Vladimir Putin is Just the Latest Bully in the Thousand Year Struggle for Ukrainian Nationhood

Who are the Ukrainians? More fundamentally, are there Ukrainians? These questions of national identity stand at the core of the struggle for Ukrainian independence that protesters are waging right now in Kiev's central square, as well as in other cities across the country. The current crisis began when Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych decided that his government would "suspend the preparations for the signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union." The agreement between the EU and Ukraine had already been negotiated and "initialed" but Yanukovych appeared to be choosing a path that would reduce Ukraine to little more than an economic and, in all likelihood, political satellite of Russia.

Moscow has offered significant cash as an inducement to bring Ukraine into its orbit. While Russia alone already has significant weight in the world, a Russia with Ukraine is far more powerful. Boris Tarasyuk, Ukraine's ex-foreign minister and the opposition's point person on international affairs, believes that Putin will put significant effort into bringing Ukraine into his Eurasian Union "by hook or by crook," and that Putin's ultimate goal is "reincarnating some semblance of the Soviet Union." To be sure, even such an achievement would not return us to the Cold War. No matter how much he bullies his neighbors, Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union, and is not the enemy of the United States. Nevertheless, there is clearly one side to root for here, not merely for America's national interest but in the interest of the liberal, democratic values we hold dear.

Polls of Ukrainians taken throughout recent months show solid pluralities or majorities in favor of the EU Association Agreement, and a strong preference for joining the EU over joining the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In response to the government's decision, mass numbers of Ukrainians have taken to the streets and demanded that Ukraine choose Europe over Russia and, by extension, choose independence, democracy, and the rule of law over subordination as part of a Russian-dominated economic union, and a corrupt, semi-authoritarian system of government of the kind specifically prohibited by the EU Association Agreement. Twenty-three year old Anastasia Bondarenko -- who has been protesting daily in Kiev since this whole thing began on November 21 -- captured these sentiments:

"We've always seen Ukraine as independent, and not as a small Russia. We understand Europe has lots of problems," she said. "But they have a set of rules. They know how to follow the rules. We want to follow rules."

The government has responded to these peaceful demonstrations, at times, with violence and mass arrests that have brought condemnation from European and American officials. In recent days, there have been discussions of compromise, and talks, and even a statement from Yanukovych that, for 20 billion Euros, Ukraine might just sign that EU Association Agreement after all. Furthermore, there are signs just this weekend that the ground is shifting in favor of the protestors, according to Adrian Karatnycky, Ukraine expert affiliated with the Atlantic Council of the United States. We can only hope.

This is a complex story, with many more moving parts (in particular the economic/trade aspects) than I can describe in a single post. What I'd like to do is offer some historical background that will help make clearer the long-term, underlying issues.

Ukraine is, in a word, complicated. In terms of demographics, it is divided, with a significant portion of eastern Ukraine dominated either by ethnic Ukrainians (presumably self-identified) who speak Russian as a first language, or ethnic Russians.

There are much stronger pro-Russian/anti-EU sentiments the further east one goes in Ukraine. In the east, the region from which Yanukovych hails, many question whether Ukraine should even be an independent country rather than simply a part of Russia. This question is one that has been debated for about a millennium. The briefest of overviews follows:

A thousand years ago there was a state known as Kievan Rus'. It existed from 882 through 1283, the capital was Kiev, and it covered much of what is now western Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. So-called "Great Russian" propagandists claim that, in reality, there really is only one people in that region, united by the Orthodox faith, a common language (they claim that Ukrainian and Belarusian are merely regional dialects of Russian), culture, and history.

After the decline of Kievan Rus' and its ultimate defeat at the hands of the Mongols, the region that is now Ukraine then relatively quickly (by the early 14th century) fell under the sovereignty of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, at one point the largest country in Eastern Europe. In 1569, Lithuania merged with Poland to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which then became the largest state in the region.

Over the next two hundred years, Poland-Lithuania and Russia struggled for domination of Eastern Europe, and Ukraine was one of the central battlegrounds. For its time, Poland-Lithuania was quite democratic, while Russia grew increasingly autocratic. Each of them, however, had an interest in denying Ukrainian desires for independence.

By the nineteenth century, Russia had swallowed not only Ukraine but most of Poland-Lithuania as well. Austria and Prussia took the rest, with a small chunk of contemporary Ukraine (centered around the city of L'viv) serving as the eastern half of the Austrian province of Galicia. A modern nationalist movement began to emerge by the late nineteenth century, with Galician Ukrainians (many of whom were Greek Catholic rather than Orthodox) playing an outsized role. At the end of World War I this movement achieved success, and the independent state of Ukraine emerged.

However, this Ukrainian People's Republic was short-lived, as the Soviet Union quickly established its authority over the region. The history of Soviet Ukraine is perhaps better known than some of the events I've (all too quickly, I realize) related here. To summarize, Ukraine was absolutely brutalized by Joseph Stalin in what is known at the Holodomor, or Terror-Famine, in which millions died at the hands of the regime in 1932 and 1933.

During the early 1940s, the Nazis also had a brief run controlling a good chunk of Ukraine. They and their numerous Ukrainian collaborators all but eliminated the region's Jews. In the long run, however, the Nazis intended to murder, expel, enslave, and/or absorb into the Aryan population the non-Jewish Ukrainians as well. 1945 saw the return of Soviet rule. Finally, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine once again gained its independence. The question now is whether they will keep it.

The outcome of the tug of war between the pro-government/pro-Russian forces and the pro-EU/pro-independence forces in Ukraine will have a decisive impact on Eastern Europe's development in the new millennium. Yes, we can cast cynical aspersions about all the reasons why European/Western democracies are hypocritical and awful and terrible. Many of those aspersions do have a grounding in reality. Nevertheless, for many Ukrainians, the European Union specifically and the West in general represents values and ideals that they want their country to embrace.