Ukraine: Where Nation-Building and Empire Meet

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

As the Ukraine crisis continues, there are debates emerging with regard to the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, in language, culture, and history.

The vast majority of ordinary Russians view Ukrainians, though linguistically distinct, as being a fraternal East Slavic nation, closely bound to Russia by culture, history, and intermarriage. They further assert that Ukraine is an integral part of Russian civilization, owing to the particularly special significance of Kiev to both Russians and Ukrainians. More nationalistic Russians go even further and claim that Ukraine is merely a “concept” and that the people known as “Ukrainians” are merely an extension of the Russian nation who speak a dialect of Russian.

Some Ukrainians, particularly in the Central part of the country, would sympathize with the argument that Russians and Ukrainians are a fraternal people. In the Russian-speaking Southeast this would be further elevated to Russians and Ukrainians being “the same people.” However, as one might imagine, the nationalist discourse in Western Ukraine, particularly Galicia, is radically different. To Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainians are “completely different” from the Russians. They have they own culture, language and history which they believe is “entirely disconnected” from anything to do with the Russians. Some more extreme Ukrainian nationalists even claim that the Ukrainian language is not only distinct from Russian, but also distinct among all Slavic or even Indo-European languages as well.

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Of course, the truth exists somewhere in-between these conflicting narratives. It is true that Ukrainians do speak their own language and that there are aspects of Ukrainian culture that are indeed unique to Ukrainians. However, it is also true that Kiev is the common point of origin for all East Slavs including Ukrainians and Russians; that at one time in their common history, they used to speak the same language (Old East Slavic); and that the contemporary Ukrainian and Russian languages (though not exactly the same) are indeed very similar. It is also true that the Ukrainians and Russians have much in common in terms of culture, and they have both had a major impact on one another. Examples of this cultural exchange include the squat-and-kick prisyadka dance move and the beet soup borscht, both of Ukrainian origin but deeply influential in Russian culture. Nikolai Gogol was a famous Russian-language author of Ukrainian origin who often included Ukrainian themes in his writings, e.g., Taras Bulba.  The great Russian painter Ilya Repin, though himself an ethnic Russian, was born in Ukraine and also included many Ukrainian themes in his work, signaling his great love for his fellow East Slav brothers.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Intermarriage is also a major component of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship. Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were both products of mixed Russo-Ukrainian parentage; their wives, Nina Kukharchuk and Raisa Titarenko, were both fully Ukrainian. Another former leader, Lenoid Brezhnev, was also of mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage while another, Konstantin Chernenko, came from a Russified Ukrainian family. In music, the famous Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuck is Ukrainian and the Bessarabian-born Russian tango singer of the 1930s Pyotr Leschenko was also of Ukrainian background. Additionally, the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the great Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov were all born to mixed Russian-Ukrainian parents.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century.  He is widely respected by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus’ to Christianity in the 10th century. Vladimir is widely revered by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Rus’, Malorussia, Ukraine, and the Politics of Identity

Another aspect of the very close relationship between the Russians and the Ukrainians is the historical development of the identity of the Ukrainian people. At one point, all of the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Carpatho-Rusyns) used to comprise a single people – the people of the Rus’ – who used to speak a single language known as Old East Slavic. Their faith was Orthodox Christianity. The only exception to this were the Kievan territories of Galicia and Volhynia. Forming the westernmost regions of the old Rus’, Catholic and Polish influence was very strong in these areas, particularly Galicia, and their princely families even intermarried with nearby Catholic Polish and Hungarian houses. Significantly, while there was a distrust of Catholicism in the other Rus’ territories further east, in Galicia and Volhynia, Catholic and Western ideas were welcomed and fully embraced. This early cultural division would later play a role in Ukraine’s regional identity differences centuries later.

Another key factor was language. In the 13th century, the Kievan Rus’ fell into decline and became subjected to the Mongol invasions. Its western principalities (largely correspondent to much of modern-day Central Ukraine and Belarus) were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which later unified with the Kingdom of Poland at the Union of Lublin in 1569, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The gradual “break-up” of the single Old East Slavic language into several different languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Carpatho-Rusyn – occurred during this period. Yet, even into the early 20th century, many of these East Slavs still self-identified as “Rusyni” and spoke a language which they called “Rusynski,” both referring to the old Rus’ state.

Foreign rule further created a new dimension to the situation which involved religion. Rus’ lands under Mongol rule remained free to worship and practice their Orthodox Christian faith. By comparison, in those Rus’ lands under Polish-Lithuanian rule, Orthodoxy was at first tolerated. Later, however, the separateness in faith concerned the Polish monarchs as the Orthodox locals of the historic Rus’ lands saw their affinity not with Catholic Poland or Western Europe but with the world of Russian Orthodoxy. As such, Orthodox Christians were persecuted under Polish rule until in 1595, in exchange for an end to this persecution, the Orthodox clergy of the Polish-ruled lands agreed to the Union of Brest, forming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or Uniate) Church. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Russian Tsars later reclaimed the old western Rus’ lands from Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century Partitions of Poland, the Orthodox faith was reintroduced.  Significantly, in the Partitions, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria acquired the Catholic- and Western-leaning region of Galicia.

Additionally, an entirely separate situation existed further west in the region of Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia). This distant western region was a borderland frontier area at the time of Kievan Rus’.  It fluctuated between the control of Orthodox East Slav Kievan rulers to the north and east and Magyar (Hungarian) Catholic rulers to the south and west. With the fall of Kievan Rus’, this Carpathian territory fell under the complete control of the Hungarian monarchs. Overtime, the close proximity of the Catholic Slovak and Magyar populations combined with the area’s separateness from the other historic Rus’ lands due to the Carpathian Mountains led it to develop its own entirely distinct identity and language (Carpatho-Rusyn). This difference was reinforced with the Union of Uzhgorod in 1646 in which the Orthodox Rusyns joined the Catholic Church as part of the Byzantine rite, forming the separate Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.  A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls among other works.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.

As mentioned earlier, the Russian Tsars later reclaimed much of the old western Kievan Rus’ territories in modern-day Ukraine in Belarus during the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century.  Orthodoxy was also reintroduced in these regions. The “Rusyni” identity of old persisted among the locals and, during the 19th century, two rival nation-building projects on the territory of contemporary Ukraine sought to supplant this old “Rusyni” identity with a new identity. One was the Malorussian (“Little Russian”) identity, with the name “Little Russia” derivative from old Byzantine maps referring to modern Ukraine as “Lesser Rus'” or “Rus’ Minor.” The Malorussian project claimed that modern Ukraine was a natural extension of the Russian nation. In the Malorussian view, the Ukrainian language that developed from the break-up of Old East Slavic had to be supplanted by a common standard language. In their view, this was to be Russian, a language seen by Malorussian activists as the “successor” of Old East Slavic. Nikolai Gogol, an ethnic Ukrainian who wrote in Russian, was among those who favored Malorussianism.

Taras Shevchenko

Taras Shevchenko

Opposing Malorussianism, was Ukrainianism. Ukrainianism postulated that the East Slavic language that developed in Ukraine signified the development of an entirely separate ethnic identity, independent of other East Slavs. They called their nation “Ukraine,” a name that like “Malorussia” developed from cartographic toponyms and has been literally translated as “borderland.” Ukrainianists emphasized the unique and distinct culture of the people of the area above all else, with a special emphasis on language and culture. Of course, this did not exclude those who viewed themselves as “Ukrainian” but also saw Russia as a fraternal East Slavic nation nonetheless. The writer Taras Shevchenko is perhaps best representative of the “Ukrainianist” group, writing almost exclusively in the Ukrainian language, though occasionally writing in Russian as well.

Of these movements, Malorussianism was favored by the Tsars who regarded themselves as the legitimate successors to the rulers of the old Kievan Rus’. Consequently, the Malorussianist policies of official Petersburg should be viewed not within the context of an empire attempting to force an assimilation on a “conquered” people, but rather as part of a nation-building project or as part of the great “reunification of Old Rus'” and “gathering of the Russian lands” as the Tsars saw it.

A similar national project was also taking place in Italy, which had just been unified under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There, the Italian language, based on Tuscan and the Central Italian dialects, was to become the literary standard. However, in the southern island of Sicily, the locals spoke their own Romance language Sicilian, related to Italian but also distinct in its own right. In Rome, the king regarded Sicilian just as the Tsar regarded Ukrainian, as a backward provincial dialect which, with the expansion of education and literacy, would be eventually supplanted by “clean Italian” or in the Tsar’s case, “clean Russian.” Indeed, like Ukrainian, Sicilian developed distinct from other languages in Italy by virtue of its geographic separation from the mainland and historical invasions of the island by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spanish, and others. Yet Sicily was viewed by Italianist advocates as an integral and historical part of Italy, just as Ukraine was regarded as an integral and historical part of Russia by the educated class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

An additional development to all of this was the emergence of three new historical territories overtime. They included Zaporozhia which established itself in the “wild fields” south of Polish-ruled territory in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In this region, rebellious Orthodox Christian Cossacks fought against the Polish monarchs.  Then, in the 17th century, the area of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) emerged around the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy.  Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of Novorossiya was formed along the Black Sea after the Russian Tsars had finally succeeded in taking Ottoman-held territory along the coast.  In all of these regions, Ukrainian (or Malorussian) populations played primary roles in their historical formation and settlement.  Further, in all three of these regions, Orthodoxy was the primary faith.

The Malorussian-Ukrainian debate also took place across the border in the Austro-Hungarian-ruled East Slavic territories of Galicia, North Bukovina (Chernivsti), and Carpathian Rus’. There, the debate existed between Ukrainianists and Russophiles (effectively Malorussian activists under a different name). It became even more complex in Carpathian Rus’ ruled under the the Hungarian realm of the dual monarchy, between Ukrainianists, Russophiles, and Rusynists (those who chose to self-identify as Rusyn or Carpatho-Rusyn). In Galicia, where Catholic influence of both the direct Roman Catholic and Uniate strands remained strong, the debate was eventually won by the Ukrainianists. However, in Carpathian Rus’, the debate over ethnic identity still persists to this day.  Notably, during this period, many people from these Austro-Hungarian-controlled territories (particularly Galicia and Carpathian Rus’) also emigrated further west in search of opportunity.  They arrived in the United States and Canada, establishing the core of what would become the contemporary Ukrainian and Carpatho-Rusyn diasporas of today.

National Identity in the Soviet Era

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko's "Earth" (1930).  The film is perhaps Dovzhenko's best-known work and it is part three of the director's "Ukrainian trilogy" which also included "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Arsenal" (1929).

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). The film is perhaps Dovzhenko’s best-known work and it is part three of the director’s “Ukrainian trilogy” which also included Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the civil war in Ukraine of 1917-21, and the establishment of the USSR, Ukrainianism as a movement won out over Malorussianism.  In the 1920s, the new Soviet government undertook a “Ukrainization” policy in the newly-declared Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of its broader nativization or korenizatsiya (коренизация) policy toward nationalities, by promoting and advancing the Ukrainian literary language. This had the effect of encouraging a major cultural and literary renaissance in Ukraine during the NEP that many Ukrainians still fondly remember today.  The advent of new art forms, like film, helped advance this renaissance, in which the great Ukrainian filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko played a leading role.  A pioneer of early Soviet film, Dovzhenko is credited for not only his contributions to the development of Ukrainian cinema but also for Soviet and Russian cinema overall.

The Ukrainization policies were abruptly halted in the 1930s under Stalin whose NKVD purged the republic of real or perceived nationalists, “kulaki,” and “enemies of the people.” Yet, it should be noted that Stalin was not interested in the Malorussian-Ukrainian identity debate, but more concerned with strengthening his position throughout the entire USSR, and to this end he purged writers and intellectuals in all Soviet republics.

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Compounding all of this was the terrible Soviet famine of the early 1930s. The famine hit Ukraine very hard and some Ukrainian nationalist historians even go so far as to assert that what happened was a deliberate attempt at genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government. However, this fails to take into account the fact that the famine also affected many non-Ukrainians too, including Germans, Poles, Jews, and Russians.  Likewise, the famine also hit southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan, two other major cereal-producing regions of the Soviet Union, very hard. Among those who witnessed the starvation was a young Mikhail Gorbachev, a native of southern Russia, who personally experienced the horrors of the terrible famine first-hand. It affected his own family and killed off half of his village.

Millions starved to death in this cruel campaign of forced collectivization and suppression of the so-called “kulaki.”  Yet, Western correspondents like Walter Duranty disguised the facts while Stalin and Soviet officials claimed that the campaign had made the “eternally happy” people of the Soviet agricultural heartland “dizzy with success.”  Overall, ethnicity meant little to Stalin.  Nobody was safe from the terror of the vozhd.  He was an equal-opportunity mass murderer.

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Soviet era also saw the rise of industrialization.  The heavily industrial coal-mining region of the Donbas (Donets Basin), centered on the cities of Donetsk (also known as Yuzovka or Stalino) and Luhansk (also known as Voroshilovgrad) really emerged during this period.  Prior to this, the Donbas had been an area with a mixed Ukrainian and Russian Cossack population divided between historical Sloboda Ukraine, Novorossiya, and the Don Cossack Host.  The Soviet era firmly established the Donbas as a unique region in its own right, a truly working-class “Soviet” region where Russian was the primary language.  It was in this area that, during the Stalin era, Aleksei Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement emerged.

World War II left an indelible mark on Ukraine.  In the war, most Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians against the onslaught of the Nazi German war machine.  Many Ukrainian villagers in present-day Central and Southeastern Ukraine experienced violent atrocities at the hands of the hated Nazi invader and the country’s sizeable and historically significant Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.  The war also brought about the unification of Ukraine with the West Ukrainian territories of Galicia, Volhynia, North Bukovina, and Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia).  The addition of these new territories not only “unified” Ukraine but signaled a “reunification” of all East Slavic territories for the first time in history since the fall of the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century.  The new territories also presented (and continue to present) new complications for Ukraine’s collective identity.

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a "hero."

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a “hero.”

While the vast majority of the people in Central and Southeastern Ukraine view World War II as the “Great Patriotic War” and the Red Army as “saviors,” the view is different in Western Ukraine.  In Galicia (centered on the city of Lviv), the Soviet Union is looked on as a “conqueror” or “oppressor” while the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and Stepan Bandera who are viewed throughout most of Ukraine as wartime collaborators with the Nazis, are seen as “heroes.”  The “hero” view of Bandera also exists but is less prevalent in Volhynia where there are more positive views of the Red Army.

Meanwhile, in North Bukovina and Carpathian Rus’, the view of the Red Army as a “liberator” is much more common and there are reasons for this. North Bukovina’s Slavic population had been repressed under Romania’s chauvinistic government. Meanwhile, Carpathian Rus’ faced attempted Magyarization under Hungarian rule and neglect as part of Czechoslovakia. This, together with the region’s traditional Russophile sentiments, led the locals to welcome inclusion into the Soviet state.  Further, the additional factor of the unique Carpatho-Rusyn culture of Carpathian Rus’ also added to the complexity of Ukraine’s collective identity.  The region’s absorption into Soviet Ukraine also signaled their official shift in ethno-identification from “Carpatho-Rusyns” to “Ukrainians.”  Still, a sense of distinctiveness among the people of Zakarpattia continued to persist.

Following Stalin’s death, Ukraine experienced a very brief renaissance under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev, who was himself of partial Ukrainian background, even awarded the peninsula of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine, partially out of Slavic sentimentality, partially for economic and irrigation reasons. However, by the 1970s, Ukraine, along with the rest of the USSR, began to fall into stagnation.

Still, Ukrainian speakers co-existed alongside Russian speakers with no problems. Intermarriage and cultural exchange with Russians was commonplace.  The only issue with which the Soviet government had to deal was in newly-acquired Galicia, where the insurgent forces of the OUN continued conducting guerrilla operations into the mid-1950s. Yet, overall, Ukraine remained well-integrated into the Soviet Union.

By the time of glasnost, no significant national movement emerged in Ukraine except for the Rukh movement based in Galicia. Generally, most Ukrainians were uninterested in nationalism and more interested in a stable country and a working economy. 72% backed Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty in 1991, though later that year, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of a vaguely-worded referendum on “independence” with no explicit mention of an actual separation from the USSR (which was present, for example, in the wording of Armenia’s referendum on independence).

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine's first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Post-Soviet Ukraine

Following the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was widely expected to do well as an independent state. Despite the stagnation of the Soviet economy, Ukraine fared as one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. It had an extensive Black Sea coast, rich farmlands, Carpathian Mountain pastures, and heavy industry. However, these expectations faded within the first years of the country’s independence. From the outset, Ukraine faced two challenges: state-building and nation-building.  Its corrupt political class was unable to meet both.

In terms of state building, Ukraine had to develop independent institutions and a functional national economy. Kiev was able to develop institutions which were basically successors to the pre-existing Soviet republican institutions. However, Kiev was never able to establish a national economy. Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president oversaw a corrupt privatization in the 1990s. An oligarchy and a corrupt political elite quickly emerged, stifling Ukraine’s potential development. Poverty, unemployment, organized crime, human trafficking, and other social ills that became characteristic of Ukraine’s post-independence landscape also came to the fore.

Regional politics also remained. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the people of Galicia, the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism, continued to vote for candidates with nationalist, pro-Western, or anti-Russian credentials. By contrast, the Russian-speaking Southeast (including the Donbas and Crimea) consistently voted for pro-Russian candidates. The more divided, Surzhyk-speaking Central oblasti oscillated between candidates, as did the remote Rusyn-speaking Zakarpattia oblast. Outside of Galicia and Western Ukraine, nationalism generally gained little traction. In the Center and Zakarpattia, it was viewed with indifference and distrust. In the Southeast, it was met with outright hostility.

Orange Revolution 2004 (

Orange Revolution 2004 (

The Impact of the 2004 Orange Revolution

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, backed by Washington and American-based NGOs, was viewed by many Ukrainians as a means of solving the country’s problems and bringing it back on its feet. However, it only exacerbated them. Fundamental issues, such as corruption, remained largely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the pro-Western and nationalist policies of President Viktor Yushchenko enhanced the divisions among Ukrainians. His total affinity for Washington, his push to see Ukraine join the EU and especially NATO, as well as his efforts to rehabilitate and bestow awards on controversial figures like Stepan Bandera, created joy in Western Ukraine, confusion in the Center, and anger in the Southeast. Notably, in 2006, the landing of the US marines in the Crimean city of Feodosiya as part of a US-Ukrainian military exercise prompted major anti-NATO protests from the local population.

The Orange Revolution also intensified these regional divisions on an electoral level. Before the revolution, the politics of Central Ukraine had been more divided, with its oblasti acting as “swing states” and “election spoilers” between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. But the Orange Revolution somehow changed this pattern. Though divisions in Central Ukraine persisted and still do persist to this day, the threshold majority began favoring more pro-Western politicians. Coincidental to this development was the rise of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (henceforth PoR) which claimed to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. In elections, the PoR began to secure the solidly Russian-speaking oblasti from Odessa to the Donbas.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (AFP)

Most striking were the ways in which these new political divisions began to change historical relations between oblasti in Ukraine. A good example is the division that now exists between Sumy and Kharkiv. Historically, these two cities and their oblasti had a long history together, going back to their common foundation in the 17th century as part of the frontier region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine). In post-Soviet Ukraine, both the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasti followed each other’s electoral patterns. However, starting with the Orange Revolution, these two oblasti began to diverge from one another. Sumy, despite its Russian-speaking culture and heritage, was the native region of Viktor Yushchenko who became “nationalized” in Galicia. Yet, despite his nationalist ideology, Yushchenko’s place of birth in Russian-speaking Sumy strengthened his credentials in Washington and among American NGOs as “the man who could bring East and West together.” However, as the case of Sumy illustrates, Yushchenko only intensified the divisions. As a result of the Orange Revolution, the Sumy oblast and city began to be carried by pro-Western politicians. Pro-Russian politicians still came close to them in elections, but the overall political orientation began to shift. By contrast, Kharkiv became a solidly pro-Russian PoR oblast.

Superimposed on all of this was the growing geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia for influence in the post-Soviet space. Many commentators warned against the expansion of US influence in the region, particularly with regard to the NATO military alliance. Yet in the 2000s, Washington began to push beyond expanding NATO into Central-East Europe. They also began to look toward the former USSR, particularly the two most strategic ex-Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia. The sponsorship by Washington and American NGOs of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in these countries deeply troubled Moscow. The Kremlin subsequently began to throw its support behind the PoR and Yanukovych as the most “pro-Russian” force in the country.

Therefore, the development of divergent political forces domestically within Ukraine, combined with the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, have effectively set the stage for the present-day conflict in the country.  A solution to Ukraine’s protracted crisis can still be found – but it first and foremost requires a ceasefire, humanitarian aid relief for the people of the Donbas, and, most importantly, political will.   Moscow has signaled its readiness for such a process.

For more information on Ukraine’s historical, regional, and linguistic dynamics, see my earlier entries: What Is Ukraine? (2 March 2014, updated 15 May 2014), Who Are the Rusyns? (19 April 2014), The Historical Geography of Ukraine (15 May 2014, updated 24 August 2014), and 10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine (21 June 2014).


How Moscow Views the Ukraine Crisis

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800.  The historical memory of the Western invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still affects Russian perceptions of the West today.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800. The historical memories of the West’s invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still loom large in the Russian consciousness.

Throughout the ongoing Ukraine crisis, few Western commentators and/or observers have considered Moscow’s view of the situation. In the Western media, the prevailing image is that Russia is an aggressor, intent on dominating its neighbors. Western influence is presented as “positive.” Russian influence as “negative.” Joining the EU is depicted as being a road to economic and social prosperity and NATO is offered as a defensive bulwark against the “terrible” Kremlin. Remarkably, at least in the United States, liberals and conservatives are singing the same song. Further, the discourse of “invasion,” “occupation,” “aggression,” and “World War III” is hardly diplomatic. How does anyone believe that negotiations can ensue when such language is thrown about?

By contrast, in Moscow, the view of the situation in Ukraine is entirely different. It perceives the West as encroaching on countries to which it has been very closely associated. Ukraine (the entire country, East, South, Central, and even West), along with Belarus, is viewed as a fraternal East Slavic nation to which Russia is intimately bound. The capital Kiev is regarded by all Russians as the “mother Russian city,” the common point of origin for all East Slavs. To view Kiev within the boundaries of the EU and NATO is more than just a violation of a sphere of influence.  To the Russians, it is almost sacrilege.

Meanwhile, it does not help that some of the most vocal advocates for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO come from countries that Russia perceives as historical invaders. They include Poland and Sweden, the co-founders of the Eastern Partnership program that sponsored the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Both countries have a history of animosity toward Russia, but it is Poland in particular that Moscow views as being one of the chief advocates for Western expansionism.

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

We in the West regard Poland primarily as the victim of Russian aggression, particularly communism. We reflect on Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland. Conversely, to a Russian with a sense of history, Poland is perceived as a historical invader, a country that during the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613) supported the Tsar-pretender “False Dmitriy,” attempted to bring Catholicism to Orthodox Russia, and eventually invaded and occupied Moscow in 1609. That invasion was repelled in 1612 by the duo of Kuzma Minin and Dmitriy Pozharsky, whose statue stands today in front of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Even in more recent times, Russians recall that it was Poland’s Marshal Piłsudski who, during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, not only tried to ensure the freedom of Poland, but also sought to annex to Poland large swathes of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of old. Piłsudski is still admired by some in Poland today, including members of the political elite such as the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Jarosław. He is also greatly admired by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russians likewise recall Polish participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the Polish legion that is depicted as being the most fanatically supportive of an expansion toward Russia, so much so that they drown in the River Viliya for Napoleon. Today, the Russians see very much the same thing, except that Napoleon is now replaced by NATO and that the Poles are now showing their loyalty, not by drowning in the Viliya, but by asking for NATO troops to be stationed in their country.

In another Tolstoyan parallel, Moscow also likely views the Ukrainians who protested on the Maidan as being the modern equivalents of the muzhiks of War and Peace. It was the muzhiks who rose up against their oppressive landlords for Napoleon, who they viewed as the embodiment of the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Today though, the modern landlords are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite and oligarchs, while the liberal ideals of Napoleon and revolutionary France are today the liberal ideals of Brussels and the European Union. Moscow regards the latter ideals in 2014 just as they regarded Naopleon’s ideals in 1812 – that is, as false promises motivated only by geopolitical ambitions rather than by any genuine sense of altruism.

Given this, it would be wise to recall history before permitting the rhetoric to get too out of control.

The Eastern Partnership and the EU’s Baltic Bloc

The ongoing situation in Ukraine is a crisis that has drawn in the United States, the EU (represented by Germany and other West European powers), and Russia.  However, also significant are the minor parties to this dispute.  These are Poland, Sweden, and the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  Collectively, they together form a “Baltic Bloc” of the EU that is especially apprehensive about and hawkish toward Russia.  The reasons for this vary among these countries, but most are rooted in security concerns and historical animosities.  In the cases of Poland and the Baltics especially, NATO membership combined with support from Washington has only encouraged them in their anti-Russia posturing.  The concern with Russia has been particularly pronounced in the former Soviet Baltic republics where memories of the forced Soviet annexation by Stalin remain widespread.  This past week, it was announced that the US had deployed fighter jets to Baltic states and Poland in light of the Ukraine crisis.

Map of the EU's Baltic Bloc and Ukraine

Map of the EU’s Baltic Bloc of Poland, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in light beige with Ukraine in blue.

Why is the Baltic Bloc significant to the ongoing Ukraine crisis?  Part of the reason goes back to the very institution that sponsored the potential integration of Ukraine in the EU.  This was the Eastern Partnership (EaP), proposed on May 22, 2008 as a joint initiative by the two largest Baltic Bloc states, Poland and Sweden.  The EaP’s founding was inauspicious and did not receive much attention until it was officially launched a year later on May 8, 2009.  Its primary aim was (and still is) the integration of the countries of the former Soviet west – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – into the European Union.

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (right). (AP)

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (right). (AP)

It’s time to look to the east to see what we can do to strengthen democracy,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on the founding of the EaP.  Adding to this, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski stated, “we all know the EU has enlargement fatigue. We have to use this time to prepare as much as possible so that when the fatigue passes, [EU] membership becomes something natural.”

The main initiator of the EaP was Poland.  Warsaw wants to strengthen its regional position and also to counterbalance both Germany’s power within the EU and Russia’s perceived geopolitical assertiveness.  In order to give the EaP initiative gravitas, Poland also sought support from Sweden.  Concerned about their security vis-a-vis Moscow, Stockholm welcomed co-sponsorship.  However, in order to fully understand the motives of these two states more deeply, a brief overview of their historical relationships with Russia must be in order.

Why Poland?

Poland specifically has a long and complicated history with Russia.  In sum, its acceptance of Roman Catholicism and its orientation toward Western Europe and the Latin world distinguished it against Orthodox Russia with its Byzantine identity and mixed European-Asian outlook.  In the West, we often look to the most recent history of the Russian-Polish conflict where Poland is the victim of Russian and Soviet imperialism.  Mentioned are events like Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland after World War II.

The Oath of False Dimitry I to Sigismund III [King of Poland-Lithuania] on the Introduction of Catholicism in Russia by Nikolai Nevrev.

The Oath of False Dimitry I to Sigismund III [King of Poland-Lithuania] on the Introduction of Catholicism in Russia (1874) by Nikolai Nevrev.

However, to a Russian with a sense of history, the attitude toward Poland is very different.  They think back to the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613), a period of civil war that encompasses the rise of the Polish-sponsored “False Dmitriy” to the throne in 1605.  The tsar pretender sought to bring Catholicism to Russia and to Polonize its culture.  He soon became widely unpopular and, after being exposed as a false claimant to the throne, was overthrown and killed in a Boyar-led uprising in 1606.  Subsequently, his body is said to have been burned and his ashes stuffed into a cannon that was aimed and fired in the direction of Poland.

More importantly, the Time of Troubles also includes the 1609 invasion of Muscovy by the Polish monarch Sigismund III, who hoped to forcibly annex Russia and proclaim himself ruler of a joint Polish-Russian state.  The occupation of Moscow by the Poles and their unsuccessful attempts to forcibly convert Russia to Roman Catholicism during this period are especially sensitive subjects for the Russians to this day.

Patriarch Hermogenes Refusing to Bless the Poles (1860) by Pavel Chistyakov

Patriarch Hermogen Refusing to Bless the Poles (1860) by Pavel Chistyakov

In firm opposition to the Polish invasion was the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Hermogen, who was imprisoned by the Poles for refusing to endorse a non-Orthodox tsar.  From his cell, he called upon the mass of the Russian narod to rise up and expel the invaders from the motherland.   Additionally arousing Russian national feeling was Sweden’s decision in the autumn of 1610 to join the Poles in their fight against Russia.

The Polish occupation of Muscovy was ultimately overturned in 1612 by a successful national rebellion, led by an unlikely duo comprised of a local butcher Kuzma Minin and a veteran military leader Prince Dmitriy Pozharsky.  Subsequently, these leaders called the national assembly that led to the election of Mikhail Romanov to the Russian throne, thus initiating the Romanov dynasty.   The national significance of Minin and Pozharsky’s leadership would later become immortalized in a monument dedicated to them that stands today on Red Square in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.  Notably, the monument was completed in 1818, immediately following the victory against the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 and approximately 200 years after the victory against the Poles.   In general, these historical memories, though seemingly distant to Westerners, still influence many Russians today and continue to inform their views on geopolitics with regard to Europe.  It is a history that every Russian school child knows.

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Former Polish President Lech Kaczyński

Former Polish President Lech Kaczyński

In much more recent times, following the collapse of communism, the Russo-Polish relationship entered an overtly antagonistic phase under the presidency of Lech Kaczyński (2005-2010).  A textbook Polish nationalist, Kaczyński held a genuine distrust for both Germany and Russia.  Within the EU, he generally earned a reputation for being hawkish on Russia and staunchly loyal to Washington.  He was an active supporter of the war in Iraq as well as efforts to support the “color revolution” governments in Ukraine and Georgia and to expand NATO eastward.   As one commentator from Der Speigel noted:

Since it expanded into Central Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union in 2004, Poland and the Baltic states have pushed the EU to take a stronger stance against Russia — to the dismay of many diplomats in what some call “Old Europe.”

During the 2008 Georgian war, Kaczyński reacted by flying to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with the pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko and the presidents of the three Baltic states.  Together, they “stood in solidarity” with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.   In a speech, he proclaimed, “you could say that the nation of Russia yet again showed its true face here today.  The aggression here is nothing new when it comes to history.”   Kaczyński shared close relations with Saakashvili. Significantly, after Kaczyński’s death in April 2010, Saakashvili called him a “hero of Georgia” and implied foul play in the tragedy (presumably by Russia, though there has been no evidence of this).   Later, the Georgian president unveiled a monument in Kaczyński’s honor in Tbilisi.

Lech Kaczyński stands with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and the presidents of the three Baltic states in Tbilisi during the 2008 war. (AFP)

Lech Kaczyński stands with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and the presidents of the three Baltic states in Tbilisi during the 2008 South Ossetia war. (AFP)

Kaczyński also enthusiastically welcomed the Washington-proposed missile defense shield in Poland which Moscow considered a threat.   Likewise, he envied and feared Germany’s wealth and power within the EU.  Following Kaczyński’s death, his twin brother Jarosław (who shared much of his brothers’ political views) warned Berlin against “imperial ambitions” and authored a book in Poland that suggested German territorial ambitions on Poland, and that the East German stasi helped Angela Merkel win power.   Between both Germany and Russia, the Kaczyńskis saw Poland again as being a “victim in the middle,” a fact seemingly emphasized by then-Defense Minister (today Foreign Minister) Radosław Sikorski’s comparison of the joint German-Russian Nord Stream pipeline to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.   Clearly the historical memory of Poland’s partitions and divisions still runs deep in the Polish consciousness.

Józef Piłsudski

Józef Piłsudski

It should likewise be noted that Kaczyński also deeply admired Józef Piłsudski, a Polish military leader and dictator from Poland’s interwar past, and his ideology of “prometheism” which likely influenced his perspective as well.   The “prometheist” policy of Piłsudski viewed large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania as crucial to forming a larger, multiethnic Poland as had existed immediately prior to its first partition in 1772.  Additionally, there are also many Poles who continue to view the “Kresy” (“Borderland”) territories of Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, and Southern Lithuania as still being rightfully theirs.  Consequently, it is in Ukraine where Poland’s historical-national ambitions coincide with its security concerns.  Notably, Kaczyński’s ally, Mikheil Saakashvili, is also an admirer of Piłsudski.

Yet, for all this, the overtly antagonist atmosphere of Russian-Polish relations under Kaczyński did not last long.  In 2010 Kaczyński died in a tragic plane crash near Smolensk.  Early presidential elections were called.   Kaczyński’s twin brother Jarosław ran in his place and lost against the independent Bronisław Komorowski.   It must be noted that Komorowski hails from Poland’s “recovered territories,” the formerly German-inhabited regions of western Poland annexed after World War II, where the attitude toward relations with Russia is more pragmatic.  Likewise, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, elected to office in 2007, is also from the “recovered territories” and has supported better relations with Moscow.

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (

Under Komorowski and Tusk, relations between Poland and Russia have improved.  However, it was also under the Tusk government with the encouragement of Defense Minister-turned-Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski that the EaP was founded, thus indicating a continued interest in enhancing Poland’s role in the ex-Soviet space.  In fact, Sikorski had proposed the idea for the EaP as early as March 2008.  It is conceivable too that while the Tusk government has sought to maintain a balanced relationship with Moscow, it also still seeks to counterbalance Germany’s influence within the EU and Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.  Overall, tension with Moscow still remains.  Historical animosities continue to be highly flammable, as demonstrated by the violent clashes between Russian and Polish football fans during the FIFA Euro 2012 Poland-Russia football match in Warsaw.   According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, 54% of Poles expressed an unfavorable opinion about Russia.

Why Sweden?

A 2009 Polish report on the EaP indicated that the concept “was born in Poland” and that Sweden later decided to co-sponsor the initiative.  Indeed, the report states, “thanks to Sweden’s involvement, the development of an independent EU Eastern policy ceased to be perceived as a sphere of interest of primarily the ‘new’ [i.e., ex-communist] EU member states.”  Though the same report identifies “the principal motivation behind Sweden’s involvement” as being its “support for bringing those countries closer to the EU,” it does not state any reasons for this.   The historic Swedish-Russian relationship offers some insight into this issue.  Stockholm’s relationship with Russia has been dominated since the 19th century primarily by security concerns which have their origins in earlier military conflicts.

Aleksandr Nevsky as depicted in the 1938 Eisenstein film of the same name.

Russian national hero Aleksandr Nevsky as depicted in the 1938 Eisenstein film of the same name.  Hear the film score by Prokofiev here.

Much like the Polish-Russian relationship, the historic relationship between Russia and Sweden also has deep roots.  Some historians even argue that the Rus’ people have at least partial Scandinavian origins.   This aside, Russian-Swedish relations have largely been characterized by mutual mistrust and hostility.  The two countries fought 15 wars against one another, beginning with the Swedish–Novgorodian wars of the 12th and 13th centuries, including the famed Battle of the Neva in 1240 in which the Prince Aleksandr of Novgorod earned the epithet “Nevsky.” However, it was the Great Northern War that marked a major turning point in the relationship between both countries.  It was during that war that Tsar Peter the Great captured a strategically important stretch of territory on the Gulf of Finland where he founded for Russia a new, European-oriented capital, St. Petersburg.   It was also during the war that the Battle of Poltava was fought.  On June 27, 1709, on the Poltava field of eastern Ukraine, Peter decisively defeated the Swedish forces of King Charles XII and his Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld.  The defeat marked the beginning of the end of Sweden as a Great Power in Europe.

Peter the Great Thinking About the Construction of St. Petersburg (1916) by Alexandre Benois

Peter the Great Thinking About the Construction of St. Petersburg (1916) by Alexandre Benois

The last war fought between Russia and Sweden was a century later in 1808-09 in which Russia annexed Finland.  Then, despite a lengthy history of tension, the two Baltic rivals set aside their mutual animosity to combat a much greater common foe, Napoleon in 1812.  After his defeat, however, the frosty relationship between St. Petersburg and Stockholm resumed.  Sweden bristled at Russia’s continued fortifications of the majority-Swedish Åland Islands, located only 135 miles from Stockholm.   Following its territorial losses to Russia in the Great Northern War and its additional loss of Finland in 1809, many Swedes continued to fear the possibility of a Russian attack from across the Baltic Sea.  For its part, Russia too feared a possible attack by its northern neighbor.

In the 20th century, though officially neutral in World War I and World War II, Stockholm nonetheless supported Finland in its quest for independence from Russia and later in its Winter War with the Soviet Union.  In both instances, popular opinion remained distrustful of Russia and support for the Finns ran high.  Sweden maintained a policy of neutrality during the Cold War, but it was a policy that Moscow did not fully trust.  It included incidents such as the 1952 Catalina affair in which Soviet fighter jets shot down a Swedish reconnaissance aircraft (DC-3) and a search-and-rescue plane.  Moscow officially denied any involvement until the Soviet collapse in 1991.   In another incident, the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-363 ran aground in Sweden’s Karlskrona archipelago from its Baltic Fleet base in Soviet Latvia in October 1981.

Espionage was another aspect of the Cold War relationship.  Sweden rendered support to Britain’s Mi6 to train intelligence and resistance agents of Polish and Baltic descent for “Operation Jungle.”  The operation was intended to help reinforce anti-communist resistance in the Moscow-backed People’s Republic of Poland and in the then-Soviet Baltic states in the 1940s and 1950s.  For its part, Stockholm arrested three Soviet spies: Fritiof Enbom in 1952, Stig Wennerström (a colonel in the Swedish Air Force) in 1963 and Stig Bergling in 1979.

Map of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Map of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden’s traditional security concerns with Moscow changed entirely.  Suddenly, the long Soviet-Swedish maritime border in the Baltic Sea ceased to exist and was now replaced by maritime borders with the Russian Federation and the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Sweden viewed the three new Baltic states as an important “buffer” against any future Russian threat and thus were viewed as crucial to Stockholm’s security (and to some extent, the security of Scandinavia in general).  The sentiment was reciprocated in the Baltics, whose memories of their forced incorporation into the USSR ran deep.  The Scandinavian orientation is especially pronounced in Estonia where there have even been proposals to revise their national flag to include the Nordic cross.   In 2011, Sweden formally apologized to the Baltic states “for turning a blind eye to post-war Soviet occupation.”

Overall, the relationship between Stockholm and Moscow in the 1990s was generally good.  The perception of Yeltsin’s Russia being a weak state at once significantly reduced traditional security concerns and created new ones (e.g., a mass migration of Russian workers or concerns regarding the security of nuclear weapons).  This all changed with the Putin presidency, in which the “new” concerns of the 1990s were supplemented again by traditional security concerns.  In contrast to the wild Yeltsin years of free-fall capitalism, Putin’s tenure stressed a greater sense of stability.  From the outset, the new Russian president sought to reverse the worst excesses of the Yeltsin era.  For Sweden, this meant that the stability concerns stemming from the Yeltsin 1990s would be addressed.  However, it also meant the re-emergence of a strong, viable state in Russia that could again potentially present a military threat to Stockholm.  Consequently, while a member of the Swedish government may state publicly that their opposition to Russia is based on “conflicts in values,” the reality is that it has more to do with perceived Russian state consolidation and its potential implications for Swedish security.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt

Beginning in the 2000s, a noticeable chill had descended on relations between the two states once again.  Alongside Lech Kaczyński’s Poland, Sweden soon became one of the most hawkish voices on Russia in the EU.  It was a very vocal in its condemnation of the Second Chechen war and provided a safe haven to former separatist leaders, irritating Moscow.   Notably, a Swedish web server still hosts a website known as the Kavkaz Center, the online voice for the militant Islamic Caucasus Emirate, designated as a terrorist organization by Russia and the United States.  Moscow has periodically urged Stockholm to ban the site, which as of March 2014, it has not yet done.   Stockholm has also given unequivocal support for the expansion of NATO and for the new “color revolution” governments.  In light of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt compared the actions of President Putin with those of Adolf Hitler.   Military ties were immediately severed.

In 2005, Stockholm opposed the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany.  Among its concerns were a fear of “increased energy dependence on Russia,” “increased Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea (since the pipeline must be guarded),” and “use of the gas installations by Russia to spy on Sweden.”   However, in 2009, Sweden reversed its position and decided to give the green light on Nord Stream.

Regardless, the situation remains tense.  By 2011, in response to Russia’s increase military buildup, Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Jan Björklund proposed the installation of military units on the Baltic island of Gotland in case of war between Russia and Sweden.   Then, on Good Friday 2013, Russia conducted a military exercise in the Baltic Sea, simulating an attack on Stockholm.   Though Moscow insisted that it had informed Stockholm of such an exercise, Sweden was caught totally by surprise.  It is likely that the Russian exercise was done in response to earlier NATO exercises held in its vicinity, notably in Norway in March 2012, and to the planned NATO “Steadfast Jazz” exercise in Poland and the Baltic states that was later held in November 2013.   The incident fueled a growing debate in Sweden about finally abandoning the country’s historic neutrality and joining the NATO military alliance.   The inadequacies of the Swedish military were later satirized on a comedy program on Russian television to the tune of ABBA’s Mamma Mia.   The Swedes were not laughing.  A 2013 survey revealed that 76% have a negative opinion of Russia.