Wolfgang Mueller about the war in Ukraine

"One of the largest invasions in Europe since the Second World War"

2. March 2022 by Redaktion Rudolphina
"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.
© Katie Godowski / Pexels

Rudolphina: Last week, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine. How do you assess this military action as an expert for Eastern Europe?

Wolfgang Mueller: The unprovoked war of aggression started by the Russian armed forces against Ukraine is one of the largest invasions on European soil since the Second World War. President Putin’s articulated aims are to completely disarm Ukraine and to overthrow its democratically elected government. The outnumbered Ukrainian armed forces show strong resistance against the aggressor and the combats are fierce. They sparked already hundreds of deaths, also children are among the victims. Missiles hit residential areas and partially also damaged them severely. In the social networks, we can find hints of possible war crimes against Ukrainian civilians and the conscript army. President Putin is making nuclear threats. This is war.

Rudolphina: The conflict has been smouldering for a while now. Why is Putin carrying out his threats especially now?

Mueller: Russian experts assume that the development on the financial markets might have played a role in choosing the date. It is clear that President Putin has been mobilising already since 2018, and also in spring 2021. Since then he has been giving ultimatums that became fiercer and fiercer. Moreover, it is clear that the Western appeasement attempts could not accomplish their purpose and have rather been interpreted as a sign of Western powerlessness in Moscow. This relates in particular to the statement that the Western countries would not assist Ukraine with soldiers and Germany’s long refusal to send weapons for self-defence to Ukraine. This way, Western states wanted to prevent an invasion by Russia. Obviously, this brought about the opposite effect.

Rudolphina: To what extent do the raw materials in the East of Ukraine play a role in this conflict? Or is the only reason Russia’s ‘great power’ thinking?

Mueller: Russia is a country exceptionally rich in raw materials on a global scale. It does not need Ukrainian coal deposits or agricultural products. Obviously, it is about exterior aspirations to become a great power and about safeguarding Putin’s system internally.

Rudolphina: Is there still a chance for diplomatic solutions? Which steps can the EU – or the US, or the NATO – actually take?

Mueller: The armistice negotiations offer a flicker of hope. The EU and NATO have failed to take the necessary steps for an effective deterrence in Ukraine for a long time. Now they primarily exert political and economic pressure on Russia to stop the invasion. Moreover, they deliver financial aid and weapons. Further measures discussed include the no-fly zone demanded by Ukraine and the EU accession of Ukraine. Also the announcement of Scandinavian states to move closer to the NATO increases the pressure in finding a peaceful conflict resolution. Also Turkey can intervene by blocking sea gates.

Rudolphina: How does Putin justify his military action domestically?

Mueller: According to the official statement by the Kremlin, it is a restricted special military operation to protect the DNR (Donetsk People's Republic) and the LNR (Luhansk People's Republic). This is justified with the claim that a ‘junta of drug addicts and neo-Nazis’ is in power in Ukraine, who commit a ‘genocide’ against its people. These are, as easily recognizable, functional unsubstantiated arguments. The Ukrainian President is elected in a democratic way. His politics are pro-European and moderate and he is himself of Jewish origin. A genocide in Ukraine happened in the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin’s command, but not under the current government. Ukraine is not a Western puppet, but has taken the decision itself to orient itself towards the West supported by a majority. However, President Putin denies that Ukraine is an independent state.

Rudolphina: What is the mood in Ukraine? Many Ukrainian people consider themselves Russians. Do they want to go ‘back’ to Russia?

Mueller: 85 per cent consider themselves Ukrainian, some as Russian-speaking Ukrainians. More than 70 per cent are proud of their country. 54 per cent would like to become a member of the EU, 48 per cent of the NATO. In contrast, only 24 per cent are against it, and 12 per cent favour joining the Eurasian Economic Union together with Russia. Joining Russia is hardly an option.

Rudolphina: Putin bases his aggression on the argument that Ukraine does not have a tradition of statehood. What is your opinion as a historian?

Mueller: Ukraine’s tradition of statehood is less continuous than modern Russia’s. But this does not mean that it does not exist, on the contrary. The oldest statehood on the territories of modern Russia and Ukraine had their centre in Kiev. The city had already been a European metropolis when Moscow was founded. The empire of the Kievan Rus’ existed from the 9th until the 13th century. After the collapse of the Kiev empire due to the Mongol invasion, the rulers often changed in this region: The South-East became a Mongol-Tatar state structure, the West had Polish and Lithuanian rulers for three centuries, which gave it a culture distinct from the Moscow state, which had a significantly stronger orientation towards the West. In the early modern period, mostly Eastern Slavic refugees in the border region between Russia, Poland and the regions of the Tatars united as free Cossacks, who developed an own identity and an independent political organisation. From the 18th century until the First World War, this room was mainly divided between the Habsburg monarchy and Russia. After these collapsed, two states emerged here: the Ukrainian and the West Ukrainian People's Republic. The territory of the first was later conquered by the Red Army and integrated as Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic into the Soviet Union in 1922. In the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian identity was alternately promoted or suppressed. During the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine, which was enlarged by its Western parts and the Crimea, declared independence based on the compelling will of the people. Despite the discontinuity of Ukraine’s statehood tradition, we can clearly see its independence and distinct identity. This is also reflected by public opinion polls.

Rudolphina: Thank you for the interview!

© 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.