By Jason Borowski
While a kingdom centered around Kyiv has been in existence since the 900s, the Ukraine nation as most Americans know it came into existence with the Ukrainian Republic of Kyiv in 1917, shortly thereafter becoming one of the initial republics of the USSR in 1922.
It did not take long for Ukraine to experience the cruelty that was experienced in many Soviet states in an event called the Holodomor. This man-made famine was the direct result of decisions made by politicians in Moscow, including Joseph Stalin, to punish Ukrainians and to stamp out their resistance to Soviet farm collectivization, a process which had begun in 1929.
In the fall of 1932, Ukraine was going to miss its Moscow-imposed grain quota by roughly 60 percent. Rather than allowing the grain to remain in Ukraine, it was confiscated as punishment and sent to other Soviet states. As a result, famine fell over the country with roughly 3.5 million people, or about 10 percent of the population, perishing between 1932-1933. One additional important item to note during this early period is that Ukraine did experience some territorial modifications as the result of WWII, the largest of which came from land that was formerly in eastern Poland. However, by 1954, Ukraine occupied the territory that you see on maps today.
Fast-forward to the fall of the USSR in 1991. As with any newly independent nation, Ukraine set about addressing its national security. With the collapse of the USSR, due to nuclear weapons that had been stationed there by the Soviets, Ukraine became the third-largest nuclear power in the world at the time. In 1994, Ukraine met with the U.S., the U.K., and Russia to discuss the nation’s nuclear disarmament. The resulting agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, provided for security guarantees and respect of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by the other signees in exchange for nuclear disarmament. The implication of this agreement, particularly from the U.S. and U.K. perspective, was that having been signed by the respective heads of state, Ukraine would not be left to stand alone in the face of an attack.
Many people have been surprised with what seemed like a sudden act by President Putin to invade Ukraine. Both Russian policy decisions in addition to several external factors have gradually built to this moment. As far back as 2003, when a pro-Western government came to power in Georgia, tensions built with Russia. This culminated in 2008, with Russian military intervention in Georgia in conjunction with the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. During this intervention, Russia claimed to be undertaking a “peace enforcement operation,” and recognition by Russia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia separated them from Georgia, and from 2009 onward, Russia expanded existing military infrastructure in both regions, effectively occupying them both.
Similar tactics have been used by Russia in Ukraine, both in 2014 and today. Following the 2014 Euromaidan protests, which saw substantial public demonstrations and intense standoffs with security forces in Kyiv, then-President Yanukovych, who was a Russian ally, was removed and replaced with a pro-European government. Almost immediately following Yanukovych’s removal, Russian military presence appeared on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and completed the annexation of the territory by recognizing it as a Russian federal subject, further increasing military presence after it was annexed. Immediately prior to launching the invasion of Ukraine, President Putin recognized two regions of eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, as independent, which paved the way for a Russian “peacekeeping mission,” following the strategy previously used in Georgia. However, this time rather than the occupation of these territories, a full-scale invasion of the country is ongoing, with troops advancing directly from Russia, from the occupied Crimean Peninsula, and from neighboring Belarus. The support Russia is receiving from Belarus appears to be payback for President Putin helping to quell protests in Belarus surrounding the 2020 Presidential election, in which President Lukashenko was reelected for a sixth term, a result which is widely disputed.
Whether this war ends in Ukraine or is the start of something larger remains to be seen. War is often romanticized with tales of heroics in the face of death. War brings suffering. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries, leaving behind their homes which may be destroyed in the fighting. They leave behind those that have stayed to fight who they may not see alive again. Those that stay simply because it is their home run the risk of becoming civilian casualties. None of that is romantic, but it is the harsh reality of war. The world is holding its collective breath, and we hope that our leaders can navigate an ever-changing and deeply complex situation. Whatever the level of U.S. involvement ends up being, I hope that it puts us on the right side of history.
Borowski is a Blue Point resident and a member of the Polish American Historical Association (PAHA)
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