What Explains the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?
Public protests against governments are common. But it’s unusual when a neighbouring country takes advantage of the protests and invades. That’s what happened to Ukraine in 2014, when demonstrations in the capital city of Kiev prompted Russia to attack. Within weeks, Russian soldiers seized thousands of square miles of Ukrainian territory, including the strategic Crimean peninsula. They are still there. Ukraine’s government is no longer sovereign over all of Ukraine. How did this happen?
To start, you have to understand why people took to the streets in Kiev. In 2013, Ukraine’s president was poised to sign an agreement with the European Union that would have pointed the country in a more liberal direction. However, he pulled back at the last minute under pressure from Russia. Ukrainians who wanted their country to be more like the rest of Europe were incensed. Thousands went to the Maidan square in Kiev to protest.
This was not the first time that Ukrainians had looked at their large, northern neighbor in anger. The history between the two countries goes back to the 900s, when Russia was born with Kiev as its capital city. Mongol warriors destroyed Kiev in 1240, massacring tens of thousands. When independent Russia emerged again its new capital was Moscow. It couldn’t have been Kiev again—the lands of modern Ukraine were ruled by Poland, Lithuania, and Ottoman Muslims. But the bearded leaders of Russia always regarded the fertile fields surrounding Kiev as part of their rightful heritage.
Russia eventually annexed Ukraine in the 1700s. Ukrainians assert their independence in the turmoil following World War One, but most of their lands became part of the Communist Soviet Union after 1921. Ukraine’s large population, its natural resources, its agricultural and industrial productivity, and its access to the warm and militarily strategic waters of the Black Sea all made the territory very valuable to the Communist leaders in Moscow.
Ukraine’s problem was that it was too valuable. For whenever Russian officials feared unrest, whenever they worried that Ukrainians still wanted their independence, repression was swift and lethal.
The defining moment of this struggle came in the 1930s. When Stalin launched plans to transform Soviet agriculture, peasants resisted across the country. In Ukraine, however, rural protests were met with a level of violence that can be described as genocidal.
Soviet officials executed Ukrainian intellectuals and artists, destroying the natural leadership of the patriotic resistance to Moscow’s rule. The army and secret police took grain from people’s homes, restricted trade, and then blocked roads to prevent starving peasants from finding work and food in the cities. More than three million Ukrainians died.
Few knew about this terror famine, or Holodomor as it is known, while the Soviet Union still existed and guarded its secrets. Meanwhile, millions of Russians moved to the warmer lands of Ukraine, where they took jobs, had children, and made themselves at home.
Then Communism imploded. The Soviet Union was no more, and Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. Ukrainian-speakers celebrated a long awaited dawn. However, Russians in Ukraine now feared they were stranded in a foreign country.
Their situation was complicated by the politics of post-Cold War Europe. Theoretically, the United States and her allies, who won the Cold War, could have treated the Russian people as victors: they too had triumphed over malignant communism. However, Russia’s experience was more like that of a defeated power. In particular, while the Soviet Union had to disband its military alliance, America kept hers and expanded it to include countries that had been in Russia’s orbit.
Russia went from being a first rate to a second-rate country in less than a decade. Like most formerly great powers, they itched to regain their place at the top.
That explains why Ukraine looms so large in the imagination of Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders. Ukraine is in Russia’s backyard. If it can’t control what goes on there, it loses its claim to be a great power. So when Ukraine wanted to sign an agreement with the European Union in 2013, it made sense for Russia to use its economic and military muscle to dissuade Ukraine’s leaders from doing so.
It helped Russia that some of the leaders of the street protests in Kiev were members of far-right groups who were anti-Russian and anti-communist much as their Ukrainian fascist ancestors had been at the time of the Second World War. This made it easy for Russian media to portray the invasion of Ukraine as a necessary step to protect ethnic Russians against Ukrainian neo-fascists. Both the parts of Ukraine that Russia grabbed in 2014—Crimea and several eastern provinces—had majority Russian populations.
Russia and Ukraine have been at stalemate since 2014. Yet the status quo is much more favourable to Russia. It’s impossible for Ukraine to make meaningful deals with other states when it does not control its own. No Western country has any interest in providing Ukraine with military help to push nuclear-armed Russia from its territory. Thus Ukraine is very much back in Russia’s sphere of influence. Protests against Russian interference by Ukrainian patriots are counterproductive: their primary result is to provide material for Russian media to justify the continued occupation of the majority-Russian provinces.
So don’t expect the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to end soon. As for most of their history, Ukrainians can do little more than wait for a realignment of international affairs that is more favourable to them. That happened in 1991. It may be a long while before it happens again.