The writer, a former Russian diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the European University Institute
While the dead and injured were being pulled from the ruins of a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro following a hit by a Russian missile, supporters of Vladimir Putin’s invasion in Russia claimed the deadly attack happened because the weapon had been intercepted by Ukrainian air defences.
Just a few months earlier, many of the same people were saying that the Russian military did not attack civilian infrastructure. But the boundaries of what is permissible in their own minds have since expanded rapidly, and with them the course of the war in Ukraine.
The incident in Dnipro took place on January 14, a day that, paradoxically, unites Russians, Ukrainians and other peoples of the former Soviet Union: the so-called “old new year”, celebration of which began in 1918 after Bolshevik Russia moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Anyone who grew up in the USSR will have participated in “new year tree” performances, which took place from the end of December until old new year. In these, children would come together to take part in a ritual in which the forces of evil trying to extinguish the lights on the tree are defeated.
Now, it’s as if Russia wants to turn out the lights in Ukraine. From the start, their army fought brutally, but eventually it began to target Soviet-era heating systems and power plants. Russian propaganda expresses delight at the idea of Ukrainians being left without electricity, water and heating through the winter because the Russian army is bombing their power plants.
Today, as Putin seeks to restore Russian greatness, ideas that had survived the Soviet era are being abandoned. These include the notion of the friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, each of whom used to inhabit their own titular Soviet republic (this is one of the reasons Putin now criticizes the Soviet project).
The region of Zaporizhzhia, which in the USSR was considered Ukrainian, is now, after an illegal referendum last autumn, declared to be just another Russian “oblast” — part of a triune greater Russia comprising Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.
It is hard to discern a consensus among those who share this view about where the borders of this common land lie. Of course, the Russian language plays a role. Another factor is the victories in the Great Patriotic War, as the second world war is known, on the grounds that territory liberated from German Nazis cannot become hostile to Russia.
There is also a third factor: the legacy of Soviet industrialization — dams, power plants, metro systems, railways, factories and so on. When Russian forces destroy Soviet-era infrastructure in Ukraine they convey the following message: you wanted to live without us, then do so without the benefit of everything that we, the Russians, built for you. It is for the same reason, incidentally, that Kazakhstan, one of the centers of industrialization in the USSR, also feels increasingly vulnerable today.
There is a parallel between this attitude towards Ukraine and the way that Putin views Russian business. For the Kremlin, and arguably for many ordinary Russians, everything that was built by the Soviet state, and subsequently privatized, modernized and made to fit the market economy after the collapse of the USSR, is in fact “ours”. In other words, it belongs to the state in whose name Putin and his acolytes claim to speak.
Today, the industrial fabric of what were once Soviet republics is increasingly seen as a Russian gift to the less developed outposts of the USSR. This marks a further break with Soviet identity, which was based on the assumption that factories, bridges and roads throughout the territory were the result of the collective efforts of all the peoples of the Union.
Many Russians approve of the bombardment of Ukraine’s infrastructure because they consider the latter to be a gift to ungrateful Ukrainians, which is not being used for Russia’s benefit.
The Kremlin and ordinary citizens of Russia tend to look at Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and forget that economic development would have happened there anyway — with or without them. After all, it is impossible to imagine a European country such as Ukraine, with a population of several tens of millions, without power plants, schools or factories.
What we are witnessing is the final transition from the Soviet “we” to a new “us and them”. Putin’s war on Ukraine is not only strengthening the emerging national identity of Ukrainians; it is also decisively changing the post-Soviet identity of many Russians.