The curse of Empire: Russia’s war against Ukraine

Speakers: Martin Schulze Wessel (Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich) and Gwendolyn Sasse (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Chair: Timothy Garton Ash (St Antony’s College, Oxford)

Convenor: Timothy Garton Ash (St Antony’s College, Oxford)

Series: ESC Core Seminar Series

Book discussion

On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, giving rise to the deadliest conflict on European soil since the Second World War. How could this happen in twenty-first-century Europe? Why did Putin decide to escalate Russia’s war against Ukraine, a war which began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014?

In this timely book, Gwendolyn Sasse analyses the background to this war and examines the factors that led to Putin’s fateful decision. She retraces the history of Ukraine’s struggle for independence from Russia and shows how democratic developments in Ukraine had become a risk for Russia’s political system. She also shows that ambiguous Western policy towards Russia encouraged elites in the Kremlin to think that they had more room for action than they did. The result is a brilliant analysis of the background to the war, a concise account of the course of the war itself and a timely reflection on what its consequences will be – for Ukraine, for Russia and for the West.

Russia's imperial past is key to understanding Putin's invasion of Ukraine and his anti-Western obsessions. The renowned Eastern European historian Martin Schulze Wessel places the war in the long context of Russian westward expansion and describes how the expansion into Ukraine and the division of Poland since the 18th century established an aberration in Russian history that has been called a "curse of the Empire" continues to have an impact today. He shows how a fatal world of ideas could arise that still haunts the minds of the Moscow leadership in the 21st century. After 1945, Germany freed itself from its curse of empire and opened up to the West. This path still lies ahead for Russia. This book tells the closely intertwined history of Russia, Poland and Ukraine since Peter the Great in the context of international politics. It shows how the Russian incursions into Ukraine and the division of Poland produced path dependencies that are still a formative structural legacy today. This is not just about imperial claims to power, but also about an ideologically charged East-West conflict that emerged in the 19th century and in which Germany was on Russia's side for a long time. What Germany achieved after 1945, Russia still has to do: turning away from the empire.

Gwendolyn Sasse has been the Director of ZOiS since October 2016. Since April 2021, she has been Einstein Professor for the Comparative Study of Democracy and Authoritarianism at the Department of Social Sciences of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Prior to that, she was Professor of Comparative Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations and at the Oxford School for Global and Area Studies at the University of Oxford. She maintains her connection with Oxford as a Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College. She is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the think tank Carnegie Europe. Her academic career began with the study of history, Slavonic studies and political science at the University of Hamburg and led her to an MSc and PhD in political science at the London School of Economics. After that, she took up a post as Assistant Professor at the Central European University, and then as Lecturer/Senior Lecturer at the London School of Economics before moving to Oxford in 2007 where she became a full professor in 2013.

Martin Schulze Wessel is a Professor of Eastern European History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He is the former chairman of the Association of Historians of Germany. He acted as the speaker of the German-Ukrainian Historians’ Commission between 2015 and 2022 and is one of the members of said Commission today. His research focuses on the religious history of East Central and Eastern Europe, the history of empires in Eastern Europe, the social history of Russia in the 19th century, historiography and historical thinking in Russia, the history of East Central Europe, especially Czech history since 1848, as well as the transnational relationships between Eastern, Central and Western Europe.