17 July 2014. The date is seared in the memories of many Malaysians as the day when MH17 was shot down by separatist rebels in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. While most of those who perished were Dutch, we also count Malaysians, Australians, Indonesians and Filipinos among the victims. The reason why Russians were in Ukraine, supplying rebels with Russian missiles, is part of a bigger conflict that has continued until the current 2022 Ukraine invasion, but its roots go back many centuries.
Ukraine, the ‘Made-Up’ Country?
Today, there is a popular belief in Russia that the Bolsheviks created modern Ukraine. In a recent hour-long speech, President Vladimir Putin said as much, crediting Lenin for the state’s creation; he had told then-President Bush in 2008 that “Ukraine is not a country”.
Indeed, the boundaries of modern Ukraine are what they are today through annexations over four centuries: First with the tsars, who annexed land to the north of the country; Lenin, to the east; Stalin, to the west; and finally, Khrushchev, who gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, completing its current border.
If that was all we are to read, then yes, we can concede that Ukraine is Russia’s, and Putin would be right to his way with Ukraine to bring it back into its realm. But if we are to protest the idea that Ukraine owes its existence to Russian cartographers, we need to take a closer look into its history.
A Tale of Two Cities
The annals of history are peppered with stories about the common destiny shared by neighbouring peoples. These stories often involve pacts, betrayal, friendship, wars, disasters, and more. The story of Kyiv and Muscovy is one such story.
Since its founding in 482 AD, Kyiv has contended with the Varangians (Vikings), Byzantines, Tatars (Mongols), Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russian Empire, Soviets and Nazi Germany.
It is not without a sense of irony that it was Yuri Vladimirovich Dolgorukiy, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, who grew Muscovy (Moscow) and turned its principality into a major independent power in the Kievan Rus.
Later invasions by the Mongols would turn these princes into vassals. However, Muscovy’s remote position created more space between itself and the Mongols, and so it had some respite to grow its power and conquer adjacent lands. The Ruthenians in Kyiv were not so fortunate with its geography, being closer to the steppes.
Later, the Cossack hetman — the chief military commander of the Ukrainian hetmanate — Bohdan Khmelnytzky led an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In need of assistance, he turned to the tsar.
The 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav between Bohdan and Tsar Alexis of Russia became a key moment in Kyiv-Muscovy relations. The treaty would incorporate the Cossack Hetmanate as an autonomous duchy under Russian military protection to aid Bohdan’s uprising in exchange for allegiance to the tsar.
In the 17th century, after Bohdan’s passing, the Cossacks experienced what came to be known as The Ruin, a period of intense strife, violence and foreign intervention. Foreign powers partitioned Ukraine into two sides, the Left- and Right-bank Ukraine, on both sides of the Dnieper.
The fate of both cities was about to be affected by yet another Cossack hetman: Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa.
As the leader of Left-bank Ukraine, he dreamt of a unified Ukraine under the tsar’s control. Mazepa managed to unify Ukraine and rule it with the tsar’s permission; the tsar, in turn, could call upon Mazepa’s forces to bolster his army.
However, Russian losses in the Great Northern War instigated Tsar Peter I to introduce reforms, including centralising military control of his realm to Moscow. Mazepa saw this as a threat to Ukraine’s autonomy guaranteed in the Treaty of Pereyaslav. He switched sides, turning his back against the tsar and allied with Charles XII of Sweden.
The tsar would have none of it. He defeated Mazepa and the Swedish king at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, ending Mazepa’s hopes of an autonomous Ukraine. Instead, Russia only hardened its resolve to crush Ukrainian autonomy.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the partition of Poland worsened this autonomy. The Russian Empire absorbed all of Ukraine, now termed “Little Russia”, and Catherine II abolished the Cossack Hetmanate and annexed Crimea, which she calls “New Russia.”
From the 19th century onward, intense russification occurred in Ukraine. The Russians banned the Uniate church and suppressed the Ukrainian language, especially as a medium of instruction. The country’s administration becomes wholly and firmly Russian.
The Donbas in the east became industrialised, and many ethnic Russians moved into this area to work in the new factories. As a result, the industrialised east becomes more ethnically Russian, whereas the peasantry to the west remains Ruthenian.
Nonetheless, Ukrainian politicians, bureaucrats, former Cossack soldiers, journalists, clergy and other members of the intelligentsia pushed for an autonomous and independent Ukraine throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. They cast off the title of “Little Russians” and assert their Ukrainian identity.
The 20th century was, again, ruthless for Ukraine. The Holodomor — derived from the Ukrainian meaning “to kill by starvation” — of 1932 was an artificial and intentional famine unleashed by the Russians on the Ukrainians, featuring widespread forced labour and severely mismanaged food supplies.
Seven million Ukrainians died during the Holodomor. Some scholars say Stalin did this to crush the Ukrainian independence movement, and the Holodomor was verboten until the waning years of the USSR.
Then, in World War 2 (WW2), Ukraine’s location between the great powers turned it into a meat grinder. Having to endure both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, many millions of Ukrainians died, millions more became homeless, and the conflict destroyed the country’s wealth.
Post-WW2, the new premier, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to reconcile with the other republics in the USSR. So he gifted Crimea — which itself was ethnically cleansed of Tatars — to Ukraine in 1954, 300 years after the Treaty of Pereyaslav.
As the 20th century progressed, Ukraine rose in importance in the USSR. Thanks to its arable lands and abundance of natural resources, it became the second-most important republic after Russia. It also became host to an enormous stockpile of Soviet nuclear weapons, and the naval base in Sevastopol remained an important Soviet warm-water port for its Black Sea Fleet during the Cold War.
In the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian activists again revived calls for independence. When the Iron Curtain finally fell, Ukraine could at last savour independence.
The World According to a 19th Century Man
If you asked Professor John Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar and one of the leading political realists in the US, why Western governments fail to understand Putin, he’d attribute it to the fact that Putin — a former KGB colonel who forged his political career amid the chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse — is a 19th-century thinker who prizes concepts like the balance of power.
The West, argues the University of Chicago-based Mearsheimer, played a significant role in stoking the modern Ukraine-Russia conflict by upsetting the balance of power along Russia’s borders. For almost a century, the former eastern European Soviet republics created a comfortable buffer between Russia and its ideological enemies to the West; since the fall of the Soviet Union, this buffer has ideologically drifted westward in the late 90s and noughties.
That is why Putin often characterises NATO members as ‘Nazis’, casting them in the same light as the Germans who once posed an existential threat to the Soviet Union.
For a 19th-century thinker, this power imbalance is untenable, especially when you factor that Ukraine is a major conduit for Russian natural gas into Europe. These transit lines form a cobweb across Ukraine, and the natural gas that runs through it is significant geopolitical leverage over Europe for Putin.
Interestingly, Putin recently admitted that he had approached then-President Bill Clinton in 2000 to broach the idea of Russia joining NATO but was rebuffed. Imagine what 20 years of diplomacy and friendship would have done for the global order, instead of conflict between Russia and the West. Imagine if the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which guaranteed Ukrainian autonomy and sovereignty in exchange for it handing over its nuclear stockpile, was upheld by Russia.
It’s Bad for the Rest of Us
An insecure Russia makes for very bad news. During Putin’s 2012 reelection campaign, he proved to be unpopular, and the country saw some of the most intense protests in Moscow since the 1990s. Putin won his reelection in an election that saw an astonishing 146% voter turnout, which raised suspicions that the vote was rigged.
Then, in 2013, the Euromaidan protests — ‘Euro’, because the protests were aimed at former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s snubbing of the EU trade deal, and ‘Maidan’, from the square where the protests happened — further exposed the west-east divide in Ukraine, with the western half of the country wanting to get closer with the EU, and the eastern half backing Yanukovych.
Putin takes advantage of the chaos to annex Crimea. Russian forces already in Crimea gradually seized more and more of the peninsula and used it as a staging site for the invasion into eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s popularity surges as a result, and he supports pro-separatist rebels. In July, these rebels used the Russian BUK anti-aircraft system to shoot down MH17. Continuous conflict in the region has frustrated efforts to identify and punish the true culprits and delayed the delivery of justice for the victims.
Today, the current invasion of Ukraine has momentarily boosted Putin’s popularity just as it did in 2014. Still, if history repeats itself, this bump in approval will not last — especially since the true cost of the war remains obscure for the Russian people, whose country is fast becoming an international pariah, both diplomatically and financially.
Worse, sanctions on Russia will inadvertently drive it further away from the bargaining table with the West and lead Putin directly into the hands of China, who will become an even stronger hegemon in Asia. As a result, the invasion of Taiwan is becoming a hotter topic while China takes notes on how the world powers are responding to Russian aggression.
Perhaps things would have been different if Mazepa remained loyal or Clinton pushed for Russian admittance into NATO. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that Ukrainians will not go quietly into the night, not when it comes to their independence.