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world wide "wednesdays" [whoops] :: the new crimean war

a cloud has descended: protests in kiev, 2014
it was just about a year ago that the pro-russian ukrainian prime minister viktor yanukovych was deposed and tensions in the ukraine started to boil over. although a ceasefire has now been in place for several months, it appears to have been regularly violated and just today, thirteen people were killed in the shelling of a local bus in the heavily disputed city of donetsk. this is one case where the western media have been very quick to report on events, resurrecting the spectre of not-quite-so-dead-after-all cold war rivalries, warning of a resurgent russian imperialism in the region. this is a narrative that we've heard before [at least those of us who were alive and aware in the eighties have heard it before] and there is reason both to take it seriously and to question it. like all things, it's not as simple as the reductionist mass media would have you believe, but it is not so complex that it can't be explained in the course of a regular newscast. it's just that no one is doing that.

given the limits of my research team [mostly me, because the cats are just not the research assistants i had hoped they would be], i can only hit on a few main points, but this should illustrate that, for organisations that don't have to rely on feline support, there is no reason why this shouldn't be a standard part of their coverage. this is especially true given that the history behind the conflict isn't actually that long. virtually all of the contributing factors to the current climate of tension are things that have arisen in the last century, which, compared to most of the other things we've looked at in world wide wednesdays, is pretty recent.

that's not to say that there isn't a lot to ukrainian history, although, from a certain point of view, there isn't. that's because the notion of a ukrainian national identity is something that only started to emerge in the nineteenth century. ukraine had once been home to a powerful state, arguably the most powerful in europe, whose borders stretched much further north and included the modern-day country of belarus. however, the people of that kingdom were not ukrainian, but "rus", an ancient people who [you've figured this out already] gave their name and much of their genetics to russians and belarussians. modern-day ukrainians are partly descended from these people, but also from other eastern slavs, most notably the polish. following the mongol invasion, the territories we now call ukraine were shared between many of the world's great powers, such as lithuania, poland, the ottoman empire and, of course, russia. [side note :: interestingly, even at its zenieth, the kiev rus kingdom never included all the territory that is part of ukraine now. most interestingly, the kingdom never expanded to the southeastern edge of the country and the crimea peninsula. but more on that later.]

kiev in more peaceful times
the most important feature of ukrainian history, insofar as we want to consider it as a cohesive history, is that its constituent parts often ran in different circles. russia has held dominion much longer over the eastern part of the territory than the west, whereas the western portion of ukraine has always been culturally closer to poland and the rest of europe. as a result, the definition of "ukrainian" is a little ambivalent to this day. many still identify as russian and after ukraine declared independence in 1991 [the first time in centuries it had done so, with the exception of a brief attempt from 1917-21] and established ukrainian as the sole language of state, it was forced to backtrack in light of the fact that russian was still the lingua franca of many parts of the new country. many of the country's people have only come to identify as "ukrainian" in the last quarter century. [side note :: many in the west have a tendency to confuse ukrainians with cossacks. this is possibly because the cossacks were committed enemies of the bolsheviks and fought hard against their gradual takeover of ukraine in the wake of the russian revolution. cossacks do live in the ukraine, among other places, and have had a significant impact on her history in the last few centuries, however they are a distinct slavic ethnic group and/ or a military group.]

the root of much ukrainian-russian enmity does not come from the russian takeover of the ukraine so much as what happened in its wake. in the early 1930s, millions [anywhere from 2.5 to 7.5] of ukrainians died as the result of a catastrophic famine. that might be bad enough, but the actual reasons for the famine and the russian/ soviet treatment of it made the situation very much worse. at the very least, the stalin government was guilty of some truly egregious errors as they attempted to industrialise agriculture within the new soviet union. the new practices caused a precipitous drop in the wheat harvest and thus was the famine created. or not. others have theorised that stalin's motivations were significantly more diabolical. while he might not have intended to start the famine [increasing domestic wheat production was necessary in order to counteract the trade embargoes placed on the new republic by western powers, who feared that the communist example would spread elsewhere], there is no doubt that his actions and the actions of his government made the situation worse: they continued to export grain from the region; they failed to seek assistance from other countries in supplying grain; and they prevented ukrainians from moving away from the affected area. given that stalin was engaged in a battle of wills with ethnic [western] ukrainians at the time, some have argued that the famine was really a form of genocide, employed to defeat stubborn opposition with strong ties to the rest of europe.

ukrainian famine victim
added to that, it was virtually forbidden to even discuss the famine or "holomodor" [a word that, roughly translated from ukrainian, can mean either death or murder by starvation] until mikhail gorbachev relaxed speech controls in 1989. so not only were millions killed, either by horrific planning or design, but the nation progressed as if the event had never happened for more than fifty years. in fact, it was relatively common for the famine to be dismissed by russians as the result of a natural crop failure, rather than attributable to the policies of the stalin government. so at the moment that they first began dealing with each other as equal states, the first open discussions of a series of events that caused millions of deaths were starting to occur. not exactly the greatest foundation for a trusting relationship. [side note :: it may or may not be germane to this discussion, but it's worth noting that the united nations definition of genocide does not include the targeting of political groups. this exclusion was made at the behest of the ussr. twenty countries, including the ukraine, have declared the holomodor a genocide, although even within the ukraine, opinion remains deeply divided.]

one crucial action that affects today's situation in ukraine was taken by soviet premier nikita khruschev in 1954. krushchev came from a town near the russian-ukraine border, his wife was ukrainian and he had served for some time as head of the communist part in kiev. while that did not stop him from participating in stalin's purges in ukraine, he did have a fondness for the area. so in 1954, he transferred administration of the crimean oblast [a position below that of being a republic in the federation] to ukraine. for all intents and purposes, this amounted to giving the territory, which had to that point been held by the ottomans and then the russians, to ukraine. that was more or less fine while the ussr held ultimate control of both, however once that power disintegrated, the ukraine stepped onto the world stage as its own independent entity, dragging the crimea like a grafted on tail along with it. without krushchev, the ukraine would have no claim whatsoever to the crimea.

the iconic swallow's nest castle, crimea
there is good reason why control of the crimea remains a big issue. the port of sebastopol on the eastern mediterranean is a strategic military one and russia is determined to maintain control over it. moreover, they are determined that it should not fall under the power of a nato-allied country and the drift of ukraine towards the european union and nato is the immediate precursor to current unrest. it is certainly possible to see vladimir putin as trying to reset the clock to pre-cold war times and claiming back territory that was ceded to the ukraine. it is also possible to see why he, and russia as a whole, would not be crazy about losing their mediterranean access and having nato bases sitting at their doorstep, given the legitimate history of mistrust between the two. russian unease about the encroachment of america and western europe [who had, after all, tried to invade them following the 1917 revolution, something that's often left out of historical discussions of the roots of the cold war] was a principal cause of the soviet expansion into eastern europe following world war ii. those actions can be and have been roundly criticised, but they did work: western influence was halted at europe's midway point and russia was protected. i promise, putin is absolutely aware of this.

that is a very brief outline of events affecting the current conflict between russia and ukraine. it is neither detailed nor comprehensive but i would still argue that it's more than you're getting from mainstream media coverage. [and, for what it's worth, i think that this is one story that should be getting greater coverage; a showdown between europe's two largest countries, home to europe's two largest militaries and both controlling nuclear sites is worth paying attention to.] i don't know exactly how the current tensions can be resolved, however here are a few points i'd recommend when coming up with your own ideas on the subject:

  • whatever your feelings on vladimir putin, it is a little bit of a stretch to cry "imperialism" when russia stakes a claim to a territory they unintentionally relinquished to a country that didn't exist when the decision was made and that has few historical ties to the disputed region. the reason that there are significant russian populations in the disputed areas is that they were russian, not ukrainian, in their recent history.
  • the european union and nato [a military organisation, which supposedly existed as a counterbalance to russian-allied nations during the cold war, but which has flourished since the fall of european communism] have been expanding ever closer to russia. whether there is any larger plan at work, there is no doubt that there is at least an attempt being made to surround russia with military installations friendlier to american/ western policies than to russian ones. it's always good to play the reverse situation game: how would america react if china tried to create a military union that included canada and mexico, with the provision that china could move military units into both countries? how would the united kingdom react to a russian pact that placed their soldiers in ireland? that's what having ukraine and georgia in nato would be like for russia.
  • there is an inherent danger to picking sides in a conflict without knowing the sides in depth. remember when everyone was calling for the demise of syrian leader and probable mass murderer bashir al-assad? and western countries were under pressure to send money and arms to those rebelling against him in the civil war? it turns out some of those people were the progenitors of islamic state. the point there isn't that people should have supported assad, it's that sometimes you have to take things very slowly before rushing aid to any group in a conflict somewhere else in the world. the above point is not meant to establish vladimir putin as some kind of hero. he absolutely isn't and his record of repression, violence and corruption [along with stoking the worst sorts of prejudice in order to distract russians from the country's problems and his government's complicity in them] establishes him as the sort of person who should be kept at a safe distance. parts of the ukrainian nationalist forces and the government installed to replace that of viktor yanukovych are legitimate neo-nazis, with the same racist rhetoric and reliance on violence. 

my point [one of them, at least], is that this is a situation that deserves our attention, but no one should be tricked into equating attention with action. rushing in with guns blazing, or at least with armfuls of guns to hand out, would not just be risky, it would be incredibly irresponsible. sometimes, as difficult as it might be, the best course of action is to sit still and try to keep the lines of communication open.

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