Ukraine: A question of identity

The struggle in Ukraine echoes the country’s past, but should not be allowed to cloud its future. If Russia and Ukraine are to live as peaceful neighbours, they must find a way to live with each other’s history too.

Ukraine-MapUkraine has been endlessly fought over by Lithuania, Poland, and Russia – not to mention the Turks. Submission came in 1686 when an “Eternal Peace” signed by Russia and Poland divided the country in two: Western Ukraine became Polish (and later Austro-Hungarian), and Eastern Ukraine became Russian.

This historical reality, including terrible repression under Stalin in the 20th century, helps to explain why many people in the east of the country remain attached to Russian social and cultural practices. Eastern Ukraine is more Russian-speaking and Orthodox, and Western Ukraine more Ukrainian-speaking and Catholic.

Eastern Ukraine includes Crimea, which Russia tried to annex last year. Now, the country and its people are being further torn apart by political machinations that have led to civil war. As always, it is ordinary people who are suffering most. In “There’ll be no peace while Putin is squatting in Ukraine’s living room” (The Guardian, 16 February 2015), Timothy Garton Ash noted:

“According to UN estimates, at least 5,400 people have been killed, some 13,000 wounded, and 1.6 million driven out of their homes… Last week’s ‘Minsk 2’ ceasefire agreement says Ukraine will regain full control of its eastern frontier with Russia only by the end of this year, and only if it holds elections in and gives constitutional ‘special status’ to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It also says the Kiev government must go on paying pensions, salaries and ‘utility bills’ for these regions. Think about it. You only get to lock the back door to your house if you cede your sitting room to someone who is holding a gun to your head – and you must pay his rent.”

In short, like Stalin before him, Putin wants Ukraine back in the fold and nothing is going to stop him. Under Stalin, Ukraine’s political, social, economic, and cultural fabric was ripped apart by mass purges, executions, and exile to Siberia’s gulags. From 1932 to 1933, Stalin also contrived a famine as a means to undermine Ukrainian nationalist pride. One estimate is that some four million people died during the holdomor (Ukrainain for “extermination by hunger”). And seeking to eliminate any potential threat from Ukrainian nationalists, more than 5,000 intellectuals were arrested and either murdered or deported to prison camps.

During World War II, Ukraine was attacked by Nazi Germany. The capital Kiev – one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe – was heavily damaged. For 72 days it was defended by its citizens and the Soviet army, but on 19 September 1941 Nazi troops entered. They built two concentration camps near Kiev where over 200,000 people were killed. Another 100,000 were deported to Germany for forced labour.

Kiev was liberated on 6 November 1943 by Soviet troops, but “liberation” was followed by new waves of Stalinist terror. And even when the worst was over, in the 1970s the Kremlin intensified its policy of “Russification”, banning the Ukrainian language from government, education, and the legal system.

In 1991, with the demise of the Soviet Union, in a nationwide referendum 93% of Ukraine’s citizens voted for independence. But now Putin is pulling the strings. What does he want? According to some, he is reacting to the West’s package of containment that challenge Russia’s regional domination – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and strengthening democratic structures. That is the opinion of John J. Mearsheimer in “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014).

PirogovoMearsheimer is an experienced political analyst who maintains that states are not satisfied with a given amount of power, but seek hegemony for security reasons. This is because the anarchic makeup of the international system creates strong incentives for states to seek opportunities to gain power at the expense of their competitors. For him there is an obvious solution to the Ukraine crisis:

“…although it would require the West to think about the country in a fundamentally new way. The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Western leaders should acknowledge that Ukraine matters so much to Putin that they cannot support an anti-Russian regime there. This would not mean that a future Ukrainian government would have to be pro-Russian or anti-NATO. On the contrary, the goal should be a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither the Russian nor the Western camp.”

Divide and conquer seems to be Vladimir Putin’s motto. He may not have read Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, but he doubtless knows one of its precepts, “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” Following last week’s fragile ceasefire, two critical questions remain. How long will Putin and the separatists bide their time before achieving their aims by more covert means? And after Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, who’s next?


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