The Borderland: Between Russia and the Rest

In early December 2013, we wrote about the controversy surrounding Ukraine’s decision to sidle alongside Putin’s Russia rather than sign agreements with the European Union that would allegedly bring the country closer to European integration. Over the last few months, the controversy has evolved considerably from a string of peaceful protests to violent unrest. The official response has escalated in turn, leading to violent clashes in the streets and hundreds of casualties since mid-January of this year. The most recent developments, however, have raised the stakes significantly as both Russia and Ukraine mobilize their militaries for war and a weary diplomatic community scrambles to ease the tensions.

The Russian mobilization and intervention in Crimea, situated in the southern most part of Ukraine, has been met by extensive criticism from the international community. Russia’s military presence in the region, which began when unidentifiable military personnel appeared in the Crimean capital of Simferopol over a week ago, is a direct violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty. Carl Bildt, a prominent Swedish politician, has likened the situation in Ukraine with the events leading to the First World War in 1914. Indeed, the historical parallels are numerous—one might even say the internal dissension and fissures of the Ukrainian state are reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, responding to Russian action, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has condemned Putin and said that the Russian presence is a declaration of war on Ukraine.

The history between Russia and Ukraine is far longer than most nations in North America. Ukraine's national borders harken back to the historic kingdom of Kievan-Rus, a loose federation that ruled the region from the late 9th century until the arrival of the Mongols in the 1240s.  For centuries, Ukraine was at a geographic crossroads between other larger powers, such as Poland, Lithuania, Russia, the Ottomans and the Crimean Khanate.  The Ukrainian Cossacks were successful raiders against many of these powers as well. 

Crimea, the eastern half of present day Ukraine, was conquered in 1783 and was quickly settled by Russians and Ukrainians alike. As a more coherent homogenous Russian identity was created, Ukrainian language was suppressed with varying degrees of intensity by the rising Russian imperial state. In the First World War, Ukrainians fought in both Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies. The chaos of the ensuing Russian Revolution provided a brief moment of autonomy for a Ukrainian state, but by 1922 it was reincorporated into the new Soviet Union.

What followed was a malicious attempt to extinguish a Ukrainian identity within the Russian state. Today, most identify the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine known as Holodomor as a deliberate Stalinist policy to eradicate the Ukrainian people. It was matched by a purge of Ukrainian intelligentsia and an attack against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 4.5 million, though some are as high as 10 million. During the Second World War, Ukraine would be fought over by German and Soviet armies, as some of the most bitter fighting took place within its borders. After the war, the western most half of Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union. That population had been a part of Poland with a far stronger Ukrainian identity and had been spared the genocidal policies of the 1930s. Lingering questions of collaboration with the Germans by “Ukrainian nationalists” continued to divide the region after the war, as Omer Bartov has demonstrated in his book Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (2007).

The independence of Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to more turmoil. Economic hardships pushed another generation of Ukrainians to emigrate. Today, Ukraine is a complex patchwork of Russian and Ukrainian ethnic groups, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and still dealing with the long legacy of centuries of foreign domination. Their mistreatment at the hands of the Soviet Union has not been forgotten, though some resent it while others cherish it.

The Ukrainian connection Canada is relatively well known by Canadians. Many Ukrainian Canadians have risen to prominence since Ukrainian farmers first arrived to “settle the West” more than a century ago. The “First Wave” of immigrants began in the late 19th and early 20th century and most settled in the Prairies as part of the Canadian government program to populate the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Many of their descendants continue to have a strong and vibrant culture in those provinces. Some 180,000 Ukrainians sought a better life than the one they had in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though unfortunately many were subsequently interned during the First World War as potential “enemy aliens.”

More Ukrainians arrived in the 1920s as part of the “Second Wave,” again from the western part of the country then controlled by Poland. About 68,000 formed new communities or joined old ones across the Prairie provinces. Canada subsequently closed immigration during the Great Depression and wasn't until after the Second World War that the “Third Wave” arrived in the form of 35,000 Internally Displaced Persons. Most of these Ukrainians had fled Soviet oppression and clashed with the older generation of “Canadian-Ukrainians.” The older immigrants strove to prove their loyalty against old memories of internment camps during the First World War, while the Third Wave of Ukrainians nurtured bitter anti-Soviet sentiments.

The final and most recent “Fourth Wave” of Ukrainian immigrants arrived after 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union. The new immigrants spoke different, held different political views, and were largely indifferent to the strong cultural ties nurtured by the preceding generations of Ukrainian-Canadians. Again, divergent identities clashed between the Canadian-born Ukrainians and the “new” generation. They disagreed about what it “meant” to be Ukrainian. From the first colonizers of New France, many immigrant communities in Canada's history have progressed in tandem with global historical events and evolved since their arrival in North America. Ukrainian-Canadians are no different.

The ties between Canada and Ukraine remain strong to this day and consequently, Canada could play an important role in yet another unfolding crisis in the lands north of Black Sea. But despite the extent to which news agencies and social media have covered the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and have provided up to the minute developments, it remains unclear as to how the EU, the United States, and other Western states will approach the situation. Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, has pledged support for the pro-Western opposition although he has yet to make clear what the Canadian government will do in the event of escalated hostilities in the region. In the United States, President Obama has warned Russia that further unilateral interference in Ukraine will be wholly destabilizing to Europe as a whole. Economic sanctions will undoubtedly be the weapon of choice in Obama’s diplomatic arsenal if American pressure is not heeded to.

Aside from these admonitions, however, what can the international community – and especially the United States - really do to prevent further Russian military presence in Ukraine? We have already seen in recent years an increasing trend of reticence among decision-makers over key issues like the ongoing Syrian war, which, incidentally, the media no longer covers, and how best to stop the violence in the Middle East. The situation in Syria has demonstrated either a lack of political will to intervene or an inability to do so. In this way, a Russian move in the Ukraine—or elsewhere within its sphere of influence—would likely be met with nominal condemnation as opposed to any substantive reaction.

One issue that clearly separates the Syrian issue and the recent intervention in Ukraine is the latter’s proximity to the EU. Like in the early 1990s when the former Yugoslavia began to fall apart, statesmen in the European Community became increasingly worried about the residual effects of the war, such as refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as effects on central European economies. While crises erupted across Africa, the most notable of which were in Somalia, Rwanda and the Congo, the West sought to prevent a war from transcending former Yugoslavian borders into parts of Europe by intervening. Ultimately, it was political will, rather than the capability to intervene, that brought relative stability to the region. Western concerns over Syria, on the other hand, are nominal and mostly connected to the United States’ relationship with Israel. The lasting effects of the war in Syria, and the spillover that has been observed in Lebanon and Turkey, is not necessarily a chief concern for the West. There is a very real possibility that Russian presence in Crimea may provoke a response from the Ukrainian military. In this case, it would be in the best interests of the EU to ease tensions expeditiously.

That the United States, the UK, and other Western democracies have approached recent geopolitical crises cautiously suggests the profound impact the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had. But it also signals a general decline in American political will to intervene on behalf of a nation or group that is being abused or threatened. Russia’s brazen and unilateral invasion of Ukraine highlights that, just like the United States, Russia can operate according to its own vital interests regardless of where those interests might lay.


Addendum: There is a useful thread in /r/AskHistorians where experts are answering questions about Crimea and Ukraine.  If you are interested in more detailed information, please check it out!