By Jay Holmes
This week, the Western media has, in a fashion, been covering the political crisis in Ukraine with growing interest. While the storm over the steppes has been brewing since November 2013, it has grown to crisis proportions during recent weeks. The growth and severity of the crisis has been sudden, but it has in no way been accidental.
Critical events are occurring at such a rapid pace as to render any published analysis out of date by the time even the speediest editors can post it. Nonetheless, the outcome of the conflict in the Ukrainian Republic will have far reaching consequences for Ukrainians and for much of the Eurasian continent. To a lesser, but still significant degree, secondary political and economic consequences will be felt across the world.
Though the media reporting usually presents the Ukraine in its own vacuum, outside factors have heavily influenced the present situation. One of the most influential outside factors has been Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, a.k.a. Stalin 2.0.
As complicated as that may sound, the reality is even more complicated. To better understand the present conflict in Ukraine, we need to consider the long and complex history of the region. While the current situation is violent and threatens to become more violent at any moment, the previous centuries in the region were even more violent. For the sake of brevity, let us look at a timeline of the critical events in Ukrainian history that are shaping today’s conflict.
Circa 900 A.D.
A Ukrainian ethnic identity becomes evident in what we now refer to as Ukraine.
Ukrainians found the city of Chernihiv.
While the Ukrainians see themselves as distinct, their Russian neighbors see Ukraine as a Russian hinterland. This particular hinterland is huge, has a Black Sea coast, and has better climates for agriculture than areas further north.
This particular geographic dynamic will shape the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians for the next millennia.
Danylo, King of Rus, founds the city of Lviv.
The Polish kingdom to the northwest has grown more powerful. At the Battle of Berestechko, the Poles defeat the Ukrainians.
A Russian army seizes Smolensk, Ukraine, and initiates a bloody Thirteen Years War between Russia and Poland over Ukrainian rule. In a larger sense, the Thirteen Years War does not quite end until 1670, after a long series of battles and negotiations that include Russian, Cossack (Ukrainian), Tartar, Polish, Swedish, and Turkish armies.
Poland cedes Kiev, Smolensk, and Eastern Ukraine to Russia in the Treaty of Andrusovo. The Poles and Russians rule their respective occupied areas with iron fists.
Ukraine establishes autonomy from Russia and Poland. While exerting military pressure on its neighbors, it remains under constant military threat from those same neighbors on all sides.
A measure of economic prosperity allows for the construction of the magnificent St. George Cathedral in Lviv.
The Ukrainian city of Vilkovo is founded. It becomes a cosmoploitan trade center with foreign residents and a vast network of canals. It can be considered the “Venice of the Crimea.”
The Ukrainians have lost much of their territory to the growing Russian Empire. Catherine the Great orders the construction of the fortress of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula and the founding of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea headquarters.
The University of Lviv is founded.
Russia outlaws the Ukrainian language.
The first Ukrainian political party, Halytska, is formed. Its platform is essentialy Ukranian nationalism.
The ban on the Ukrainian language in Russian-occupied Ukraine is lifted.
Ukrainians establish a central parliament, the Rada, in Kiev following the collapse of the Russian Empire during World War I.
Ukraine declares independence, and the Ukrainian People’s Republic is established.
The Soviet Army gains control of Ukraine and establishes a puppet state, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.
As part of Stalin’s genocidal campaign against Ukrainians, seven million peasants are starved to death in a Soviet-engineered famine. This holocaust is not well known outside of Ukraine, but it heavily influences Ukrainian thinking today.
The Soviets carry out mass executions and deportations in Ukraine as part of Stalin’s systematic purges against intellectuals.
Nazi Germany invades Ukraine. At first, many Ukrainians view the Germans as liberators and volunteer to fight against their Soviet oppressors. Hitler misses a golden opportunity in his war against the U.S.S.R., and rather than accepting Ukrainian help against Stalin, he installs a brutal occupation in Ukraine. The Nazis murder most of Ukraine’s 1.5 million Jews between 1941 and 1944. About five million Ukrainians die fighting against Nazi Germany, both in Ukraine and in the ensuing Soviet counter-invasion of Germany.
The World War II allied victory leads to Soviet annexation of Western Ukraine lands. Fifty thousand Cossacks that had fought on the German side against the U.S.S.R. are forcibly repatriated from Western Europe to the U.S.S.R., where they are executed.
The brutal Soviet occupation of the Ukraine stirs resistance. With the help of Soviet spies in Western governments, the Soviets defeat the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
The Soviet police state begins to collapse after decades of economic ruin.
Despite the remarkable courage of firefighters, a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine explodes and sends a radioactive cloud across parts of Europe and Asia. The area remains heavily contaminated to this day.
The Ukrainian People’s Movement, the Rukh, is founded by writers and intellectuals. Their basic platform is Ukrainian independence and human rights.
The Rukh organizes a Human chain protest for Ukrainian independence, and they proclaim Ukrainian sovereignty from the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union files for political bankruptcy.
Vladimir Putin is an officer in the KGB. Ever the capable and ambitious pragmatist, he resigns his KGB position and openly goes to work for the Leningrad city government as a political adviser on international affairs. Not one to wait for the car to sink too deeply into that famous Russian mud, Putin has in fact been working for the mayor of Leningrad since the spring of 1990, while still a KGB officer. Score one for Vlady’s foresight.
Ukrainians vote overwhelmingly for independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum. Leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine sign an agreement, The Commonwealth of Independent States, to end Soviet rule in the region.
In December of this year, the Soviet Union officially completes its dissolution process. Fifteen separate countries are formed. At this time, Vladimir Putin is working in the Foreign Intelligence Directory.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin sign the Kremlin Accords, which provide for the dismantling of the nuclear arsenal in Ukraine. Leonid Kuchma succeeds Leonid Kravchuk in Ukrainian presidential elections. Ukraine signs a treaty of cooperation with NATO that provides for training assistance and joint training between Ukrainian and NATO forces.
Ukraine adopts a democratic constitution and a new currency, the hryvnia.
Ukraine and Russia sign a friendship treaty. They reach an agreement that Russia will operate a headquarters base in Sevastopol for the Russian Black Sea fleet. Ukraine has its own Black Sea fleet separate from Russia.
On March 25, Ukrainian nationalist hero and presidential candidate Vyacheslav Chornovil dies in a car crash. Ukrainian nationalists believe that the crash is a well-designed assassination carried out by ethnic Russians in the Ukraine with the assistance of Russian state security forces. In spite of recent declines in popularity due to his pursuit of closer ties with Russia, Ukrainian President Kuchma is re-elected with strong support from ethnic Russians. Many Ukrainians today remain certain that his re-election was rigged with Russian help.
In August, President Yeltsin appoints Vladimir Putin as one of Russia’s three deputy prime ministers. Later that same month, Putin obtains the office of Prime Minister. He wastes no time. In a climate of political chaos, he orchestrates an effective crackdown on the separatist rebels in Chechnya in Central Russia. He also conducts a loud and well-filmed campaign against corruption that is likely more drama than substance. The giant public relations scheme is effective.
Boris Yeltsin and his family come under investigation for corruption charges in the winter of 1999. In December, the ailing Yeltsin steps down, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin becomes the Acting President of Russia.
Vladimir Putin is confirmed as the new President of Russia.
In Part Two, we will look at how the entanglements between Russia and Ukraine intensify when Putin struggles to keep the Ukraine from building strong relations with Europe and becoming part of the West, and we analyze the basis of the current situation and what it means to Western nations.