The recent unrest in Ukraine, and frequent questions about the situation from friends who know of my Ukrainian heritage, have prompted me to look for answers or at least some context for the situation. When faced with such questions, I always turn to our International Affairs editor-at-large, Peter Mahalik, to shed some light on the situation. – Dave Mahalik, Editor, WGO
“What can a poor boy do except to sing in a rock n roll band?”
by P. Mahalik
In the late 10th century, Kiev was powerful enough that the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople asked its ruler, Volodymyr the Great, to send military aid to Constantinople in return for his daughter’s hand in marriage. This decision to adopt Christianity rather than Islam implies that Volodymyr felt that the interests of Kiev were best served by a relationship with the west. The protests in Kiev in late 2013 and early 2014 can be seen as following a pattern set even before the European crusades.
The Zaporozhian Host
In the aftermath of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century the power of Moscow (Muscovy) grew while that of Kiev shrank. It is likely that sometime between John Cabot (1497) and Samuel de Champlain (1604), the word “Ukraine” came into general usage. This was the beginning of the era of the Zaporzhian Cossacks. “The Ukraine” was the lawless border area between Polish controlled West Ukraine, Moscow controlled East Ukraine, and Ottoman controlled South Ukraine and the Crimea. Those who chose to live in this area beyond the control of despotic Polish landlords faced constant danger from slave trading Crimean Tartars. The Zaporzhian Host, as this group of Cossacks was known, was an autonomous, fiercely independent military force that protected the people who lived on the frontiers of Poland and Russia (the Ukraine): The Ukrainians.
With the Ottomans losing power in Eastern Europe, the Cossack Hetman (leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led the Zaporozhians in rebellion against Polish authority in 1648 and established the first Ukrainian state since Kieven Rus. This political arrangement was so precarious, however, that Khmelnytsky was forced to seek a protective alliance with Moscow in 1654. The time of “Little Russia” began with a generation of war known as “the Ruin” in Ukrainian and “the Deluge” in Polish. By the beginning of the 18th century Ukrainian territory was divided between Russia and Poland.
In 1719, Hetman Ivan Mazeppa unsuccessfully allied the Zaporozhians with Charles XII of Sweden against the forces of Peter the Great of Russia. They were defeated, and the Russian Empire was born! Any remaining Cossack power was crushed by the end of the 18th century, and when the First World War broke out in 1914 most of Ukraine was under Russian control.
First World War
The World Wars were cataclysmic for Ukraine. Its brief bid for statehood in the ashes of World War 1 did not last even 5 years. Why? The Soviets needed Ukraine just as the Czars did. Russia alone is Russia, Russia plus Ukraine is the Russian Empire. From 1914 to the outbreak of the Second World War, Ukrainian territory saw the First World War, war and ethnic cleansing with Poland, a Red Army invasion, and the famines of the 1920s and ’30s.
Much has been said about Stalin’s collectivization famine. Regardless of whether it was a deliberate attempt to subvert nationalism or incredibly tragic, terror driven incompetence, one fact remains: Stalin needed Ukraine. Soviet authorities sold Ukrainian grain on world markets while millions of Ukrainians starved. This provided the emerging Soviet State with much needed foreign currency while ridding Stalin of “class enemies” and allowing rapid industrialization.
Second World War
Ukraine was seen by Hitler as “lebensraum” (living space). Other than destroying communist power, one of the main goals of the invasion of the Soviet Union was procuring natural resources for German industry. Nazi dreams would have been fed with grain from the “bread basket of Europe”, Ukraine.
The anarchy of the Nazi invasion and occupation saw more ill fated attempts at Ukrainian independence. With Ukrainians fighting as partisans, in the Soviet Army, and in the German Army, it was always unlikely that an independent Ukraine would emerge from the Second World War. When the Red Army finally made it to Berlin, ¼ of the millions of Ukrainians who had fought had been killed. By my extremely rough estimates, likely 30 million Ukrainians lost their lives needlessly between 1914 and 1945.
The Fall of the Soviet Union
In the Soviet Union, Ukraine was supposed to be independent, as long as their decisions aligned with those of Moscow. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the Soviet Union would have had difficulty surviving without Ukraine. In 1991, when the Soviet Union did collapse, Ukraine quickly declared its independence. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for Russian guarantees of territorial integrity in 1994, its leaders must have believed George H.W. Bush’s promise that NATO would not seek to expand into Eastern Europe.
The Present and Future
What is happening now, culminating with Putin’s announcement that the Crimea will be integrated into Russia, is the same thing that was happening in 988 to Volodymyr, in 1648 to Khmelnytsky, in 1719 to Mazeppa, and in 1918 to the Ukrainian People’s Republic. What do you do when you are surrounded by enemies? Despite 6 declarations of independence and rivers of blood spilled, the Ukrainian dream of self-determination has been deferred once again.
Ukrainians know what they are missing. In 1990, Ukraine and Poland had similar GDPs and life expectancies; now Poland’s GDP is 3X that of Ukraine and life expectancy is approximately 10 years longer. Despite many Ukrainians believing that closer association with the EU would usher in a period of prosperity, such a vote would likely have dire economic consequences from Ukraine’s largest trading partner, Russia. Putin has already shown that he is willing to use natural gas to bend Ukrainian politics to his will. What would a European oriented Ukraine with a hostile Russia on its border look like?
So what do Ukrainians do? They look to the West but are so economically integrated with Russia that European association just may not be possible. So what do Ukrainians do? Try and achieve true independence and face possible war with Russia over Crimea? Invite Polish or German troops in to Ukraine to help? Rely on the US and EU? Or maybe they should just sing for a rock n roll band?
John Cassidy “Ukraine Crisis: Keep Your Eyes on Angela Merkel” from New Yorker
Tim Judah “Fighting for the Soul of Ukraine”
Timothy Snyder “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda”, “Ukraine: The New Dictatorship” and “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine” from New York Review of Books
Paul Robert Magosci, A History of Ukraine; and Ukraine: A Historical Atlas