“The Ukraine IS part of Russia! It’s the breadbasket of Russia!” Those words, or something similar, were spoken by my late father-in-law, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. We were watching one of the cable news channels where a talking head was discussing the then-current crisis in Eastern Europe. My father-in-law died in May of 2014 so it must have been the so-called “Russian Spring” when protests broke out throughout Ukraine in the wake of the recent Maidan Revolution and the removal of the duly elected president from office. My father-in-law was born in 1932 and grew up during World War II when newsreels in the theaters he visited every Saturday touted the heroic struggles of “the Russians”, as most people referred to the USSR, battled Hitler’s invading forces as they fought back and forth across the Ukraine, as the rich agricultural region was commonly known. (Famous for its wheat. Ukraine was called “the breadbasket of Europe.) I mentioned that Ukraine had become an independent nation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union two decades before and left it at that.
My father-in-law’s belief was most likely shared by most older Americans and perhaps many younger ones too. Russia and Ukraine have been linked throughout history, which is no surprise since they both stem from the same source, a Middle Ages state called Kievan Rus’. Kievan Rus’ was a federation of East Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe dating back to around 900. Their capital was the city of Kiev, which is now the capital of Ukraine, although the original city was destroyed by Mongols in the Thirteenth Century. (Yes, I know the Ukrainian government wants it spelled Kyiv.) The Mongol invasion also led to the disintegration of the Kievan Rus’ as a nation. The region was then ruled by what is known as The Golden Horde, a generally Mongol dynasty that embraced Islam. The Mongols were driven out of the region in the Fifteenth Century by Poland and Lithuania, who then formed a commonwealth with Ukraine as part of it, although it wasn’t called Ukraine at the time. The name Ukraine didn’t come into use until the Twentieth Century – Ukraine was called Ruthenia or Little Russia and Ukrainians were called Ruthenians. The word Ukraine actually means “borderlands” which is what the region was, the lands between Russia and Poland and Austria. Prior to 1990 when Ukraine declared itself independent, it was usually referred to as “the Ukraine,” a term modern Ukraine doesn’t like.
Meanwhile Moscow became a Grand Duchy and evolved into Tsarist Russia. Unlike the Ukraine and neighboring Belarus, Russia had never been subordinate to another nation. Russians saw themselves as descendants of the Kievan Rus’. By the Seventeenth Century, Ukrainians were seeking protection from Russia. In 1654 Cossacks swore an oath of allegiance to the Tsar in return for protection. This led to war between Russia and Poland which ended when the two nations signed the Treaty of Andrusovo. The treaty gave Eastern Ukraine, commonly called the Left Bank because the Dnieper River was the dividing line, and the city of Kiev to Russia. This treaty was confirmed in 1686 by the Treaty for Perpetual Peace which also stipulated that Russia would pay the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 146,000 rubles as compensation for the loss of the Left Bank. Russia also gained dominion over Kiev which it would retain for the next two centuries. Most of Western Ukraine became part of Russia a century later during the reign of Catherine the Great as part of the settlement of the Polish-Russia War of 1792, although part was dominated by Austria and some remained under Poland.
The Ukraine remained part of Russia until 1917 when Bolsheviks drove the Czarist Russians out of Kiev and took over the government. They immediately declared Ukraine to be an independent Soviet republic and initiated a civil war that lasted until 1920. Anti-Soviets appealed to Germany, who helped them drive the Soviets out of the country. Germany’s loss to the Allies in 1918 led to the return of the Bolsheviks, who established a Soviet government and made the Ukraine part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many Ukrainians were not happy to be part of the USSR and numerous uprisings occurred. In 1939 Germany and the USSR jointly invaded Poland. The Soviets gave some portions of western Ukraine that had been retained by Poland to Ukraine. In June 1941 Germany attacked the USSR and Ukraine fell under German occupation after bitter fighting, particularly around Kiev where German troops defeated a large Soviet army. Many Ukrainians, particularly in the west, saw the Germans as liberators and thousands joined the German army while thousands of eastern Ukrainians fought with the Red Army which included Cossack regiments. A third Ukrainian army initially fought with German troops, then switched allegiance to the USSR, but started fighting Soviets again after the war and would continue to fight the Soviets into the 1950s. After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, the Red Army began pushing the Germans westward across the Ukraine. The region suffered greatly, losing some 5-7 million people, including over a million Jews, many of whom were massacred in Kiev.
By October 1944 all of the Ukraine was back in Soviet hands. A border was established between the Ukraine and Poland and Ukraine was allowed to keep the areas the Soviets had taken from Poland and other countries. Ukrainians played major roles in the USSR including Nikita Khrushchev, who took over the Soviet Communist Party in September 1953. Although he wasn’t born in the Ukraine, he was closely associated with it. He was born just across the Russian border in a tiny village near Kursk. His father worked in the Ukraine and moved the family there when Nikita was fourteen. For all practical purposes, he was Ukrainian. In February 1954 Khrushchev gifted Ukraine the former country of Crimea, a large peninsula in the Black Sea that was annexed by Russia in 1783. Crimea had become an autonomous republic within the USSR. Khrushchev made a proclamation that Crimea was now part of Ukraine. The transfer was controversial and later determined to be unconstitutional per the Soviet constitution. It was an important region because it was in the Black Sea and Sevastopol was the home port for the Soviet Black Sea fleet.
In 1991 the Soviet Union disbanded. Ukraine had already declared itself to be sovereign the previous July. The Ukraine parliament declared the country’s independence in a reaction to an attempted Soviet coup to restore the USSR. Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, recognized Ukrainian independence on December 2. Crimea was declared to be an autonomous republic within Ukraine. In December 1991 Belarus, Russia and Ukraine formed the Commonwealth of Independent States but Ukraine never became an actual member of the organization. Ukraine disagreed with Russia’s claim to be the only successor to the former Soviet Union although it continued to participate with the CIS until 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. The breakup of the Soviet Union left some 1,500 nuclear warheads in Ukrainian hands because of Ukraine’s western position. Ukraine eventually agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in return for promises of security by Russia. Ukraine also inherited part of the Black Sea fleet as well as part of the Red Army and air brigades of the Soviet Air Force.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization became nil. Created in 1949, the organization, commonly known as NATO, was set up as a military alliance to oppose the Soviet Union in the belief that the USSR planned to expand westward – which it never did. A similar organization, called SEATO for Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, was set up in 1954. It disbanded in the wake of the Vietnam War in 1977. The USSR had occupied all of the countries of Eastern Europe as it drove the Germans back to Germany and the Potsdam Agreement dictated it could keep them in the Soviet sphere of influence after Germany’s defeat. The USSR was also given dominion over eastern Germany, including land captured by the Americans and British. Some westerners believed the USSR’s ambitions included expansion westward. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was particularly fearful of the USSR’s ambition. Although he was out of power in 1949 when NATO was formed, he regained power two years later. Churchill coined the phrase “iron curtain,” a symbolic curtain made up of the military power of the 12 NATO countries, two of which, Canada and the United States, are in North America while the other ten are European. NATO had expanded with the addition of four other members by the time the USSR ceased to exist. NATO provided an excuse for a US military presence in Europe – President Franklin Roosevelt had decreed that all US forces would be withdrawn from overseas within three years after Allied victory in World War II. Instead of withdrawing US troops from Europe at least, or possibly dissolving NATO, President Bill Clinton decided to use the alliance as a force to export “democracy” into Eastern Europe and began pressing to increase NATO’s size by bringing in former Eastern Bloc countries from the former Soviet Union. Although they were not member states, Clinton saw conflicts in the Balkans as a threat to NATO and began using NATO forces, nearly all air, to achieve political goals. His actions were contrary to the NATO charter because no NATO nations were involved in the conflicts. Clinton’s actions scared Russia, who became concerned about NATO’s expansion eastward, something that Clinton’s predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, had promised the organization would not do.
Post-Soviet Russia became near chaotic as certain Russians, some with former KGB connections, took control of companies and began compiling massive amounts of wealth while the average Russian was barely getting by. Western companies moved into Russia, ostensibly to invest in the country although much of the investment ended up in the hand of the “oligarchs,” the Russians who had taken control of the nation’s industry. That changed when Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who had gone into politics, became president in 2000. Putin put the oligarchs on notice that they would either play ball with him or face consequences. Under Putin, Russians began prospering. As his power grew, he was seen increasingly as a threat by many in the West, where two generations have been taught to fear Russia. Although political pundits never mention it, Western leaders saw Putin as a threat to their ambitions to control Russia and its vast natural resources and geographical position as the bridge between Europe and Asia.
Although Ukraine had become an independent republic, it was closely aligned with Russia. Ukraine’s presidents were pro-Russia until 2004 when Ukrainian nationalists cried that the election in which Viktor Yanukovych, who wanted closer ties to Russia, was elected had been rigged. Protests broke out in Kiev in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution. The Ukraine Supreme Court declared the results null and void and ordered a new election. Viktor Yurchenko, who favored increased ties with the West, won the runoff. However, he was soundly defeated in his bid for reelection by Yanukovych. During one of his last presidential acts, Yurchenko declared Stephen Bandera, a nationalist who had was aligned with the Germans for a time during World War II, to be “a Hero of Ukraine,” an act that caused tremendous controversy. The award was cancelled after Yanukovych took office on the grounds that Bandera was not a citizen of Ukraine. Yanukovych chose not to pursue membership in the European Union but favored closer ties with Russia, which provoked the ire of Ukrainian nationalists. American neoconservatives and the Obama administration were also irked and allegedly were behind a revolution in 2014 called the Maiden Revolution that ousted Yanukovych, who went in exile in Russia.
As a result of the Maiden Revolution and the overthrow of the Ukraine government, two events occurred. An election was held in Crimea, which had become part of Ukraine in 1954 but had remained largely Russian, to determine the will of the people regarding association with Ukraine or Russia. Some 97% of the voters, who were made up of 90% of the population, voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Ukraine refused to recognize the election. Western media then claimed that Russia “invaded” Crimea but the reality is that Russian troops were already there. Sevastopol is the site of the Russian Black Sea fleet and thousands of Russian soldiers, sailors and Marines were already stationed there. Much of the population of Eastern Ukraine was also upset with the overthrow of the Yanukovych government and the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces held votes and decided to secede from Ukraine, an act which led to war between the two provinces and Ukraine. At least one of the Ukrainian battalions was made up of ultra-nationalists, some of whom are neo-Nazis. The separatists were supported by Russia, including with troops. Some 14,000 have died in the ongoing war. In 1997 Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty of goodwill in which the two countries promised never to invade the other. However, Ukraine declined to renew the treaty in 2018.
After a brief period with an interim president, Petro Poroshenko was elected president in an election that did not include Crimea (which had been annexed by Russia) and most of the two seceded provinces. Poroshenko is a Ukrainian nationalist and anti-Russian. Although he was born near Odessa, he spent much of his youth in Moldova. He and his father created a business empire of confectionaries, automotive industries and agri-business. He also owned a TV channel. He ran the company until he was elected to parliament. Poroshenko was a billionaire prior to becoming president. Poroshenko was an instigator and financier of the Maidan Revolution. He began pushing for membership in the European Union and full membership in NATO, actions that infuriated Putin. Vice-President Joe Biden was put in charge of US relations with Ukraine. His son Hunter managed to get a position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company in what was obviously influence pedaling. Biden forced Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor after he opened an investigation of Hunter Biden’s role in Ukraine. Biden told Poroshenko the United States was going to withhold a $1 billion dollar loan unless he fired the prosecutor. Conversations between Biden and Poroshenko were recorded and later released. Poroshenko told Biden he fired the prosecutor “even though he has done nothing wrong.” Although the media has ignored it, Ukraine interfered in the 2016 US presidential election on behalf of former Secretary of State, senator and first lady Hillary Clinton. The Ukrainian ambassador even wrote articles for the US media favoring Clinton and opposing Donald Trump. Poroshenko was defeated for reelection in an election that saw a total of 39 candidates.
The victor in the 2019 election was Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an actor and broadcast company executive, who had set up his own party with his television production company. A Jew, Zelenskyy grew up speaking Russian in central Ukraine where his father was a university professor and his mother was an engineer. Although he has a law degree, Zelenskyy has never practiced. Instead, as a teenager he became a comic. At age 19 he created a comic team. In 2008 his team began producing television shows and he began making movies. In 2015 he began starring in a TV show in which he played a high school teacher who became president after a video of him ranting against corruption went viral. The role apparently went to his head and he decided to run for president for real. In 2018 Zelenskyy registered a new political party using the name of the TV show, Servant of the People. He claimed he had no political ambitions but wanted to register the name before someone else did. His name got on political opinion polls and he quickly became the frontrunner. He finally made his announcement on New Year’s Eve, upstaging Poroshenko’s New Year’s Eve address. Zelenskyy claimed it wasn’t deliberate, but was “due to a technical error.” Zelenskyy won the second round of the election with 73% of the vote.
One of Zelensky’s first presidential acts was to restore the Ukrainian citizenship of Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia who left his native state for Ukraine after his defeat for reelection. Although not Ukrainian, he supported the Maidan revolution. He was rewarded by Poroshenko with Ukraine citizenship and an appointment as governor of Odessa. Georgia stripped him of his citizenship. Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of fostering corruption and left Ukraine for the United States and announced his intention of forming a new political party. Poroshenko retaliated by taking away the Georgian’s Ukraine citizenship. Later that year Zelensky accused Poroshenko of treason and had him arrested. Poroshenko denied the allegations and said that Zelensky was using him for PR purposes, that he was going to eliminate his political opposition.
After Donald Trump became US president, Congress authorized funds to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, particularly Javelin antitank missiles. They were the first lethal weapons the US would provide Ukraine; previous US aid had consisted of medical and other humanitarian supplies along with non-lethal military equipment. After Trump called Zelensky to congratulate him on winning the presidency, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukrainian immigrant who was on the call, accused Trump of threatening to withhold the arms unless Zelensky agreed to investigate Hunter Biden’s dealing in Ukraine. Vindman approached a former White House staffer who had joined California Congressman Adam Schiff’s staff. Schiff used underhanded tactics to accuse Trump of abuse of office, leading to the president’s impeachment. Zelensky offered Vindman a position as Ukraine military minister. Zelensky said that Trump did not put pressure on him to investigate the former VP’s son.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who had a close relationship with Ukraine, won the American presidency in the 2020 election. After he took office, he renewed the relationship, now with Zelensky. The Obama administration started sending US military advisors to Ukraine and the practice continued under Trump. Biden continued the practice. He seems to have encouraged Zelensky to believe that the United States would come to Ukraine’s aid in the event of an increase in hostilities. He is also reported to have encouraged the Ukraine president to believe that membership in NATO was imminent. All of these things angered Putin, who began reinforcing Russian ground forces near the Ukraine border. Zelensky, whose poll numbers were in the 20s, refused to believe that Putin was going to invade EVEN THOUGH PUTIN HAD MADE CLEAR HE WAS GOING TO TAKE MILITARY ACTION if Ukraine pursued NATO membership.
Putin was also concerned about the influence of far right nationalist organizations, including some with neo-Nazi beliefs, in Ukraine politics. Although many in the media deny it, Ukraine has had a NAZI and neo-Nazi element since World War II. Western Ukrainians, whose background was with Austria and Poland, saw the Germans as liberators. Thousands of Ukrainians joined the German army, including SS. Guards in concentration camps were Ukrainian. Stepan Bandera’s wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists declared themselves to be loyal to Adolph Hitler. Bandera made the mistake of declaring Ukraine independent and was arrested by the Germans. He was sent to a prison in Germany where he remained until 1944, when he was released and returned to Ukraine where his organization was acting as a double-agent, conducting operations against both the Germans and Soviets. Bandera and his organization persecuted Poles as well as Jews. After the war, Bandera was allegedly affiliated with both British and US intelligence until he was assassinated by KGB agents in West Germany, where he had gone. Although Bandera is reviled by some in Ukraine, he is lauded by others, particularly in western Ukraine where NAZI support was strongest. Bandera followers were heavily involved in the Orange and Euromaidan revolts in 2004 and 2014. Far right (meaning radical nationalist) Ukrainian military organizations are part of the Ukraine army. One in particular, the Asov Special Operations Detachment, is based in Mariupol, the site of recent heavy fighting. The Asov Battalion, as it is commonly called, was formed by ultra-rightists in May 2014 and has been heavily involved in Donbas. Veterans of the unit formed their own political party. In short, there ARE neo-Nazis in Ukraine and they are present in the Ukrainian military.
The confusion about Ukraine has become even more prevalent since Russia “invaded” Ukraine. (Russian troops have been in Ukraine since 2014.) The American media claims Putin wants to recreate the USSR. No, if anything, he wants to recreate the Russian Empire. He knows that Ukraine was part of that empire before the Bolshevik Revolution and that Russians and Ukrainians have a common ancestry and, in many ways, a common culture. His stated goals when he announced the military operation, invasion of whatever one wishes to call it, are to secure the separatist states in Eastern Ukraine, rid Ukraine of the neo-Nazi influence and for Ukraine to become a neutral nation. Whether he will seek to expand Russian influence into Eastern Europe once he achieves his goals in Ukraine remains to be seen.