“It was like unfinished business”: University of Alberta professor David R. Marples on the historical and political context behind Putin’s war in Ukraine

As images continue to emerge from inside Ukraine showing the utter devastation the Russian invasion of the sovereign country has caused – including the bombing of a Mariupol theatre that was apparently being used to shelter civilians – the outrage around the world continues to grow. Many people without historical knowledge of the region or its geopolitics are left reasonably to wonder how things came to such a boil so quickly.

For David R. Marples, a professor in the department of history and classics at the University of Alberta who specializes in the politics of contemporary Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the current conflict does not arise in a vacuum. Marples, whose edited anthology, The War in Ukraine’s Donbas: Origins, Contexts, and the Future, stems from a 2018 conference at U of A, sees the current war as an extension of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the appearance of Russian separatist gunmen in the Donbas.

“Back in 2014, it was like unfinished business,” Marples says. The annexation of Crimea took place, but the Donbas was left in “a state of flux.” Russia did not recognize the independence of the republics – Donetsk and Luhansk – that were nevertheless controlled by separatists backed by the Kremlin. The uncertainty about the situation in the Donbas had bedevilled Ukraine’s parliament, says Marples, which could not agree on how to deal with the republics, given that they were within Ukraine’s borders and yet operated as militarist regimes of the Russian state, which supplied them with food and materials.

The situation was so tense that when Russian president Vladimir Putin, mere days before his invasion of Ukraine, finally recognized Donbas’s independence and sent troops to the region as “peacekeepers,” the U.S. and NATO were reluctant to pull the trigger on wide-ranging sanctions or to concede that an invasion of a sovereign nation was already underway.

All of this is testament to the deep ties – historical and ethnic – that Russia and Ukraine share; many families of mixed Russian and Ukranian heritage are involved in the current conflict.

That said, one of the most contentious points prior to the Russian invasion in February involved whether to call the situation in the Donbas a civil war. “This is a dynamite question,” Marples says. “The fact that Russia was backing those [separatist] groups and the fact that Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation hit civilian buildings pretty badly in 2014 may have changed the situation a bit.”

He suggests that calling Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas terrorists was an ill-conceived move on the government’s part and may have led to a degree of resentment on the part of the populace, which found itself caught in the middle between two warring states. Marples also feels that without Russian input in the region, the conflict would not have happened in the way it did.

When Putin sent troops across the border into the Donbas region in late Feburary, his move provoked words of warning from the U.S., though the door was left open to diplomacy prior to the full-scale invasion that began on February 24. While much of the world struggled to comprehend Putin’s timing and motivation, as a longtime observer of the region and its politics, Marples has some theories as to why the Kremlin decided to take action when it did.

A key factor motivating Putin in the current moment, Marples suggests, is frustration with the degree to which Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has gravitated away from Russia and more thoroughly embraced the West. “He’s not turned back to Russia, he’s not really made any compromises with Russia,” Marples says. “And his policy has gone even further than that of [former president Petro] Poroshenko in terms of curbing the press, shutting down pro-Russian media, putting pro-Russian oligarchs under house arrest. Therefore, it’s clear Ukraine is moving faster toward Europe and the West and away from Russia. I think Putin decided now was the time to stop that.”

One aspect informing Putin’s decision, Marples suggests, is his belief that the U.S. was looking weaker on the world stage. Its internal politics had, in the years since 2016, devolved into apparently irreconcilable partisan acrimony. Externally, America pulled out of Syria in 2019 and Afghanistan in 2021, perhaps indicating to the Kremlin a lack of appetite for acting as a geopolitical police force on the world stage. That, along with underestimating the cohesion of NATO states in the face of Russian provocations, was one of Putin’s largest miscalculations.

Marples himself expresses surprise at how quickly and efficiently the U.S. and NATO mounted a coordinated response to the invasion. “Especially getting the Germans on board,” he says. “That was a real coup.”

The same degree of surprise does not adhere to the resilience of Ukrainians themselves in resisting the Russian incursion. “I never thought Ukrainians anywhere would welcome Russian occupation,” Marples says. “Even in the Donbas.”

The farther west one gets in the country, Marples says, the less support there is for Russian absorption of Ukraine. The pro-Russian and ethnic Russian parts of the region that could be counted on to support Putin’s ambitions are largely confined to Crimea, which had already been annexed, Belarus, and the Donbas. “Once they’ve been taken by Russia, where else are they going to get support?” Marples asks.

The use of a “denazification” program as cover for his invasion looks ridiculous from the perspective of Zelensky’s Ukraine in 2022, says Marples. “In 2014, you could at least say that there were some far-right forces in the square. Now, looking at the government, you’re hard pressed to find anybody even right of centre.”

As to whether the world is expected to accept the propaganda that is flowing from the Russian state apparatus, Marples implies that the lines of justification for the invasion – a word, along with “war” and “attack,” that Russian media has been banned from using under penalty of criminal prosecution – are meant more for those inside the country than outside observers. ”Inside Russia, there’s some imperial sentiment, a feeling that the post-Soviet states should not be separated from Russia, especially not Ukraine and Belarus,” he says. “But I don’t really understand how Putin expects people outside Russia to believe this nonsense.”

Marples is hesitant to support calls for Ukraine to be fast-tracked into European Union membership, in part because there are aspects of the EU charter that he feels the country fails to meet. He also worries that EU membership would imply NATO alliance, which Russia is sure to see as an unacceptable escalation, verging on an existential threat (at least in the mind of its increasingly paranoid and isolated leader). Similar hesitations make him reluctant to support Zelensky’s appeal for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

That said, he is also convinced that, no matter how bad things look for Ukraine at the moment, the country is faring better than could have been expected against its outsized aggressor. “In terms of the scope of the war, it’s the Russians who have done badly,” he says. “The ground campaign has been pathetic. And the whole world is watching.”

The War in Ukraine’s Donbas (Central European University Press) is among a group of titles dealing with the history and politics of Ukraine that are currently being made available for free as part of Exact Editions’s Ukraine Digital Book Collection. The volumes, from publishers including Yale University Press, The MIT Press, Edinburgh University Press, Hurst & Company, and Reaktion Books, are available as open access texts through April 16.

“It was like unfinished business”: University of Alberta professor David R. Marples on the historical and political context behind Putin’s war in Ukraine