What Is Going On In Ukraine? An Explanation For the Confused

Every time you open a newspaper or turn on the news, the headlines are dominated by Ukraine. It is certainly a very important issue but also a very confusing one. Like most people you probably don’t quite understand what it is about. You have probably figured out that it involves a lot of protests, something to do with the President, Europe might be involved and now the Russians are intervening. But it probably seems like a great muddle of similar names, unfamiliar geography and complicated geo-political affairs. If you’re confused by all of this, don’t worry, everyone (including the Ukrainians) probably are, but hopefully this post will make things a bit clearer.

The first thing to know is that Ukraine and Russia have a lot of history together. In fact for most of their history they were the one country. The Russian state traces its ancestry back to the 9th century Kingdom of Kievan Rus which had its capital not in Moscow but Kiev. For the next thousand years Ukraine was part of Russia and never existed as an independent state with its current borders until 1991. It is for this reason that Russia doesn’t see itself as intervening in a foreign country, but rather dealing with an issue on their home soil. Just as many Irish people consider the North to be a part of Ireland, so many Russians consider Ukraine a natural part of their homeland. Not only do the two neighbours have strong historical links, but there are also a large number of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, particularly in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. A large number speak Russian on a daily basis and consider themselves more Russian than Ukrainian.

Crimea has an even stronger link with Russia as it is mostly populated by Russians and is the home of a number of Russian naval bases. Crimea’s strategic location gives an extra dimension to the dispute. Crimea was traditionally considered part of Russia and was only transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954. At the time both countries were part of the Soviet Union, so no one thought it would make much of a difference. When Ukraine declared independence, Crimea got pulled along. So it is more due to the random luck of history that Crimea is part of Ukraine and not Russia.

Percentage of people who have Ukrainian as their native language. Note the strong East-West divide
Percentage of people who have Ukrainian as their native language. Note the strong East-West divide

Crucial to understanding the current turmoil is that Ukraine is deeply divided. Western Ukraine would consider itself closer to Europe whereas Eastern Ukraine would see itself closer to Russia. The West sees its future as part of the EU, while there is still nostalgia for the Soviet Union in the East. The current troubles essentially boil down to the two sides pulling in opposite directions. The protests began when President Yanukovych (who favours Russia) refused to sign an agreement with the European Union, preferring an agreement with Russia. This outraged Western Ukrainians who took to the streets. The protests spread into anti-government opposition to widespread corruption and economic decline.

The result of the 2010 Presidental election by region. Note how the East-West divide mirrors the language divide
The result of the 2010 Presidental election by region. Note how the East-West divide mirrors the language divide

So the Ukrainian people took to the streets and set up barricades in the middle of Kiev in a manner reminiscent of the Arab Spring. Attempts were made to crush the protests and the police violently attacked protesters. On the one hand this was an impressive display of people power and taking back of power from an autocratic President. On the other hand, the protests contain many dubious elements. One party in particular, called Svoboda has dangerous Fascist and even Neo-Nazi views and is essentially a Ukrainian version of Greece’s Golden Dawn. Its leader has condemned the “Muscovite-Jewish Mafia” that he claims runs the state and is prone to praising Nazis. Before the uprising, the party had 10% of the vote in the last election, but the uprising changed everything so it is impossible to know how much influence it now has. Russia uses this to claim that the uprising is nothing more than a group of Fascists overthrowing the democratically elected President of Ukraine, though it remains to be seen how much influence the far right has.

Viktor Yanukovych, until last month the Pro-Russian President of Ukraine
Viktor Yanukovych, until last month the Pro-Russian President of Ukraine

The pro-Russian President fled and a new pro-European government was formed. However, they made a major mistake by removing Russian as an official language and making Ukrainian the sole language of Ukraine. This antagonised the Russian speakers who had supported Yanukovych. The inhabitants of the Crimea were particularly opposed to the new government as their population is almost entirely composed of Russian speakers. In the chaos that followed, soldiers that looked like Russians, talked like Russians but didn’t have the official Russian insignia seized control of Crimea. Since then there has been a tense stand off between Ukrainian troops and Russians (the Russian fleet has bases in the Crimea). Russia has been pushing for Crimea to join Russia and a referendum has been set for the 16th of March. Given the presence of Russian soldiers and the lack of time to prepare for the election, many doubt how legitimate the election will be.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the Pro-Western leader of the opposition
Yulia Tymoshenko, the Pro-Western leader of the opposition

That the Crimea is dominated by ethnic Russians is beyond doubt; however the million dollar question is whether or not they wish to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Just as Catholics in Northern Ireland have an affinity to the Republic, but are content to remain within the United Kingdom, many Crimeans describe themselves as Russians but are content to remain within Ukraine. The question everyone wants to know is how strong nationalist feeling is and how strong the secession movement is. Interviews suggest that most Crimeans wish to stay in Ukraine (the fact that most have not opted to obtain Russian passports is seen as an indication of their feelings).

The situation remains incredibly confused and no one knows what will happen next. It is guaranteed that Crimea and possibly Eastern Ukraine will get more autonomy and support for the Russian language. Russia may annex Crimea but this move may not be internationally recognised. The real danger lies in how Russia treats Eastern Ukraine which is the industrial heart of Ukraine. If it tries to promote secession, this will be strongly resisted by Ukraine with the possibility of conflict. Ukraine is far smaller than Russia, but it does have the second largest army in Europe. While war is unlikely, given the high level of tension, a small spark could set a conflict off. At the moment Russian and Ukrainian troops are facing each other in Crimea and a slip of the trigger by a nervous soldier could change everything. America and the EU are trying to avoid getting involved, but they may get dragged in and be forced to impose sanctions.

A lot of commentators are viewing the situation as if the Cold War never ended. However the situation is far more complicated than just the greedy Russians crushing a helpless little country. The Russians believe they are protecting their people from a hostile unelected government supported by Fascist mobs. The Ukrainians on the other hand believe they have overthrown a corrupt and autocratic President and are re-asserting their independence from Russia. Both sides have a valid point and neither can be cast into a black and white situation of either right or wrong. Instead Ukraine is a confusing mess of shades of gray.

11 thoughts on “What Is Going On In Ukraine? An Explanation For the Confused”

  1. Very concise rundown, it has helped me understand as well as possible. Further concern – the possibility that Ukraine still possesses some former USSR nuclear weapons. I have not noticed any emphasis on this subject.

    1. Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons to Russia in 1994. At that time the Russian Federation, United States and United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which they promised to respect Ukraine’s national sovereignty.

  2. Crimeans may not have really wanted to join Russia before 2014, but the fact that they suddenly have an unelected anti-Russian national government in Kiev may tip the scales enough for them to want to secede. Another important question is, whether they legally can secede under the Ukrainian law, and how the rest of Ukraine would react.

  3. “The Russian state traces its ancestry back to the 9th century Kingdom of Kievan Rus which had its capital not in Moscow but Kiev. For the next thousand years Ukraine was part of Russia and never existed as an independent state with its current borders until 1991. ”

    I understand that you don’t want to delve to deep into history but I have some remarks.
    First, a large part of what is now Kiev became a part of Poland-Lithuania after the told Kievan Rus’ state was destroyed by the Golden Horde. In the middle of the 17th century, after a Cossack uprising, Kiev and Left-bank Ukraine were attached to Muscovy/Russia. Right-bank Ukraine remained a part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century.
    Second, there’s a big difference between Russia and old Kievan Rus’ state. The latter was a loose and very diverse confederation ruled by the Rurik dynasty. Russia originated from Muscovy, which was an insignificant part of Kievan Rus’ that managed to conquer the principalities of old Kievan Rus’. This history is quite complex but we should not see too much continuity between the old Kievan Rus’ state with its different traditions and contemporary Russia.

    1. Obviously space restricted me from going into too much detail and this is a simplified version. I am vaguely aware of the history of the region and the influence of Poland-Lithuania etc. Its interesting that the current East-West divide is roughly similar to the split between Austria-Hungary and Russia 100 years ago.

      Of course any kingdom 1000 years ago, especially one the size of Kievan Rus would have only limited control over its territory. I only mentioned it as an example of the interlocking history between the two countries.

      1. It is not just about limited control. The issue is that Russia presents itself as the heir of Kievan Rus´, a fact that is highly disputable. It is some kind of a founding myth that the Russian empire in the past has used as a justification for conquering and controlling regions that previously were a part of Kievan Rus´. Your statement that Russia and Ukraine were one country for thousand years is not just simplified but also wrong. By stating it you unintentionally confirm and reproduce one of the myths that Russia also now uses to justify its claims on Ukraine.
        It would be more neutral if you just wrote that the histories of Ukraine and Russia were very intertwined for the last thousand years.
        I am sorry if all this seems pedantic. 🙂

  4. I don’t have an opinion on what should happen to Crimea, but I feel like you’re glossing over the history of the Ukrainian struggle for independence which has existed since the seventeenth century. I don’t know much about it myself, but I had a very dear friend who was named after this poet. I know her father was a Ukrainian Nationalist during the Second World War.

    My grandmother’s parents were Lithuanians who fled Czarist Russia. Fear of Russia is not necessarily related to the Cold War.

    1. Of course Ukraine has a long and detailed history which I could never fully explain here. Like the current situation it is very messy with Communists and Fascists and various wars. So yeah, its understandable that many Ukrainians are in no mood to welcome Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.

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