The Russians have always said Ukraine is part of Russia. Are they right?
What’s all the sabre rattling about?
Vladimir Putin believes Ukrainians are really Russians, and he wants America to agree that Ukraine will never be a member of Nato. He’s still spitting teeth about Western troops piling into eastern Europe after the Cold War. In his mind, says Joshua Yaffa in The New Yorker, Western leaders promised not to advance towards Russia’s borders after the fall of the Soviet Union – standing up to Nato on Ukraine is merely “rectifying a historical injustice”. At a press conference last December, Putin made his understanding of history clear: “‘Not one inch to the east,’ they told us in the nineties. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us!”
Is he right?
Recollections differ. The phrase “not one inch” comes from a meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in 1990. The then Soviet president and US secretary of state were trying to figure out what to do with Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of Nato, independent and with no US forces?” Baker asked. “Or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to Nato, with assurances that Nato’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?”
What did Baker mean?
He was suggesting that a unified Germany outside Nato might be a scarier prospect for Moscow than a unified Germany inside it – so long as Nato promised not to push any further east towards Russia’s borders. President George HW Bush, however, firmly opposed his secretary of state’s proposal of putting limits on Nato’s power, later saying to Germany’s leader Helmut Kohl: “To hell with all that. We prevailed and they didn’t.” But Moscow took Baker’s words as a promise and has complained about “Nato expansionism” ever since.
What’s the view from Kiev?
Russians and Ukrainians agree that they (and the Belarusians) are descendants of the same people. In this world view they are “brother nations”, made up of the Russian Velikorossy (“Great Russians”), the Ukrainian Malorossy (“Little Russians”), and the Belarusian Belorusy (“White Russians”). When Russia first became a tsardom in 1547, the official title of the ruler was Tsar vseya Rusi, “Tsar of all the Russias”. All three Russias descend from 9th-century marauding Vikings known as the Rus, meaning “rowers”, who paddled down the Dnieper River and established a capital at Kiev in 882. By comparison, Moscow at that time was a complete backwater, only earning its first recorded mention in 1147.
So the Russians are really Ukrainian?
Originally yes. From Kiev, the Rus established a mighty empire stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. In 988, their leader Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity – he considered Islam but demurred when he learned booze was forbidden – and married a Byzantine princess. Their son Yaroslav the Wise ushered in a golden age during which a distinct Ukrainian territory and identity crystallised. But in 1240 the Mongol Horde decimated Kiev, leaving nothing but a pile of skulls, and seized most of the Rus empire.
When did the country we now call “Russia” first come into existence?
When the Grand Dukes of Muscovy (as Moscow was then known) threw off the Mongol yoke in the late 1400s. They declared themselves Tsars of Russia in the following century, acting as if Ukrainians had always been Russians and had no history of their own. This included banning the Ukrainian language and crushing any hint of Ukrainian nationalism. The tyranny continued after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Stalin systematically oppressed the Ukrainians; millions starved to death in the artificial famine known as the Holodomor in the early 1930s. It was a bitter irony for a profoundly fertile region once known as the “breadbasket of the Soviet Union”.
What is Putin up to now?
Most Moscow watchers think invasion is unlikely. Any serious escalation in hostilities would be “foolish”, says Jeff Hawn in Foreign Policy. The Ukrainian army is “experienced, modernised, and highly motivated”, not to mention backed by the might of the West. Even if Russia did manage to occupy Ukraine, occupations are “expensive, dangerous, and often fruitless”, as the United States discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan. A war against its Ukrainian neighbours would permanently alienate Russia from Europe and make any let-up on sanctions impossible. Russia has absolutely nothing to gain from invading Ukraine, and a lot to lose.
So what’s next?
The Kremlin sees a White House rooted in “post-Cold War triumphalism” abusing its grip on the international order to bolster its position, says Maximilian Hess in The Moscow Times. For its part, the White House sees the Kremlin as “ensconced in a revisionist revanchism” that undermines international norms. Putin’s aggression has turned millions of Ukrainians toward the US in recent years. But the West must appreciate Russia’s understanding of history if it is to have any hope of achieving peace on Europe’s eastern border. “It has the added benefit of being in Ukrainians’ interests too.”
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