" (The Borderland Ukraine, available in Russian online)
What we call European civilization evolved over centuries to embrace the principles that human rights are inviolable, private property sacrosanct, a strong judiciary fundamental, and honest work respectable. Medieval Rus, the historic triangle between Kyiv, Chernihiv and Pereiaslav, reflected these same features: the members of every social class in Kyivan Rus had clearly defined rights and could defend them in unwritten and written law alike. Every free Rusin had the right to vote at a local assembly and even a Great Kniaz, their prince, could not claim the throne without the agreement of “Kyivans and the black hoods” of the forested steppe lands.
In the boggy woodlands to the north, known as Zalissia and also ruled by Rus, life was very different. A harsh, colonized hinterland with only a scattering of villages and towns, it had no room for traditions like voting, contracts or the ownership of ancestral lands. There, only service to the ruler—be it military or civilian—was respected. Shaped by outcasts from Kyivan Rus, this swampy territory was to become Muscovy and later renamed Russia.
The marauding mentality
Starting with Andrei Bogoliubsky, Zalissia’s rulers marched ruinously on the southwest of the realm. Not to rule from Kyiv but simply for the sake of booty: to loot, burn and destroy. When the Mongols reached the borders of Kyivan Rus, the princes of Zalissia gladly bowed their heads, starting with Yaroslav Vsevolodovych of Pereiaslavl-Zalisskiy and his son Aleksandr Nevsky. Thus, Moscow became the tribute-collection center of the Golden Horde, evolving into that most lucrative and widespread form of Russian business: “sitting on cash flows.”
The main wealth of Europe, including Kyivan Rus, were land and people, so Europe quickly focused on the principle of inventiveness. Europeans understood that it was more beneficial to create something yourself than to take it away from someone else. But the Zalissia region teemed with natural wealth. With the furs of sables, squirrels, beavers and martens highly valued, an economy of “extraction” soon took hold. After all, why make things when you could simply buy them—or just take them away from someone?
Having annexed Western Rus, with its “European” institutions such as vassalage, the rights of subjects and local self-government, Muscovy had no use for them. It only absorbed that which allowed it to acquire even more territory: resources, military forces and technology, and mobilization capacity.
Some historians say that the Horde brought the rule of the autocrat, the powerlessness of subjects, and the psychology of the military boot camp and enshrined in Muscovy. But this mixes cause and effect. The Horde subordinated Muscovy precisely because Muscovites were receptive to this kind of rule. What the Horde did bring to the Zalissia realm was a reason to fight against Europe: the Grand Mission of spreading Genghis Khan’s rule to the “Last Sea.”
The spirit of orthodox jihad
When Lithuania took Zalissia, Smolensk, Polotsk and even the Three Cities from the Horde, it became the target of this murderous mission. Moscow and Lithuania had taken equal measures of territory from Kyivan Rus, but the socio-political essence was very different. This shaped the nature of the conflict between the two: Moscow saw Lithuania as an existential enemy from whom it had to rescue the “Rusin soul.”
As Muscovy continued to loot everything possible—land, settlements, people, riches, and technology—, it annexed huge territories and populations in Western Rus. By the 16th century, it had transformed into a major state that was able to defeat its once-powerful rivals: the Golden Horde and the Lithuanian Principality.
Meanwhile, differences in religion between Moscow and Rus orthodoxy came to the forefront during the Lithuanian era. After the Florentine Union of 1439, Muscovites had distanced themselves from the Christian world and lived in virtual isolation for more than a century. In effect, this schism between Muscovy and Rus added an element of religious fanaticism to the many excuses Muscovy had to march on the West.
Under Ivan III, the Great, the principles and worldview of Moscow’s expansionism first surfaced: Muscovy as “Holy Russia,” a shining orthodox empire surrounded by godless, evil enemies. The “Divine Mission” given to “Holy Russia” to fight against the enemies of orthodoxy demanded that the “proper” orthodox faith and hence the “proper” way of life be spread as widely as possible. And every Muscovite-Russian was supposed to serve this lofty mission. Since nothing personal—not yours, not others’—had any value, the political formula, “Divine Autocrat + serfs/slaves,” was ideologically validated.
The Zalissia way of life—collectivism, top-down rule, contempt for the “other,” acquisitiveness—combined with its “love-hate” attitudes towards Europe shaped that dreadful Moscow hegemony that historian Lev Gumilev euphemistically called “passionarity.” It is a powerful force based on a fierce belief in inherent uniqueness and disdain for the rights of others. It was not long before this mix led to another ideological myth—Moscow as the Third Rome.
With the appearance of the Third Rome doctrine, all the actions of Moscow’s leadership against Lithuania and Novgorod, its conflicts with the Constantinople patriarch, the search for a more august ancestry, and the manifestations of autocracy and “great state-ness” were strictly defined. Muscovy was simply “destined” to become an imperial power and to continue the attack on Europe.
The Moscow way
The case of Novgorod was a classic illustration of Muscovite principles: its prince was hired to serve the principality and at times there was no prince at all. In 1494, Ivan III seized the city, closed the German Court and the Hanseatic embassy, confiscated the goods of the many foreign merchants, and forbade Novgorod to engage in foreign trade. When Novgorodians rebelled against Moscow, Ivan IV, Grozny or “the Terrible,” dealt the finishing blow: of 6,000 households, more than 5,000 were devastated, countless residents slaughtered and the remainder deported to the east, to be replaced by Muscovites.
Under Grozny’s rule, Muscovy became a powerful empire that was ready to challenge Europe. The Livonian Order proved easy overcome, because no voluntary military formation can withstand a powerful, centralized state force. Only when it had to deal simultaneously with the Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians was Moscow’s “drang nach Westen” given such a response that it nearly destroyed the Muscovite state altogether.
What ultimately saved Muscovy was the conquest of Siberia, which gave the tsar an endless source of material resources. Now Moscow was in a position where it could lose battles and even tactical wars, but not major, global military conflicts, where the quality of the force and the talent of its commanders—often a problem for Moscow—no longer mattered in the face of colossal resources. Muscovy could afford to lose entire armies on failed campaigns—and thousands of sables from Siberia would pay to send new men, often foreign mercenaries, off to battle again. Economically, Muscovy could survive as long as it continued to extract something from one place or another, so permanent expansion became a kind of endless flight from the total bankruptcy of the state. But the marauder mentality meant Muscovy would inevitably fall more and more behind.
Having borrowed European technology from German and Italian weapons-makers during the reign of Ivan III, Muscovites did take the manufacture of arms seriously, running it at the state level. The first item they began to produce was the cannon. And as soon as production went on line, Moscow began to sell firearms to eastern potentates such as the Persian Shah—which it does to this day.
As long as the state lived off the extraction and sale of natural resources, there was no felt need to develop domestic processing and manufacturing industries. And since peasants, artisans and merchants were not the state’s main source of revenue, they had no right to a voice—no rights at all, as it turned out. With such vast resources, Muscovy’s armies kept conquering new territories and defending existing ones. The land, resources and processing facilities all belonged to the state. People, from the prince to the stable boy, also belonged to the state. And “the state” was the autocrat, sitting at the pinnacle of a top-down chain-of-command cast in iron.
When the Riurykovych dynasty came to an end in Moscow, two new rulers appeared who genuinely wanted to reform Muscovy along European lines: Borys Godunov and Dmitry I the Self-Proclaimed, aka the Pretender. Moscow’s nobles might have accepted the European model with its limits on monarchic powers, rule of law and inviolable property rights. But Moscow’s people wanted to live in “Holy Russia,” to wallow in “true orthodoxy,” and to be subservient to “God’s anointed” autocrat: they needed a “natural sovereign.”
Divide and conquer
With Lithuania out of the way, Poland was next in Moscow’s line-of-sight. The Poles not only were involved in the Livonian War (1558–1583) on the side of Lithuania, but at the start of the 17th century, they gave Muscovy the Troubles of 1598–1613 and a Polish garrison stood in the Kremlin. Busy warring over distant colonies and trade on the high seas, western Europeans did not take Muscovy seriously. While one or two countries were resisting its expansion, others aided and abetted it. And so, English gold and English cannons helped Moscow drive the Poles out of the Kremlin.
Having swallowed up Ukraine and collected military and civilian engineers, officers and German mercenaries, weapons and technology in Europe, Muscovy, renamed “Russia” by Pyotr I, known as Peter the Great, put paid to Poland and demonstrated the proper place of “noble democracy.” The Poles themselves may have started the first war, but the rest were all started by Russia. It attacked Poland twice in the 17th century, invaded it 4 times and partitioned it three times in the 18th century, crushed two rebellions in the 19th century, and attacked the country twice more in the 20th century, partitioning it yet again.
Next, it was Sweden’s turn to defend Europe. In the 16th century, Ivan IV had tried to get an outlet to the Baltic Sea without success. Now it was the turn of Pyotr I. Buying up military and technical specialists, arms and equipment in Europe, the “carpenter tsar” launched a new war against Sweden. Muscovy had already started four wars against Sweden in the 15th and 16th centuries, and in the 17th century, Sweden attacked in response to Moscow’s failure to uphold their treaty. The war launched by Pyotr was the seventh. At the enormous cost and with enormous losses, a by-now huge Russia finally got its window on the Baltic. In the 18th century, the Swedes twice tried to retake lost territory, but failed. In the 19th century, Russia managed to also snatch Finland from the Swedes.
On Sweden’s heels came the next “defender of Europe,” Prussia. Having waited until a coalition between Austria and France formed against the young and ambitious kingdom, Russia joined the attack. In the ensuing Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the Prussians lost and Germany’s next military clash with Russia wasn’t until the mid-20th century.
European skins, Russian souls
Russia’s “schizophrenic” attitude towards Europe and all things European was not limited to acquiring European specialists, goods and technology and then attacking that same Europe with them. In the mid-18th century, Russia actually “borrowed” its next dynasty from Europe: starting with Pyotr III and Yekaterina II (Catherine the Great), Germans from the Holstein-Gottorp dynasty sat on the imperial throne. But all that was “europeanized” as a result was a small circle of aristocrats and officials, who wore European clothes, spoke European languages, and traveled to European cities. In reality, this “europeanization” was completely superficial, for neither in their aggressive marauder mentality, nor in the autocratic, orthodox nature of their state did these elites differ from their predecessors who wore beaver hats and straggly beards.
Russia needed to give the appearance of europeanization for two main reasons: to get closer to its next source of booty and to have access to weapons. This mimicry allowed Russia to form pacts with one European country against others time and again, allying with Poland against Sweden, with Sweden against Poland, with France and Austria against Prussia, and with Prussia and Austria against France. The first Franco-Russian war was at Russia’s initiative in an alliance with Austria and Saxony, known as the War of Polish Succession in 1733-35. In the second war against France, Russia joined forces with Austria during the War of Austrian Succession in 1740-48.
Russia attacked Europe three more times, declaring war on post-revolutionary France, together with Austria and Prussia. The first time, it ended with Suvorov’s humiliating retreat through the Alps in 1799; then came defeat at Austerlitz in 1805; and finally a disastrous defeat at Friedland in 1807 ended this assault. Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 was his response to these attacks by Russia and to Russia’s violation of the 1808 Treaty of Tilsit.
Russia threw the gauntlet at France and England during the 19th century, with the Crimean War of 1853-56. This time the Russians did not modernize European-style and did not have any European allies. The Crimean War ended in total defeat.
The Empire needed to modernize but was now faced with an unexpected problem: technological changes had become strongly linked to economic, social and attitudinal changes. To be able to match Europeans on the battlefield, Russia needed to close the gap in these areas as well. This meant democratizing government, establishing a workable court system, and treating all nationalities equally. Russia was not prepared for this. During its bloody revolution, Russia’s new leadership, sponsored once more by a western European power, eliminated all overtly European notions and the pro-European elite from the times of early industrialization. The tender shoots of liberty, democracy and reason were crushed.
The USSR: A return to the roots
Under the bolsheviks, Russia once again became an autocratic religious empire. Only this time the autocrats were General Secretaries of a party and the religion was communism. The rest—customs, laws, democracy, human and property rights—reverted to the levels they had been at under Ivan Grozny. This was once again “Holy Russia,” only now called “the only country of workers and peasants in the world,” surrounded, of course, by evil enemies. The autocrat ruled over disenfranchised serfs who were expected to serve the state. No personal or property rights were recognized.
The minute bolshevik Russia began to gain strength, it returned to its familiar paradigm: to move in on Europe and destroy it. The “World Revolution” failed, so military incursion came next. Josef Stalin needed to prepare the empire’s economic and administrative structures at top speed for the next “Great Leap,” arm a huge military force and send it off to war. By 1939, the soviet army was more than 5 million strong.
Meanwhile, Europe had Germany. Twice in the 20th century, Russia entered a war against Germany with powerful western allies on its side. Both times the war was started by Germany, because the first attack gave some hope of victory over the Muscovite phoenix. Stalin was counting on thrashing the Germans and getting to the “Last Sea” on their backs. But he only got as far as Berlin. Victory—but only by half.
In the post-war period, soviet Russia kept supporting socialist overthrows and its many satellites in the Third World, from Vietnam and Ethiopia to Angola and Cuba. Still, the First World kept hanging on. Khrushchev orchestrated the Berlin and Cuban crises, but times had changed. With nuclear weapons, a world war was suddenly impossible: capitalists and socialists alike wanted to live, after all.
The marauding state as failed model
When competition with the damnable West moved into the economic sphere, Russia had no chance at all. It kept getting into ever-deeper debt with that same damnable West, selling its “furs”—read oil and gas—to buy food, manufactured goods and technology. With no more territories to loot, bankruptcy soon loomed. The minute oil prices fell, and the West raised interest rates on soviet loans and stopped selling technology to the Russians, it was only a short time before soviet Russia came crashing down.
All this time, the West kept pulling Russia towards itself and into Europe, supporting it, treating its sicknesses, giving it money, and doing everything possible so that the country might get better at last. And what did Russia do when it nearly crucified itself after the crash? It began riveting tanks and cannons, and screaming that the damnable West was getting in its way.
Today, Russians get everything from the West: technology, innovations, entertainment, fashion, trends, fresh ideas, movies, books, music, cars, and gadgets, food and beverages, neologisms and technical terms. The “best” Russians tend to go to the West for their educations, their vacations and their entertainments. They buy real estate and save their money there, because that’s where they plan to move when they retire. Meanwhile, the West keeps thinking that the mass delusion will pass any minute now and Russia will finally come to its senses.
What does Russia do in response? It attacks Ukraine—the most annoying bit of Europe.
Russia always dreamed of conquering Ukraine, and when it finally succeeded during Mazepa’s time, it did all it could to kill everything European in the country, eliminating traditional liberties, prohibiting the language and culture, and robbing, killing, torturing, and starving its people to death. But Ukrainians time and again picked themselves up. Calling Ukrainians simultaneousy their “younger brother” and a “fiction of Austrian military HQ,” Russians see Ukrainians as both “Russians like us” and “stupid khakhols.” So, if Russians hate Ukrainians once again and are waging war against them, it means the ancient European spirit has awakened in Ukrainians.
We have only to look at Russian history—Andrei Bogoliubsky and Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, Lenin and Stalin—to understand Vladimir Putin. He and his people will never give up their “holy mission” to destroy Europe—Russia’s Orthodox jihad.
When Russia began advancing against Europe this time, it followed its old template: first kill Kyivan Rus and grab all its resources, next start internal repressions, then control the rearguard, and finally, move on the West. This is what Ivan III and Ivan IV did. This is what Alexis of Russia and Peter the Great did. And Lenin and Stalin did, too.
War in Ukraine-as-Rus is already underway. Repression is gaining momentum in Russia. And next in line is Europe itself. The Riurykovyches took Western Rus and half of Lithuania from Europe. The Romanovs took Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland and Finland. The bolsheviks reached Berlin. How far will the Putinoids get?
If Ukraine succeeds—nowhere.
 “Black hoods” refers to the warriors from the various nomadic Turkic tribes, including the Pechenegs that settled the southern edge of Kyivan Rus.
 Kyiv, Chernihiv and Pereiaslav, the three cornerstones of Kyivan Rus.
 Defined in the Global Studies Encyclopedia Dictionary as “an irresistible inner drive to conduct extremely fierce activity whose purpose is to change the ethnic or natural environment of the person possessing this drive"
 Kyivan Rus, based in Kyiv, predated Moscow and Muscovy by many centuries.
 “Khakhol” is a pejorative term for Ukrainians, similar to “yid” for Jews, “nigger” for blacks, or “wop” for Italians. Its Russian counterpart is “katsap.”
 Aleksei Mikhailovich Romanov, Peter the Great’s father.
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?