One year of war in Ukraine

What was and is to be expected

22. February 2023 by Daniel Schenz
One year ago, the Russian full-fledged invasion of Ukraine began. Since then, war has once again become a topic in Europe. Wolfgang Mueller is professor of Russian History at the University of Vienna and in this interview talks about where the Ukrainians' extraordinary defiance comes from and what the war means for Europe's self-image.
The war in Ukraine came as a surprise to many, but not to some. "These things can probably be better understood from a historical perspective," says Wolfgang Mueller, professor of Russian history at the University of Vienna. © Daniel Schenz

Rudolphina: What can we say about the war in Ukraine after one year?

Wolfgang Mueller: It is a war the likes of which we have not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War and which we did not think was possible in this dimension, in this manner and in this bestiality: Tank battles, trenches, bombardment of Ukrainian cities and hospitals, mass disappearances, torture, genocide. The aggression has so far claimed an estimated 120-200,000 lives, many of them Ukrainian civilians, and resulted in countless war crimes and gigantic destruction. It is also a war of surprises. No one expected Ukraine to be able to withstand such an attack.

Rudolphina: How was Ukraine able to do this against all odds?

Wolfgang Mueller: Not least because of an impressive spirit of resistance and great willingness to sacrifice on the part of the Ukrainian people and armed forces. The people know what they are fighting for and what they are defending: the survival of their state, their identity and freedom, and the freedom of their children. In doing so, they have shown not only courage and self-sacrifice, but also a spirit of improvisation and tactical and strategic skills. But they have also benefited from mistakes on the side of the aggressor. And of course, last but not least, the willingness of the West to help. In retrospect, however, it must be said that military aid usually comes too late and is still too little to be able to end the war.

"The people know what they are fighting for and what they are defending: the survival of their state, their identity and freedom, and the freedom of their children."
Wolfgang Mueller

Rudolphina: Hindsight is easier than foresight: Could the war have been prevented or until when could the war have been prevented?

Wolfgang Mueller: The war could probably have been prevented until the turn of the year 2021/22, perhaps even until a week before the war began. One possibility would have been to secure Ukraine by admitting it into NATO or another bilateral or multilateral alliance. But as we know, Ukraine's membership ambitions – first in 2008 and then in 2015 – were put on hold primarily by Germany out of consideration for its relations with Russia.

Rudolphina: What do we learn about Europe from this war?

Wolfgang Mueller: It has obviously not been possible to make Russia a permanently peaceful member of the community of states through de facto concessions – this attempt was also accompanied by an enormous increase in economic interdependencies up to the point of making our own national economies dependent on Russia, a development that goes back to the 1970s. The policy of treating Russia's power interests as de facto superior to the security and survival interests of Ukraine or even Georgia must be described as misguided.  Today – more than 30 years after the end of state communism in Eastern Europe, the peaceful revolutions and the fall of the Iron Curtain – there are still two different perspectives of Europe on its East: on the one hand, the Western European perspective, which is characterised by the policy of détente in the 1960s and 1970s and the principle of "change through trade". On the other hand, the states of East-Central Europe and to some extent Northern Europe have continued to keep a closer eye on the threat posed by Russia. In contrast to Western societies, they have not arrived in the post-heroic age in their state and social development - and perhaps never will.

Russian imperialism in the focus of historical analysis

Many aspects of Russia's war of aggression – the genocidal aspects, the deportations, the enormous explosion of violence, even the notion that a neighbouring nation was not full-fledged but had to be subordinated to the Russian nation – are profoundly imperialist and colonialist concepts that will probably continue to preoccupy researchers in the next 20 years. The restoration of empire after the collapse of the Tsarist empire by the Soviet Union will also have to be analysed from this point of view. Researchers now speak of a necessary decolonisation of the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Rudolphina: What is the "post-heroic age" and how does it manifest itself?

Wolfgang Mueller: If we examine the willingness of the population to defend their own country, but also the freedom of their own society, with weapons, if necessary, the results differ significantly between Western Europe and Eastern Europe: In the average Western European society, this willingness to defend is 20 percent, in Eastern European countries it is 60 percent. And this is a significant finding, which is also reflected in the reaction of the various European governments to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, namely, on the one hand, in arms deliveries, and on the other hand, in the various degrees of willingness to support Ukraine's applications for membership in the EU or NATO.

Rudolphina: In other words, EU policy in the past 30 years was dominated by a Western European perspective …

Wolfgang Mueller: And today the East-Central Europeans say, and justifiably so, "we told you so, but you didn't listen, instead you called us 'Cold Warriors'". It will be a challenge for Europe to respectfully recognise this East-Central European perspective more strongly and to actually integrate it, too.

Rudolphina: In the past, there have always been voices in Europe that have called for Europe's strategic independence from the NATO.

Wolfgang Mueller: These demands seem all the less realistic in the short term because more than 50 per cent of the humanitarian and, above all, the military support for Ukraine comes from the USA, which means that Ukraine would probably no longer exist without US support. With a few exceptions, continental Western Europe has largely disarmed in the past 30 years, both militarily and in strategic thinking. It will take years to reverse this. In the medium term, a greater European defence contribution would be beneficial for Europe's security. 

"Ukraine would probably no longer exist without US support."
Wolfgang Mueller

Rudolphina: Doesn't the wish for peace of 80 per cent of Western Europeans also have a positive side and couldn't the increase in defence spending lead to a remilitarisation of the world?

Wolfgang Mueller: The goal of securing peace unites most people. A part of them, especially in Western Europe, says: create peace without weapons. We have now seen that this is unrealistic. The other part says: one needs weapons to create and secure peace. That means taking the necessary precautions to deter possible aggressors. This is the background to the current debates on investments in security and defence, for example in the Federal Republic of Germany and, to a lesser extent, in the Republic of Austria, but also, in particular, to the applications for NATO membership by Finland and Sweden. I consider it unlikely that European investments in security will trigger a global arms race, since many developments follow regional or even national dynamics: In the past 30 years, for example, Europe has disarmed, but Russia has rearmed.

Rudolphina: But aren't all these military build-ups?

Wolfgang Mueller: You can either secure peace by demilitarising the whole world. That seems relatively unrealistic. Or the societies prepare themselves accordingly and are also prepared to defend their freedom. After all, it's not about defending a government or a flag, but the freedom and security of one's own society. And I think that this is quite legitimate and that it is high time for reconsideration in Western European societies. If a society is not prepared to show a minimum of willingness to defend its values, its freedom and its democracy, then this society runs the risk of losing its freedom.

"If a society is not prepared to show a minimum of willingness to defend its values, its freedom and its democracy, then this society runs the risk of losing its freedom."
Wolfgang Mueller

Rudolphina: Since the war began, eight million people - one in five of the total population - have fled Ukraine. When we think of a future after the war, how will the country recover?

Wolfgang Mueller: That will depend on the outcome of the war. So far, the exodus has mainly affected women and children. We see that the willingness of people who fled Ukraine in the first months of the war to return is very high. It was already reported last summer that more people who had fled Ukraine were returning than more people were fleeing. The willingness of people to live in their country, to defend it, to build it up and shape it, is enormous. Therefore, should peaceful, free and secure conditions be restored in Ukraine, I assume that Ukraine will continue to be an attractive place to live for its own population and also for those who have left for the West. However, it will be dependent on Western reconstruction aid. 

Rudolphina: And if Russia is successful?

Wolfgang Mueller: Then I expect that the wave of refugees will increase enormously, that perhaps 20 million or more will try to leave the country. We must not forget that there are many reports of war crimes, deportations and abductions of children from the Russian-occupied territories. That then people would not want to stay under such conditions if their struggle would turn out to be unsuccessful and they themselves would come under oppression and foreign rule seems very understandable to me. 

Rudolphina: Back to the University of Vienna. Last winter semester, your institute dealt with the "History of Ukraine" as part of a lecture series. What was your conclusion of this discussion?

Wolfgang Mueller: The lecture series conceived and organised by Kerstin Susanne Jobst met with huge interest. Although Ukraine was not a sovereign state after the collapse of the medieval empire of Kiev until 1918, contours of its identity formation can be clearly worked out.  In the 17th century, there are beginnings in this direction through the "Cossack state", not only with a clearly graspable identity of the people, but also with proto-democratic political participation. The Cossacks saw themselves as free warriors who elected their leaders themselves. Where else in 17th century Europe could you find that? Around 1710, the Cossack hetman Pylyp Orlyk wrote a kind of constitution, with separation of powers – almost 40 years before the father of the separation of powers in political philosophy, Montesquieu, formulated this idea.

Key dates in the formation of Ukraine

8th century Settlement of Norman Varangians ("Rus")

882 Kiev becomes the capital of Rus ("Kievan Rus")

988 "Baptism of Rus", Christianisation

1240 Mongol invasion, destruction of Kiev, end of Kievan Rus

1253 Coronation of the Prince of Galicia-Volhynia as King of Rus

1349 Division of Galicia-Volhynia between Poland and Lithuania

1441 Foundation of the Tatar Khanate of the Crimea 

1569 Real Union of Poland-Lithuania, Ukrainian territory (except Crimea) part of the Polish Crown

1648 Formation of the Cossack Hetmanate from the Zaporozhian Cossack Army

1667/1686 Division of the Hetmanate between Poland and Russia, annexation of Kiev by Russia

1764 Dissolution of the Hetmanate by Empress Catherine II, formation of the governorate of New Russia in today's Eastern Ukraine, settlement of Russian colonists.

1783 Annexation of the Khanate of Crimea by Empress Catherine II. 

1795 Modern-day Western Ukraine divided between the Tsarist and Habsburg Empires

2nd half of 19th century Emergence of Ukrainian national idea

1876 Ban on Ukrainian-language books in the Tsarist Empire

1917-1918 Disintegration of the Tsarist Empire, Ukrainian Declaration of Independence 

1917-1921 Soviet-Ukrainian War, Soviet Russia conquers Ukraine

1922 Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic becomes part of the Soviet Union

1991 Independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union

2004 "Orange Revolution": After mass protests against electoral fraud, the pro-Western presidential candidate Yushchenko wins the repeat election

2013-2014 "Euromaidan Revolution": mass protests to sign the Association Agreement with the EU lead to the flight and ouster of pro-Russian President Yanukovych

2014-2022 Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea in violation of international law and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, the Donbass War begins

2022 Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine

Rudolphina: What impact does this have on Ukraine's identity today?

Wolfgang Mueller: Arguably, it has an impact on the question of where this ability of a country to defend itself against an aggressor whose population is more than three times larger, whose army has been called one of the strongest armies in the world, comes from. Because the strategic mistakes of the aggressor alone do not explain the enormous spirit of resistance of the population – urban, rural, young, old, 20-year-old soldiers, 70-year-old peasants.

"The strategic mistakes of the aggressor alone do not explain the enormous spirit of resistance of the population."
Wolfgang Mueller
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Wolfgang Mueller about the war in Ukraine
"Putin is obviously concerned with exterior aspirations to become a great power and with safeguarding his system internally,” says Wolfgang Mueller, expert in East European history.

Perhaps we can approach to this, however, if we understand Ukraine as a region that has been the "land of the free" for a long time in the past and has gone through a kind of identity formation over the centuries that clearly distinguishes it from Russia and that has become an identity of the entire state, especially in the past 30 years. Through the two revolutions in 2004 and 2013 and the subsequent reforms, political freedom has also increased again, which according to indices is three times higher than in Russia.

Rudolphina: An often-repeated claim in the media states that Ukraine has always been divided between the western part, which is pro-Western, and the eastern part, which is pro-Russian.

Wolfgang Mueller: That has not been entirely wrong. However, it is measurable that this has no longer been the case since 2014 at the latest. The consolidating identity and freedom play a role here. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians of Russian origin and Russian-speaking Ukrainians are also committed to Ukraine as their homeland and are fighting for its continued existence; even in the Russian-dominated Donbass, the majority of the population in surveys rejected annexation to Russia. And all these things can probably be better understood from a historical perspective in order to take a step towards understanding this central, European country. 

© Barbara Mair
© Barbara Mair
Wolfgang Mueller is Professor of Russian History at the Faculty of Historical and Cultural Studies and deputy head of the Department of East European History at the University of Vienna. His research focuses, among others, on the history of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the history of diplomacy and the history of political thinking in Russia.