Spotlight Ukraine: Deconstructing a Global Conflict

Democracy Revolution


Conflicts between nations do not simply happen; they are the product of years, or sometimes even decades or centuries of history and culture, political and economic factors. This is certainly the case in the current dispute between Ukraine and Russia. Yet for all of the volumes of global media coverage of this ongoing crisis during these past few weeks, the historical, ethnic, and cultural perspective that helps to explain the actions of the various parties has been lacking. The purpose of this series of posts is to address this shortcoming and to put the events of today into a historical perspective to help give a better understanding of the events that are unfolding.


One only has to look to history to see how deeply intertwined Russia and Ukraine are, about a millennia ago to be precise, since any talk of Russian history has to begin in the region around present-day Kiev in Ukraine. It was here that a Nordic tribe known as the Rus under the leadership of a man named Rurik came to lead a band of Slavs who would take their name: the Kievian Rus; the forerunners of today's Russia. Over time, they would head north, settle in Russia and found the city of Moscow. All of the Czars and Commissars who would follow started with the Kievian Rus, which is why Ukraine holds such a symbolic place in the Russian mind—it is to them as Valley Forge is to an American, or Hastings is to an Englishman; it is the place where their national identity was formed.


Covering the breadth of Ukraine's history as both a cultural identity and as a physical state is far beyond the scope of a simple blog post. Still, as you watch the current Ukraine-Russia crisis unfold it helps to keep in mind afew key factors.


The idea that Ukraine is split between a largely ethnic Ukrainian west and a largely ethnic Russian east is a frequently repeated trope in the media, particularly in the American media. Along with being overly simplistic, this view also overlooks the role of other important ethnic minorities in Ukraine, like the Tartars, who were expelled from their native region in Crimea by Josef Stalin, only to resettle there after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. But while the ethnic split idea is overly simplistic, it does get to a central reality: that the Ukraine of 2014 is the product of centuries of struggle by various European powers.


Through much of the Middle Ages, present-day Ukraine was dominated by Poland, Lithuania, and, for a time, even by the Mongol's Golden Horde. This domination helped to establish some of the internal conditions in Ukraine today: a northern and western region that seeks closer ties with Europe due to its long history of rule by Poland and Lithuania, an independent-minded Tartar minority along the Black Sea coast that can trace its lineage back to Mongol times, and a southeastern region with strong cultural and historic links to Russia.


Catherine the Great was responsible for Russia's expansion southeast into the land of the Dnieper and Volga Rivers, including what is now eastern Ukraine. Her primary motivation was to take advantage of the region's rich farmland; the fabled “black earth” of this area is some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. Over the years, Ukraine would turn into the breadbasket for Russia, and later the Soviet Union. But agriculture would also be at the root of a controversy that still colors Russian-Ukrainian relations; the Great Famine of the 1932-33 that led to the deaths of between 2.5 and 7 million Ukrainians. Russian historians claim that the Famine was largely an unintended result of Stalin's collectivization policy of Ukrainian farms. The Ukrainians believe that more sinister forces were at work. They contend that the Great Famine was instead a planned strategy on the part of Stalin meant to depopulate Ukraine and undermine the nationalist movement that was rising in opposition to Soviet rule. Ukrainian history even has a neologism for the Famine: they call it the Holodomor, literally “death by hunger” in Ukrainian. The Holodomor is today considered an act of genocide by a number of countries, including the United States and France.  


While the Holodomor taints Ukrainian perceptions of Russia, the actions of another man from this time period are frequently cited by pro-Moscow, ethnic Russian Ukrainians today as a reason not to trust the government in Kiev. His name was Stepan Bandera.  He was a staunch nationalist who wanted to see an independent Ukraine, not a one controlled by the Soviet Union (which, in the Ukrainian view, had recently conducted the Holodomor). When Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, Bandera led a partisan militia that fought with the Germans against the Soviets. While Bandera may have viewed an alliance with Germany as the most practical way of driving the Soviets out of Ukraine, it forever branded him as a Fascist in the minds of the Russians (even though Bandera was later arrested by the Germans for his nationalist efforts).


Bandera would survive his German captivity and remain an active force for Ukrainian nationalism after the end of World War II until his assassination by KGB agents in 1959. Bandera today remains a highly-charged figure for Russians and a controversial one for Ukrainians—in 2010 he was named a “Hero of Ukraine” by then-president Viktor Yuschenko, an honor that was later stripped following international protests. The provisional government which came to power in Kiev following the EuroMaidan protests and President Viktor Yanukovych's flight from the country are often referred to by the Russians as Banderists and, therefore by extension, Fascists. Russian media and government officials have been commonly referring to the EuroMaidan-driven change in government as a “putsch” (consciously using the German term associated with the Nazis rise to power) and the backers of the current government “neo-fascists.”


The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the formation of Russia and Ukraine as separate nations, but for the first decade following the end of the Soviet Union, the two nations followed similar paths in terms of economic and political development and the ties between them remained close. This changed after the disputed presidential election of 2004 that pit President Yanukovych, who backed the status quo of close relations with Russia, against businessman Viktor Yushchenko, who sought closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych was accused of rigging the outcome of the election, which led to the popular protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Those protests led to a re-run of the election, this time under international monitoring and with Yushchenko emerging as the winner. Yulia Tymoshenko, an oligarch in her own right and a strong supporter of the Orange Revolution, took the position of prime minister. In the West, this outcome was viewed as a triumph of democracy and the will of the people. Vladimir Putin, however, looked at the Orange Revolution with deep suspicion, and saw it as a Western-led and funded plot to overthrow his ally Yanukovych (Putin's view conveniently overlooks Russia's own attempts at influencing the outcome of the rerun election). He took a similar view of the other “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet sphere—the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan—as Western-led plots against reliable Russian allies, funded through NGOs that received funding from Europe and the United States (a reason for Russia's subsequent crackdown on the activities of foreign-funded NGOs in Russia). Putin, unsurprisingly, saw the EuroMaidan protests as another attempt in this vein, which led to the current crisis situation.


What followed was Russia's stealth invasion of Crimea by military units disguised as indigenous Crimean “self-defense forces” guarding against some vague threat against Crimea's ethnic Russian population from the Banderist forces in Kiev; the disputed referendum and Crimea's annexation by Russia; events that seem consistent and just from a Russian point of view—the Ukrainians, of course, have a very different view of the situation.


And that returns to the central point of this essay—about how deeply actions today are informed by the historic, cultural and ethnic factors from the centuries that have passed. In the next part of this series we’ll take a specific look at Crimea itself. Following parts will look at Vladimir Putin, the Russian-Ukrainian energy situation, and how the crisis could eventually be resolved.



History, Russia, Spotlight Ukraine, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin