In terms of perspective, one of the more difficult concepts for most Americans to wrap their head around is the contentious nature that is part of the very fabric of Ukraine’s history. Located in a pivotal point geographically between Europe and Asia – although Ukraine is actually the largest country contained entirely within Europe – Ukraine, along with some of its neighbors exist in a delicately balanced place between Russian and Western interests. It can seem like quarrels like the Ukrainian Crisis come out of nowhere to those of us far away. Most of us know little about the region and while the Euromaidan protests caught most of our attention, it wasn’t until Russia annexed Crimea that we all knew there was something going on. But these events do not come from nowhere, they don’t occur in a vacuum. They are the result of decades, centuries or even, as in this case, millennia of conflicts in a particular region. The independent democratic nation of Ukraine hasn’t existed very long (1991), especially in the scope of Ukrainian history, a history that involves complicated power shifts between (at various times) the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth, the Cossacks, the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and eventually the Russian Empire- and that only brings us to the beginning of the 20th century. The wars of the next century continued to alter the face of Europe around them, with World War I and the Polish-Ukrainian War providing the first notes of an independent Ukraine identity that had previously not existed. That is too much history to be explored in this single article. For now, we are more interested in where that history had placed Ukraine at the end of the Soviet period, from which the roots of the modern crisis truly grow.
We are not far from the fall of the Soviet Union and the intricate web of (loyalties) it created. In many ways, the landscape of the region is still being formed in the wake of that fall and a character like Putin, eager to sculpt the narrative of history as it happens in real-time can wield significant influence.
A quick recap of the Cold War and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union:
After World War II left central Europe fucked up, both the German and British Empires were ended, and Russia and the US stood as the world’s two remaining Superpowers. The standoff known as the Cold War grew over the following 3 ½ decades and by 1991 the U.S.S.R. crumbled under its own size and political and economic unrest, eventually leaving 15 independent republics in its wake, one of which is Ukraine. This is clearly an over-simplification but the main point is to be derived is that the region now known as the country of Ukraine has been one of continual change through its entire history and, as such, getting a clear picture of its loyalties and national desires is anything but simple.
The difference in Eastern Ukraine and Western Ukraine in their paths of historical development form the backbone of the cultural differences on which much of the modern Ukrainian conflict hinges. Prior to the Soviet period, most of Eastern Ukraine, populated by the large cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and (until recent events) the Crimean Peninsula, had become a part of the Russian Empire as they began to eradicate the Ottoman Empire. Conversely, the area that is now Western Ukraine was continuously embattled from the 1700’s through the mid-1900’s, partitioned and re-partitioned between Poland, Austria-Hungary and the Germans until the region was officially made part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (and the USSR) at the end of WWII. This forms a fundamental cultural difference in the way the two regions view Ukrainian nationalism and their relationship with their larger and more powerful “big brother”, Russia. In the East, Russian is the dominant language and, according to a 2014 poll from Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 25% of the population supports a move to re-unify with Russia, a desire held by only 12% across the country as a whole. In Crimea, this percentage jumps to around 41%.
With this divide, we begin to get a glimpse of the underpinnings to the current situation. But how strongly is this separation expressed in modern Ukraine? Is it perhaps akin to the Confederate identity in the American South, where it is a common element of identity but holds no real threat in the modern era of breaking the country in two?
As is the case with multiple of the former Soviet republics, a decade into their independent history, the Ukrainian economy was in trouble and cries of corruption within the government were plentiful under President Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma’s presidency would come to a close with the infamous 2004 election, wherein then Prime Minister and Russian-friendly Victor Yanukovych was initially declared the winner. This would lead to the Orange Revolution beginning in November of 2004, a series of non-violent protests against the supposedly rigged election and in support of Yanukovych’s chief challenger, Viktor Yushchenko (orange being the color chosen for his political campaign). Eventually the Ukrainian Supreme Court ordered a revote that Yushchenko won by a 52%-44% margin. Yanukovych successfully came to power in the 2010 election, granting Russia a powerful new ally in the Ukraine presidency. This entire quarter-century since their independence had been marked by economic tribulation and political corruption irrelevant of party but it was not until the 2014 Euromaidan protests turned violent that Ukraine was brought to an explosive tipping point. And there everything changed.
The Euromaidan protests were a reaction to the decision by President Yanukovych to not sign a free trade agreement with the European Union, instead choosing to sign an agreement for closer ties with Russia. Protesters peacefully took the streets of Maidan Nezalezhnosti in November of 2013 and demonstrations continued before turning violent on the morning of February 18. As more than 80 people were killed and at least 1100 injured over the next few days, the country fell into chaos and President Yanukovych was eventually ousted. On March 1, Russia began their takeover of the Crimean Peninsula and soon thereafter pro-Russian anti-government radicals began seizing control of several government buildings in Eastern Ukraine.
It is in this cloud of political unrest and social instability that the idea of controlling the narrative gains a particular power. Vladimir Putin, eager to create a new Russian Empire, is no stranger to this concept but neither are our own leaders. History is not the story of good guys versus bad guys but that of the beliefs of a certain group of people clashing against another. Who is the true aggressor? Many have claimed that Ukraine’s government chose to violently suppress the protests, a key turning point in the conflict, soon after Russia released a $2B loan to the cash-strapped Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, maintains that the US and other Western influences orchestrated the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests, inciting a necessary Russian reaction. Moscow disavowed any knowledge of the “little green men” that appeared on the Crimean peninsula at the beginning of March, only to state in mid-April that they had, in fact, provided military support to the region (stopping short of admitting to a takeover). In mid-March the Crimean Parliament held a referendum to ask whether its citizens wanted to join the Russian Federation, and its 97% approval rating was decried by opponents as rigged, limited in its options and illegal. As pro-Russian militants take over more buildings in Eastern Ukraine, claims that these occupations are led not by Ukrainian citizens but by Russian special forces continues to grow.
In the end, this confused and muddled narrative leaves the West, and the US specifically, with the difficult decision of how exactly to defend Ukraine. Without a direct threat or (tyrannical) action, it is tough to openly (read: militarily) come to the aid of another country, especially one halfway around the world. And this, I contend, is just how Putin wants it. As Russian troops stand ready on the border of Eastern Ukraine, and as the Ukrainian government prepares for the deadline given to anti-government forces to surrender occupied buildings, set for today, the true desires of Ukrainian nationalism remain cloudy and thus the next steps of this conflict remain unclear. The history of a region, a region that has only known constant change and the struggle for identity, is being written in real-time and the battle to control the way the story is told will, in many ways, determine who comes out on top.