National sovereignty – the idea that legitimate authority in a state is based in the people, understood as a nation – suggests to most that Russia is invading an independent, sovereign state. But Putin seeks to use national sovereignty to legitimize his invasion of Ukraine (which would, by extension, validate mainland China’s claims regarding Taiwan). In his speech justifying his invasion, Putin terms Ukraine “historically Russian land,” emphasizing the national and ethnic ties between Russians and Ukrainians. Just days before, he asserted “Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood” and was in fact first brought into existence when Vladimir Lenin divided the Russian Empire into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with culturally autonomous regions. Modern Ukrainian statehood, according to Putin, was the result of NATO’s desire to reduce the power of the Russian state after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin’s rhetoric shares much with the methods adopted by dictators between the World Wars as they adjusted to the new international discourse around national determination. As four of the empires that entered the Great War collapsed – the German, Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian), Russian, and Ottoman empires – a system of nation-states was established to replace them, according to which each nationality was granted a corresponding state where possible. The process was complicated, prompting questions regarding which groups represented their own nationality and how borders should be drawn in a way that provided access to resources and considered national minorities in states predominantly of another nationality. Many ethnic Hungarians found themselves living in Romania, just as ethnic Germans found themselves living in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
The complications of the new system of nation-states did not end with the partitioning of states. After the rise of Mussolini and the Fascist regime in Italy, the state began a process of forced Italianization in borderlands, requiring the adoption of Italian surnames and suppressing Slovenian and Croatian language and identity. The state additionally supported Italian settlement to establish the Italianess of borderlands, including coastal regions of Libya. The innate “Italianess” of these areas was emphasized and national minorities were marginalized and required to assimilate into Italian culture. Historical claims on these territories, often reaching back to the Roman Empire, were used to further establish that these lands were in fact Italian.
These policies can be seen as a response to the new discourse on national sovereignty, as new techniques of state and empire building in the era of national determination. By suppressing minority culture, forcing assimilation, and projecting the Italianess of these lands, Mussolini sought to legitimate Italy’s control over them in the name of national determination by emphasizing that the lands and the people inhabiting them belonged to the Italian nation. Putin is drawing on this playbook when he asserts that “Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.”
In the lead up to WWII, Hitler used concerns for ethnic Germans to justify the annexation of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and parts of Poland. In 1938, Hitler argued that the kinship between the German and Austrian people – much like Putin’s claims regarding Ukrainians – validated the merging of the two in the Anschluss. Later that year, he threatened to invade Czechoslovakia due to supposed abuse of Germans living in the border region known as the Sudetenland, again similar to Putin’s claims of acts of genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Hitler’s threat led to international acquiescence to the German annexation of the territory with the Munich Agreement on the basis that the remaining territory of Czechoslovakia would be respected, a term Hitler disregarded when he later invaded the country. In 1939, lies of the abuse of Germans in Poland were spread and a false-flag operation in which Germans disguised as Poles attacked a German broadcasting station provided the pretext for an invasion.
Hitler defended his actions as the will of the German people, as the German people operating their national sovereignty by exercising their right to defend their interests and “German civilization”, defend ethnic Germans in other countries, and to ensure the security of their allegedly besieged state. Once more, we see parallels with Putin’s talk of NATO “encirclement” and Western interference in Ukraine as threatening Russian national security.
Putin’s claims that Ukraine is an inherent part of Russia that owes its creation to Russia likewise reminds of Mussolini and Hitler’s justifications for expansion, tragically ironic considering Putin’s professed intention to carry out “de-Nazification” in Ukraine. As the German army moved into Austria, Czechoslovakia, and then Poland, Hitler maintained that these were German territories because they had once belonged either to the German or Habsburg Empire. Czechoslovakia, after all, had formerly been a territory of the Habsburg Empire, and Poland, though a kingdom in the past, had long been divided between the German, Habsburg, and Russian empires.
The German and Austrian states were much smaller than their former empires. Hitler understood Germans as the victims of the West, who sought to cripple them economically and confine them to smaller borders. He declared this confinement and the Treaty of Versailles a threat to German or “Aryan” civilization and traditional values, against which he positioned the “decadence” and “materialism” of Western democracies. To protect Germans domestically and abroad, Hitler “had no choice” but to annex these various states, by force if necessary.
Now, Putin argues Russia has no choice. After the USSR collapsed, Russia was ready to “work honestly” with the US, but he asserts the West exploited the situation to lead “a redivision of the world.” The resulting new international order threatens Russia, now “encircled” by hostile Western powers. More than a security concern, Putin perceives a civilizational threat to a “Eurasian” civilization expanding well beyond Russian borders. Influenced by the ideas advocated most notably by Aleksandr Dugin, this theory positions a decadent West abandoning its cultural roots to embrace destabilizing individual rights, opposed to which stands the spiritual, communal, and traditional Eurasian civilization (led of course by Russia). Putin’s desire for a revitalized Eurasian empire to oppose individualistic Western liberal democracy ironically is the embodiment of neofascism he denounces in Ukraine.
These positions completely neglect Russian aggression and the agency of the Ukrainian people. They neglect that Ukrainian nationality pre-dates statehood; that the territory of modern Ukraine was not all once a part of the Russian Empire; and that the Ukrainian people voted for independence in 1991. Nor do they consider that both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking citizens of the country might have good reasons for not desiring to be under Russian rule. For instance, after Lenin’s initial policies of cultural autonomy, the Soviet Union adopted similar policies in Ukraine to those implemented by Fascist Italy in regions with ethnic minorities. When Ukrainian farmers resisted collectivization, Stalin initiated a policy of widescale oppression and a man-made famine which cost the lives of millions. The Holodomor (as this genocidal famine is referred), the repression of Ukrainian identity, and disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe are among the reasons Ukrainians opted for independence.
Blaming the West for NATO expansion neglects Ukrainian agency and reduces its people to mere playthings in the geopolitics of larger states. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not about NATO, but rooted in Putin’s neofascist desire to reestablish a Russian Empire and perception of civilizational conflict with the West. The West’s actions in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and NATO expansion warrant criticism, and Western leaders must review these actions, acknowledge wrong doings, and determine how to better proceed in accordance with the international rules Russia is rightly condemned for breaking. But focusing on these issues in assessing Russian actions allows Putin to dictate the conversation and distracts from Putin’s intentions.
As world leaders stake out their responses to the invasion and impose sanctions on Russia, China remains noncommittal. Xi has called for peace and resolving the conflict through negotiations, praised as such by China’s Global Times as doing more for peace than “the US approach that aims to fan the flame.” It has been clear from the start, however, that the only negotiations Putin is open to are those which result in the overthrow of the Ukrainian government or the division of the Ukrainian state.
China’s inaction makes Xi’s statement at the outset of the war on respecting national sovereignty even more ambiguous. It becomes unclear whose national determination he is defending. The Russians? Ukrainians? Who has national determination? What groups are deemed worthy of gaining that coveted status, which in the modern world offers with it the right to statehood, sovereignty, and human rights.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the world’s reaction is a critical moment for Xi as he weighs his own options with Taiwan. The idea of national sovereignty and determination is not enough to ensure the protection of Taiwan, as Xi sees the territory and the people who live there as a part of China, and therefore talk of nationality may again be employed to legitimize any actions he might take there, even though the two countries have been separately governed since 1949.
National sovereignty is an essential component of the current world order. However, to ensure that this empowers the people who live in each state and cannot be used to legitimize invading a border state on account of claims of shared nationality, it must be emphasized that this sovereignty is invested in the citizens of a state and protected by international law. It is not dependent on histories of statehood, nor on a territory once being under the rule of one country or another. Sovereignty is defined by the people.
As commentators speculate on what Putin and Xi mean when they employ the language of “national sovereignty,” we need to be aware that various powers have different meanings and agendas attached to it. This was evident already in the years following the establishment of the system of nation-states in Europe, as Hitler and Mussolini exploited their understanding of national sovereignty for their own ends. It is now made evident once more by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
This of course does not mean that we should condone Putin’s interpretation and use of the term. Nor does it mean that we should give up supporting the liberal democratic version of national sovereignty. If anything, it warrants greater commitment to establishing that all states are independent, sovereign, and indivisible, and that the integrity of borders does not come down to membership in organizations such as NATO or the willingness of the US military to intervene.
Zane Elward is a PhD Candidate in History at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research focuses on the intersection of politics and popular culture in twentieth-century Italy and ideological entanglements with fascism.