Russia and Ukraine: common past, divergent perceptions and geopolitics


The current tension between Russia and Ukraine is the most serious crisis facing Europe in the post-Soviet era, with the prospect of war looming on the horizon. Often seen as distant brothers, the two countries share a complex relationship of shared history, religion, culture and language, but also their own distinct interpretations of these.

Benedict Anderson, in his 1983 publication Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, describes the nation as it is imagined because it creates a bond between people who often do not know each other. They imagine themselves to be part of the same community based on a common history, traits, beliefs and attitudes. Although the nation is an imaginary construct, countless people have voluntarily sacrificed themselves at its altar, according to Anderson. Perception plays an important role in this imaginary.

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe in terms of territory and the seventh in terms of population (Russia is number one in both cases). With its vast fertile land that naturally lends itself to grain production, Ukraine is one of the world’s leading wheat exporters (along with the United States and Australia) and has often been dubbed the breadbasket of Europe (the breadbasket of Russia in the past). The country had a developed industrial base during the Soviet era, including ferrous metals, transportation equipment, heavy machinery, chemicals, and foodstuffs. The country faced a severe economic downturn in the post-Soviet era. Thus, at present, in terms of nominal GDP, it is the 23rd in Europe, and in per capita income, it is the poorest in the region. In Soviet times and after, much of Russia’s oil and gas was exported to Europe through pipelines criss-crossing Ukraine. It is a source of income, but also a bone of contention with the big neighbor to the north, Russia.

Vladimir Putin, in his article On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians (July 2021), asserts that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people – one whole” with “essentially the same historical and spiritual space.” He has a point. The roots of the first East Slavic civilization and state (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are its offshoots) go back to Kyivan/Kievan Rus (882-1240). It adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988 AD under Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr) and became a powerful state under the Rurik dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Rurikid rule was weakened by the 13th century Mongol invasion. The end of more than two centuries of “oppressive” “Tatar yoke” (the popular term for Mongol rule) was followed by the rise of the Moscow princes. According to Russian nationalist historiography, Muscovite Rus now became the focal point of East Slavic civilization and the state/imperial system. Ukrainian nationalist historiography argues that much of present-day (northwestern and central) Ukraine remained outside the Russian state as it became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Lithuanian Commonwealth Polish after the middle of the 14th century. Thus, he had a very distinct cultural-historical experience, a different trajectory.

Since the 13th century, many Poles, Armenians, Germans and Jews had settled in Ukrainian cities, creating a very mixed culture and way of life. However, Ukrainians were subjected to legal handicaps due to their Orthodox faith and exploited by Polish Catholic feudal lords.

The emergence of modern Ukraine can be attributed to the rise of a new martial community – the Cossacks (from Turkish kazak, meaning “adventurer” or “freeman”) – in the 15th century. Initially, they were hunter-gatherers, but also free peasants fleeing serfdom. The Cossacks by the mid-16th century had developed a strong democratic military regime, with a general assembly (rada) as supreme authority and elected officers, including the commander-in-chief, or “hetman”. Initially they were used by the Polish rulers against the Ottoman Turks but were a constant source of discontent.

In 1648 the Cossacks, under the leadership of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, defeated the Polish army and laid the foundations for an independent state with a regular army, taxation and administrative structure. However, in order to protect his fledgling state against the Poles and the Ottomans, Bohdan Khmelnytsky made the Pereyaslav Agreement with the Russian Tsar in 1654. The Russians view it as a legitimization of Russian rule. Ukrainian nationalist historians, on the other hand, interpret it as a recognition of Ukraine’s autonomy.

For the next century, the Cossack state was able to retain some autonomy before being subordinated to Russian political and linguistic-cultural domination in the 18th century. Many Ukrainian hetmans of this period resisted or even revolted against Russian policies, which Putin and other Russian nationalists did not fully appreciate. The final partition of Poland in 1795 brought many Polish-held Ukrainian territories into the Tsarist Empire.

After the collapse of the Tsarist regime in 1917, Ukraine was granted two years of autonomy before being absorbed into the Bolshevik state. Many Ukrainians believe that Soviet policy claimed more than 3 million lives during the Holodomor famines of 1932-1933. During Tsarist and Soviet rule, Ukrainian language and culture was mostly neglected.

During World War II, some Ukrainians initially cooperated with the Nazis in hopes of independence from the Soviet Union and because of memories of mistreatment by Soviet authorities.

However, Nazi mistreatment led to a rapid change in their attitude. What is also true is that more than 4.5 million Ukrainians had joined the Soviet Red Army to fight Germany and nearly 7 million sacrificed their lives for the fatherland. The Ukrainian “collaborators” were harshly treated by the Soviet authorities. Often, memories of real/perceived discrimination and persecution become very powerful elements, leading to alienation and radicalization of communities.

In 1954, on the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s joining Russia, the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who had been the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine) offered the Crimean region, which has been part of Russia since 1783, to Ukraine. Incidentally, many Russians describe Ukraine as “Little Russia (Malo Russia)”. Ukrainian nationalists, who emphasize their unique and distinct identity, are outraged by such descriptions.

Ukraine’s importance to Moscow is not only civilizational, but also because it is strategically located on Russia’s border with Europe. As Europe’s largest energy supplier, Moscow wants to control the pipelines that cross Ukrainian territory. Russia’s Sevastopol Naval Base, located on the Crimean Peninsula, is the main base for its Black Sea Fleet.

In 2005, Vladimir Putin claimed that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. In December 2021, a bill was tabled in the Russian Parliament to this effect. Putin also argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of “historical Russia” and is a “tragedy” for “most citizens”. Its primary objective was therefore to re-establish Russia as a great power and to regain primacy in the post-Soviet space.

His pet project – the Eurasian Economic Union which seeks to reintegrate former Soviet states – aims to partially negate Soviet disintegration. It would be incomplete without Ukraine. Putin also believes that the United States and Europe are trying to harm Russian interests and minimize its influence in the post-Soviet space, especially Ukraine, and to bring the countries of the region into NATO. and possibly in the European Union. Hence the struggle for this important country.

Before 2014, few Ukrainians were in favor of joining European organizations (NATO and EU). However, most Ukrainians were keen to retain their country’s strategic autonomy and wanted to emphasize their unique and distinct identity. They are uncomfortable with Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reintegrate the former Soviet republics into the Eurasian Economic Union.

During President Yanukovych’s tenure (2010-2014), almost 40% of Ukrainians preferred the EU to Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, which was favored by about 30% (according to the Foundation of Democratic Initiatives in Ukraine) . For them, the EU represented prosperity, while association with Russia would have a political cost, ie Russian dominance. So they protested when Yanukovych, considered pro-Russian and highly corrupt, halted negotiations for an association agreement with the EU in November 2013.

Subsequently, he had to flee Ukraine and Russia intervened to take Crimea away from him, which it considers their own – 80% of its population is Russian-speaking and voted overwhelmingly in favor of membership to Russia in a referendum held in Moscow in March 2014. What has turned Ukrainians even more against Russia is the trade war, banning many Ukrainian exports.

After the Crimean incident, opinions changed. In November 2015, pro-NATO sentiment in Ukraine was 75%, compared to 19.8% against (Foundation of Democratic Initiatives in Ukraine). According to an opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in November 2021, 58% of Ukrainians are in favor of EU membership, while only 21% prefer the customs union with Russia, Belarus and the Kazakhstan (54% are in favor of joining NATO). They believe that the European option would be better for the security and economic interest of their country.

Thus, identity politics, divergent perceptions of the historical past and cultural heritage, and current geopolitics have created a dangerous cocktail, which could lead to the greatest catastrophe of post-Cold War Europe.

Sanjay Kumar Pandey is a professor at the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at JNU’s School of International Studies.


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