By James T.
Ukraine means ‘borderland’. This name has particular relevance in the nature of the long-standing conflict in Ukraine. One need only look at history, and the conflict that has been going on in and around the country to realise that what is occurring today has its roots deep in the last two centuries. It is without a doubt that Putin’s motivation for invading Ukraine is part of a historic battle between Russia and the West. In this article I will detail the progression of this conflict, and its links to the geo-political issues of today.
The story of Russia and Ukraine begins a long time ago, but not in a galaxy far, far away. The first Crimean war lasted from 1853 to 1856 and was fought between European (namely British and French) and Russian forces. Europe was concerned that as the Ottoman Empire faded, Russia’s power would expand. The war was hard fought with over 500,000 casualties and did little to settle European tensions as the First World War broke out sixty years later.
The communist revolution in Russia occurred towards the end of the First World War and resulted in an attempt form a stateless anarchist society in parts of Ukraine during the Russian Revolution of 1917–1923. However, between 1917 and 1921, Ukraine was subject to many wars amongst competing forces from Poland, the USSR and internal Ukrainian nationalists, which led to over 1.5 million casualties. Eventually, Ukraine joined the USSR and this meant even more trouble when Stalin came into power in 1922. Ten million Ukrainians starved by 1933 as a direct result of the agricultural policies introduced by Stalin’s regime. An indigenous people of Crimea known as Tatars were deported by Stalin and replaced with ethnic Russians, and he also housed many Russians in the Eastern regions of Ukraine. Stalin came and went, with drastic consequences, and was replaced by Krushchev who assigned the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine in 1954, since it was difficult to supply as it was not linked to Russia by land.
In 1991, Ukraine declared independence following a referendum after almost 70 years under Moscow’s control. Early signs of conflict were rooted in Ukraine from the start between pro-Europeans in the west of the country and pro-Russians in the east. 2004 saw an election with the Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych gaining power over Viktor Yushchenko who led the opposition, which resulted in Yushchenko staging huge street protests that became known as the ‘Orange Revolution’ due to the colour they wore. These protests resulted in Yushchenko being elected as President; however, he was underqualified in managing Ukraine’s economy and suffered at the hands of Russia for being pro-Europe. This led to Russia cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006. Eventually, another election was held in which Yanukovych was reinstated as head of state. He immediately exited agreements with Europe and announced greater ties with Russia, provoking further huge protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square and fatal clashes between the authorities and demonstrators. Yanukovych left office the following day and a temporary government was installed with a mandate to hold another set of elections. It was at this stage that Putin intervened to prevent, once again, Ukraine from becoming too ‘friendly’ with the West.
Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, and was developed with huge infrastructure projects worth many billions a year. In 2019 alone, Russia pumped over $2.3 billion into Crimean power generation facilities, increased its military presence, and completed a bridge linking Crimea to Russia. The annexation of Crimea created a huge surge in popularity for Putin, adding over 20% to his poll ratings in Russia, independently sourced and verified by the Levada Centre. This gave Putin the public image of being Russia’s champion against the hostile West.
This invasion set the tone for pro-Russian movements in Ukraine and its two Eastern regions. Donetsk and Lugansk were declared ‘people’s republics’. Moscow chose to support these regions through supplies and funding, which was condemned by the West and sanctions were imposed upon Russia, albeit to negligible effect. Russia aggressions also caused international civilian casualties when a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was shot down mistakenly by rebel forces in the Eastern regions, resulting in the deaths of all 298 passengers. Independent investigators found that the incident involved missiles originally supplied by Russian military. This created further international tension between the West and Russia, especially after Russia publicly denied the attack – which would become a common theme over subsequent years.
2019 marks the year that former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as Ukrainian president and, in January of 2021, he appealed to US President Joe Biden to allow Ukraine to join NATO, which was the last thing Putin wanted to hear. Since then, a build-up of troops and further military and political tension have occurred, leading to the events ongoing today. For Putin, the escalation of the conflict during its earliest stages was greeted with rising popularity in opinions polls, a stark similarity to the Annexation of Crimea, and so thus Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks likely to be an extension of the previous conflict in the region, yet on a larger scale than ever seen before. However, Ukraine’s military and political response has been vigorous, which could yet upset the narrative of history.