By Uilson Jones
Ever since the dawn of time, the history of Ukraine has been plagued by imperialism, colonialism, and cultural genocide. After finally gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, hopes were high for a stable transition to democracy and economic and political stability. However, this was cut short by the political turmoil caused by the ousting of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, and the ensuing occupation of Crimea in the southeast. In my opinion, this topic is not being sufficiently addressed in media circles which poses a problem. There is a great amount of disinformation that is built around the war in Ukraine, which has been waging since 2014. Were and/or are Russian troops present in Crimea and other Ukrainian territories? Has the conflict spread to other parts of the country? How has all this impacted Ukraine economically, socially, and politically? These questions are far from uncommon and deserve to be clarified appropriately. In order to effectively grasp the current geopolitical climate in the East, it is necessary to contextualize the complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia.
The Myth of Brotherhood
There has long been a perception in Russia that Ukraine belongs to it, a sort of prized possession that it is entitled to. This entitlement to Ukrainian territories in part stems from and leads to the perpetuation of the Russian-formulated myth of ‘brotherly’ relations between the two countries. Essentially the core of the myth is that the two countries belong together due to some vague conception of Ukraine and Russia being tied together by a bond that resembles one that is shared between siblings, or more precisely ‘brothers’. When we begin looking at the authentic and historic relations between the two countries at the beginning of the 18th century, the myth of ‘brotherhood’ swiftly falls apart.
The Russian empire’s occupation of eastern Ukrainian territories in the 18th century originated from granting the Cossack Hetmanate (a state in central Ukraine between 1649-1764) protection from the invading forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. With the rise in popularity of the idea of a free and independent Ukrainian state, this ‘protection’ rapidly took on the form of brutal repression, occupation, and the establishment of official imperial relations. With the fear of a growing separatist movement, the Russian empire began implementing a set of Russification policies culminating in the cultural genocide of Ukrainian culture and identity. The relative autonomy of the Cossack state was severely curtailed, the Ukrainian language banned altogether with the forceful imposition of the Russian language against the will of the ethnic Ukrainian population and the ruthless repression of rebellions were all aspects of these new Russification policies.
With the fall of the Russian empire in 1917 and the introduction of the Soviet Union, there seemed to be little hope for substantial change on the horizon. Whilst living conditions improved under the Soviet Union, Ukraine had suffered two famines, countless repressions, and a lack of political freedom. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Ukraine declaring independence with an overwhelming 92% in favour, there was a sense of idealism in building a new future that was characterised by democratic institutions, political freedom, and the respect for civil liberties – devoid of imperialism and foreign influence.
An Expression of Self-Determination or Modern Imperialism?
Amidst the chaos that led to the ousting of former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Vladimir Putin had decided to seize the opportunity to ‘return’ Crimea to Russia. This began with a series of pro-Russian demonstrations spearheaded by the Russian state to give off the veneer of support for Russia in Crimea, purposefully giving Putin the rationale to claim to be acting in compliance with the principle of self-determination. In late February 2014, the infamous ‘little green men’ marched into the peninsula and through forceful annexation and subjugation, occupied key positions in Crimea, including the airport, the military bases, and the parliament. These ‘little green men’ were unmarked and masked troops from Russia carrying Russian weapons and equipment. Therefore, a more accurate term to describe them would perhaps be ‘Russian invaders’. Although in a typical authoritarian fashion, the policy of the Kremlin towards this realization was to ‘deny, deny, deny’.
A ‘referendum’ was held on March 16, 2014, in order to ask the people of Crimea whether they desired to remain part of Ukraine or join Russia. This ‘referendum’ was, to say the least, questionable due to the heavy military presence and the suspicious lack of international observers in Crimea during the voting period. According to the BBC and other news networks in Ukraine, there were allegations of violence against ‘pro-Ukrainian activists’. This resulted in a vacuum in which only pro-Russian activism was encouraged and pushed for by the pro-Russian separatists with the backing of the Russian state. The campaign of the pro-Russian camp was at the least disingenuous and at the most vile and uncalled for when pictures of pro-Russian political posters surfaced on the internet which compared the Ukrainian government to Nazism. Essentially posing the dichotomy between staying under ‘Nazi’ rule and the rule of the Russian state. The ‘referendum’ was akin to the Russian presidential elections, that is to say, that there can only be one outcome. The result of the undemocratic referendum showed a nearly unanimous support for joining Russia with a sky-high voter turnout of 83.1%. The international consensus on the referendum on the other hand was that it was fudged in order to give the facade of support; this being rather typical in authoritarian regimes which forbid the expression of free speech and therefore the pluralism that arises from it. Regardless of one’s opinion of the referendum, the result was the Autonomous Republic of Crimea becoming a de facto part of the Russian Federation despite not being recognized by the majority of the international community.
Crisis in the Donbas Region
Shortly after the illegal occupation of Crimea, a similar pattern of events surfaced in the Donbas region of Ukraine’s far-east. It began with a series of protests led by Russian citizens – thereby undermining the already dubious claims of acting within the confines of self-determination – and expanded into an assault on Ukrainian territories. This was accomplished by using a number of warfare strategies that were dubbed as hybrid warfare. There are three main ways in which the Russian state has been able to stir unrest in Ukraine. The first of which is in the political dimension. The close ties between the pro-Russian party, Opposition Platform – For Life, led by Viktor Medvedchuk and Putin are evident. In fact, these two are so close that Putin became the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter. Furthermore, Medvedchuk has claimed that it is a ‘great honour’ to be counted as one of ‘Putin’s friends’. His response to the criticisms of the public went as follows: “You know, those who talk about it, it seems to me they’re just jealous of me. They are just jealous of me, and that’s it.” A ‘response’ of this kind, especially during times of war, is deeply unsettling. All of this has led to a significant amount of polarization between those who support Ukraine’s sovereignty and those who rather sideline it in favour of joining Russia. Although those willing to sideline Ukraine’s sovereignty are still a largely marginal part of the population, the perpetuation of propaganda and dogma from the Kremlin by the party has been a constant threat. The second way, the economic dimension, has arguably had one of the most devastating impacts on the country. Russia was Ukraine’s major trading partner. The result of the post-2014 invasion led to a decrease in trade between the two countries of 75%, leading to an overwhelming drop in GDP: from a high of $183 billion in 2013 to a low of $91 billion in 2015. The last major tactic used is the spreading of disinformation and the instigation of social tension between the people and the government, as well as between the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian camps. Despite the influence of Russian media being relatively minimal within the confines of the territory that Ukraine controls, the disinformation and tension-making of the Kremlin has attempted to penetrate Ukrainian society, although the extent to which it has been successful is difficult to assess. Due to the control that Russia exercises over the separatists, their grip on the territories that they control is reasonably significant.
In August 2014, the pro-Russian separatists, led by Russian citizens, travelled to Moscow in order to coordinate actions with the Kremlin. During this time the majority of the territory they had been in control of in the Donbas was lost. Consequently, the Russian state sent a ‘humanitarian convoy’ to the region. However, as opposed to carrying humanitarian aid in the form of medicine, food and water, this ‘humanitarian convoy’ carried military personnel, artillery and other equipment, the Ukrainian government claims. Soon after, the territories were reclaimed by the separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). The fighting led to an agreement on an urgent ceasefire which was produced by the Minsk Protocol in September 2014. However, the signing of the ceasefire by the separatists proved only symbolic since they broke the ceasefire soon after it was signed. As the ceasefire completely fell apart, it was clear that a Minsk II was needed. This renewed ceasefire agreement was signed in early 2015. Despite this, the separatists launched another major offensive on the city of Debaltseve in the region of Donetsk.
The conflict has been at a standstill ever since leading many to call it a ‘frozen conflict’, with the introduction of new ceasefires and the ensuing breaking and falling apart of those same ceasefires, although a recent ceasefire signed on 22 July 2020 has had more success than its predecessors. Although, it is important to note that this ‘frozen conflict’ has claimed the lives of around 13,000 people in total – a reminder that this conflict is in no way marginal or unimportant. The lack of cooperation from Russia and their proxies in the DPR and the LPR is no less unfortunate than it is unsurprising. With the recent rise in tensions and the Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border that threatened the country with destruction, there is a growing uncertainty of the future of the eastern Ukrainian territories. But more importantly, the fate of the people living in the war-torn regions is likewise unknown due to the incessant shelling and attacks of civilian areas by the Russian-backed separatists. Although a largely sidelined aspect of the war, I would like to reference a report that has been produced detailing the documented atrocities and war crimes committed against civilians in eastern Ukraine which can be found here.
A Warped Perspective
The Russian state has overwhelmingly relied upon rampant disinformation to fuel its foreign policy towards Ukraine and their opponents. A central notion of Kremlin dogma is that “there is no Ukraine”. This statement was pushed most fervently by Vladislav Surkov, who essentially spearheaded Russia’s policy towards Ukraine since 2013.
Surkov has stated that “there is no Ukraine. There is a Ukrainianness. That is, a specific disorder of the mind. An astonishing enthusiasm for ethnography, driven to the extreme.”
This line of thinking is far from the niche in Russia but rather it has been a regularity when speaking about Ukrainian independence. The implication of this statement is to push the idea that Ukraine is a neo-Nazi state that is hyperfixated on ethnonationalism. It is important to remember, that one of the major reasons for the Russian invasion of Crimea was due to a statement by Putin regarding a perceived danger to ethnic Russians from the persecution they were facing in Ukraine from the ‘fascist’ government. Any evidence? None. An empty claim devoid of substance that served only as an excuse to march into the peninsula.
Putin and his advisers have relentlessly made comparisons between Hitler’s horrific atrocities in the Second World War and Ukraine’s activities in fighting the Russian-backed separatists, as well as Russian troops themselves. To Russia, it appears that Ukrainian self-defence and the continued fight for independence is the new ‘Nazism’. This has been regurgitated by almost all Russian institutions, from the state media to education curricula; which is in and of itself a component of fascism.
None of the Ukrainian presidents in recent history were nationalists or even tied to nationalist parties and/or groups. In addition, the nationalist parties in Ukraine are extremely weak and lack any support as they do not have any seats in parliament. Despite this, the Russian state pushes this ahistorical, unsubstantiated myth aided by their historical revisionism that only helps to legitimize the regime’s actions in Ukraine that are internationally condemned.
Crimea Seven Years Post Occupation
Investigating how the lives of the people in Crimea have changed since the occupation has drawn lots of attention. To put it mildly, the quality of life of the Crimean people has taken a nosedive. Despite funnelling billions of US dollars into the peninsula, the situation in Crimea shows little signs of changing. This is ever more pertinent when we recognize the ailing state of the Russian economy due to crippling sanctions from the West as a result of their egregious breaking of international law. The necessity to maintain the funding of Crimea has raised doubts among the Russian population who observe most of the investments being divested from their towns and cities and into the Kremlin’s new imperial gem in south-eastern Ukraine. All of this has contributed to Putin’s plummeting approval ratings and the increase in willingness to express some form of protest against low living standards, also resulting from decades of rampant corruption and underfunding.
Since the occupation, there has been an exodus of around 140,00 Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, who are a historic minority on the peninsula. Meanwhile, there has been an influx of 250,000 people who have migrated from Russia to Crimea, mimicking a form of modern settler colonialism. Rather ominously, this figure includes a sizable amount of Russian troops, leading to a heightened military presence. The departure of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula is regrettably unsurprising due to Russia’s extensive persecution campaign aimed against their population simply for exercising their religious freedom. Dozens of Crimean Tatars received charges of ‘extremism and terrorism’ without any evidence of such activities. The conditions of the prisons in which these political prisoners are kept are deplorable, with many subjected to torture, the waiving of medical rights for people who have severe underlying conditions and more. This has led Crimea and the other separatist-controlled regions in the Donbas to be ranked abysmally low on the Freedom House Rating.
As if the disregard for basic human rights was not enough, the Russian state is likewise unable to satisfy the basic human needs of the Crimean population due to the lack of availability of water. This has become known as the ‘Crimean Water Crisis’. The situation has deteriorated to the point that in the heart of Crimea, Simferopol, authorities have resorted to rationing water, mimicking the 1980s in the Soviet Union during times of extreme shortages. The increased salaries that were initially seen as a bonus for joining Russia have been slashed by the ever-rising prices leading to a decrease in the quality of life for both the Crimean population and the population in mainland Russia due to the lack of funds, a crippling economy, and devastated infrastructure.
Being unable to solve the Crimean Water Crisis, there has been speculation of another invasion orchestrated by Putin in his quest to iron out the crisis. However the current times, more than ever, are plagued by uncertainty, and with no signs of change in Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, it is going to be up to the Ukrainian leadership and the Ukrainian people to fight back the tide of imperialism, attain justice and secure their independence and sovereignty with unrelenting fervour, in order to live up to the international principles of peace, self-determination, equality, respect for human rights, and dignity.
The road ahead is far from easy and laden with potholes, yet with enough perseverance a great many things can be achieved. As was proclaimed in the ever-relevant words of Voltaire: “Ukraine has always aspired to be free.”
Edited by Ricarda Bluemcke, artwork by Kim Ville