By Justin Lopez
A crisis turned even worse as Russia has declared war on Ukraine and is aiming to topple its government. The Ukrainian people are facing a humanitarian crisis, with more than 500,000 people leaving the country to escape Russian hostility. (At least 660,000 Ukrainians have left the country as of March 1st, 2022.) Although these events are very recent, the larger picture spans back centuries of Russian and Ukrainian interaction, and the events of the past have led to the ongoing crisis.
Centuries of autocratic Russian control
Spanning as far back as the Middle Ages, Russia has had some type of control or influence over Ukraine. Ukraine was, at first, autonomous, but was eventually integrated into the Russian Empire.
“Russia has, since Tsarist times, looked toward warm water ports and a buffer/land zone against the West from Peter the Great to Stalin. The loss of the Ukraine would expose weaknesses and undermine their perceived global strength and credibility,” said Mr. Davis, a White Plains history teacher when asked about Russian motivation behind an invasion.
Ukraine was an integral part of Russia, boosting its economy and serving as a base into the Mediterranean Sea. However, the integration meant the loss of its culture, and the people started to become more Russian-like. Although Ukraine holds a distinct identity today, it still has some Russian aspects of its culture. The people also became serfs. Serfs were farmers who were held to a certain piece of land, owned by a lord. Serfs eventually reached emancipation in 1861, but regular Ukrainians still held a low status in Imperial Russian society. However, things would quickly change with the start of World War I.
A chance to be a nation
In 1914, World War I started, and Russia fought against Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary. The war would soon turn against Russia. With the incompetence of Emperor Nicholas II, Russia slowly deteriorated. Major losses would occur against the German army, and people were starving. In March 1917, Nicholas II would abdicate, leaving a crisis throughout the empire. Russia turned into an interim republic ruled by democratic revolutionaries. This also soon changed. In November of the same year, a returning Vladimir Lenin kickstarted the Bolshevik Revolution, and Russia went through 5 years of civil war. Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik faction, while people who opposed communist rule fought under the White Army.
The White Army was mainly composed of foreigners trying to help the cause, and Russians who believed that a monarchy would be the best route for the nation moving forward. The Bolsheviks eventually won, but this Russian strife gave Ukraine a glimpse of independence. Ukraine declared their independence in 1917 in response to the takeover of the Bolsheviks, and quickly set up a government. Bolsheviks in Russia would soon try to take over the country. They would fight a four-year war with Ukraine and would eventually win. Ukraine’s land would be split among the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Poland, a country that had recently gained independence. This Soviet republic was only a puppet state to Soviet Russia, and in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, was created, otherwise known as the Soviet Union. This unfortunately meant that Ukrainian independence had to wait until the end of the Cold War. And it would be a very, very long road towards independence.
During the early 1920’s, Vladimir Lenin passed away from health complications. His successor would be Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian who had a history of crime and held rule in the CPSU with an iron fist. He transformed the Soviet economy into a planned economy, which was an economy controlled exclusively by the government. During his early rule, Ukrainians were not content. How the Holodomor started does not take away from how many people died. Whether the Holodomor was an accidental result of a planned economy, or a genocide thought out by Stalin is up for debate. However, this turned into one of the most tragic events in Ukrainian history. Throughout 1932-1933, Ukraine experienced a massive famine, and upwards of 3.9 million people died. It left a massive mark in the history of Ukraine, and many Ukrainians living today have family who died during this event.
The deadliest war in human history
In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany concurrently invaded Poland, starting World War II. For two years, there was no war on the Eastern Front. However, in June 1941, Adolf Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union. He started with his famous Blitzkrieg, pummeling the union and reaching close to Moscow. Some Ukrainians saw this as an opportunity and tried making a deal with Nazi Germany to create a nation for Ukraine.
An autonomous region was created for Ukraine, built by the civilians who lived there. These events heavily affected Ukrainian Jews, of whom as many as 1.5 million died.
The Soviet Union came back with a fire in its heart. After upwards of 30 million Soviet citizens were killed, they campaigned and reached Berlin. Adolf Hitler soon killed himself, and the war in Europe ended. The atrocities of the Holocaust were discovered, and many Slavs were executed in these concentration camps.
The Cold War
Once the dust settled from World War II, nothing much happened during the Cold War in terms of Ukraine. The only major thing that happened during this time period was the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl power plant was a nuclear power plant owned by the Soviet government. In late April 1986, the power plant exploded, and the area surrounding the plant became a no man’s land. The radiation brought on by the explosion affected surrounding areas and people fled. The Soviet government tried hiding what happened, but they couldn’t do so, and people found out.
The dream that became true
By 1989, the Soviet Union was in disarray. The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, led to the democratization of the country, and ethnic groups subject to Russian rule were eager to reach full independence and leave the union. Countries included in the Warsaw Pact had revolutions (mostly peaceful, except for Romania), and the Soviets lost their influence on these countries. Once those countries had this chance, the ethnic groups inside of the USSR took their shot. Ukraine declared its independence for the second time in August of 1991, and Russia soon recognized it. Ukraine was now a fully independent country. The future seemed bright: the independence given gave some people hope that Ukraine will be a great nation. However, things didn’t go out as planned.
The Budapest Memorandum
When Ukraine became independent, they inadvertently inherited many nuclear weapons left over by the Soviet Union. Due to Ukraine’s strategic position in Eastern Europe, Russia leveraged these nukes to their advantage. The Russians and Ukrainians, along with the Belarusians and Americans sorted out a deal where Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons, and in return, Russia would ensure the sovereignty of Ukraine and its full independence. This promise was then broken when Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine went from having the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal to having no nukes and a promise that did not last.
Proud Ukrainians, Russian Separatists, and the Crimea
In 2014, Russian separatists arose in the Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine with a large Russian population. The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic became break-away states and with Russian support, they waged a war in the region against the Ukrainian government.
Meanwhile, the people of Ukraine were not happy with its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The people turned to protest, known as Euromaidan. However, Russia was offering money to help the Ukrainian economy. Soon after, Yanukovych signed multiple laws restricting the right to protest in Ukraine, and the people had a revolution known as the Revolution of Dignity. This revolution ended the threat of Ukraine becoming authoritarian.
This event soured relations between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia decided to take Crimea. Crimea was originally part of Soviet Russia within the USSR, but in 1954, control of it was transferred to Soviet Ukraine, and it remained that way after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So, when Russia deemed fit, they invaded Crimea and took control of it. The world deemed this invasion and annexation illegal, and never recognized Crimea as Russian land.
Gas, gas, gas, gas, and even more gas
Russia is a huge exporter of natural gas and oil. A main source of revenue in the Russian economy is trade with European countries, especially Germany. A pipeline of gas runs from Russia through Germany in the Baltic Sea, known as the Nord Stream. This pipeline works, but Russia has tried to create a Nord Stream 2 to generate even more revenue, but it runs through multiple European countries, and it needs a permit. In Ukraine, the permit process came to a halt, and the use of the pipeline had to wait. Russia has a huge incentive to invade. For more money, they can invade Ukraine and generate revenue.
A pro-Western country in Russia’s underbelly
Ukraine’s location in Eastern Europe makes it a great strategic point to reach out to multiple other places. Ukraine has made attempts to join NATO and the European Union, but they are still in process, angering Russia. After World War II, the Soviet Union was so far from the West that, to get to it, the starting place would be Berlin. This prevented any mainland invasion of the Soviet Union and mitigated any threat of war with the West. However, with the end of the Cold War and democratization of many Warsaw Pact nations, Russian territory was pushed far back, and Russia borders three NATO members. This isn’t currently an issue, but if Ukraine joined NATO, Russia has fears that the West will take more land and push Russia into a decline.
When asked about Ukrainian integration into the European Union during this troublesome time, Mr. Davis said, “Capitulation means further angering Russia which would only escalate the situation. A compromise will be struck which creates a compromise of an independent Ukraine and not a NATO ally. The Westernization of Ukraine leads to a loss of territory, influence and buffer against the West. If Ukraine joins the EU, it would be a similar message and Russia under Putin believes that this will lead to their decline and fall. To the Soviet sphere of influence (many Russians still identify as Cold War combatants) this is a fate worse than death.”
Russia will use all its might to prevent this, and it is adding more and more tension to the invasion of Ukraine.
All these events have led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These two nations have quite a bit of history, and they are intertwined in many ways. Many people around the world have different thoughts on the current situation, and it may divide them. A conflict abroad should not sway the American people into two directions. In the eyes of the Western world, an intrusion into a democratic country has occurred, and its democratic institutions are being threatened, along with the rights of tens of millions of people. Russia is committing many atrocities during this invasion, and people have much fear.
No single person knows what will happen, but humanity can only hope for the best, which is for the conflict to stay regional. No one knows how close humanity is to Doomsday, but in the face of aggression, doing something to prevent anything worse from happening will lead to the best outcome.