Karl-Olov Arnstberg is a Swedish writer, ethnologist, and retired university professor. In the following essay he provides a Swedish perspective on the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Many thanks to LN for translating this post from the blog Invandring och mörkläggning:
What I understand about Ukraine
Sunday Chronicle by Professor Emeritus Karl-Olov Arnstberg
March 13, 2022
The media reports well on what is actually happening in Ukraine, especially on Russian advances, waves of refugees and the suffering Putin is inflicting on completely innocent people. However, I am quickly getting tired of all these crying people on display, including journalists, as well as the lack of analysis. I would also like to see some more sarcastic comments about the Swedish PC elite, like the one I received in an email from a friend.
He writes that logically, Swedish feminists should react to young Ukrainian women fleeing to the safety of the West, instead of staying and defending their country, side by side with the men. If Swedish feminists think that women should have exactly the same opportunities as men, and preferably a few more, surely they should also think that women should have the same obligations, i.e. to share the risk of being maimed and killed? But no.
The same double-entry bookkeeping applies to nationalism. At home, nationalism is a shameful thing, almost the same as Nazism, but now the Swedish PC elite unreservedly praises the Ukrainian men who patriotically fight for their country.
Just as I get tired of seeing crying people on news programmes, I get tired of all these emotional comments calling Putin a monster. He is mad, he is an evil man, right up there with Hitler. Probably he is also demented.
Not that I have anything against Putin and the assault on Ukraine, but as a researcher I was taught early on that if you want to understand social processes you have to try to see the course of events from the perspective of the central actors. In fact, if I do not understand Putin’s actions to the point where I realise that I myself might well act in the same way, if I were in his position, then the analysis is incomplete. The reason why this is so important is, of course, that only then might one have a chance of understanding what will happen next. Just talking about how much you detest Putin, and how disgusting he is, becomes rather meaningless virtue-signaling.
So, like many others, I have searched for information online, and this is what I have understood and what I think all ordinary Swedes trying to understand the war should know. So I am not writing the following in the role of an “expert”. What little I think I know, I should have been told by the Swedish media, but this is not the case.
I’ll start with the Mongols. They conquered most of today’s Russia, including Ukraine. The Swedes were also astonishingly close until things went wrong in Poltava. Napoleon showed that Russia was vulnerable. Hitler attacked and got a long way into the Soviet Union.
On March 3 of this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Napoleon and Hitler had the goal of mastering all of Europe, and now the US is trying. The Russian foreign minister has even said that the US is a new invader of Europe, following in the footsteps of Napoleon and Hitler. The Russians carry the past into the present; they do not hijack history, as modern Westerners do. When Putin talks today about having a buffer zone between himself and NATO, it is a direct continuation of the Warsaw Pact, which was created by the Soviet Union in the 1950s precisely to provide such a buffer between the enemy and themselves. According to Putin, the Russians did not lose the Cold War, because it never ended. He has also said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the geopolitical tragedy of the century. It should be remembered that he was a member of both the Communist Party and the KGB.
Russia is difficult to defend and Russians always have a feeling of being threatened or of being on the verge of being attacked. Opposition in Russia is tantamount to Western conspiracy, and many Russians believe Russian media when they claim that Navalny is a Western agent.
It was first decided in 2006 that Georgia and Ukraine would be integrated into NATO if they applied for membership. The Russians responded immediately that they would not accept Georgia or Ukraine joining NATO because they would then be surrounded by a hostile superpower. The next step was to integrate Ukraine into the EU and transform Ukraine into another Western-oriented liberal democracy. Russia made it quite clear that they were not prepared to accept that, either.
Russia has no democratic traditions. Under the Soviets, the country was the same as it was under the Tsars: an autocracy. When the Soviet Union fell, in Russian eyes it was not a liberation but a defeat, which could be blamed largely on a weak leader, i.e. Gorbachev. If I understand it correctly, he is less popular in today’s Russia than even Stalin, who is estimated to have taken the lives of 20 million Russians. Almost 40% of Russians see Stalin as a strong and good leader. Imagine how unreasonable it would be if the same number of Germans had a positive view of Hitler. Remember also the tributes to Lenin, who was if possible an even more odious political leader than Stalin and whose only real merit was that he died at a young age.
In the 1990s Russia is at its most “democratic”. It is a time of chaos and the worst kind of robber capitalism. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are weak leaders. Then Putin comes to power and there is order in the country again. This means that Putin as a ruler is far more accepted in Russia than he would be in a democratic Western country. In Russian eyes, autocracy is better than democracy, which means chaos. Russians understand that the main task of the state is to maintain power, and they accept that the political elite is not very interested in the lives of ordinary Russians. Twenty million Russians live below the poverty line. 22% of the population can only buy essential food. According to some sources, Putin is the richest man in the world.
Post-Soviet Russia has clearly demonstrated on three previous occasions that it will go to war to protect its national interests. Tiny Muslim Chechnya, a state of one and a half million people in southwest Russia, tried to break away when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia invaded in 1994 and peace was made two years later. The trigger for the second war in 1999 was the blowing up of two apartment blocks in Moscow, killing some 300 people. Putin, who had just taken office as prime minister, blamed the attack on Chechen separatists. Many suspect that Putin himself and the KGB’s successor, the FSB, were behind it, in order to give them a reason to invade Chechnya. Putin announced that the “terrorist bases in Chechnya” would be crushed once and for all. Today, Chechnya has a government loyal to Moscow under the leadership of the hard-line Ramzan Kadyrov.
The Russians believe that when they fought in Chechnya it was also to save Europe from Islam. Europe does not understand how great a threat Islam is and how much Russia does for Europe. They saved Europe from Napoleon. They saved Europe from Hitler. Perhaps they can also save Europe from its current decay and decadence? That is the perspective that has attracted some right-wing nationalists in Europe, including Orbán. Renewal is hopefully underway.
Next, Georgia, conquered by Tsarist Russia in 1801 and politically best-known for Stalin’s birth there in 1878. The small country of just over three million people declared independence in 1991 and gained membership of the UN the following year. Georgia began applying for NATO membership in 2004, and one of the main issues for the ruling party in the 2008 presidential elections was NATO membership.
In the same year, Russia invaded and Russian forces are still present. Even then, Russia did not acknowledge that it was a war but called it a humanitarian intervention to ensure the security of the South Ossetians. Some 20% of the country is occupied, and the Russians do not give a damn that a wide range of international bodies, including the EU and NATO, regard the occupation as illegal.
Ukraine, which is said to mean ‘the border country’, has nearly 50 million inhabitants, and is, after Russia, the largest country in Europe, not a tiny country like Chechnya or Georgia. Ukraine also declared its independence in 1991. In 2014, the political opposition staged a coup, forcing the corrupt but democratically appointed pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, to leave the country. A large number of MPs from the ruling party were also forced out of Kiev on the same day. A few days later, the remaining MPs elected a new and pro-US Prime Minister.
The course of events is complicated, but in summary, Russia responded by invading the Crimean peninsula. Or, from a Russian perspective, they took back Crimea. It was an injustice when Crimea was relinquished to Ukraine in 1954. Donetsk and Luhansk, with the heavily industrialised area southeast of the cities, proclaimed themselves separatist pro-Russian republics. Putin openly declared that his ambition was to create a Russian sub-state in southeastern Ukraine. In other words, Russian signals about what they accept and what they cannot accept have been very clear.
The Trump administration and NATO supplied Ukraine with weapons. Diplomatic relations with the US were strengthened. Ukrainian military personnel were also trained by US and NATO “advisors”, which is probably one reason why they are now relatively successful in defending Ukraine. The Russians were particularly alarmed when Ukraine began using drones in battles with the Russians in the Donbas. In March 2021, President Biden called Putin “a killer”. Three days later, Ukrainian President Zelensky announced that Ukraine planned to take back Crimea. He wouldn’t say it without being convinced that the US and NATO have his back. From Putin’s perspective, that’s a direct declaration of war. Putin has had enough and Russian troops are beginning to mobilise against Ukraine.
To whom is Ukraine really important, the Russians or the US? The answer is that Ukraine is not very important to either the US or NATO, not at all comparable to how important it is to Russia. For the Americans it is not an existential question whether Ukraine wins or loses, but it is for the Russians.
When Putin activates the nuclear threat, he is sending a signal about how seriously they view the risk of NATO and Western interference. It should be noted here that Russia not only has the most nuclear weapons in the world but also the most modern. In many respects they are militarily behind the West, but not when it comes to nuclear weapons. We cannot be at all sure that the nuclear threat will remain a threat if the Russians are driven into a corner and fear for their existence.
We should remember what happened when the Soviets wanted to place nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962. Had Khrushchev not turned the Soviet ships around in the face of the US threat, a third world war might have started. Several of Kennedy’s advisers were prepared to use nuclear weapons against the Soviets.
In the Bulletin, Ann Charlott Altstadt writes that NATO should have intervened in Ukraine. If Putin understands anything, it is power politics, and since he is not a madman he will not resort to nuclear weapons.
But if Putin encounters military resistance from NATO or its allies, the negotiating table probably awaits. Of course, that would mean he would lose face. But that would not lead to a shower of missiles across Europe, but to his claiming the eastern parts of Ukraine on Russia’s behalf.
I am thinking: if this is wrong, what are the consequences if Putin actually resorts to nuclear weapons? And if Ukraine is divided, what future risk is there that Russia and NATO will have no buffer zone between them but will be face to face, separated by a divided nation? The most foolish thing would be to humiliate Putin and Russia. Doesn’t Ann Charlott Altstadt know what the consequences of humiliating Germany in the Versailles Peace Treaty were? It is clearly easy to make an enemy of Russia — much harder to build friendship. But there is nothing clearer than that Europe needs Russia as a friendly nation. How that is to be achieved I do not know, but it is the only reasonable objective.