Understanding Ukraine

Understanding the current military conflict unfolding in Ukraine requires analyzing the country’s history and the influence of surrounding regions. The amount of news outlets circulating information on this crisis, whether it is through legacy media, social media, or independent media, create contradictory narratives that often sow confusion and skepticism. In an era of perceived misinformation and disinformation campaigns, this article will strive to be as objective as possible to enlighten those interested in understanding the complex history and relations behind Ukraine.

Borderland

Ukraine is Slavic for “borderland” or “border region” but it did not become prominently used by its citizens until the 19th century. This is an appropriate name for a country mired by numerous invasions and controlled by multiple empires dating back over 2,000 years ago. Some Ukrainians still refer to themselves as Kyvian Rus, which references the ninth-century invasion by the Varangians, better known today as Viking warriors. Even back then, Ukraine offered appealing trade routes to merchants, with the Dnieper River connecting northern Europe to the Black Sea along the southern coastline, opening up routes to large trading markets like those situated in Istanbul.

Kyvian Rus became a prominent, flourishing territory for a couple hundred years until the Mongol-Tatars invaded and seized Kyiv in 1240 AD. This led to numerous external empires and rulers conquering various areas of Ukraine. Most notably, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania ruled from the north, while the kingdom of Poland established its rule in the west. A faction of the Mongol Empire, known as the Golden Horde, conquered the remaining areas, creating three powers exerting influence and rule on the Ukrainian people. It didn’t take long before the Lithuanian Duchy and Poland joined forces to create the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for a few hundred years until the Russian Empire absorbed and annexed the Ukrainian territory in the late 18th century. The transfer of rule to the Russian Empire was a significant change for the citizens of Ukraine, who were previously subjected to the devout Catholicism rampant in Poland. This erased their roots in Eastern Orthodoxy and Greek Orthodox churches but the return to the Russian Empire instilled and permitted Ukrainians to openly practice once again. It took decades but the absorption of Ukraine into the Russian Empire ultimately proved good by the late 19th century. There was a particular emphasis on education and literacy under the Russian Empire. It became the primary force to instill a strong sense of nationalism amongst the Ukrainian populace and they did not shy away from acknowledging their ethnic, social, and cultural differences compared to Russia.

The critical juncture in Ukraine’s timeline occurred during the Industrial Revolution, when the Russian Empire issued a series of reforms that led to further economic development in the form of metallurgical products like cast iron pipes and steel. These dense, urban areas formed prosperous economies in an area known as the Donets Basin, located between Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern region of Ukraine. The side effect of this mass-scale industrialization led to many migrants seeking factory jobs within these urban areas, many of which came from less prosperous, desolate areas within the Russian Empire. Many native Ukrainians wanted to avoid being displaced in the workplace but also sought a lucrative wage, which is why they turned to agriculture. The fertile black soils of Ukraine are among the best on Earth for growing a variety of crops, most notably grain, potatoes, sugar beets, and sunflower seeds. The move to the countryside to own farmland was a great investment due to the geography and climate of Ukraine. However, the turn of the 20th century would usher in a brutal era of societal and political turbulence. This chaos and a shift to hard-line communism made farming profits a nationalized commodity, creating multiple famines justified through the ideological lens of collectivism. 

Communism & Stalin

The Russian Revolution of 1917 evolved into the communist Bolshevik party taking power. World War I took a toll on the economy and land of Ukraine, particularly in its western territory along the border of Poland, as policies created to nationalize businesses and requisition food during the War unleashed devastatingly negative effects. A drought coincided during this era of policy, leading to the first Ukrainian famine in 1921. It cost up to one million lives. Leader of the Soviet Republic, Vladimir Lenin, introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), restoring private enterprise. The biggest change within the NEP focused on replacing the inhumane food requisition policy with a fixed tax, allowing peasant farmers to sell their surplus on the free market and enhance their economic livelihoods.

Despite the success behind Lenin’s NEP, Joseph Stalin’s ascension to power within the Communist Party apparatus in Moscow would lead to arguably the most horrific period in Ukraine’s history. Stalin launched a five-year plan coined “revolution from above,” bringing rapid industrialization and an expansion into dense urban areas. Workers rapidly assimilated to these jobs in Eastern Ukraine. However, there was a price to pay for such rapid growth within a short period of time. Specifically, the kulaks, or “wealthy peasants”, were the victims of collectivization. This included increased taxes, grain-delivery quotas, loss of property, deportation, and execution. The Holodomor, or “Great Famine”, sprang into reality as a result of collectivization policies, starving close to four million Ukrainians and another million Soviets throughout the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during 1932 and 1933. Perhaps most cruel was the Communist Party raising food requisition quotas to ridiculous levels, while exporting over a million tons of grain to other Western nations to sustain its own economy. This was an intentionally evil act but it served a purpose, targeting Ukrainian village culture, which served as the foundation for its nationalism and resistance to the Communist Bolshevik party. Migrants and settlers from different republics under Soviet rule had to be relocated to the Ukrainian countryside to repopulate it after two famines ravaged its peasant farmers in the countryside. Another wave of massive casualties occurred under German occupation in World War II, adding more layers of despair and hopelessness to a resilient Ukrainian populace.

Psychological Majority

Following Nazi occupation in World War II and the final death throes of Stalin’s regime, let’s settle into the first moments of Ukrainian independence in 1991. This gives us the best understanding of the current conflict unfolding, as the autonomy of Ukraine was a massive cultural shock to the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine, as well as the Russian government. Recognizing the independent autonomy of Ukraine was a constant struggle, as the lucrative farmland and industrial zones no longer funded the Russian economy. The location of Ukraine constantly puts the country in a tough position. A frustrating event occurred in 2006, when Russia cut off its natural gas supply to Ukraine under the guise of debt. Many Ukrainians, however, believed it to be retaliation. They recalled the hyperinflation of 1993 following the Russian government’s decision to raise subsidized fossil fuel pricing.

Seventeen percent of Ukraine’s population in 2022 is comprised of ethnic Russians. A lot of them are concentrated in the heavy industrious areas of Eastern Ukraine in the Donets Basin and the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which continues to manifest in the idea of the psychological majority. This is the pretext Russian President Vladimir Putin used to justify his invasion of Crimea in 2014 and yet again to invade Luhansk, Donetsk, and eventually the cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv further inland.  Russians in Ukraine harbored disdain for the “Ukrainization” of the education systems and were most perturbed by Ukraine’s dismissal of Russian being its official second language. A law granting regional authorities power to deem official status on a particular minority language resolved this matter. However, it festered and blew up once again late in 2013 when former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych changed his stance on signing an EU agreement, backing down due to intense pressure from Russia.

The psychological Russian majority continued to leverage its position within the industrial and manufacturing areas of Luhansk and Dobansk in the eastern Donbas area of Ukraine. They held separatist elections locally in these regions but not even Russia held their allegiance, dismissing the results as illegitimate along with Western powers. This dismissal led to further fighting and aggression from pro-Russian separatist groups. The damage inflicted on the Donbas region wound up disrupting Ukraine’s water supply, at the same time Covid-19 shuttered businesses and crippled its economy in 2020. Newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor who played the Ukrainian president on a situational comedy, appealed to Ukrainians who wanted peace and economic improvement by eliminating organized corruption. Zelensky became President of Ukraine in 2019 but has not succeeded in fulfilling his campaign promises. He is now faced with preserving the Ukrainian government and faces the difficult task of keeping their borders intact while also attempting to raise the morale of Ukrainian citizens against growing pressure from Pro-Russian groups in its industrious sectors.

Autonomy versus Sovereignty

Russia is Ukraine’s most vital trade partner, which forces the two sides to engage in continuous, eggshell diplomacy. Russia has the natural gas and energy resources to ultimately gain the upper hand in leverage but Ukraine has several pipelines carrying gas into Europe and also transports barrels of Russian oil to these Western countries, including the United States of America. Their location creates momentum from a negotiating standpoint. Ukraine can always threaten to cut their pipelines in desperate resistance. Arguably more effective would be to stop farming exports, which would send ripple effects through a Russian economy so reliant on Ukraine for imports and exports alike. Conversely, Ukraine can be completely cut off from critical energy resources like what briefly transpired in 2006. The nation has experienced lows and highs during Russian occupation over the centuries. Its dependence on Russia and the nearly one in five Russian-speaking Ukrainians, heavily concentrated in industrialized areas; living within its borders creates a complicated relationship. Ukraine has been a sovereign nation for over three decades but it continues to rely on Russia as a trade partner and a looming neighbor. Adapting Ukrainian nationalism and policy is not part of the autonomous desires of the Russians in Ukraine. This tension has existed for years and will likely continue to build with aggression from the Russian Kremlin. The geopolitical stage is fully lit up and Ukraine is the epicenter. Whether it appeases the pro-Russian factions or not, Ukraine and President Zelensky will need to utilize strong diplomacy to maintain sovereignty moving forward. Autonomy in the Donbas seems to no longer satisfy Putin and his ambitions. Whether or not he calls off the Russian military and strategic airstrike, the globalization of developed nations and their complex, interweaving relationships clearly oppose pro-Russian motives and a secular Russia. This is the crux of the matter at hand and it must be navigated with the utmost precision to avoid further escalation.

[Photo by Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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