Ukraine’s geopolitical precarity: A historian's perspective
By John-Paul Himka
July 6, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Spectre — This article looks at Ukraine’s geopolitical position from a historian’s perspective. It is divided into three parts, reflecting on Ukraine’s neglected position vis-à-vis the European Union, the unreliable ‘ally’ United States, and Russia’s attempt to assert its dominance. It is a rather personal account which nonetheless situates Ukraine’s position between three larger forces. The analysis will explain first, how the EU has left Ukraine to the mercy of others; second, that one of those others – the United States/NATO – is a very problematic ally; and third, the other other – Russia – is determined to destroy Ukraine as a separate nation.
Why Ukraine isn’t in the European Union
In three cases from the 1980s Europe was integrating former dictatorships and economically less advantaged countries into the club of the more democratic and the much more prosperous. Of course, Greece, Portugal, and Spain were being integrated into the neoliberal order, and part of the motivation of the EU’s investment in these countries was to lessen the chance of communists and leftists coming to power in the vacuum created by the fall of the old order.
Then in 1989 communist dictatorships fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And again, the EU became involved in facilitating the transition to democracy and to a more prosperous, and – of course – capitalist, economy. In 2004 eight formerly communist states were accepted into the EU, including three erstwhile Soviet republics (the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). Three years later, two other former East European communist states were accepted into the EU. Since then, no other former communist state has been accepted, although six others are on the path to EU accession.
In 2005 a research project required that I spend a few weeks in Romania. I was in the capital as well as in the provinces. I had taught a course on Romanian history, and I had kept informed about what was going on under the Ceaușescu regime. The latter was the most repressive communist dictatorship in Europe, worse than Albania in its final years. In order to increase the population, Ceaușescu banned abortion and forced women workers to take pregnancy tests so they could not illegally terminate their pregnancies. He introduced severe austerity measures that produced frequent black-outs and brown-outs, even in hospitals. He turned orphans into agents of the feared Securitate. The press was strictly controlled and featured encomiums to the Conducător and his wife. While I was in Bucharest, a colleague showed me a large housing complex that the regime had gifted to the people. The units were empty shells without electricity or running water – that was up to any inhabitants to figure out for themselves.
But when I was in Romania, the mood was quite festive. People felt they were on the eve of unheard-of prosperity – they were scheduled to enter the EU in 2007. EU-financed road crews were repairing and upgrading the infrastructure. The buzz word at that time and place was “Eurostandard” – they would have Eurostandard highways and Eurostandard shopping malls. Romania was returning to Europe.
I had to wonder: why was Romania entering the EU, but Ukraine wasn’t? Ukraine has always had a special place in my heart and has been the subject of my studies all my adult life. Why wasn’t this country being refurbished to “Eurostandard”? Why was it not invited into the EU? Ukraine had been declaring its desire to enter the club since 1993, two years after it became independent.
On the face of it, the inclusion of Romania and exclusion of Ukraine didn’t make much sense. I spent seven months in Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s, and it seemed to me to have a higher living standard than Romania. It had begun dismantling its dictatorship in 1988, when dissidents were released from prison. Romania remained under Ceaușescu’s iron rule until a coup put him and his wife before a firing squad. That was in late December 1989. To me, it seemed clear that Ukraine had better credentials for entering the EU than Romania. And indeed, the EU subsequently had its hands full in guiding Romania into “Eurostandard” values.
It is likely that the choices about EU inclusion and exclusion have affected the subsequent economic positions of the countries I have mentioned.
GDP per capita, est. 2020 (in USD)
Spain Portugal Romania Greece Ukraine
$3,200 $32,200 $28,800 $27,300 $12,400
And aside from the exclusion from membership, the EU has also exhibited other signs of a negative attitude toward Ukraine. The European Communities were slow to recognize Ukraine’s independence, which was ratified by a referendum on 1 December 1991. Poland recognized Ukraine on the next day, and Canada on the day after that. Germany waited until 26 December, France until the 27th, and the rest of the European Communities until the 31st. Europe supported Russia against Ukraine in disputes over the division of the Black Sea Fleet and the debts of the former USSR and over the transfer of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons to Russia.
The desire of Ukrainians to join the EU was expressed most forcibly in the Euromaidan demonstrations of 2013-14. These massive demonstrations were touched off when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an association and trade agreement with the EU after consultation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The demonstrators chased Yanukovych out of Ukraine and installed a new government that was clearly oriented on Western Europe. Even this dramatic event, which cost Ukraine the loss of Crimea to Russian invaders, did not sway the EU to seriously consider Ukraine’s membership.
At the time that I write, of course, Russia has launched a full-scale war against Ukraine, and much of Western opinion supports Ukraine in its efforts to repel invasion. Ukraine has again called upon the EU to admit it to its ranks. From the headlines in the Western media, it looked at first like a done deal. Yet it was anything but. Ukraine is still outside. In fact, France’s European minister declared in May 2022 that it would be another fifteen to twenty years before Ukraine could be admitted. This is a rather familiar refrain. In 2016, after the dust of the Euromaidan revolution had settled, the president of the European Commission said it would be twenty to twenty-five years before Ukraine could enter the EU. And back in 2002 the EU Enlargement Commissioner had said there was no guarantee, but it was possible that Ukraine would be integrated into the EU after ten or twenty years.
In my opinion, had Ukraine been accepted into the EU during the enlargements of the 2000s, Russia would not have so readily invaded its territory in 2014 and made war against it again in 2022. The EU has been no ally of Ukraine, although Europe is its natural home.
But what accounts for Europe’s snubbing of Ukraine? Olga Alexandrova, in her article “Ukraine and Western Europe,” suggested that a contributing factor has been the lack of a large Ukrainian diaspora in Europe such as exists in the United States and Canada. (There are about a million Ukrainians in the USA, over a million in Canada, about 25,000 in France, and about 150,000 in Germany.) I agree that this absence accounts for some of the difference in attitude.
Perhaps another factor is the lingering impact of the Great Power mentality in Germany and France, the EU’s originators and top-tier leadership. They still seem to see the world in terms of Powers – the USA, China, and Russia. The other countries are the footmen of history. Alexandrova, describing the situation as of the mid-1990s, also wrote that “…during the First and Second World Wars, German policy towards Ukraine inevitably had an anti-Russian character. Today, because of the heavy burden of history, Germany must by all possible means avoid any suspicion of an anti-Russian policy….”
However, Germany did not make war on “Russia,” but on the Soviet Union. A relatively small portion of what is today’s Russia was actually under German occupation, while all of Ukraine, and all of Belarus for that matter, were occupied in their entirety. The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine estimates that of the 2.8 million Ostarbeiter (slave laborers) taken to Germany during the war, 2.2 million came from Ukraine. Ukrainian cities in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine suffered from a deliberate policy of starvation. Ukrainian soldiers died fighting the Wehrmacht, and many also perished in German POW camps. In Belarus the Germans destroyed over five thousand villages. In hundreds of cases the inhabitants of these villages were also murdered. This was not a war only against Russia.
Since everyone knows it, there is little need to discuss Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and oil. Germany and France are in the top ten percent of gasoline guzzlers in the world. As to consumption of natural gas, according to one source, Germany ranks number 8 and France number 28 out of a total of 113 countries. These economic considerations are, in the final analysis, crucial. The dependence on fossil fuels from Russia is the most important reason for the EU’s reluctance to embrace Ukraine.
Yet this should not discount the matter of spheres of influence. Germany has a sphere of influence in southern Europe that is largely economic. It rarely interferes in its former colonies and territories such as Namibia and Poland, except to pay reparations for mass murder and pillage. But France still considers its former colonies and mandates, particularly in Africa, as belonging to its sphere of influence. The French settled the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire twenty years ago and, until very recently, were deeply involved in the civil war in Mali. From the behavior of the EU towards Russia and Ukraine, I deduce that sphere-of-influence thinking is still a relevant current in the European worldview. Ukraine is in Russia’s sphere. After all, it was once part of Russia and once part of the Soviet Union. And the 2001 census showed that Russians constituted 17 percent of Ukraine’s population. However, almost exactly the same is true of two EU members, Latvia and Estonia. Both were part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, and both have ethnic Russian minorities accounting for about a quarter of the population. It is difficult to understand the logic of keeping Ukraine out and taking Latvia and Estonia in.
This is probably not just a matter of logic, or hard petrol-economics, but also informed by a prejudice against a submerged East European nation that has only in recent decades achieved what has turned out to be a fragile independence. Ordinary Europeans did not know about Ukraine before it became independent in 1991. But things have been changing. The Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan of 2014 brought independent Ukraine into the news and into the consciousness of ordinary Europeans. And now the whole world is only too aware of Ukraine, and fear it might be the Serbia of World War III. Moreover, within the last two decades there has been an explosion of academic interest in Ukraine, in Cambridge, Paris, Basel, Vienna, Greifswald, and Lund, just to name places that come immediately to mind. Change may be afoot, but I fear it comes rather late.
We should remember that the EU does not speak with a singular voice. There has been quite a divergence of views among the footmen in the EU, such as Poland and Hungary. Poland has had a quarrel with Ukraine over memory politics ever since the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko initiated the glorification of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed force, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (known by its Ukrainian initials as UPA). Because OUN-UPA slaughtered tens of thousands of ethnic Poles in 1943-44 in the western regions of Ukraine, the promotion of the nationalist cult during the presidencies of Yushchenko (2005-10) and Petro Poroshenko (2015-19) has been galling to Poland. Nevertheless, whatever the complexion of the government in power in Poland, the country’s position towards Ukraine has been generous. As mentioned earlier, Poland was the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Today Poland is the most energetic promoter of Ukraine’s membership in the EU, a proponent of severe economic sanctions on Russia, and the host of millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war. It has also delivered $1.6 billion worth of weapons to Ukraine. Poland’s main motivation is fear of Russia.
On the opposite end of the spectrum regarding Ukraine is Hungary. Hungary opposes sanctions on Russia and has agreed to pay for Russian energy in rubles. Together with Italy, it wants Ukraine to call a truce and negotiate with Russia. It refuses to allow lethal weapons to cross its border into Ukraine. Hungary’s stance in part probably derives from the friendship between Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russia’s Putin. And this “friendship,” I imagine, derives mainly from some shared perspectives on how to run a government. While the EU strongly disapproves of Orbán’s backsliding into authoritarianism, Putin sees authoritarianism as the wave of the future. Authoritarianism is a political perspective that can easily be shared, but ethnonationalism is a trickier proposition. And both Orbán and former Ukrainian president Poroshenko were ethnonationalists.
There is a substantial Hungarian minority in Ukraine, about 150,000 altogether, but mainly concentrated in Trancarpathia oblast, where they constitute roughly 12 percent of the population. Most of the Hungarians there speak Magyar among themselves. I’ve traveled through Transcarpathia several times and heard for myself how ethnic Hungarian and Romanian minorities spoke Russian with some difficulty and could not speak Ukrainian at all. There had been schools with Magyar as the language of instruction, but they started being phased out after Poroshenko restricted the use of minority languages in education in 2017. The educational reform in particular soured Ukrainian-Hungarian relations.
But neither Poland nor Hungary have much influence in the EU. Both are in the EU’s bad graces for being insufficiently democratic. And even had they been paragons of democratic virtue, they could not count for a great deal among the twenty-seven countries of the EU. Furthermore, they are located on the periphery of Europe, in the East, although they like to think of themselves as Central Europe.
To conclude this part: I think that the EU created conditions for Ukraine’s contemporary tragedy when it did not include Ukraine in its enlargement at the beginning of this century. I believe that this error has harmed Ukraine immeasurably and that now its consequences are being felt throughout the EU and the world. I am not saying that the EU is responsible for the war. Russia is. But the EU left Ukraine in the lurch. One escalating result of this is that, in the absence of an extremely unlikely if not impossible independent development of defensive capacities, Ukraine has been forced to look for allies further away. There was a brief flirtation between Ukraine and China in the summer of 2021, but the serious relationships developed only further to the west with Canada and the US. Canada has been Ukraine’s unwavering friend, but it is the US that has the military and financial clout to really make a difference. We turn now to this ally, which has sought to fill in the vacuum created by EU’s exclusion. Of course, the EU is not completely independent of America’s influence, but it is useful to consider the US separately in order to understand its particularities.
The United States and its allies present the Russia-Ukraine war as a battle between dictatorship and democracy. It’s much more accurate to categorize it as a war between a dictatorship and a limited democracy, but the difference in government between the two countries is far from a salient issue in the eruption of this war. I do not think I need to persuade the readers of Spectre that the US has a very selective understanding of democracy and human and civil rights. The US has a long and well known history of supporting dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It decries the treatment of Uighur Turks in China, but will not denounce the appalling treatment of Palestinians who have spent over a half century under Israeli occupation. (Both the Uighurs and Palestinians, incidentally, are regarded by the states they live in as infected by terrorism.) Nor do I need to explain that the US is a neoimperialist power and a ruthless defender of its own sphere of influence. Hence, relying on the US tars Ukraine with the American brush, and makes support for Ukraine weak in countries where there is strong anti-American sentiment – most of Africa, large portions of Latin America, and much of the Middle East. Add to that the Great Power rivalries between Russia and the US and China and the US.
The unpopular US is also not very reliable. Recently It has been deserting some of its allies – the Kurds after the Syrian civil war and the Afghans now hiding from the Taliban after their employment by NATO. The domestic politics of the US could also prove treacherous for Ukraine. Right now the Democrats have a majority in congress (220 to 208 Republicans). In the senate there are fifty each of Republicans and Democrats (plus two independents). Predictions are that the landscape will shift after the midterm elections to be held November 2022: both the congress and senate will be controlled by the Republicans. On Ukraine, the Republicans are divided. The Republican establishment is decidedly pro-Ukraine, but the Trump loyalists are not. The biggest nightmare for Ukraine would be for the war to drag on for years and for Trump to win the presidency in 2024.
The US-Ukraine relationship was slow to grow. President George H.W. Bush enraged many Ukrainians with his speech of 1 August 1991, nicknamed the Chicken Kiev speech because it was delivered in Kyiv. He spoke out in favor of the preservation of the Soviet Union and against what he called “suicidal nationalism.” The US withheld recognition of Ukrainian independence until 25 December 1991. (US recognition was the signal for the members of the EU to follow suit.) The US was also a prime mover in getting Ukraine to transfer its huge nuclear arsenal to Russia without any binding security guarantees.
But certainly by 2004-05, Ukraine was in the US orbit. That was the year of the Orange Revolution, the second of the “color revolutions” (Georgia had its Rose Revolution in 2003-04). The Orange Revolution was sparked by the Ukrainian presidential elections of 2004. In the run off, the two candidates were Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovych, from the industrial Donbas, was the handpicked successor of the previous president, Leonid Kuchma, as well as Putin’s preferred candidate. By contrast, Yushchenko appealed to Ukrainian nationalists in Western Ukraine and favored a pro-Western foreign policy. When Yanukovych won the run off, there was a massive outbreak of indignation, and Yushchenko’s supporters shouted “Fraud!” The Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in central Kyiv filled up with hundreds of thousands of protesters, and they prevailed: new elections were held on 3 December. International observers were brought in to monitor the polls, and Yushchenko was declared the winner. According to a report by the US Congressional Research Service:
U.S. officials supported the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, warning the former regime of negative consequences if it engaged in fraud, sharply criticizing fraud in the November 21 runoff vote, and hailing Yushchenko’s ultimate victory. The United States also provided assistance to Ukrainian non-governmental organizations that monitored the election and conducted exit polls to detect fraud. In a show of support for the new leadership, President Bush and other NATO leaders met President Yushchenko at a NATO summit on February 22, 2005.
I consider this to be the major turning point in US-Ukraine relations. US support for the Orange Revolution occurred in the context of the presidency of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy ranks as the most aggressive of any US president since the end of the Vietnam War.
The US was even more deeply involved in the Euromaidan demonstrations of 2013-14. One notorious example was the leaked telephone conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in which they discussed who should be leader of Ukraine after the Euromaidan victory. The conversation also indicated that the US felt the EU was not in step with the US in fully supporting the Euromaidan. Famously, Nuland said: “Fuck the EU.” However, US support for the Euromaidan did not translate into US direction of the Euromaidan. The Americans wanted the demonstrators to negotiate with President Yanukovych, but instead the armed right-wing nationalist forces on the Maidan drove Yanukovych out of the country.
During the Euromaidan, Obama assigned his vice-president, Joe Biden, to lead the Ukraine crisis team. Biden had already visited the country in 2009, and he returned about half a dozen times after the victory of the Euromaidan. He talked tough about eliminating corruption in the country, but this was not something Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president and himself an oligarch, was interested in. Biden’s style was redolent of Great Power arrogance. He wanted Poroshenko to fire Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, whom he considered to be corrupt. The US had promised Ukraine a billion dollars in loan guarantees, and Biden said Ukraine would not get it unless Shokin was fired. As he boasted to the Council of Foreign Relations in 2018: “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
While president Trump admired Putin and was virulently anti-Ukraine, he was also the most isolationist US president since Herbert Hoover, to such an extent that he considered NATO to be “obsolete” and talked privately about withdrawing from the alliance. Although Trump has his own characteristic ways of interpreting issues, there can be no doubt that NATO has not been a very effective institution. It intervened – by its own standards – with relative success in the wars of the Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, although it provoked Russia’s ire in the process. Its operations against jihadists after 9/11 have not been so successful. Its twenty-year involvement in Afghanistan was a complete fiasco. Its response to the Arab Spring caused more problems than it solved, notably civil wars in Libya and Mali.
Nonetheless, NATO has been able to expand over the past quarter of a century, taking in former communist states. Although Russia opposed it, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were accepted into NATO in 1999. The largest intake occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush: in 2004, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Slovenia as well as three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – joined the alliance. Later were added Albania, Croatia, and Romania (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020). There is a correlation between the terms of more aggressive American presidents (Bush and Barack Obama) and NATO expansion.
But it would be incorrect to imagine that the American push was the only factor at work. The pull factor was the historical experience of many of the new NATO members. The three Baltic states had been invaded and annexed by the USSR in 1940. The Soviet Union imposed communist dictatorships and state-planned economies on Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria a few years after the end of World War II. The same imposition of communist governments was experienced by Hungary and what was once Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic and Slovakia), but these two countries were also invaded again later, in 1956 and 1968. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all these states sought of their own accord to enter a security alliance that had an anti-Soviet history and an increasingly anti-Russian edge. This didn’t have to be the case, but their fears turned out not to be misplaced: Russia began invading its neighbors as of 2008. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, historically neutral Sweden, which has a short border with Russia, and Finland, which has a long one, want to join NATO.
Ukraine could have been among those states eager to join NATO. However, any serious path to membership was only initiated in 2008, during Yushchenko’s presidency and after the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko’s successor, the pro-Russian Yanukovych, returned Ukraine to a policy of nonalignment. After Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014, President Poroshenko not only renewed Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, but had aspirations for NATO membership enshrined in the constitution in 2019. An obstacle to NATO membership had been the opposition from pro-Russian elements in Ukraine’s East and South. But this obstacle was overcome…by Putin. Roughly speaking, only about 25 percent of Ukraine’s population, mostly in the West, supported NATO membership before 2014. After Russia invaded Ukraine in that year, annexed Crimea, and supported separatist republics in the eastern Donbas, about 40 percent of Ukraine’s population became pro-NATO. After Russia invaded Ukraine again in February 2022, support rose to over 70 percent. Ukraine had no alternative security arrangements in place.
In the months-long run-up to the current war, Putin made much of the idea of NATO encroachment. But is this what this war is about? Is this a proxy war between NATO and Russia, in which Ukraine is merely the theater?
A few observations. Almost nothing happens in the world in which NATO or another Power is not involved. The US has a dog in every race, whether in Yemen or Bolivia or Hong Kong or Egypt. So the presence of Great Power involvement does not necessarily mean that local issues are not the most salient, since it is hard to even imagine a conflict in which the Powers would simply stand neutral on the sidelines, abstaining from trying to press their own perceived advantage.
Quite a few non-NATO countries have offered military assistance to Ukraine over the past several months: Australia, Colombia, Finland, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Sweden. And, so far, no NATO country has attacked Russia, and Russia has attacked no NATO country. I doubt Putin is acting when he expresses his anger about NATO, which has absorbed all the former satellites and three of the former republics of the Soviet Union. I’m sure it was a factor in igniting the war, though not the most significant. Putin apparently agrees about its second-rank importance, since he showed little interest when President Zelensky offered to abjure NATO membership if Russia withdrew its forces. Were NATO enlargement the exclusive or dominant factor, then the proper characterization of what is happening would not be “proxy war,” but “whipping boy,” Ukraine punished for NATO’s transgressions.
The military aid provided primarily by NATO but also by non-NATO countries is absolutely necessary if Ukraine is to be able to survive, let alone repulse its invaders. But there is an aspect of the US/NATO stance that I find discomfiting and think of as its equivalent to the “whipping boy.” “Let’s you and him fight.” This is what the cartoon character Wimpy would say when he encouraged Popeye to beat up big brutes whom Wimpy had offended. Wimpy’s words sprang to mind in the months preceding the outbreak of war, when Biden made clear he would not send US troops into Ukraine but warned Ukraine day after day that Russia was about to invade. In the current scenario, Russia fits the role of the big brute exactly, but unfortunately Ukraine is not really as strong as Popeye.
In conclusion, Ukraine’s chief allies, the United States and NATO, are unreliable and often ineffective. At the moment, however, they are helping Ukraine immensely. This is not primarily a war between two imperialisms, US/NATO and Russia, but a war of Russia against Ukraine.
Some people think of Ukraine as a part of Russia. So let me first briefly delineate what’s common to both Russia and Ukraine, and what differentiates them. Both emerged from the medieval Rus’ state, which left them a common legacy of Eastern Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet. The alphabets are very similar, but the religious history is not. The Ukrainian version of Eastern Christianity was heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, giving birth to much hybridity in sacral culture as well as to an entire church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.
The Ukrainian language is closely related to Russian, but also to Belarusian and Polish. Ukrainian differs from Russian in a number of respects. It developed as a vernacular language that became a modern literary language at the end of the nineteenth century. Russian developed first as a written language from Church Slavonic and gradually incorporated vernacular elements over the centuries. Ukrainian has many loan words from Polish, Russia from Church Slavonic. Ukrainian and Russian also underwent phonological change in different directions over the centuries. Ukrainian is not a dialect of Russian, but a distinct language
What is Ukraine today has been ruled in the past by Austria, the Crimean Khanate, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldavia, Ottoman Turkey, Poland, and Romania, all of which left their mark on Ukrainian culture. Russia did not have a similar history of rule by European and Black-Sea states. Ukraine and Russia both experienced Mongol rule, but Russia for a century or so longer, and both experienced German occupation during World War II.
Russia, or at that time Muscovy, only began to involve itself in Ukrainian affairs in the second half of the seventeenth century. At that time, it incorporated Ukrainian territories east of the Dnipro river. This was the result of the Ukrainian Cossack revolt against Poland-Lithuania led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Russia took more Ukrainian territory near the end of the eighteenth century: it took the steppe region above the Black Sea from the Crimean and Nogay Tatars and the territory between the Zbruch and Dnipro rivers from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The westernmost Ukrainian lands were added to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
In other words: Ukraine is not Russia. (This, incidentally, was the title of a book written by independent Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma.)
Although imperial Russia did not have overseas colonies, it was an ever-expanding contiguous empire. It expanded north to the Baltic and Arctic seas, east across Siberia to the Pacific, south to the northern shore of the Black Sea, and west to the borders of the Habsburg monarchy. The Soviet Union expanded further to the west, not only taking the rest of Ukraine as well as Belarus, but establishing a vast system of satellite states that stretched west to Berlin and south to below the mouth of the Danube. In the Russian Federation today there are numerous national minorities, including Tatars and other Turko-Altaic peoples, small nations acquired during the series of Caucasian Wars of the nineteenth century (among them the Chechens), and innumerable Indigenous peoples throughout Siberia. These minorities are all there as a result of Russian conquest. In short, Russia has a history of imperialism, and Lenin was correct to think of it as an imperialist country. It still (or again) is, as we can see while we watch Putin try to regain the empire’s lost territory.
The Ukrainian nation has been exposed to intense assimilatory policies in imperial Russia and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Tsar Peter I and Tsarina Catherine II dismantled the political autonomy that Ukrainian territories in Russia had enjoyed before the eighteenth century. When Russia began to modernize in the mid-nineteenth century, it barred the Ukrainian language from the process. Members of the nascent Ukrainian national movement in Russia were exiled from Ukrainian gubernias. Publication in the Ukrainian language was severely restricted. Education in the Ukrainian language was banned altogether. The result was that by the time the Russian empire crumbled under the impact of war and revolution, only a thin stratum of the intelligentsia in Ukraine could read and write in Ukrainian, although that was the language peasants and soldiers actually spoke.
Briefly in the 1920s Ukrainian culture in the Soviet Ukrainian republic was not only tolerated but promoted. That little window in time saw the emergence of avant-garde Ukrainian literature, visual art, and cinema (e.g., Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera) as well as an independent and radically reformed Ukrainian Orthodox church (the Autocephalous Church). But starting in 1930 almost everyone who contributed to this renaissance was arrested, and most of them were shot. Ukraine experienced cultural decapitation. And from then on, although the Ukrainian language was still tolerated in publications, the place of the language was demoted to rural areas and folk culture and existed only marginally in education and scholarship. The result was that the parts of Ukraine that had been incorporated into the Soviet Union before 1939 have become largely Russian-speaking.
Putin’s vision of Ukraine is this Russophone Ukraine, inhabited by homo sovieticus. Anyone who does not fit this vision is, in his opinion, a Ukrainian nationalist and therefore a Nazi. This is clear from the articulations of Ukrainian history in his screed of 12 July 2021 on the unity of Russians and Ukrainians and his speech delivered as a prelude to invasion on 21 February 2022. He simply denies the existence of significant differences between the two peoples, denies the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation, and ascribes the origin of the Ukrainian national movement to anti-Russian foreign intrigues. This is a Russian nationalist perspective that had been formulated in its essence already by the turn of the twentieth century.
The Putin propaganda machine has been active in identifying the leaders of independent Ukraine with fascism. Some of what the machine says is even true. Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has indeed glorified Nazi collaborators as part of state memory politics, and there exist various neofascist organizations and military and paramilitary units in the country. Of course, many states have been witnessing the rise of the far right: America (Trump and the Proud Boys), Canada (the convoys), France (Le Pen), Germany (Alternative für Deutschland), and Russia. In each country these far-right movements take on a local coloration and emphases, responding to their own country’s particular history and current issues. In some countries the far right aims at electoral victory; in Ukraine it aims at forming armed organizations.
I do not intend here to examine Ukraine’s particular far-right problem, but there is one aspect that has a significant relation to geopolitics and the Russia-Ukraine relation. This is memory politics. Tensions between Putin’s Russia and Ukraine have been steadily increasing since the Orange Revolution of 2004-05, and part of the conflict has been expressed in the memory politics of the two states. So, for example, Russia has presented the collectivization famine of 1932-33 as the shared suffering of Russians, Ukrainians, and Kazakhs, an event that should be remembered as a common tragedy uniting the peoples affected. In Ukraine, especially during Yushchenko’s presidency, the famine was presented as a genocide against the Ukrainian nation. Where the Russian narrative emphasized commonality, the Ukrainian narrative emphasized differentiation.
Another case, more germane to the current war, is the memory of World War II. At home and abroad Russia promotes pride in its victory over Nazi Germany. For the first years of independence, the Ukrainian government also in various ways commemorated the Ukrainians’ joint fight with the Russians and Belarusians against the German invaders. But as relations with Russia deteriorated after 2004, Ukraine began to separate itself from the old narrative and to fashion a new one that differentiated it more clearly from Russia. Here the heritage of OUN-UPA came in handy. These nationalists were glorified as the Ukrainian forces during World War II, and their participation in the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing was denied.
Eventually this Ukrainianization of World War II evolved to the point that a state funeral was provided for a former officer of the Waffen-SS Division Galizien, a Ukrainian unit under German command. While since Soviet times Russia has celebrated the victory over Nazi Germany on 9 May, Ukraine began to emphasize 8 May, which is the same date as the Western V-E day. Ukraine moved away from the concept of the Great Fatherland War (1941-45) and instead embraced the concept of World War II (1939-41). Russia has downplayed the opening phase of World War II, 1939-41, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies who divided Eastern Europe between them. Ukraine, however, publicly remembers the brutal Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine in 1939-41, a period marked by massive deportations and ending with the massacre by the NKVD of thousands of political prisoners as the German forces advanced.
My point is this: part of the reason that Ukraine has made heroes of the extreme nationalists is to redirect collective memory away from Russia. In the postwar Soviet Union the memory of the Great Fatherland War had replaced the October Revolution as the main narrative uniting the Soviet population. Ukraine has been replacing this narrative. Incidentally, most post-communist states have been making similar moves in memory politics.
Russia’s war aim is to destroy what it interprets as an unnatural Ukrainian separatism. The war is not about “Nazis.” Students of the Holocaust know who the Nazis were, and they were nothing like Yushchenko or Poroshenko or any other president of Ukraine.
In this essay I have argued for three points. Due to geopolitical realism, self-interested energy-policy, hypocritical logic, a “spheres of influence” view of the world, and general division and disinterest, the EU, first, has left Ukraine to the mercy of others. Second, and predictably, given Ukraine’s precarious position next to a belligerent Russia, one of those others – the United States/NATO stepped in and became a very problematic ally. With neither EU inclusion, nor clear commitments from the US, third and finally, Russia proceeded with a war effort that intended to destroy Ukraine as a separate nation. It’s a heartbreaking situation.
What is there to take comfort from? On the left, we have a slogan: “A people united will never be defeated.” It is heartening to see the unity and optimism of Ukrainian citizens as they fight against the invaders. Putin was calculating that many of Ukraine’s inhabitants, particularly in the East and South, would welcome Russia’s “special military operation.” But this has not come to fruition, even though serious regional divisions had dogged Ukrainian politics ever since independence. The Russian attack united Ukraine like never before. The weaponry delivered by the West has been a linchpin of Ukraine’s survival, but the spirit of the people has been at least equally important in confronting a foe that is almost thirty times its size in territory, with over three times its population, and an economy over seven times as large.
Also, as Ukraine strove to follow the model of the imperfect democracies of the West, it created space for a variety of different viewpoints and lifestyles. There is a lively sector of working-class, anarchist, and socialist organizations. There is an avantgarde art scene distinguished by leftist and feminist perspectives. The Pride marches in Kyiv have taken place annually, under state protection. None of this would likely survive if Ukraine is occupied by Russia.
John-Paul Himka is a retired professor of history from the University of Alberta. He began publishing scholarly texts on Ukrainian history in 1971. Much of his work has focused on Ukraine’s socialist heritage. His first monograph was on the history of the Ukrainian and Polish socialist movements in the Austrian crownland of Galicia in the late nineteenth century. He has written several articles on Roman Rosdolsky, who was Ukraine’s most brilliant exponent of Marxism, and also on other aspects of the Ukrainian socialist tradition. He translated Rosdolsky’s book on Friedrich Engels and the nonhistoric peoples from German into English. In recent years he has focused a lot on the Holocaust in Ukraine, which resulted in the monograph Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust: OUN and UPA’s Participation in the Destruction of Ukrainian Jewry, 1941-1944 (2021).
As a teacher, Prof. Himka liked to offer a large undergraduate course entitled The History of the World in the Last Ten Years. It was popular with students, who always filled up the hundred spaces allotted. The purpose of the course was to prepare youth to understand the complicated world into which they were entering. Since global developments do not stand still, it was a course that had to be revised every time it was taught.
As a university student in the US, he participated in protests against the Vietnam war and in favor of affirmative action for African-American students. After moving to Canada, he joined up with the Ukrainian Canadian left (the Diyaloh group and Hromada). In contemporary Ukraine he is most closely allied with the Spilne/Commons group.
1 CIA World Factbook
2 Harvard Ukrainian Studies 20 (1996): 145-70.
3 Ibid., 151-52.
4 For those who haven’t seen it, I recommend Elen Klimov’s film Come and See. It is a difficult film to watch, but captures much of the truth of what Belarus suffered under the occupation.
5 Worldometer, worldometers.info/gas/gas-consumption-by-country/ (accessed 28 May 2022).
6 The whole concept of Central Europe is quite politically charged. See my article, “What’s in a Region? (Notes on Central Europe),” in What is Central Europe? An Exchange in HABSBURG, 17-28, https://la.utexas.edu/users/arens/austint/habs.pdf (accessed 3 June 2022).
7 Steven Woehrel, “Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and U.S. Policy,” CRS Report for Congress RL32845, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/RL32845.pdf (accessed 3 June 2022).
8 “At the time.” Shokin was replaced by Yuriy Lutsenko. He remained prosecutor until the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, when the Ukrainian parliament dismissed him. Before his dismissal, Lutsenko began meeting with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to help promote one of Trump’s Ukraine conspiracies. It is true that Joe Biden’s son Hunter was given a lucrative board membership in Ukraine. But this was nothing unusual either for Ukraine or for corporate practice anywhere.
9 On the “vivid far-right landscape” in post-Soviet Russia, see Marlene Laruelle, Is Russia Fascist? Unraveling Propaganda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021), 100-120.
10 John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic, eds., Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Post-Communist Europe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).
11 There is a list of links to these organizations compiled by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign: https://ukrainesolidaritycampaign.org/links/ (accessed 20 June 2022). The list requires updating.
12 These tendencies are particularly evident in Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center, http://vcrc.org.ua/en/ (accessed 20 June 2022). For a study of contemporary feminist art, see Jessica Zychowicz, Superfluous Women: Art, Feminism, and Revolution in Twenty-First Century Ukraine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020).