Ukraine Never Was, Will Never Be, Russia
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a massive military assault, a war, on Ukraine, because he claims, Russians and Ukrainians are “one people, a single whole,” and Ukraine is not a real country, only a part of Russia that has fallen into the hands of “fascists, nationalists and corrupt puppets controlled by the West.” Turning truth on its head. The big lie.
Putin condescendingly calls Ukrainians “little Russians,” the “Younger Brothers” to Russia’s “Big Brother.” If they are brothers, it has been an appallingly abusive family relationship for the last 300 years, one replete with lies, backstabbing, exploitation and murder. Many murders. Russians have been killing Ukrainians forever, Putin is just the last in a long line.
Until the 17th century, much of what is now central Ukraine was the Cossack Hetmanate – “Cossack” comes from the Turkic kazak, meaning “free man” – a cluster of democratic, self-governing communities around the Dnieper River, then a semi-autonomous part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In 1654, Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich of Russia signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav, a mutual defense pact to fend off the Poles. But it was hardly a deal between brothers, rather, in the words of Rory Finnin, professor of Ukrainian Studies at Cambridge, a “transaction between parties who needed interpreters and referred to each other with terms like ‘foreigner’.“
In 1709 Tsar Peter I betrayed hetman Ivan Mazape, leveled his capitol Baturyn, and banned the Ukrainian language from books and schools.
In 1775, Catherine II “the Great” finished the job, razing the remaining Cossack strongholds, annexing Crimea and imposing serfdom, the keeping of slaves by nobles, on previously free Ukrainian peasants.
The revered Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861), who has been called the “primary source code” of Ukrainian nationhood, spoke both Ukrainian and Russian, but had no use for hetmans or tsars, for any system that made free people chattel or cannon fodder.
“Let the Russians write as they like, and let us write as we like,” he declared. “They are a people with a language, and so are we.” His exortation “Boritesia, poborete” – “Fight, you will prevail” – resonates throughout Ukraine to this day.
But imperial powers do not willingly give up their colonies, and Ukraine remained under Russia’s boot throughout the 19th century. Near the end of World War I and in the chaotic aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was a glimmer, a brief interlude, of self-governance, the Ukrainian People’s Republic from 1917 to 1921, when it was overthrown by Lenin’s Bolsheviks and became – no choice – the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as part of the Soviet Union.
In the early 30’s, Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, confiscated the farms of Ukrainian peasants, forced them into state collectives, and then requisitioned – stole – not just every single grain of wheat, but food in every form, and in this richly fertile “breadbasket of Europe,” which today supplies 60% of the EU’s grain, 3.9 million Ukrainians starved to death.
This was not just misguided agricultural policy, Stalin wanted to crush Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainians call it “Holodomor,” hunger (holod) and extermination (mor), the second biggest mass killing of the 20th century. Genocide by famine.
Stalin had no qualms, no second thoughts. “Death,” he famously said, “is the solution to all problems, no man, then no problem,” a sentiment, if it can be called that, Putin clearly shares.
As Ukrainians starved, Stalin’s NKVD secret police rounded up the kulaks who owned the land and the serfs who worked it, along with university professors, journalists, former military officers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, anyone suspected of promoting Ukrainian language and culture, and executed or sent them off to hard labor and death in the Gulag. Russians in the thousands poured in, taking over now empty homes and farms, leaving a demographic and linguistic footprint that contaminates Ukrainian politics to this day.
Anne Appelbaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, called it “a systematic assault not just on Ukraine, but on the very idea of Ukraine.” Ukrainians remember. And they know that Putin’s invasion is more of the same.
The Nazis were next. “I need Ukraine,” Hitler said, “so no one can starve us out again, as they did in the last war.” Indeed, according to Timothy Snyder, Yale University historian and author of Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, World War II was fought first and foremost over Ukraine. Hitler wanted to take it, Stalin wanted to keep it, neither gave a rip what Ukrainians wanted.
Snyder quotes Jürgen Stroop, German commander in Warsaw, who when asked why he ordered the killing of Jews who were still alive in the ghetto, answered, “Für Milch und Honig von der Ukraine,” for milk and honey – and wheat – from Ukraine. He knew precisely why they were there, what they were after.
Some Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis – an estimated 250,000 served in the Wehrmacht – thinking, not unreasonably, that they might be better off under Germans than Russians. But in the end, three million Ukrainians died fighting the Nazis, more than British, French and American combined.
After the Nazis were defeated, Stalin again closed his iron fist on Ukraine and its neighbors in Eastern Europe.
Winston Churchill saw it first, said it first. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them . . . .” Address at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946.
Kyiv was not on Churchill’s list that day, but he surely had it in mind. On October 24, 1945, Ukraine and Belarus, ostensibly independent countries, became charter members of the U.N., but it was just a ploy to give the Soviets three votes instead of one in the General Assembly. Ukraine, like Poland, the Baltic States, East Germany, all of the Soviet republics, was nothing more than a Russian colony. The next four decades, the Cold War, were marked by occasional flowerings of Ukrainian culture and language quickly and often brutally cut down by Moscow.
In the mid-80’s, with the Soviet Union’s economy in the tank, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of Communist Party (1985 – 1991), launched a campaign of economic perestroika (“restructuring”) and political glasnost (“openness”). Intended to start Russia down a path toward economic and political freedom, it also rekindled hopes of independence in Ukraine and other non-Russian republics.
The first overt movement was the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, led by former political prisoners to monitor Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, in which 35 countries, including the U.S. and U.S.S.R., agreed to the principles of the self-determination, inviolability of borders, and peaceful settlement of disputes. All honored in the breach by Russia.
It was followed in September 1989 by the founding of Narodnyi Rukh Ukrainy, the Popular Movement of Ukraine for Reconstruction. Leonid Kravchuk, First Secretary of the Ukraine Communist Party, then the only legal party, could not officially recognize Rukh as an opposition party, but quietly permitted it to publish its political agenda and hold its first constituent congress.
Two months later, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, the border between East and West Germany opened wide, and at their Malta Summit less than a month later, December 2 – 3, Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared an end to the Cold War.
The following month, January 21, 1990, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians linked arms in a 700-kilometer-long human chain between Kyiv and Lviv to reaffirm the 1919 unification of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and West Ukrainian National Republic.
August 24, 1991, the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, proclaimed Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, more precisely, from Russian rule. In a December 1 referendum, it was overwhelmingly approved by 31,891,742 Ukrainians, 92.3% of the electorate, with majorities in every region, including 56% in Crimea with its 75% ethnic Russian population. Within a month, 68 countries recognized Ukraine’s independence, 64 more did so the following year.
On December 6, 1991, Kravchuk, just elected Ukraine’s first president, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Stanisalv Shushkevich of Belarus met in Minsk and signed the Belovezh Accords, formally extinguishing the Soviet Union.
Ukraine today is a democracy, not a perfect one, but getting there, unlike Russia, which no longer even pretends to have free elections. In Ukraine, opposition candidates have time and time again replaced incumbents with peaceful transitions, the acid test of a functioning democracy. Ukraine has had six presidents since 1991, only one, Leonid Kuchma (1994 – 2005), served more than a single term.
In the last twenty years Ukrainians have twice risen up to defend their democracy. First, the 2004 Orange Revolution. When Kuchma conspired with Victor Yanukovych, his Prime Minister and handpicked successor, to rig the presidential election, widespread civil disobedience, sit-ins and general strikes by tens of thousands of orange-clad demonstrators forced a run-off, declared “free and fair” by international observers, resulting in the election of opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko, who supported closer ties with the EU, not Russia.
But not before Yushchenko was poisoned with TCDD, ironically aka Agent Orange, at a September 4 dinner with Volodymyr Satsyuk, former deputy chief of Ukraine’s security service now living in Moscow and granted Russian citizenship so he could not be extradited. The once handsome Yushchenko recovered, but now pockmarked with chloracne, a sure sign of dioxin poisoning.
In the 2010 election, Yanukovych, from the heavily ethnic Russian Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, narrowly prevailed over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who with Yushchenko had been one of the figureheads of the Orange Revolution.
Although Tymoshenko charged “election fraud,” exit polls indicated that many Ukrainians had simply grown weary of her strident, egocentric style. Yanukovych’s Minister of Justice would later indict and jail her for “abuse of power” during her two terms as Prime Minister, a move widely viewed as retribution for her refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his presidency.
Yanukovych was always cozy with Putin, and in April 2010, barely two months after taking office, in exchange for a multi-year discount on Russian natural gas, he extended for 25 more years Russia’s lease of naval bases in Crimea on the Black Sea. Many saw it for exactly what it was, Putin’s first bite out of Ukrainian territory, with more to come.
And Yanukovych’s administration was rife with cronyism and corruption. By January 2013, more than half of his ministers were from the Donbas, which on his watch received 46% of the national budget for social and economic development. His family, including son Olkesandr, quickly earned the label “robber capitalists,” getting rich buying public and private enterprises for pennies on the dollar, kopiyok on the hryvna, and shaking down, Mafia-style, legitimate businesses for 30% to 50% of their profits.
The final straw. In late 2013, Yanukovych abruptly reversed course and refused to sign a long-anticipated political association and free trade agreement with the EU, which had been overwhelmingly approved by the Rada parliament. Protest demonstrations demanding his resignation broke out across the country, including at a large barricaded camp in Independence Square, the Maidan, in central Kyiv. It would become known as the Revolution of Dignity, in short as Euromaidan.
The protests were peaceful at first, but on February 18, 2014, the Berkut, Yanukovych’s handpicked riot police, assaulted protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live fire. Before it was over, 82 people, had been killed, hundreds more injured.
Did Russia instigate the violent crackdown? No question. Sergey Markov, a top Moscow political advisor, stated that “Russia would do everything allowable to stop [the opposition] from coming to power,” and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that further installments on its $2 billion loan guarantee for Ukraine would be withheld unless Yanukovych “stopped acting like a door mat.” The very next day his security chief unleashed the Berkut.
But the protestors were indomitable. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the Berkut melted away, many to Russia where they were offered positions in the Russian army.
On 22 February the Rada voted 328 – 0 to remove Yanukovych, who also fled to Moscow. Within weeks, Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and, with Putin’s special forces dressed as “little green men,” occupied the Donbas, ominous omens of things to come.
The Rada promptly set a new date, 25 May, for the next presidential election, one year ahead of schedule. Petro Poroshenko won with 54.7% of vote, including 40% in eastern Ukraine, Tymoshenko a distant second, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions less than 4%. Voter turnout was high, more than 60%, except in the Donbas, where threats of violence by pro-Russian separatists closed 80% of polling stations.
Dubbed the “Candy Man” because he had made millions, billions really, in bon bons, Poroshenko promised on the campaign trail, “You can trust me because, unlike some of my opponents, I have no need to steal from you, I am already very, very rich.”
Poroshenko kept this promise, didn’t steal, and served a full five-year term, but in 2019 lost his reelection bid to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and what Putin calls a “fascist state” is now led by a Jewish, Russian-speaking president elected with a 73% supermajority. Although the campaign was hard fought, 2019 marked yet another fair election and peaceful transition of power.
Putin has been seething ever since. Not just about the breakup of the Soviet Union, but even that Lenin created Ukraine and the other Soviet republics in the first place. Seething that the Orange Revolution deprived the pro-Russian Yanukovych of the presidency in 2004, and that the 2014 Euromaidan chased him from power and accelerated Ukraine’s estrangement from Moscow.
But above all Putin fears that a free, democratic and prosperous Ukraine will encourage Belarus and Georgia to follow the same path, and before long Russians too, the end of Putin and his oligarchs. This is driving his brutal, criminal war on Ukraine, not some made up, phony story about Ukrainian and Russian brotherhood.
Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: “To reestablish the Russian empire, Putin needs a relatively bloodless victory that will lead to a relatively hateless occupation. By spilling more and more Ukrainian blood, Putin is making sure his dream will never be realised. It won’t be Mikhail Gorbachev’s name written on the death certificate of the Russian empire: it will be Putin’s. Gorbachev left Russians and Ukrainians feeling like siblings; Putin has turned them into enemies, and ensured that the Ukrainian nation will henceforth define itself in opposition to Russia.“
“After the grief that was brought to our land, we have no choice but to win, . . . For those who have already died, we must win.” Oksana Dudar, whose husband Viktor was killed by Russian rockets while defending Mykolaiv, a strategic port on the Black Sea.
Anne Appelbaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017)
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
Harvest of Despair: The Unknown Holocaust, documentary (1985), producers Slavko Nowytski and Yurij Luhovy