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The Spectator – on 400 years of unease between Ukraine and Russia

27 February 2014

Ukraine declared independence from the USSR in 1991, but Moscow has made sure it’s remained heavily involved in Kiev’s affairs ever since. That has been relatively simple. Soon before independence, Anne Applebaum described how Russia’s ruthless annexation of its neighbour had left Ukraine without much identity of its own.

‘It took 350 years of Czarist domination, several decades of Stalinist purges, two collectivisation-induced mass famines, two world wars, and the refusal to teach Ukrainian children how to speak Ukrainian, along with the systematic elimination of anyone who might be thought a leader, an intellectual, a capitalist, or even a wealthy peasant. But they did it. The Russians have managed to rob 53 million people of their culture, to impoverish an economy which supplies one-third of the Soviet Union’s food and one-fifth of its industrial products, and in effect to destroy the largest nation in the world without its own state.’

Two years later, Ukrainians were gripped by fear that Russia would try to take away their new, hard-won freedom. An MP Applebaum spoke to cited the 17th century as evidence of the untrustworthiness of the Russians: 

‘If you know about 1654 [when Ukrainian rebels defeated their Polish overlords then were cheated out of their freedom by Russians], then you know that we cannot ever sign treaties with Russians, because we will always be cheated.’ He stared at me fiercely, moustaches quivering. ‘They want to bring our independence to an end. It has happened before, and it will happen again.’ 

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The original bone of contention for this year’s protesters was a decision by Viktor Yanukovych to abandon a trade treaty with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia. The same argument played a part in the 2004 Orange Revolution when Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by Viktor Yushchenko after a controversial election. Radek Sikorski (who is Anne Applebaum’s husband and now Poland’s foreign minister) outlined Putin’s strong-arm tactics to get Yanukovych into power: shameless propaganda, tactical power cuts, a suspected poison attack on Yushchenko. Ten years ago, Ukrainians in the east supported Yanukovych while people in Kiev voted for the Europe-friendly Yushchenko.

Many Ukrainians in Crimea agree with Moscow’s position that this week’s revolution was brought about by fascists. Pro-Russian activists have been holding rallies against the revolution and appealing to Moscow to defend them from fascists. Neil Barnett reported on a similar sentiment last time President Viktor Yanukovych was forced from power. In Donetsk in 2004, one old man said:

‘If Yushchenko wins, the Nazis will return. I was in the west of Ukraine recently and saw columns of foreign troops, fascists. If war comes, I will fight until the last cartridge.’

Viktor Yanukovych threw in the towel this week and disappeared into the night. He’s on the run from the new authorities who say he’s wanted for the mass killing of protesters – more than 100 died in Kiev’s Independence Square last week. Soon before Ukraine became independent in 1991, Stephen Handelman reported that state-sponsored troops had attacked Stepan Khmara, who was becoming more and more popular for struggling against the KGB and a corrupt court system.

‘It calls to mind a certain Ukrainian folk tale. Once upon a time, the tale goes, the animal leaders of the forest called a council among them- selves to decide how to end the bullying, murderous career of a particularly obnoxious bear. Rejecting both force and diplomacy, they conscripted the Fox, who travelled to the Bear’s den with the news that a beast equally mighty and ferocious lived in a nearby well. The annoyed ursine tyrant went to look. Seeing a reflection of himself growling in the water, the bear jumped in to fight his rival, and drowned.’

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  • global city

    What ever the underlying causes, the EU’s fingerprints are all over the mess. I think that the reason why Hague was seen to have taken a ‘non-role in events is that the national states allowed the EU to take sole charge, as some sort of dry run when it IS the sole arbiter of foreign policy and relations….

    Their ineptness has shone out again, just as it does in every field in which EU mandarins have sole right of initiative.

    One only has to ask, what happened to all those EU flags that were being paraded in the early days of the protests? Were they all, coincidentally, by cowards who ran off when the trouble started… or were they part of an underhand EU ‘external action’?

  • Tom Tom

    Erdogan’s power base is corroding as Turkey’s bubble economy implodes. Syria is in chaos. NATO/EU have decided to unpick the Russian imperial past and provocatively threaten the Russian Black Sea fleet at a time when Russia is showing the flag with the Chinese Navy in the Med. China is being encircled by US bases and uptick in hardware positioning.

    It looks really like 1905 or 1913 and it would not be surprising if China and Russia started flexing for a US/NATO attack. After all WW1 was essentially Germany fearing Russian economic growth and fearing it would be too powerful after 1914 as Russia looked at Ottoman decay and Austria-Hungary meltdown.

    There are worse reasons to go to war. The US kept Guantanamo on Cuban territory so why Russia should not keep Crimea is unclear except that the US can attack Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc etc but Russia should not defend its borders ………..sounds a bit psychotic but NATO has given much evidence of that behaviour in recent years

  • Augustus

    Western Ukrainians may have won and humiliated Russia. But what they have won, no one really knows. That’s the essence of revolution. Ukraine, unlike Belarus, wasn’t governed with an iron fist. The victory of the Ukrainian revolution now puts the fragile balance of power in Russia in danger. Belarus is ruled by a Stalinist, so they’ve more reasons to revolt than the Ukrainians. But if Belarus falls will it be Moscow’s turn? And what about Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan? Aren’t they also due for a regime change? These regimes have managed to keep Islamic militants at bay, despite harbouring active supporters of political Islam. But for how long? Any revolutions in these republics will further setback the fight against terrorist Islamism.

    As for the EU, the best way for Russia to punish the EU would be to cut off the money flow to Kiev completely. The EU will then, no doubt, willingly pay for the Ukrainian revolution: Perhaps 20 billion euros for starters, with rounds two and three to follow, and all squandered into a bottomless pit of corruption.

  • Bonkim

    Catholic and Orthodox divide – Ukraine should split and sort themselves out. EU money should not be squandered on Ukraine – total bankrupt and corrupt. No winners there – all losers and Britain should not get involved.

  • pearlsandoysters

    This article proves the old saying “one man’s rebel is another man freedom fighter”. According to some sources in 1654 the Ukrainians decided to switch the allegiance to Russian tzar. The nationalists in all parts of the world are known for being partial to history.

  • Tom Tom

    Maybe it would be good for the EU to have the Stephan Bandera boys in power with their “88” symbols ? A return to the days of runes and a real right-wing regime in Europe would be inspirational for lots of political groups in Europe and show the days of decadent liberalism funded by debt lead inevitably to the forces that made the 1930s such a colourful era……….when they dig up the mass graves in years to come they can blame it on the Russians

  • Dean Jackson

    Why is everyone silent about (1) Lenin’s statues throughout the Ukraine remaining standing for 23-years; and (2) Kiev “demonstrators” assisting the security forces in guarding government buildings.

    The two are connected; can anyone piece them together?

  • colliemum

    Nice try at obfuscation.

    It is about money, who has it, who needs it and who’ll give it.

    The regime before that of Yanukovich was as corrupt as his, and it got defeated in proper, OECD-supervised elections.
    The same oligarchs who pulled the strings then, Madame Timochenko included, are pulling the strings now.

    Meanwhile, there’s a run on Ukrainian banks: people are taking out their savings, and the oligarchs are moving their capital out of the Ukraine. The Ukraine is close to bankruptcy – in walks the IMF, who are well known for handing out money with no strings attached … shades of Greece, but this time Greece on steroids.

    Allegedly, the oligarchs took about 37 billion $$ – the Ukraine allegedly needs 35 billion $$ now. Do you think they’ll freeze the oligarchs’ accounts?

    No, me neither …

    And guess who’ll pay towards the IMF funds? Yep, we will.

    That’s what it is about – and the history of the Ukraine is totally irrelevant.

    Btw – this also is only a half-truth: “The original bone of contention for this year’s protesters was a decision by Viktor Yanukovych to abandon a trade treaty with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.”– no, he refused because a condition of that EU treaty was to release Madame Timoshenko from prison. Then he asked Putin, and yes, Putin’s deal had less strings attached than the EU Treaty. But Putin is a reactionary autocrat (Ed West, below), so he is the baddie no matter what.

  • Jez

    The historical back story presented above Is ridiculously simplified.

    Ok. My go: This seems an attempt to manipulate an undercurrent of dissatisfaction into open regime change, to in turn isolate & weaken Russia by the corporate global elite.

    • Makroon

      It’s just the view from Warsaw. This Slav internecine squabbling has nothing for us.

      • rtj1211

        And the Poles have been in bed with Russia since time immemorial, haven’t they?!

        Safe to say that Poland’s view is that anything Putin does is wrong and anyone who supports Putin is wrong. Strange they don’t feel the same way about Germans despite their frolics with Adolf Hitler’s bunch, isn’t it?!

        • Tom Tom

          Lots of Poles served in the Wehrmacht; Polish Jews became the cadres of Stalin’s Lublin Army and the leaders of the Communist regime postwar; the intellectuals and aristos got bullets in the neck at Katyn

  • Baron

    So, it’s now an Ukrainian Slav against his big Slavonic Russian brother, is it? That’s the last thing anyone should want, Molly.

    Until the current upheaval engineered by forces closely aligned with the Brussels apparatchiks, ethnicity – Ukrainians versus the Russians – wasn’t a problem. Although it differs region by region, what should have informed our approach to the Ukraine is a more fundamental split, that between Ukrainophone Ukrainians, the Russophone Ukrainians, and the Russophone Russians. (If it sounds weird, google it).

    The two groups UU and RU are about equal. Add to it the RR group, and the pro-Russian sentiment wins it.

    The only reason the Ukrainian unwashed who hasn’t yet spoken may temporarily favour the EU is money. Having witness the cash flowing to Poland, other EU post-communist members, they think Brussels would do the same for them. If that happens, they would be stupid not to take it. In the end, however, it will be Russia who’ll pocket it all. The Russians, whether under Putin or someone else, will get it because only Russia could guarantee the country’s long term security.

    And another thing:

    It wasn’t Russia that inflicted pain on the Ukrainians when the Red Menace was in charge, it was communism, many of the top Kremlin thugs were either Ukrainian by origin, or born in the Ukraine – Kaganovitch, Voroshilov, Khruschev, and the top thug was Georgian. The Russian muzhik didn’t chose the Bolshevik Menace, it was hoisted on him, and if anything he suffered as much as the unwashed in every other country under its control.

    • David Lindsay.

      I think you need to understand history.
      This is nothing to do with the EU.
      It is all about the Western Ukrainians who “know” they are superior and the Eastern and Crimean Ukrainians who are of Russian stock by and large and looked down on by the Western Ukrainians.
      We have to remember that the Racially superior Western Ukrainians are the children and grandchildren of those who ran the camps for Heinrich.
      We should have no truck with them.
      Better that VladImir marches in and liberates the Eastern Ukraine and Crimea and leaves the fascist Western Ukraine to stew and pander to Baroness Ashton.

      • Baron

        Sorry, David, the barbarian got censored.

    • Curnonsky

      The average Russian views Ukrainians as ignorant, dishonest peasants – but let anyone try to detach Ukraine from Mother Russia!

  • rtj1211

    Holding a grudge for 350 years does seem a bit OTT to me. Now having a gripe with Joe Stalin is eminently reasonable.

    As for what happened since 1991, perhaps the key question is why they agreed to accept Russian pipelines through Ukraine if they hated the bloody Russians so much.

    Anything to do with money??

    • El_Sid

      It’s no different to the Irish obsession with a battle in 1690 – and mere childsplay compared to the role of William Wallace and Robert Bruce in Scotland.

      The main pipeline through Ukraine was completed in 1984 when Ukraine was part of the USSR, I imagine they didn’t have much say in the matter.

  • rtj1211

    The truth is that all sides are corrupt, it’s just that in each side’s eyes, they are true and the other lot are corrupt.

    SE Ukraine has a majority happy with Yanukovych.

    NW Ukraine didn’t.

    There is no evidence that the new leadership will have the support of SE Ukraine.

    Ukraine simply flips from one minority to another seeking to rule over all.

    It’s rather like the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in the UK to be honest.

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