Serhii Plokhy, one of Ukraine’s foremost historians, has spent his entire career trying to unearth his country’s dramatic but also fascinating history and free it from what he calls “imperial misrepresentations.” Born in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod but raised in Ukraine and holding dual US-Ukrainian citizenship, Plokhy has directed the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University since 2013.
From his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he receives EL PAÍS via video call to talk about his book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, which covers a vast timeframe from Herodotus’ first references to the steppes, mountains and forests north of the Black Sea in the 5th century BC, to the Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of the Donbas region in 2014. However, driven by the current circumstances in Ukraine, during the interview Plokhy speaks not so much about the past as the present and future of his country. In 2021, he added a foreword to The Gates of Europe in which he warned that conflict with Russia posed the greatest threat to the international order since World War II. A year later, Vladimir Putin ordered a brutal invasion that shows no sign of ending.
Question. Two years after writing that foreword, time seems to have proved you correct.
Answer. I was not trying to predict. Historians are not very good at predictions. I was trying to record, as historians do, things that were already happening or were in front of our eyes. The war that we are talking about today started in 2014 and was quite unprecedented in European history since the end of World War II, with uncomfortably close parallels to the Europe of the 1930s. Since World War II we had not seen the major powers grabbing territory and including them in their borders.
Q. Before February 24, did you view a full-scale Russian invasion as possible?
A. The scale of the war was a surprise but the continuation of the war was not. At stake was not just Russian control of Crimea or Eastern Ukraine but control of Ukraine as a whole and control of the post-Soviet space. These Russian goals were not achieved in 2014. What I didn’t expect was war on a scale unseen really in Europe since the Second World War. Another surprise was Russia was not prepared to wage war either economically, politically or ideologically. It was a surprise that there could really be someone on such a suicidal mission for Ukraine, for his own country and for much of Europe, as happened with Hitler back in 1939.
Q. Putin now finds himself in a very difficult situation. What room for maneuver do you think he has?
A. The fate of this war, it is now clear - the borders, whether Russia gets Crimea or southern Ukraine - will be decided on the battlefield. But the much bigger issue - the future of Russia and Ukraine - has already been decided. Ukraine will continue its existence as an independent state and is getting closer than anyone could have imagined to formal membership in the North Atlantic structures. That has already been decided. And we see a tremendous weakening of Russia and a major turn in terms of economic ties and connections between Russia and the European Union. Putin’s regime as a legitimate model has turned out to be extremely ineffective when it comes to the interests of Russia itself. Whether that regime goes down is the question. But the overall outcome of the war is already very clear: Russia has lost.
Q. You claim that the West failed to react to the Russian aggression of 2014. Have the EU and the US been more foresighted in 2022?
A. Yes, there has been a dramatic change. There is a realization that if Russia is not stopped here the destruction of the old international order will continue. In 2014, Europe took the same attitude toward Russia as they took toward Germany in 1938 or 1939. They thought that maybe the annexation of Crimea was not entirely correct legally but the majority of the population there are Russian. It is the same attitude as with Austria in 1938, or when western appeasement allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland. The invasion of Poland changed the calculation, and now the war in Ukraine going beyond Crimea has changed thinking in the West. We’re entering a new world where security issues are among the key concerns of politicians. Germany is prepared to double its defense budget. We are in a very different situation than we were in January of this year. And that’s one of the global consequences of this war.
“The fate of this war, it is now clear - the borders, whether Russia gets Crimea or southern Ukraine - will be decided on the battlefield”
Q. The war has also boosted Ukraine's national identity. Putin has achieved the opposite of what he wanted.
A. He certainly believed in what he was preaching, that deep down Ukraine is a small part of the Russian Empire. His intention was to go down in history as the unifier of the Russian lands, but no one single politician may do more to establish separate Ukrainian and Russian identities in the 21st century than Putin with his criminal war. Ukrainians united in 2014 across religious, ethnic and linguistic lines. The last eight years have been tremendously important in the history of Ukraine in forging this new identity. When Russia sent in its troops in 2014, it found a confused country with a virtually non-existent military. And those who planned the war counted on finding the same thing in 2022. They completely misunderstood this major transformation over eight years.
Q. As we speak, many Ukrainians are freezing because of Russian attacks, a strategy with no military objective beyond causing suffering. In your book you talk about the Holodomor, the famine of the 1930s, as an attempt by Stalin to turn Ukraine into a “model Soviet republic.” Do you see any parallels?
A. The civilian population is now under attack from Moscow again. They’re trying to leave Ukrainians without electricity, without food. When you look at historical precedents, they never succeeded. The chances that Russia will achieve its goals by targeting civilian infrastructure and trying to freeze Ukrainians during the war are minimal. The resolve of Ukrainians to fight has been strengthened, not diminished.
“The chances that Russia will achieve its goals by targeting civilian infrastructure and trying to freeze Ukrainians during the war are minimal. The resolve of Ukrainians to fight has been strengthened, not diminished”
Q. Is the current conflict explained by the disorderly collapse of the Soviet Union?
A. In the 1990s, the West insisted that Ukraine hand over its nuclear weapons to Russia, which should guarantee its independence and sovereignty. This war is the result of the security vacuum that was created in the center of Europe by taking away the weapons and not replacing them with anything that could stop the aggression.
Q. Do you think it was a mistake for the Ukrainian government to sign the Budapest Memorandum and relinquish nuclear weapons?
A. I don’t think the Ukrainian government could really have achieved any other outcome. Ukraine was in economic trouble and did not have fully formed institutions to resist the pressure coming from the two superpowers. I don’t see how Ukraine in the 1990s could have played that game any differently.
Q. Russia claims that after the fall of the Soviet Union it received guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward. And that this expansion constitutes an existential threat.
A. The claims are not true. That was discussed, but never put into a document. So the argument itself is historically incorrect. The reality of NATO expansion is that the United States did not go to Warsaw, Budapest and Sofia knocking on the doors of those countries and saying: please join us or we will occupy you. That’s the way Russia created its alliance. Those countries were lobbying Washington and Western capitals to protect themselves from what they were concerned would be a resurgent Russia. Even after the Georgian war and the annexation of Crimea, Europe continued to do business with Russia, and Germany built the Nord Stream gas pipeline. From the perspective of the time, the countries of Eastern Europe seemed unrealistic and paranoid. We now know that they understood the situation better. Today history repeats itself, with Ukraine calling NATO. Putin is doing more for NATO expansion than any four-star general could imagine. Look at Finland and Sweden. Both in the 1990s and now, the strength of NATO is explained by an attempt by Russia’s neighboring countries to protect themselves from aggression.
“The European energy market provided funds for the rearmament of Russia over the last 15 years. This war probably would not have started without that European money”
Q. What responsibility do you attribute to Germany for its closeness to Putin?
A. German policies were fundamental. They thought that closer economic ties with Russia would make it more dependent, and therefore less prone to new crises. But Moscow interpreted it differently: it saw Europe as more dependent, which allowed it more room for action. The European energy market provided funds for the rearmament of Russia over the last 15 years. This war probably would not have started without that European money. Nor would it have started if the response to the annexation of Crimea had been different. But the Nord Stream 2 plans continued. How was Moscow expected to read the signals coming from Germany, the most powerful country in Europe?
Q. As a historian, how do you view Putin's obsession with history?
A. That brings us back to the wars of the 20th century. Historical justifications, the wars linked to the fall of empires. I look at Putin’s arguments and I recognize the writings of the Russian Imperial historians. The concept that Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people was the dominant concept before the Russian Revolution. Putin is talking to the ghosts of the past, trying to turn them into the fighting monsters of the future.
Q. Ukraine is already a candidate to join the EU. But it has a long way to go on issues like corruption or the role of the oligarchs.
A. When the war is over, the country will have to be rebuilt. A kind of Marshall Plan would be a great opportunity to address issues like corruption or oligarchs. Ukraine must not be rebuilt as it was before the war, but with a stronger economic and legal foundation.
Q. What role do you attribute to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in this conflict?
A. Zelenskiy has been the most popular politician in Ukraine since 1991. His popularity fell before the war, but he was still more popular than his predecessors. And the war has added immensely to his popularity. He is an very important factor in the war. Other leaders who won wars, like [Winston] Churchill, did not get re-elected. The same could happen to him, but I don’t think that his political career is going to end with the war.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition