Ukraine and Russia: A Violent Identity Crisis

From the lecture series: A History of Eastern Europe

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, PhD, University of Tennessee

Scholars have noted that Russia without Ukraine is a country, but Ukraine and Russia combined is an empire.

Image of Ukraine and Russia flags.Versus rivalry fist vector background
(Image: By BATKA/Shutterstock)

This raises two questions. First: What sort of Russia comes into being if it chooses an imperial identity with an appetite for expansion? Second: What sort of Russia comes into being if it chooses a self-sufficient identity that meshes with Europe?

Tensions Between Ukraine and Russia Aren’t New

Europe map showing Ukraine and Russia
Map showing Ukrain and Russia (Image: By evryka/Shutterstock)

For Ukrainians, their identities are linked to those of a past shared with Russia, but also with historic ties and affinities with the West. Ukraine is marked by a diversity of historical memories and orientations. In that sense, it’s like a microcosm of larger Eastern European patterns.

The tides of history carved out divides in Ukraine that persist today. First, the Mongols came and receded, leaving the Tartars. Then, Poland-Lithuania moved in, leaving its own imprint.

Beyond the areas of foreign control lay the wild realm of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Wedged between the powers of Poland-Lithuania to the west and Russia to the east, the Cossacks maintained a balance until they could do so no longer and had to seek an alliance.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Eastern Europe. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Portrait of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (c. 1650) in the District Museum in Tarnów.
Cossack warlord Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Image:By Unidentified painter /Public Domain)

In 1654, the Cossack warlord Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who had led an uprising against Poland and sought to create an independent state, signed a treaty with Russia at Pereyaslav. Khmelnytsky received the Tsar’s protection, along with Russian promises for Ukrainian autonomy.

But instead of getting an ally who would defend their existence, the Cossacks discovered they had a set of new rulers.

In 1667, Poland and Russia agreed to partition: They divided the contested Ukrainian lands along the Dnieper River. This partition was eventually made moot by the decline of one of the partners, Poland, and its division by other great powers.

For Ukraine, the end of Poland-Lithuania by 1795 meant that most Ukrainians were in the Russian Empire, although the proud province of Galicia in the west fell to Austrian rule under the Habsburgs.

The World Wars and Ukraine

Between the World Wars, Ukrainians found themselves divided by borders. Most lived in the Soviet Union, others lived in Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Inside the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin cracked down on Ukrainian cultural leaders and brought mass death with the Terror Famine, or Holodomor, of the 1930s.

With the coming of the Second World War, some Ukrainian nationalists hoped that Nazi Germany might help their cause.

With the coming of the Second World War, some Ukrainian nationalists hoped that Nazi Germany might help their cause. Among their leaders was Stepan Bandera. At the start of the Second World War, they allied with Nazi Germany; some participated in the Nazi campaigns against the Jews. But as Ukrainian hopes for independence were frustrated, relations deteriorated and the Nazis imprisoned Bandera.

Learn more about Eastern Europe’s remarkable diversity, it shifting borders, and its separateness from the West

Portrait of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna.
Nikita Khrushchev officially gave Crimea to the republic of Ukraine in 1954. (Image: By derivative work: Militaryace (talk)Nikita_Khrusjtsjov.jpg: Credit: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/Public domain)

Towards the end of the Second World War, borders and populations shifted. Ukraine saw key examples of this: Stalin deported all the Crimean Tartars from their homes, expelling them overnight. Also, Poland shifted westward, ethnic Poles were evicted, and the city of Lwow became Lviv. By the end of this process, Ukraine’s borders included most Ukrainians for the first time in centuries—all of them under Moscow’s rigid control.

Within Ukraine, partisan warfare continued into the 1950s, as in the Baltics. The guerrilla leader Bandera fled to Germany, where he was hunted down by the KGB and assassinated in Munich in 1959.

Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, brought a final change of borders. To celebrate the successes of the Soviet Union, and to mark an ancient event three centuries before, Khrushchev officially gave Crimea to the republic of Ukraine in 1954.

A Complex Independence

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became independent. However, the newly independent Ukraine revealed complexities.

Along with Russia and Belarus, Ukraine was one of the founding members of the CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States, to the east. Yet many Ukrainian leaders avowed that they wanted to be part of an Eastern European “return to Europe,” which would mean orienting themselves to the west.

Both the state and economy were in bad condition. The slow and fitful economic transition favored the well connected, so a class of powerful oligarchs rose up and founded political parties of their own.

Corruption at multiple levels of government ate away at ordinary people’s confidence in the system, and economic productivity lagged. Ukraine found itself hugely dependent on Russia for energy supplies, some 75% of its gas and 80% of its oil. To overcome its troubles, Ukraine sought international financial aid. Giving up its nuclear stockpile, leftover from the Soviet era, in 1994 helped win them some assistance.

Learn more about the many waves of people who settled Eastern Europe during the ancient and medieval worlds

A Mysterious Illness

Image of Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko
Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko—the third President of Ukraine from January 23, 2005 to February 25, 2010. (Image: By Tasnim News Agency/Public domain)

Enter Viktor Yushchenko. Disappointment with insider politics, as usual, produced a popular movement called the Orange Revolution in 2004. Yushchenko led the Ukrainian opposition to the government.

On September 5, 2004, Yushchenko became desperately ill after dinner. Medical tests showed dioxin poisoning symptoms, and the symptoms were visible in his bloated, pockmarked face.

Who had done it? Several suspects fled to Russia and were not questioned. Was the intention to kill him outright? Or “merely” to disfigure him in his outward appearance and thus scuttle his election chances?

Whatever the case, the plan backfired…

When the government announced fraudulent election returns, people took to the streets. They chose the vivid color orange to rally people to their cause and kept protesting even in the bitter winter cold of the streets. After 17 days, the protestors won, and in a new election, Yushchenko became president.

Yet what followed was a disappointment.

Rather than making common cause, those who championed reform instead got bogged down in struggles against one another. There was little sense of progress. Capitalizing on people’s frustration, radical Ukrainian nationalist groups started to gain more support.

Learn more about how several decisive battles were key turning points for Eastern Europe


Image of Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych
Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych—Ukrainian politician who served as the fourth President of Ukraine from February 2010 until his removal from power in February 2014. (Image: By International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)Public Domain).

In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected president, with most of his support in the eastern regions. He also had the support of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.

At the end of 2013, when Yanukovych negotiated and then bizarrely refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, protests erupted again in Kiev, Lviv, and other cities. These protests in coldest winter came to be called the Euromaidan, or “Euro Square.”

Government forces tried to quell the protests. Dozens of protestors were killed. But by February 2014, President Yanukovych felt his power crumbling and fled, finding refuge in Russia.

There then followed strange scenes as hundreds of thousands of protestors wandered through Yanukovych’s vast estate near Kiev, which showcased the wealth of an oligarch at its most ostentatious.

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The New Normal

Putin, who had been Yanukovych’s patron, declared his ouster and the change of government illegitimate. Russian forces moved into Crimea.

At first, the Russian government denied that it had sent troops into the region, which had an ethnic Russian majority. The troops bore no insignia, but they did wear masks. Russia then annexed Crimea officially, over international protests.

Putin proudly admitted openly what his government had denied: Russian involvement was not a spontaneous response to calls for help, but a plan, and the annexation was ordered weeks before the referendum was staged under the watchful eyes of gunmen.

Later, in March 2015, Putin proudly admitted openly what his government had denied: Russian involvement was not a spontaneous response to calls for help, but a plan, and the annexation was ordered weeks before the referendum was staged under the watchful eyes of gunmen.

Next, heavily armed rebels started seizing territories in eastern Ukraine, along the Russian border, and declaring mini republics under their control. Russian media referred to the territories by a revived, old name: Novorossiya, or New Russia, the name given to annexed lands by Catherine the Great.

Image of investigators at the crash site of flight MH-17 during Ukraine and Russia conflict
Investigators at the crash site of flight MH-17. (Image: By Ministerie van Defensie/Public Domain)

In July 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down as it crossed over Eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia. All 298 people on board perished. Rebels at first did not allow international investigators to the crash site.

Russian officials insisted that none of their soldiers were in Ukraine, but when Russian prisoners were taken, it was announced that they were soldiers on vacation who could do what they wished in their free time. The Russian government went on to declare that the deaths of Russian soldiers during peacetime were a state secret, which opened to prosecution those who reported on funerals back in Russia of men killed in Ukraine.

Communal conflict also blazed up in areas with mixed populations. A dreadful incident took place in the famed port city of Odesa, where in May 2014, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protestors clashed. This led to the deaths of 42, most of them of the pro-Russian group. The Ukrainian government promised a full investigation, but this was badly managed, so the event remains unclear.

By 2015, the fighting had taken some 5,000 lives and had turned upwards of a million people into refugees. The question presented itself, whether one wanted it to or not.

Is this the new normal in Europe?

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A Biting Irony

Back in 2008, Vladimir Putin reportedly told a startled President George W. Bush during a summit meeting that Ukraine is not a country. As the crisis unfolded in 2014, the president of the European Commission called Putin in August to seek a resolution. His reported reply was that he could occupy Kiev in two weeks.

The background to this perspective was Putin’s declaration that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. The cultural and educational policies of Putin’s regime have praised the Soviet Union and revived its symbolism and vocabulary.

Putin’s policies led to a surge in his popularity back home. A deliberate manipulation of news and media sought to sway public opinion in Russia and abroad.

The biting irony here is that Russians had been victimized by that system longest, yet Putin’s policies led to a surge in his popularity back home. A deliberate manipulation of news and media sought to sway public opinion in Russia and abroad.

Putin’s government argued that its intervention was motivated only by concerns for order in Ukraine, which had become a failed state. Here were fascinating echoes from the late 1700s, when the Great Powers had justified carving up the state of Poland-Lithuania with precisely the same claims.

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A False Notion

As Western leaders considered how to react, they repeatedly stated how surprised they were. They suggested that Putin must not know that we are, after all, in the 21st century.

Such repeated observations are troubling: They suggest that centuries have their own logic—one that moves them towards a state of peace.

As the conflict between Ukraine and Russia shows, this may not be the case at all.

Common Questions About Ukraine and Russia

Q: Does Ukraine belong to Russia?

Ukraine does not belong to Russia. It is its own separate nation-state in Eastern Europe.

Q: What land is in dispute between Ukraine and Russia?

Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. The Crimean peninsula is part of Ukraine, and this has led to an ongoing territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.

Q: Did Crimea vote to join the Russian federation and leave Ukraine?

The Russian occupation of Crimea is considered to have been the driving force in why Crimea became annexed. Crimea desired more sovereignty from Ukraine, but becoming part of Russia was done by force.

Q: Is Crimea dangerous for tourists?

Much like any smaller Eastern European territory, tourists and those who flash wealth are at risk of being robbed in parts of Crimea. It is recommended that tourists stay in tourist areas and not engage in unregulated business.

This article was updated on December 22, 2020

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