Ukraine looks again suspiciously at its eastern border as Russia threatens its territorial integrity.
In recent weeks, a accumulation of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine has shaken Western leaders fearful of a raid similar to, or perhaps even broader than, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Then, on December 17, 2021, Vladimir Putin demanded that ex-Soviet states, such as Ukraine, the Western alliance that Ukraine has long expressed a desire to join, should not be added to NATO, and that NATO cease all military cooperation in Eastern Europe.
This rhetoric dates back to the Cold War, when global politics revolved around an ideological struggle between a communist Eastern bloc and a capitalist West. It also serves Russia’s ideological and political goal of affirming its position as a world power.
What scholars of politics and culture from Ukraine and RussiaWe know that Putin’s goal is based on Russia’s historical view of Ukraine as part of its larger empire, which at one point stretched from present-day Poland to the Russian Far East. Understanding this helps explain Putin’s actions and how he relies on this vision of Ukraine to advance his agenda.
The view from Russia
Ukraine today has 44 million people and is the second largest nation by area in Europe.
But for centuries, within the Russian Empire, Ukraine was known as “Malorossiya ”or“ Little Russia ”.
The use of this term strengthened the idea that Ukraine was a minor member of the empire. And it was backed by Tsarist policies dating back to the 18th century that suppressed the use of the Ukrainian language and culture. The intention of these policies was to establish a dominant Russia and then strip Ukraine of an identity as a sovereign and independent nation.
A similar ploy has been used to downplay Ukraine’s independence in the 21st century. In 2008, then-Putin’s spokesman Vladislav Surkov stated that “Ukraine is not a state. “
Putin himself recently wrote an article stating that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people – one whole. “This concept of a single people is derived from the history of” Kyivan Rus “, the medieval federation that included parts of present-day Ukraine and Russia and centered on present-day Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
In recent years, commemorations in Russia of the Kyivan Rus story have increased by prominence and scale.
In 2016, a 52 foot statue of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, considered a holy ruler by Ukrainians and Russians alike, was introduced in Moscow. The statue caused consternation among Ukrainians. Placing a gigantic representation of Vladimir in the center of Moscow signaled, for some, Russia’s attempt to take over Ukraine’s history.
The fact that it occurred only two years after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine did not help.
Russian citizens of Ukraine
Donbass and Crimea are home to large numbers of ethnic Russians and primarily Russian-speaking people.
In the years before Russia’s military actions, Putin and his allies often invoked the concept of “Russian World “or” Russkiy Mir”- the idea that Russian civilization extends to all places where ethnic Russians live.
The ideology also claims that no matter where the Russians are in the world, the Russian state has the right and the obligation to protect and defend them.
Ukraine, both in 2014 and with Putin’s seemingly increasingly belligerent stance now, provides the perfect landscape for this concept. And Russia has allegedly been promoting the ideology of the “Russian world” through the arming pro-Russian separatists in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk since 2014.
However, seeing Ukraine as a country divided between ethnic pro-Moscow Russians and pro-Western Ukrainians is a huge oversimplification.
The ethnic composition of Ukraine today, with an especially large minority of Russians living in the east, reflects the country’s absorption into the Soviet Union beginning in 1922.
Ethnic Ukrainians lived throughout the country before it joined the Soviet Union. In 1932-33, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine which killed about 4 million Ukrainians in the eastern regions. The famine, known as “Holodomor”, made it possible for ethnic Russians to move to the territory of Ukraine.
These new residents fueled Stalin’s industrialization campaign. To this day, the Donbass remains the heart of Ukraine’s industrial economy.
When the Ukrainians voted for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, all of its 24 “oblasts” or regions, including Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea, supported independence. The large minority of ethnic Russians – 17.3% of the population in the last census of Ukraine in 2001 – were included as Ukrainian citizens in an independent state. For the most part, they also voted for independence.
For most of the first two decades after independence, ethnic Russians have lived in peace with Ukrainians and other ethnic minorities in the country.
But that changed in 2010 when Viktor Yanukovych, a politician from Donetsk, became president of Ukraine. Although he did not openly state that he preferred a pro-Russian future for Ukraine, many of his policies marked a departure from the pro-European policies of his predecessors and played on Vladimir Putin’s designs on Ukraine.
Ukraine was on the way to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union in 2013. Instead, Yanukovych decided to join an economic union with Russia. This sparked massive protests across the country that resulted in the overthrow of Yanukovych. Putin then Crimea annexed under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians living on that peninsula.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists seized several cities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the hope that Russia would have a similar interest in protecting the Russians in eastern Ukraine.
But ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine did not automatically support the separatists or want to be part of Russia. Since 2014, about 1.5 million people they have left the Donbass to live in other parts of Ukraine. Meanwhile at least a million people have gone to Russia.
Many of those who remain in the territories occupied by separatists are now being offered a fast track to Russian citizenship. This policy allows Putin to increase pro-Russian sentiment in eastern Ukraine.
Strengthening the identity of Ukraine
While Putin claims that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine are part of the Russian world, in reality, ethnicity is not an indicator of political affiliation in Ukraine. In other words, being an ethnic Russian or a Russian speaker does not indicate that one sees oneself as part of the Russian world. Rather, across Ukraine, there has been an increase in the sentiment of a strong and unified Ukrainian identity since 1991. Meanwhile, the vast most Ukrainians support entry to NATO.
Most Ukrainians see their future as a sovereign country that is part of Europe. But this directly contradicts Putin’s goals to expand the Russian world. They are contradictory views that help explain why Ukraine remains a flash point.
Jacob Lassin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Arizona State University. Emily Channell-Justice, Program Director Temerty Contemporary Ukraine, Harvard University