The Tragedy of Ukraine (Part Two) – A look at the 20th Century origin of the crisis…

The tragedy that is today’s Ukraine continues to unfold before our eyes, with an extremely fluid situation on the ground.

What needs to be answered are these questions:

  1. What is the origin of the crisis?
  2. Does this mean World War Three or Cold War Two?
  3. What are the likely short-term consequences for the region and beyond?

To answer any of these questions properly is well outside the reasonable means of a single blog post; I will, however, try to give an outline and can expand on them later.

What is the origin of the crisis?

The origin of the crisis depends on the level of ones focus – the most important historical origin however dates from World War Two (although this itself needs to be seen in the context of the war’s preceding decades); the decades immediately following the war; the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s/early 1990s; the development of independent Ukraine’s internal dynamics; US imperial dominance and Russian resurgence from 2000 on.

  • Ukraine, although closely related to Russia (as a people/culture) has largely been subordinated to Russia for centuries;
  • The east/west split of Ukraine may in many ways be traced back to historical borders between the Russian Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth;
  • Ukraine was at the front line of the eastern front of World War One;
  • With the February 1917 Russian Revolution there was a similar movement in Ukraine, with the Kiev Uprising overthrowing the local Tsarist forces and declaring the independence of Ukraine from the Russian Empire;
  • Following the October 1917 Russian Revolution a soviet socialist republic emerged with its capital in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (today the second largest city in Ukraine) – this led to a Ukrainian civil war between the Reds based in Kharkiv, the Whites based in Kiev AND Black armies (the anarchists of Nestor Makhno) in the south-east AND Green armies (peasants not aligned to any of the others) throughout;
  • The Reds, allied with the Blacks, defeated the Whites, only for the Whites to regroup in western Ukraine, sign a peace treaty with the Germans who then defeated the Red/Black forces and forming a unified puppet German puppet state called the Hetmanate;
  • Despite ongoing guerrilla warfare from Reds/Blacks/Greens, the Hetmanate was relatively stable and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Soviets and Germany essentially left Ukraine under German control;
  • The collapse of the Western Front and the beginning of the 1918 German revolution led to German troops withdrawing from Ukraine in November 1918 – the puppet government was quickly overthrown by the Socialist Directorate – at the same time the Ukrainian population of Galicia (an Austrian province) rebelled and formed the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, which subsequently united with the Ukrainian People’s Republic, effectively forming a united Ukraine;

    Flag of Soviet Ukraine

    Flag of Soviet Ukraine

  • Following the establishment of the USSR (by union of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Trancaucasia) there was initially a resurgence of Ukrainian culture, although the counter-revolution that saw Stalin come to power in 1928 abruptly reversed this, ramping up repression, including the famines of the 1930s (the Holodomor);

    Map created by Spiridon Ion Cepleanu in 2011.

    Map created by Spiridon Ion Cepleanu in 2011.

  • As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the subsequent partition of Poland, the Ukrainian speaking regions of Poland (Polish Volhynia and Galicia) were added to Ukraine;
  • In the subsequent Nazi invasion of the USSR virtually all of Ukraine was occupied by German forces, aided and abetted by the fascist group led by Stepan Bandera in Western Ukraine (Bandera himself was almost immediately detained by the Nazis who were worried he might be a problem for them, although his forces continued to collaborate on the ground);
  • The Soviet counter-offensive originated in eastern Ukraine, and was, ultimately, the key to defeating the Nazi Reich, although at a cost of up to 20 million Soviet civilians and almost 9 million Soviet soldiers;
  • Following the defeat of Nazi Germany and the beginning of the Cold War the Soviet Union established Ukraine as both its primary bread basket and arms manufacturing center, with the east of Ukraine being heavily industrialised while the west of Ukraine heavily militarised – as a result of experiences from WWII and the perception of future attacks from the west (keeping the west defended and the industry out of reach in the east);
  • Additional Ukrainian speaking regions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland were joined with Ukraine;
  • Crimea was added (allegedly as a result of vodka) to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954;
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986, contributing to resentment towards the Soviet Regime;

Post-Soviet Oligarchs

Following the dissolution of the USSR the Republic of Ukraine came into existence through an independence referendum in 1991 – which itself expedited the complete collapse of what was left of the USSR and hopes among some to reconstruct it.

The blue & yellow flag of post-Soviet Ukraine.

The blue & yellow flag of post-Soviet Ukraine.

The Communist Party was declared an illegal party, and a class of oligarchs emerged as a result of the post-Soviet ‘shock therapy’ advocated by the West which saw a massive theft of State resources into private hands.

This new class of oligarchs however was divided between western and eastern regions – the east being the industrial area with key deposits of minerals (especially coal) and dependent on trade with Russia, while the west is increasingly dependent on trade with the EU.

The tension between the rival oligarchic interests were generally decided by the office of the President which had exceptionally strong powers until recently.

The Presidency, especially under Kuchma, practiced a policy of ‘multi-vector politics’ which essentially meant compromising between the two rival interests – a concession to the western oligarchs here, a concession to the eastern oligarchs there.

It is this source of tension, between western and eastern oligarchs which forms the foundation for the current crisis, albeit one where the 20th Century history of Ukraine has conditioned in terms of:

  • An industrialised east and deindustrialised west;
  • A militarised west and a demilitarised east;
  • Central European interests in the west and Russian interests in the south and east;
  • A resurgence of fascism in the west and a Soviet nostalgia in the east;
  • An ethno-linguistic division between a Ukrainian west and a Russified east.

These are all important components to the current situation, they all factor into it.

However, it is the tensions between the oligarchs and the interests of both the EU and Russia which are the key factors, the key animating forces at work here, along with US global imperial interests.

I’ll seek to expand on the more immediate 21st Century causes of this crisis, including the immediate of the last four months in a subsequent post, as well as looking to answer the other questions.

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4 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Ukraine (Part Two) – A look at the 20th Century origin of the crisis…

  1. Perhaps we in the ‘West’ were misguided all along by the fact that for the most part, the dissolving of the USSR was seamless (excluding situations in Armenia vs Azerbaijan, for example)… the more pronounced conflicts were happening in former Yugoslavia. Ukraine seemed (to a layman) such a more simple scenario.

    To learn that the tensions had remained bubbling and on verge of boiling over is discouraging. With the country in such a critical geographical and economic location, the world’s attention is going to be focused here for some time yet. I suspect that the US really doesn’t want to get involved, but at the same time think the EU doesn’t have the clout to push for resolutions any time soon.

  2. Thanks Jonathan – much appreciated post. I must say I’ve been quite frustrated listening to the vacuous reporting by CNN – so much blather about what Obama may or may not do etc. but no one ever explaining WHY the people are rioting in the first place etc.

  3. Thanks – I’ll try and get the more recent 21st century bits written during my coffee breaks tomorrow.

    The above just summarises what lays the foundations for the exact tensions, of which I only touch upon at the end – oligarchs, geopolitics and rival Russian/EU (particularly German) interests.

    However, the above does explain, in general terms, the north-west/south-east divide and the resurgence of fascism from the west, all of which have particularly coloured the current crisis.

    The EU Association deal versus the Russian deal just happened to be the catalyst for all these tensions to boil over.

  4. Pingback: The Tragedy of Ukraine (Part Three) – A look at the recent origins of the crisis | "catch a fire"

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