Oleg Kashin writes: Russia and Ukraine split up 23 years ago. A whole generation has grown up in each country since then. Ukrainian children have studied the poetry of the nationalist Taras Shevchenko and they have internalized a heroic narrative about a country that has spent centuries fighting for its freedom. Russian children have spent summer holidays in Crimea and have grown up with a sense that today’s Russian-Ukrainian borders are merely temporary and notional. The Russian public views the Ukrainian state with a sense of irony and even contempt. This attitude is often unfair, but it is see Ukraine as a culturally heterogeneous patchwork. Travelling from a place like Lviv or Lutsk to a place like Kharkiv or Odessa, it is often hard to believe that these cities are part of the same country: Post-Soviet Ukraine is like Austria-Hungary—an empire made up of incongruous parts. In the mind of the Russian public, the justification for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine settled into place many years ago: Russia has been unable to shake off the view that eastern Ukraine is Russian territory.
Clearly, this sentiment could have remained dormant for many decades. But Viktor Yanukovych’s rule in Kiev crumbled at the very point that President Vladimir Putin decided that he is at the pinnacle of his power. He vanquished his opposition, he hosted an Olympics, he triumphed in Syria, and he even kept Edward Snowden out of American custody. The 61-year-old Putin had achieved so many of his dream; the only thing he had yet to do was to become what the tsarist history books called a “gatherer of Russian lands.” The perfect opportunity presented itself, one that Putin couldn’t resist. And risks don’t really enter into his calculus anymore.
So if one is to make comparisons, then it shouldn’t be with 1968 Czechoslovakia, but with Serbia in 1914. Back then, the Russian tsar felt that he was the protector of all the Slavic people of Europe and entered into World War I, which ended with the collapse of his empire. Can Putin see that historical parallel now? I doubt it. In the 15 years of his rule, he has grown used to the fact that irrespective of their rhetoric, Western countries have generally approved of the Russian authorities. Putin genuinely believes that his “western partners” are cynics and hypocrites. Playing the role of “bad guy,” he believes, actually insulates him from far graver risks. This formula may sound paradoxical, but it has worked.