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Raymond J. de Souza: Putin is using a ‘spiritual’ lie to further his imperialist aims


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Of the many big lies that Vladimir Putin told in preparation for the expansion of his invasion and occupation of Ukraine this week, the claim that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s “spiritual space” is perhaps the most puzzling to foreigners. It needs some explanation.

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First, though, it is important that friends and allies of Ukraine not participate in Russian propaganda themselves, by speaking of an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. The invasion of Ukraine took place almost exactly eight years earlier, on Feb. 27, 2014, when Putin’s Russia invaded Crimea, subsequently occupying and annexing it. The 2014 invasion also included Russian forces permanently occupying the two eastern oblasts of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, in a war that cost more than 10,000 Ukrainian lives.

Putin was not deterred from expanding his invasion this past Thursday precisely because of what happened in 2014. After Russian troops rolled into Crimea, Angela Merkel, then chancellor of Germany, told the German parliament that Russia would suffer “massive” political and economic damage if it continued to occupy Crimea. U.S. president Barack Obama said the same. Sound familiar?

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The claim that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s ‘spiritual space’ needs explanation

Putin stayed and Merkel instead enriched Russia over the intervening eight years by making Germany ever more dependent on Russian natural gas. Indeed, Merkel advanced the Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline from Russia to Germany over the fierce objections of Ukraine, which was concerned about its energy and territorial security. The Nord Stream 2 was cancelled this week, rather late in the day.

If Putin does not initially blanche at the sanctions announced this week, Germany and the United States will have only themselves to blame for bluffing in 2014.

Why is Putin expanding his eight-year-old invasion of Ukraine? Russian imperialism is the simple answer, as Putin attempts to “recover” what was held by the tsar — even Warsaw was Russian territory before the First World War — or the Soviets, who swallowed up Ukraine whole.

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Putin’s 2008 military action against Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia was part of that plan. His de facto subjugation of Belarus’s sovereignty, where Russian troops move freely and from which they staged attacks on Ukraine this week, is part of the same plan.

Ukraine is more important than just territory. There is a cultural and religious dimension. Hence Putin’s talk about “spiritual space.” If that sounds uncomfortably close to Hitler’s “living space” — Lebensraum — it is analogous.

The Christian history of the eastern Slavs begins in 988, with the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the leadership of Kievan Rus with him. (The baptism of the western Slavs in Poland took place in 966.) In 988, Vladimir was prince of Kyiv; Moscow did not yet exist.

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Both religious and civil leaders in Russia insist that there is only one heir to the spiritual, cultural and national patrimony of 988 and it is Russia, not Ukraine, which is implausible chronologically. Hence the mere existence of an independent Ukrainian state — and an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church — is intolerable to the imperial Russian mind.

Putin’s first attempt to subjugate Ukraine into what is called the “Russkiy Mir” — literally “Russian world” — was the Belarus option, a friendly regime that would render Ukraine a vassal state. That reached a climax with the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who in 2013 rejected a Ukrainian co-operation agreement with the European Union in favour of a pact with Russia and Belarus. That led to the Maidan revolution, in which the Ukrainian people resisted the Putin-Yanukovych colonization by stealth. Yanukovych subsequently fled and is living in exile in Russia.

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All of this is convenient propaganda

Having failed in 2013 to take Ukrainian “spiritual space” without recourse to arms, Putin moved quickly to the military option in 2014, seizing Crimea, where Vladimir’s baptism actually took place. Eight years later, Putin now wants Vladimir’s capital as well, Kyiv.

All of this is convenient propaganda, about as reasonable as Turkey claiming rights over Russia, given that both belong to the same “spiritual space” as Constantinople (Istanbul).

Nevertheless, it is how Putin thinks, or at least finds it convenient to think. That is why Putin in Ukraine is not like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which was a naked grab for land, sand, soil and oil. (By the way, why are various leaders pronouncing it “unthinkable” for one country to simply invade another, when Saddam did just that in 1990?)

Putin long ago remarked that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest “catastrophe” of our times. He is attempting to reverse that, advancing both nationalist and spiritual propaganda in service of imperial aims.

National Post

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