The Causes of the Conflict in Ukraine Beyond Russian Interests, part 1

By Gustavo A Maranges on March 1, 2022

Looking at the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, the mainstream media, along with analysts and historians, have approached the phenomenon as a new conflict, whose only cause seems to be Russia’s geopolitical interests. However, this approach is not only biased but pays little attention to other important issues that lie behind this historic conflict.

Much of the world’s public opinion overlooks important issues like the problem of nationalities within Ukraine, the Euromaidan crisis in 2014, and the will of some Ukrainian politicians to being NATO and European Union members. Ignoring these issues leads to biased and not very objective analyses, which tend to be highly politicized.

This conflict is very complex, so in this series of articles, we will focus on analyzing the problem of nationalities in Ukraine. After it, we will be able to understand why it is impossible to separate the current crisis from the issue of the war waged by the Ukrainian army against the Donbas separatists for the last eight years.

Contrary to many media criteria, Ukraine is not a homogeneous country. The territory now occupied by this country has different pasts dating back to the first proto-state formations. After the 13th century, the western part of Ukraine belonged to the Principality of Galicia-Volynia, while the eastern part was under the rule of the Vladimir Suzdal Principality. The first of these regions fell under the control of the Polish and Lithuanian kingdoms, while the second one was conquered by Slavic and Mongol tribes. This marked the beginning of what we will call “the two Ukraines”.

Subsequently, the western region came under Polish rule alone, whose armies threatened to spread further eastward. It ended with a war between Poland and Russia (1654-1668), which helped the eastern principalities. The war established the borders between Poland and Russia on Ukrainian territory. The left bank of the Dnieper became a virtual part of the Russian Empire. Thus, the regional differences grew over the years.

The eastern territories received a massive Russian emigration, and the nobility of the area was formed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This determined that the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine felt part of the Russian Empire and consequently different from their western counterparts. According to the researcher Javier Granados, this integration process was essential to form a society attached to Russian values and traditions. Something that helps to understand why in historical moments of radical change, namely 1917 and 1991, neither the Parliament nor the majority of the population demanded independence in the first case, nor the total distancing from Russia in the second.

On the other hand, the western part of Ukraine, specifically the current regions of Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia, fell under the control of Austria-Hungary after Poland was divided between Russia and the Habsburg monarchy, which respected the local religion (Greek-Catholic) and abolished serfs, among other measures. It meant that people from Galizia started to identify themselves as a specific ethnic group and nationality, the Ukrainian.

The revolutions of 1848 increased the nationalist feelings in Galizia and the demands for independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the intellectuals of this region (a minority), it was an opportunity to consolidate the Ukrainian nationality and establish their own institutions. This was the first time in history that Ukrainians had the opportunity to present themselves as a nation.

Later, amid World War I, Tsarist Russia invaded Galicia. Although it was for a short time, some exponents of the Ukrainian nationality were attacked, namely Greek-Catholic Church, newspapers, cultural institutions, political associations. After 1917, western Ukraine remained in Polish and Romanian hands, which reinforced anti-Russian sentiments in the region.

During World War II, the USSR liberated the regions of Galizia and Northern Bukovina, which were incorporated into the Socialist Soviet Republic of Ukraine and consequently into the USSR. Henceforth, Western-Ukrainians had to face an environment where dominated by the Russian culture, so they assumed the behavior of a minority. It is also worthy to note that during the Soviet time, Crimea was donated to Ukraine in 1954 under Nikita Khrushchev. The peninsula had a strong ethnic and linguistic Russian component, which increased the cultural differences within Ukraine.

From this historical analysis, we can conclude that the problem of the “two Ukranias” dates back to the 17th century. However, it was not visible until the 1950s, when two social groups with clear cultural differences were integrated into a single State.

Additionally, we should take into account that the process of formation and strengthening of Ukrainian nationalism is not only the result of the above-described transformations but of the West’s interests to contain the influence of Russia in the region.

For example, the processes of “Ukrainization” carried out under Austro-Hungarian rule were aimed at slowing down and containing Russia’s influence. They expelled and repressed Russian minorities from Galizia after the partition of Poland in the 18th century. This is precisely the native land of the Ukrainian nationalists, and it is also the region where the nationalist parties are strongest.

Another example of Western influence is the statements of two well-known Germans, the publicist Paul Rorbaj and the general Maks Hofman, who was the Chief of Staff of the Eastern Front during the First World War. The first one said once: “we have to separate Ukrainian Russia from Muscovite Russia”. While the second one declared in 1919: “In reality, Ukraina is the result of my work and not of the conscious will of the Russian people. I created Ukraina to have the opportunity to sign peace with at least a part of Russia”. In the same way, after the First World War and amid the Russian Civil War, the Germans pressed for the realization of the Ukrainian state.

Thereafter, the role played once by Germans and Austro-Hungarians remained in the hands of the United States and NATO. Both have pushed nationalism as a spearhead in the context of the Cold War. After 1991, the methods of gaining influence in Ukraine and surrounding Russia have focused on economic penetration, rescuing the Western roots of a part of the Ukrainian population, and hindering any attempt of Russian-Ukrainian rapprochement.

After all, it is impossible to deny that the nationality-related problems within Ukraine have nothing to do with the current crisis. But how are they related to Crimea and the Donbas war, which is one of the main causes of the current situation?

Stay tuned for the second part of this investigation.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – English