With the presence of Russian military personnel in the Crimea and the vote of approval for use of force in the Russian Upper Parliament, the situation in the Ukraine is rapidly deteriorating. Perhaps in a few hours the situation may escalate, as Ukrainian forces vow to resist any attempt at Russian military intervention into Ukraine. Already there are accusations going back and forth of personnel and protesters on both sides seizing buildings and installations, which reminds one of the opening of hostilities in Spain in 1936 or the initial moves of the War in Bosnia in 1992.
I’m not any kind of expert on modern Ukraine, Russia, or the post-Soviet conflicts in Georgia, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and other locations. I am however distinctly conscious of the threat of identity politics in nations bordering other, larger culturally-identified powers. The history of Georgia, the Baltic States, and, very worryingly, the former Yugoslavia has fearfully elucidated what that looks like in a Post-Soviet context. Ukraine, declared a sovereign and independent nation in 1991 is not a nation without history, but it is a nation notoriously devoid of the enduring national fictions that hold in other countries to create national narratives. For Ukraine is for the Ukrainians, but who are the Ukrainians? Perhaps Ukraine’s curse is not too little history, but too much.
Ukraine sits on large tracts of steppe land, largely devoid of geographic barriers other than the rivers flowing down to the Black Sea and the expansive Pripet Marshes to the north, and has been an open to aggression from civilizations and states to its east, west, north, and south. Its peoples too are diverse. Ukraine long sat between three great culture worlds of Muscovites/Russians, Turks/Tartars, and Lithuanian-Poles/Germans. A place where central Europe met Slavic and Eurasian civilization, Ukraine was a sort of “wild, wild east” in European history, portrayed in the novels of Sienkiewicz as a land filled with heroes on horseback, riding into renaissance sunsets in furry hats and swinging flashing sabers. In the early 17th century, the land’s population was split in its allegiances between the Khan of the Crimea, the King of Poland, and the Tsar of Russia and in belief between Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity. Long wars on the steppe between these powers ran from the time of the Mongol Conquests to the eventual growth of the Muscovites into the Russian superstate.
The only fictive histoical basis for a truly independent Ukrainian state lies in the 1648 Revolt of the Zaporozhian Cossacks against the King of Poland. Under their legendary headman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, this Orthodox population of soldiery established an independent Hetmanate on the Dneiper which defied the Poles, Crimean Tatars, and the rising power of Russia, whose Romanov Tsars began to press upon the little state nearly as soon as it was born. The Hetmanate held on until its defeat, along with its Swedish allies, at the Battle of Poltava at the hands of Tsar Peter the Great, though the Ukrainian populations continued to occasionally revolt against the Romanov dynasty (as well as form cavalry regiments to support it, as they did during the First World War and Russian Civil War). Crimea would also be conquered by the Romanovs in bloody battles with the Crimean Khanate and their Turkish allies.
Co-opted into Russia during the late eighteenth century, the lands of modern Ukraine held otherwise no separate identity, despite the aspirations of nationalists like the poet Taras Shevchenko, until established as a Republic in the aftermath of the First World War, which had seen Ukrainians fight for both Russia and Austria-Hungary (which had gained that portion of Ukraine still under Polish control during the 18th century partition of Poland). It was short lived: Certain portions passed back into Polish control after 1918, only to be retaken by Russia during the division of Poland in 1939. Outside Galicia, Ukrainian nationalists struggled against the Kiev Soviet and were driven into exile by the Red Army. Soviet occupation drove a deep wedge in populations as the Soviets attempted to impose hegemony on the religiously-minded and independent peoples, and led to the horrific tragedy of the Genocidal Artificial Famine of 1932-34 as a part of Stalinist collectivization of the rich agricultural lands of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s populations would be further divided during the German invasion of Russia in 1941, with groups accused supporting and fighting for the Germans, including many western Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Crimean Tartars, deported and executed by Stalin. Forced resettlement and occupation of areas by ethnic Russians has provided much of the ethnic identification of the eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Likewise, the wide spread of the Eastern Orthodox faith ties much of Ukraine, particularly the rural east, to Russia. Many Ukrainians in Ukraine have the Russians to thank for their livelihoods and homes, and many continue to look to the Russian Church’s strong resurgence as a model to adopt in their own country. These people have the most to lose, supposedly, should the country pull away from Russia and engender a stronger relationship with the West.
What we are seeing now is the crisis of politics, predicated on a land divided by history. For many Ukrainians further west, faith in their large neighbor and socialist brother-state to the east was deeply shaken by Chernobyl and the history of deportation and resettlement for those groups of Crimean and Western Ukrainians who opposed the Soviets (and this sadly accounts for the unfortunate propagation of right-wing nationalists sporting National Socialist paraphernalia). There is also a desire for a turn westwards economically and socially, like their neighbor and one time ruler Poland, whose own relations with the Ukrainians have greatly improved since independence. But Ukraine and the Crimea, lands with long histories of conflict, cannot escape their position in the middle of the great power politics in the 21st Century as they could not escape them in the 17th century. It can only hoped that a peaceful settlement and a de-escalation of tensions within the country and with Russia will prevent this being yet another violent chapter of Ukraine’s rather violent history.