Opinion: Russia-Ukraine tensions are best understood through historical lens

Opinion: Russia-Ukraine tensions are best understood through historical lens
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Where do any state’s boundaries — and strategic interests — begin and end?  And who has the right to decide? This is the vexed question at the heart of the current stand-off over Ukraine.  And the answer is less straightforward than it sometimes seems.

Where Russia begins and ends has varied enormously over time. The first state on territory that would later become part of Russia emerged in the ninth century and is known as Kievan Rus’ to historians. It was composed of Slavic tribes and centered in what is now Ukraine. But in 1237-1240, Rus’ was overrun by the Mongols, warrior nomads who swept across the plains of Eurasia. More than two centuries later, when a new Russian state known as Muscovy emerged, its center lay in the Northern, forested sections of Kievan Rus’. Muscovite Russia became the core of future Russian states. Other portions of Kievan Rus’ are now part of Ukraine and Belarus. All three claim Kievan Rus’ as their origin.

For centuries, Russian states had no natural boundaries to their East, West or South, encouraging Russia’s rulers to expand their territory. By the early 20th century, Russia had become a vast and diverse empire that encompassed lands from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and extended to the Pacific Ocean. It included much of Ukraine, which declared autonomy after the Russian monarchy collapsed in 1917. Autonomy was fleeting.  Overtaken by the Reds during a vicious civil war, Ukraine became a state in the newly formed USSR. After World War II its territory expanded to include parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, despite fierce resistance from nationalist guerillas.

Ukrainians had other, powerful reasons to resent Russian/Soviet hegemony.  In the early 1930s, millions of them perished during Stalin’s man-made famine. The terror of the late 1930s hit Ukraine especially hard. The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in April 1986, exposed Ukrainians directly to the fallout, with no warning from their government. Worse: Mikhail Gorbachev, then leader, demanded that the annual May Day parades take place as scheduled, exposing tens of thousands to radioactive fallout. For these and other reasons, by the late 1980s a mass movement for national autonomy had emerged in Ukraine. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, after 90% of its population voted in favor of it, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has every right to retain that autonomy.

Still, this lengthy and complicated history helps to explain why Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence. Other dimensions of Russian/Soviet history also affect his stance. Most notably, the lack of clear-cut boundaries also left Russia/Soviet lands vulnerable to foreign invasion. During World War II, Nazi forces occupied vast swaths of the Soviet Union’s western borderlands — including Ukraine, Belarus’ and Russia — wreaking unspeakable devastation. Painful memories of the war, real enough, are also fostered by the state, which has revived a cult of World War II. In consequence, Russians are sensitive to threats of foreign aggression to a degree difficult to imagine for people born in the United States, who have experienced neither foreign invasion nor an occupation of their soil — although our reaction to the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center does provide a clue.

Indeed, the United States government assumes the right to defend itself from perceived threats far more geographically distant and historically separate than Ukraine is from Russia. Examples are legion. They include the threat of nuclear warfare against the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, democratically elected socialist President of Chile (1973) — and the “War against Terror.”

All this complicates the Ukrainian question. Putin, and Russians more generally, have good reasons to be disturbed by the possibility, however remote, of Ukraine joining NATO, an organization created at the height of the Cold War and designed to restrain Soviet hegemony. Bringing foreign troops and weapons placement, NATO, has edged ever closer to the Russian heartland, a situation that no U.S. president — and few U. S. citizens — would tolerate.

Decision-makers on both sides would do well to be mindful of this long and complicated history.

Barbara Alpern Engel is Distinguished Professor Emerita of History at the University of Colorado, USA. She is the author of numerous books, including Russia in World History (2015; with Janet Martin), Women in Russia: 1700-2000 (2004) and Breaking the Ties that Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia (2011). 

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