The long and winding road between Russia and Ukraine

Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Tonio Galea

Russia and the Ukraine have a long and turbulent history deeply seated in the region’s past…the Communist past. A past that some argue was simply swept under the carpet with the end of the Cold War but in all reality was and still is, festering. A past, that like many other regional disputes, is deeply subject to conflicting interpretations of history.

The problem that Ukraine faced was that it was divided between two powers: The Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire. And, very early on, the Russian Empire recognised the threat to the unity of the empire posed by a separate and particularly literary Ukrainian language. The language issue for Ukraine carries a lot of weight. Historically, Ukrainian was the language of the countryside.

The twentieth century brought modernisation and urbanisation, and with it the integration of former peasants into the urban culture through the Russian language. So, this created a group of people, that was quite large, who considered Ukrainian as their mother tongue and had Ukrainian identity, even though they spoke Russian.

The Russian side’s argument on the has been, claimed that they came to save them from cultural and various other types of oppression, seeing as they were Russian speakers, so the assumption was that their loyalty should be with Russia. But, in many big cities, among young people and especially university students, there was a conscious choice to switch to Ukrainian. 

Putin’s ramblings on the status of the Ukraine are nothing new. This is a sore point with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who never made an effort to hide it. In a letter dated July 21, Putin said that he does not recognise Ukraine’s independence and believes Russians and Ukrainians are “one people – a single whole.”

Back to 2008, he told President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not a country”. Six years later, in 2014, a major escalation in tensions between Ukraine and Russia occurred with Russia’s illegal seizure and ongoing occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine and Russia’s shared heritage goes back to more than a thousand years, when Kyiv was at the centre of the first Slavic state, “Kyivan Rus”, known as “the birthplace” of both nations. It existed roughly from the 9th to 13th centuries. Several armies “carved up” Ukraine after Kyivan Rus fell until the Russian Empire annexed the country in 1793.

Ukraine was independent from 1918 until 1920 before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991, the Ukraine was the first of 10 republics to secede from the Union between August and December of the same year.

More than wanting to restore the former USSR, Putin wanted to see the Russian empire restored.

There’s a Russian adage that you can’t have a Russian empire without Ukraine, owing to its long cultural and economic history as the beating heart of the defunct Soviet Union. And Putin is hell-bent on re-creating a new empire to restore his declining country to superpower status.

The long-term goals of Russia following the end of the Cold War, have been to recover the great power status of Soviet Union, to be seen as equal by the West and to be able to influence political developments in its smaller neighbours like Ukraine, Moldova or Kazakhstan.

However, Ukraine has been integrating itself into the Western orbit of influence, and thus going against Putin’s interests.

Some argue that Putin is less concerned about Ukraine joining NATO than he is about Ukraine becoming part of Europe “with its insistence on rule of law.”

Ukraine signed an “association” agreement with the European Union, on March 21, 2014, a month after the Maidan revolution and the same month Putin took control of Crimea.

Rule of law and a campaign against rampant corruption, both of which the U.S. and Europe have been urging on Kyiv with some success, further robs Putin of a tool to control or manipulate the country and its potential quislings, analysts say.

Experts and analysts say Putin now may not intend to take over all of Ukraine, but he certainly wants to swallow up enough of the country to render it a submissive ghost nation. One scenario floated by U.S. intelligence is that Putin would make the invasion swift and only long enough to install a new leader. But as the situation in the area explodes and evolves it is difficult to envision the near future as being a stabilised or serene one.

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