Hello and welcome to my first blog on my new website. I’m sorry that it’s taken so long but it’s been as a result of a positive – I’ve been very busy. Recently, like many people, I’ve been following the worrying developments in Ukraine. Over the years, I’ve taken a bit more interest than most people in the UK, due to a combination of a fascination with the country stemming from my appreciation of the skills of the former Rangers player, Alexei Mikhailitchenko (apologies if that version of the English transliteration of his name offends any readers – more on that later), writing my dissertation (MA History hons from Edinburgh Uni) on Britain’s role in the development of the Cold War, and having visited Kyiv (Ukrainian transliteration of the name this time) in 2009. From following things on Twitter, I can see that the context of the situation is very confusing for people, so I thought that it may be helpful to put together an explanatory guide.
I’ve tried to make this fairly neutral, but I’m sure it will still manage to offend people who are among the affected parties in the situation, for that I apologise in advance.
Ukraine and Russia – the Early Historical Context
The origins of Russian (and Ukrainian and Belarusian) culture actually lie within Ukraine, stemming from the creation of the Kyivan Rus, in the late 9th century. Kyiv (Note: Kyiv is transliterated from the Ukrainian language version of the name – the official one. Kiev is more common to us, but comes from the Russian version of the name, which would have been more commonly seen in the West during Soviet times.) was the centre of this coalition of tribes which grew in power, until power and influence gradually transferred to Novgorod and then eventually to Moscow.
The Modern Context of Russian and Ukrainian Relations
We are all aware in the West of the horrors of the Holocaust conducted against the Jewish people by the Nazis, and many of us also have some awareness of the Armenian Holocaust, suffered by the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Less well known in the West is the Ukrainian Holodomor, in which millions of Ukrainians starved to death at the hands of Stalin’s programme of collectivisation. At the start of the 20th century, Ukraine’s huge swathes of agricultural land meant that it was known as ‘the bread basket of Europe’. Stalin was determined that agricultural production should be taken out of the hands of individual kulak producers and all produce should be going to the state to be redistributed as the state saw fit.
Production fell, local producers weren’t allowed to keep their own produce and those trying to do so were under orders to be shot by Soviet troops to serve as an example to others. The result was the death of millions. An insight into how grim this period of the early 1930s was is that it was the only aspect of Sovietisation that Stalin ever conceded to Churchill had been difficult. From a man used to portraying a glorious image to the Western capitalists he had such distaste for, this is significant.
This memory of ‘Russian’ rule remains within the consciousness of the Ukrainian people and has to be taken into account when assessing the reaction of many Ukrainians towards Russia. On the other hand, much of the Ukrainian population are either ethnically Russian or Russian-leaning in their world outlook.
Crimea – Why is it a Special Case?
Crimea represents a complex part of the current tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. Historically, Crimea has been Russian or within the Russian sphere of influence. It’s strategically hugely important to Russia because it provides a Black Sea port for their navy. Geographically, it is cut off from the main land mass of Russia by Ukraine. During the Soviet era, the administration of Crimea was given over to the Ukrainian section of the USSR. When Ukraine became independent, Crimea remained part of it, angering some Russians.
Russia has remained eager to retain its access to Crimea as a naval base and has negotiated agreements to this effect since Ukraine’s independence. However, the Western-leaning Viktor Yuschenko, who emerged as Ukrainian President following the Orange Revolution, was keen to see Ukraine taken out of Russia’s sphere of influence and moved into the EU’s sphere of influence – with a view to eventually becoming a member state. He announced that he would not be renewing Russia’s naval access to Crimea when the agreement ran out.
Having mentioned Yuschenko, I should go back and mention The Orange Revolution. In late 2004, Viktor Yanukovych (the recently deposed President) was announced as the winner of the 2004 elections. There was a perception of electoral fraud, resulting in Ukrainians taking to the streets to protest against the result. The Ukrainian Supreme Court ordered the election to be run again and this time Yuschenko took 52% of the vote to Yanukovych’s 44% and was elected President. It’s also worth noting that during the initial election campaign, Yuschenko was confirmed as having suffered poisoning with the substance Dioxin, which caused him disfigurement.
The protests leading to the 2nd election became known as ‘The Orange Revolution’ and the key figures in it were Yuschenko and his then ally, Yulia Tymoshenko. The linguistic/ethnic/political tensions within Ukraine can be seen in some of the rivalries. Yanukovych is from the generally Russian-speaking and leaning East of Ukraine, a powerbase that sometimes hears him being referred to as part of the ‘Donetsk Mafia’. This isn’t intended to be taken literally, it’s a reference to the business and political interests from that area that back him.
Anyway, back to Crimea. Though Crimea probably has around 50% – 60% of the population speaking Russian and politically aligning themselves with Russia, the rest of the population is mainly made up of either people considering themselves ethnically Ukrainian…or people considering themselves to be Tatars. The Tatars were another group of people persecuted by Stalin, seeing their populations moved en masse to the furthest reaches of the USSR. As such, the thought of once more coming under Russian rule, or even influence, is alarming for the Tatar population of Crimea.
There is a current precedent for Russia having a sea port that is geographically cut off from the rest of the Russian land mass. Kaliningrad is located between the EU states of Poland and Lithuania and was historically the Prussian state of Koenigsberg (Immanuel Kant is buried in the Cathedral there), it’s now a Baltic port for the Russian navy.
What’s Happening Now?
The current situation (VERY roughly) is that the Ukrainian nationalist / Ukrainian speaking / Western leaning people of the West of Ukraine have forced Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country and an interim government has been declared. This came about because they were unhappy at Yanukovych appearing to ditch plans for closer EU ties in favour of being part of a customs union with Russia.
The aim of Kyiv’s interim government will likely be to form closer ties with the EU. In the Russian speaking / Russian leaning East of the country (eg Kharkiv and Donetsk), people have taken to the streets to protest at the toppling of Yanukovych and to take over local political offices. The complication is in assessing the identity that they have chosen for themselves. Many are waving Russian flags…but this may not be an expression of Russian nationality, so much as an expression that they believe that Russia is more aligned with their interests than the EU-leaning Ukrainians taking power in Kyiv. Industrial areas like Donetsk have strong trade links with Russia, so fear losing them if Ukraine focuses on the EU at the expense of Russia.
In Crimea, Russian forces (officially or unofficially) are on the ground and securing local political offices and transport links (such as Simferopol airport). The precedent for this kind of action comes from Russia’s intervention in Georgia a few years ago. VERY roughly, what happened was that Georgian troops clashed with separatist South Ossetian troops. South Ossetia is/was within the borders of the modern territory of Georgia and the rebel troops tended to be Russian speaking / Russian leaning. The Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili mounted an attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali…which led to the intervention of Russian troops. Russian forces drove back the Georgian Army and proceeded through South Ossetia in the direction of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
The Russians used the justification that they had a right to intervene as the people they were protecting had strong Russian connections. Russian forces eventually withdrew from their proximity to Tbilisi, but not from South Ossetia, which is now a Russian-recognised separate territory. This status is not recognised by many other countries. The presence of Russian forces in Crimea – and President Putin having secured the Russian Parliament’s approval to deploy troops anywhere in Ukraine – has raised fears that Ukraine will end up being split, with Russian military influence being used to secure a separation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country.
The deposed President Viktor Yanukovych is now in Russia, but continues to enjoy support in his home city of Donetsk, as well as in Kharkiv. The capital, Kyiv, is under the control of Western-leaning Ukrainians. However, to say ‘under the control of’ is an over-simplification, due to the diverse groups involved in the overthrow of Yanukovych. Some extreme right-wing elements have been identified as being involved and how much control they are actually under is open to question.
Basically, the situation is volatile internally – with different ethnic, linguistic, and political interests in conflict – but also externally, now that a foreign power (Russia) has deployed troops to a sovereign state.
I hope that gives people a rough overview of what’s currently happening and at least gives a platform from which to further research and understand the nuances I haven’t been able to properly expand upon here.