In February 2014, a popular uprising against the Ukrainian government led to an armed conflict that created the most dangerous political situation in Europe since World War II. When Russia tried to halt Ukraine’s rapprochement with Western Europe, a new “cold war” began to take shape after 25 years of relative tension between the West and the East.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine wavered between maintaining close ties with the Russian leadership in Moscow and approaching Western Europe politically and economically.
In 2010, Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych was elected president after pro-Western leaders failed to solve the country’s economic problems. Despite opposition from Moscow, he negotiated a cooperation agreement with the EU. But when he interrupted the talks in late autumn 2013, and instead turned to Russia, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians went out in protests against economic mismanagement, corruption and lack of democracy.
After more than 100 people were shot dead in February 2014, the protests became so strong that Yanukovych fled to Russia. He was deposed by parliament and a new government was formed. The army and police changed sides.
Nationalist elements in the revolution were perceived as a threat among Russian-speaking residents in the east and on the Crimean peninsula, not least due to strong propaganda in the state-controlled Russian media. After a Russian organized coup in Crimea, Russia annexed the peninsula.
In southeastern Ukraine, Russian-speaking militias proclaimed “People’s Republics” and demanded their incorporation into Russia. The militias took control of a large area, but after a while the army was about to defeat them, the militias received Russian help with a counter-offensive and conquered almost the entire southeastern part of the country.
Faced with the threat of continued Russian advance, the government was forced to agree to a ceasefire and promise far-reaching autonomy in the east. Real peace looked distant, but in the autumn of 2015 the situation became temporarily calmer after the Russian government instead began to try to save the regime in Syria.
Despite new international attempts in 2016 to stabilize the situation, fighting continues to flare up at regular intervals. In 2017, the conflict gained a new economic dimension after separatists began confiscating privately owned large companies and the Ukrainian state blocked freight traffic to the breakaway areas.
While Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union (1922–1991), the country was fairly anonymous to the outside world. The Soviet Union was dominated by Russia and all Soviet citizens were often casually described as “Russians”. Ukraine’s attempts after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to go its own way were met in 2014 by a harsh Russian intervention.
The conflicts between Ukraine and Russia that came to light in 2014 may have surprised many outsiders, but they go far back in time and had only been barely concealed by Soviet propaganda about the “brother people”.
There is considerable agreement among historians that the East Slavic state formation that formed the basis of Russia originated in Kiev (Kyjivska Rus) in present-day northern Ukraine in the ninth century.
However, opinions are divided on whether Ukrainian national characteristics already existed in the ninth century. The Kiev empire split in the 12th century and today’s Ukraine became increasingly dominated by Poland. To free themselves from the Poles, the Ukrainians sought Russian help, with the undesirable consequence that the area was divided between Russia and Poland in 1667. An attempt a few decades later by the Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa to assert Ukrainian independence with Charles XII ended with the defeat of the Swedish army at Poltava 1709, after which Russia gradually strengthened its grip on Ukraine.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Russian settlers were sent to southern Ukraine to cultivate the steppe. Russian cities were built along the Black Sea coast. From the middle of the 19th century, Ukrainian nationalism began to flourish with its center in the city of Lviv, but industrialization towards the end of the century meant intensified Russianization.
In the confused state of revolution of 1917–1918, two Ukrainian states were proclaimed; a communist state was proclaimed in Kharkiv in the east and a nationalist in Kiev. The result was a civil war, with neighboring countries involved, which in 1921 ended with parts of western Ukraine falling to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, while the Communists took control of most of the country, which the following year became part of the new state of the Soviet Union.
Stalin’s reign of terror
During the time of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, Ukrainians were largely allowed to cultivate their own culture. But after Joseph Stalin’s accession to power in 1924, Ukrainian nationalism was crushed by mass arrests and executions of intellectual and religious leaders.
Ukrainian agriculture, based on thousands of private farms, was brutally collectivized. The large peasants, “kulaks”, were branded as “enemies of the people”, deprived of their property and deported to Siberia. From 1932 to 1933, the Soviet state confiscated in principle the entire Ukrainian harvest in order to feed the Russian population and to be able to export wheat in order to obtain money to, among other things, build up the armed forces. The Ukrainian Communist Party was subjected to extensive political purges after appealing to Moscow for milder methods.
In total, between six and seven million Ukrainians are estimated to have died of starvation. The starvation of Ukraine was stopped in 1934 when Stalin considered that the goal of wiping out the self-governing peasantry had been achieved.
During World War II, nationalists in western Ukraine sought to exploit the German incursion into the Soviet Union to fight for Ukrainian independence. The Nationalists were led by Stepan Bandera, a staunch anti-Semite and racist. He wanted to purge Ukraine of other peoples in the same way that Hitler wanted to create a “pure Aryan” Germany. Bandera’s nationalist organization OUN collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet army and took part in the massacres of Jews, but was set aside when Germany no longer needed them.