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Putin's New "New Imperialism" in the War Against Ukraine

Jessi Gilchrist

Ax:Son Johnson Institute for Statecraft and Diplomacy Doctoral Fellow

12 July 2023

The longer the war drags on, the harder it is to deny that Vladimir Putin is waging a specifically imperialist war against Ukraine.

The Russian autocrat's repeated insistence – both before and after the 2022 invasion – that Ukraine "doesn't exist" seems to prove that Putin's war is not merely about geopolitics or the supposed growing threat of NATO. It is about rebuilding the Russian Empire. And it is important to recognise that this expansion is not limited to the territorial sense. Russia's imperialist project extends its assault from the material to the spiritual and epistemological. Imperial erasure has become a characteristic feature of Putin's war in Ukraine as the Russian war machine takes aim at striking precisely what it means to feel at home in one's homeland.

This attack on Ukraine – its history, its landscape, and its sense of community – as a 'home' to Ukrainians draws heavily from the tactics of the imperial past of not only the Russian Empire but of Europe's liberal and fascist empires across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well. The tactic with which we are most familiar as international observers is the use of narrative erasure. Over the past year and a half, countless blogs and news articles have been particularly interested in making sense of how President Putin revises, reinterprets, and blatantly rewrites history to suit his imperial agenda. His alternative histories attempt to provide 'historical' proof that Ukraine has never been a discernable nation, thereby justifying the 2014 and 2022 invasions as a reclamation of 'lost' Russian territory. This use of narrative as a tool is by no means unique to the Russian empire. Recent studies of the British Empire, for example, have shown just how important the ability to conjure a compelling narrative was for the empire's resilience over nearly two hundred years. Serious differences aside, what the British empire of the past and the Russian empire of the present both share is the common use of narrative devices that render the homeland of would-be colonised subjects' non-existent' while replacing it with a higher tier of 'culture' and 'civilisation'.

But what's even more striking about the imperial erasure embedded within Russia's war in Ukraine is with the physical conduct of the war itself. Russia's assault on Ukraine has been particularly destructive of civilian spaces and heritage sites, resulting in a mass displacement of Ukrainians to new cities, new countries, and even new continents. The experience of displacement and the feeling of alienation accompanying it is certainly not unique to Ukraine's wartime experience. It has become such a common consequence of modern warfare that entire areas of study are dedicated to war and post-war diasporic experiences. Instead, what makes Russia's war in Ukraine particularly unique is that this destruction has rarely resulted from the collateral damage of legitimate military operations. Instead, Putin's tactics have amounted to a calculated assault on Ukrainians' sense of 'home' by physically eliminating what makes 'home' an identifiable space for its inhabitants.

It is worth stressing that in this context, 'home' refers to far more than the places of residents obliterated by the bombing, the drone strikes, and the rush of water released from the Dnipro River. Rather, it refers to what it means to 'feel at home'. The tangible bricks and mortar of the city's buildings, the predictable sites along a highway, the way the air feels upon a deep breath outside, the smells of the city centre, the path along the river, the local markets, and even the steps leading down to the metro all weave together to form a collective sense of 'home' that may be difficult to describe on command but is unquestionably known when it is felt. As President Volodymyr Zelensky remarked during his speech at the G7 summit this past spring, "for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts… there is nothing in this place". A city – a home – holds a meaning deep within us that long outlives its material existence.

But the level of destruction waged on Bakhmut would soon be far superseded. Nowhere was this tactic more obvious than in Russia's attack on the Nova Kahkovka hydroelectric power plant on June 6, 2023. Catastrophic flooding descended upon the city of Kherson -- only 30km east of the dam site – leaving in its path approximately 150 tonnes of engine oil spilt; the nearby zoo flooded; the animals, plants, fish, and birds making up the surrounding wetland biosphere destroyed; and thousands of people evacuated and displaced. The blowing of the dam continues to produce devastating environmental and ecological harm which will take generations to heal. As the flood-stage ebbs, the people of Kherson and the surrounding area face a homeland that is hardly recognisable as 18 cubic kilometres of water washed away buildings, roads, trees, and farmland replacing it with wreckage, debris, and harmful toxins uprooted in its path. Over the long term, this attack has the capacity to profoundly impact not only the surrounding land and ecosystems but also the historically-rooted human connection with this space. Regardless of when the war comes to an end militarily, environmental devastation of this scale makes it difficult to imagine having a 'home' to which one will return.

Attempting to obscure this sense of 'home' – what it looks like, who it's with, and where it's located – has long been a strategy of European colonisation. It is simply making its most intense recent appearance with Russian military operations in Ukraine. In many instances throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European empires deliberately manipulated local environments, particularly where it concerned the flow of water or lack-there-of, in ways that severed both the material and spiritual connection that local communities have forged with the space associated with home. One of the most notable examples is the British Empire's development of a mass irrigation system in the Indus basin. From the mid-nineteenth century to the partition of India in 1947, the British Empire produced 26 million acres of irrigated land in the region, a large-scale environmental transformation that inevitably altered community relationships with the land they called home. As historian David Gilmartin shows in his new book, this intervention bolstered the British Empire's legitimacy as it painted over local networks of knowledge, history, and place with physical works programs designed to advance imperial interests.

In other instances, empires have cut off access to water forcing communities to leave their homes. Particularly in desert regions, empires have manipulated features of local landscapes and constructed barriers to water access as a tool to separate communities and alienate populations from parts of their homeland. The Italian empire, for example, erected a 12-foot high, 30-foot wide, and 180-mile long barbed-wire barrier at the border between Italian Libya and British Egypt in an effort to isolate the anti-colonial resistance based in the Sahara Desert from frequenting an oasis town that lay on the Egyptian side of the border which offered the only reliable water supply for the surrounding communities. Fascist Italy's border security fence transformed the desert region home to nomadic Senusiyya and Bedouin communities into an uninhabitable space justifying the relocation of the desert population to camps bordering the Mediterranean Sea where they could easily be monitored by colonial authorities. 

Still, other cases offer examples of empires relocating semi-nomadic Indigenous populations from a diverse range of ecosystems to one where 'home' is difficult not only to re-imagine but also rebuild. In Canada, the homeland of the Anishinaabe originally spanned large swathes of land from north-east of the Great Lakes Region westward to what we now know as central Saskatchewan. But as the settler-colonial project took hold, Anishinaabe communities were isolated to small, remote parcels of land known as "reserves" an estimated 91.4% of which are located in flood-risk regions when considering the effects of climate change. Not only has this colonial process displaced people from their homelands, but it has also placed them in environmentally volatile spaces where flooding, evacuation, and reconstruction are recurring cycles.

In many ways, Russia's attack on the Kakhovka dam produces results that mirror all three of these cases put together: it permanently transforms the physical landscape, it separates previously interconnected communities via a path of destruction, and it displaces people from 'home' to more precarious circumstances. Large-scale environmental manipulation and violence, such as that of blowing the Kahkovka dam, advance the epistemological erasure at the heart of any empire-building project by physically transforming the contours of 'home' to such an extent that many of its defining features in the present no longer align with community memories. In all these cases, obliterating a local population's sense of home attempts to produce a blank slate from which the geography and the population can be rendered legible to the occupying state.

This is not to suggest that places affected by the flooding or the cities nearly disappeared by bombing are 'lost' to Ukraine, that 'home' cannot be built anew, or that Putin is succeeding in making his delusion that Ukraine "doesn't exist" a reality. If any lesson can be taken from these populations, which endured attempts at their erasure, it is that 'home' is not simply a place. The sense of home is consistently produced and re-reproduced through practice. In the world's largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia – Canada - generations of Ukrainians have reproduced what it means to 'feel at home' through community centres, language study, food, dance, and even citizenship.

But this is not a lesson for Ukraine. This is a lesson for Vladimir Putin. Despite attempts to physically and epistemologically erase the 'homes' of local populations, empires across time have confronted the resistance, resilience, and perseverance of local communities in the face of destruction. Regardless of the destruction waged against the country itself, there is little that Putin can do to truly make Ukrainians not exist.

In this story

Jessi Gilchrist

Jessi Gilchrist

Ax:son Johnson Institute for Statecraft and Diplomacy Doctoral Fellow

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