A historical perspective on the Ukraine crisis

March 02, 2022 11:26
Image: Reuters/United Nations

Many have asked me to pen a piece explaining what’s going on in Ukraine to a Hong Kong audience. I am no Ukraine expert, and I am certainly not Ukrainian/Russian – as such, I could only endeavour to do my best in outlining what I know, over the upcoming two pieces: firstly, on a more historical perspective; secondly, on contemporary events.

In order to make sense of the unfolding crisis today, we must turn to history – and do so with two preconditions: firstly, doing away with ideologically informed, predisposed opinions concerning NATO, Russia, and the US – it would be perilous to bring in creeping biases, which would only taint the veracity of history; secondly, we must get to grips with Putin’s “rationale”, as clandestine and discreet as it may be, in order to comprehend Russia’s actions over the past two weeks.

The contemporary territory of Ukraine can largely be traced to two adjacent regions in the 17th to 18th centuries. To the east of the Dnieper lay Left-bank Ukraine; to its west, Right-bank Ukraine. The former (now corresponding roughly to large swathes of Ukraine’s central and north-east regions) was – by mid-17th century – governed by the Cossack Hetmanate, a Cossack-governed state that, upon independence from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was established in 1648 and subsumed into the Tsardom of Russia under the Pereyaslav Agreement. It was against this backdrop, that Ukrainianism emerged – through the crevices and cracks of the tightening grip imposed upon the territory by the Russian monarchy. Indeed, over time the Hetmanate came to develop a culture, religion, and normative tradition of its own – despite its nominal subservience to the Tsardom.

As for the latter (present-day western Ukraine), much of the territory had remained under the draconian control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (with the ruling Polish aristocracy subjugating large swathes of the local Cossacks, Jews, and Polish peasants in the region), until the commonwealth was dissolved; its territories seized by the invading Catherine the Great. The “reunification” of Ukraine thus took place upon the pretext that it would be subsumed under Russian rule. Despite efforts at eliminating the Ukrainian language and culture, much of the attempt at extreme cultural assimilation by the Tsardom had failed – by early 19th century, the Ukrainian people had emerged with a distinctive cultural consciousness, a nation, per Benedict Anderson’s conception of nationhood.

In the aftermath of the revolutions that rocked Russia in 1917, Ukraine was emancipated from the crumbling rule under the dethroned Tsar, with a succession of short-lived states soon to follow. Upon the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, the various forces inhabiting Ukraine opted to accede to Soviet control – and thus emerged the Ukraine Soviet Republic. Yet various catastrophes – especially the 1932-33 famine, and the civil strife during World War 2, saw many a Ukrainian suffer under their “newfound” overlords.

After World War 2, with Soviet Russia’s backing, Ukraine joined the newly formed United Nations – and was elected a member of the Security Council (1948-1949), serving a more vocal and expressive international-geopolitical role. In 1954, Khruschev decided that Crimean Oblast would be ceded to Ukraine – as a means of placating rising tensions in the country, but also in ensuring that Ukraine would remain economically dependent upon Soviet Russia.

Much of the above serves to highlight three critical propositions. Firstly, the Ukrainian state has been, throughout history, an independent nation-state or dependent state; Ukrainian statehood is not some “contemporary construct”, as suggested by some. Secondly, it would be futile and erroneous to conflate the Ukrainian and Russian peoples – they sure share similarities culturally, but such similarities do not warrant undue homogenisation that ignores the agency and right to self-determination of the Ukrainian public. Finally, we must do away with the misconception that Ukraine had benefited vastly from Russian oversight in the past – history tells us otherwise.

The relationship between the Soviets was cordial, tight, and one of mutual co-dependence throughout the second half of the 20th century. Yet it was equally apparent that the wishes of the Ukrainian people – for more economic devolution and liberalisation, political transformation and inclusion – were increasingly frustrated and continually ignored by the powers that be.

In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. For many who had resided under the authoritarian Soviet model – those in Russia and Ukraine included – this had been a welcome change for a start. Of course, decades later, many would come back to look at the dissolution with more mixed and nuanced feelings – indeed, post-dissolution Russia had had a mixed economic track record, enjoying successes and fruits that had accrued largely only to the top 0.01%, with the disruptions induced by market forces posing as fundamental threats to the quality of life to millions more.

Hence for Russian politicians and oligarchs, many view the restoration of the USSR as a necessary basis for their political legitimacy and legacy. Ukraine, as the second largest (by area) state in Europe – and the largest excluding Russia – hence constitutes an appealing and coveted prize for Russian rulers. Whomever would succeed in “reclaiming” Ukraine, symbolically and economically, and ideally geopolitically, would be venerated as the Man (or Woman, too – but the Russian political system is notoriously misogynistic) who restores Russia to its “rightful place” in history.

In international relations theory, we tend to classify most explanations as pertaining to security, or to peace: the former track realism and the latter track idealism. Yet both sets of explanations conveniently ignore, to their detriment, the important role played by ideas and cultures, norms and values, in shaping and shifting the perceptions of actors as to what they take to be (the most) important outcome for them to accomplish.

Post-independence Ukraine fared, arguably a tad better – though not by much. The 1990s and 2000s saw a series of proxy exchanges and tussles between Russia and EU (backed tacitly by the US) over the installation of regimes more favourable to them in the country. With that said, there is oft a temptation that must be resisted – i.e. to dismiss the agency of domestic and local actors. For Ukraine, this would be a mistake: much of the political intrigue that unfolded in the 1990s and early 2000s had distinctly significant local involvement, with a high level of agency afforded to both those more sympathetic towards Russia, and towards the amorphous “West”. As we shall see, it is this chaotic confluence of forces that sowed the seeds for the turbulence that would follow, over the past two decades.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review