Observers seeing a brutal, thuggish war criminal trying to crush the will of a neighboring people to live independent and free of domination are at least partly right. Vladimir Putin is indeed a throwback to Russian rulers past, whose identity was tied up with glorification of conquest, empire, and a twisted spiritual quest inspired by Russian Orthodox Christianity. But it’s more than that today: for Putin and those of his inner circle who keep him in power, the prospect that the people of Ukraine (whose very name connotes “borderlands” or “outskirts” . . . of the Russian Empire) would choose not only to break away from Mother Russia, but to edge ever closer to the West, is unthinkable and intolerable. It’s not about any imagined military threat from NATO (although that’s the misunderstood excuse): It’s about the very real fear that Ukraine is breaking free of its Russian roots to build the democratic structures of a Westward-looking nation state.
As seen by Putin, today’s West is not the assertive, muscular, and confident West of the Cold War years, but a feeble, immoral, and declining shadow of its previous self. The West of today has lost its moral compass, its anchor to the history of its culture and civilization, and even its will to exist or defend its own Christian identity. And that is not just a matter for scorn, but an invitation to aggression, justified in Putin’s mind by the “rightness” of the imagined Russian ideal of which he sees himself the champion.
As described by the Reverend Giles Fraser, Ukraine is the cradle of Russian identity. Kievan Rus and the 988 A.D. conversion of Vladimir of Rus to Christianity form the foundational mythology in which Putin was steeped from childhood (his mother was a Christian, who baptized him). That worldview infuses Putin’s sense of a spiritual mission to “rebuild Christendom” and combines with the ruthless savagery of his Tsarist forebears, overlaid with a thoroughly 20th-century formation as a KGB officer. It is all of this muddled together that drives his savagely self-righteous assault on Ukraine. In that assault, Russia and Putin are taking the Eurasian continent backwards hundreds of years to an era when emperors and their armies rampaged across the land, seizing, crushing, and conquering whom they would.
What Ukraine (and indeed NATO) embodies above all, and therefore intolerably so to Putin, is a steadfast commitment to its own national identity as a free people, its right to shape its own “heroes, traditions and institutions,” as Fiamma Nirenstein writes at the Jewish News Syndicate. The prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia, are today riding a train to embattled Kyiv, to stand by the side of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They likewise are demonstrating that same resolve to defend the traditional ideals of nationalism, the innate human right to fight for the freedom of their identity and people—not the twisted “nationalism” of Europe’s Nazi-fascist past, but the essential principles upon which America and Europe itself were founded. As Fiamma Nirenstein rightly declares, “the nation-state is not only necessary; it’s the historical bearer of freedom.”
The Russia and China of the 21st century see themselves as rising powers, destined to overturn the existing post-Cold War world order led by the United States, and empowered to usher in a new era dominated by Russian military might and Chinese economic and technological prowess. If that is not the world we wish to live in, then today’s fight for Ukraine should inspire all who believe in the inviolability of a world order based on individual liberty and national sovereignty, not some globalized New World Order in which innate human rights are crushed at will beneath the boot of corruption and tyranny.