Ukraine is burning - will it survive a war with Russia?

As Russian forces menace Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa, Ukraine, a house divided, is fighting for its national integrity, and possibly its survival.

 A mother talks to her child during a protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, outside the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus February 26, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU)
A mother talks to her child during a protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, outside the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus February 26, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Kyiv, Ukraine – Ukraine’s Unity Day, January 22, fell on a Saturday this year, and in Kyiv it snowed too, adding to the festivity of the 103rd anniversary of the country’s Act of Unification in 1919. Before that year most of what is considered west Ukraine and east Ukraine today had been two separate entities.

In fact, unification was between two separate republics. During the war, several Ukrainian states briefly emerged. Ukraine, east of the Dnieper River, had long been part of the Russian Empire, but westernmost  Ukraine had been ruled from Poland until parts of Poland fell to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When that empire fell in World War I, liberated Poland attacked western Ukraine and reabsorbed it into the restored Polish state.

Meanwhile, the eastern Ukrainian People’s Republic went directly from tsarist to Soviet rule. So the dream of a united Ukraine lasted just three years, until the Soviet Union – grabbing its share of Poland in the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact – absorbed all of Polish Ukraine, temporarily in 1939, until Hitler invaded in 1941, and then permanently after liberating the region in 1944.

Complicated? Ukraine was unified but hardly free as a Soviet republic, and Unity Day was not restored until 1999, seven years after it declared independence a second time following dissolution of the USSR.

In January, hundreds of proud patriots unfurled the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, 500 meters long, across the Patona Bridge that links the east and west banks of the Dnieper, which bisects the country.

 Marchers in Kyiv commemorate the 100 people killed during the 2014 Maidan uprising, on February 20, 2022. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS) Marchers in Kyiv commemorate the 100 people killed during the 2014 Maidan uprising, on February 20, 2022. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

But the unfurled flag has not stretched far beyond the river for several years as centrifugal forces have pulled the two historically and culturally distinct halves apart. Since 2014, in parliament and on TV shows fistfights between pro-Russians and Ukrainian nationalists have broken out from time to time.

In Kyiv, with its grand eclectic architecture, stylish shopping malls and electronic billboards advertising a wealth of western goods, the lack of east-west unity did not particularly bother the young three months ago when Russian invasion was considered unlikely and only in the east. “You will not find anyone between the age of 16 and 30 who cares what happens in the east,” Yevgeny, an art student born after independence, and just back from vacation in Abu Dhabi, told me in late December.

Even when Russia moved troops to the border with Belarus, a five-hour tank drive to Kyiv, US warnings of an attack by mid-February, only slightly increased the local stress level and drew angry denunciations of US panic-mongering.

“We’ve been living under the sword of Damocles since 2014, and people get used to such a constant threat,” a man in his 60s told the BBC in late January. But, he too put the thought of an attack on Kyiv out of mind. “Here, in western Ukraine, you feel much less of what happens in the east.”

Some thought a direct attack on Kyiv was unlikely since it would take Russian troops across radioactive no-man’s land, west of the Chernobyl reactor. Now, the reactor is in Russian hands and Kyiv is fighting Russians in the suburbs aware that it is aiming for the city center where disruption began.

What happened?

Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe, barring Russia, extending 1,400 kilometers from Uzhhorod on the Slovak border to within 700 kms. of Kazakhstan in central Asia. Its 42 million-odd people include about 28 million west of the Dnieper, mostly nationalist and Ukrainian-speakers, and 14 million to its east, mostly pro-Russian and Russian-speakers.

The country began breaking apart on November 21, 2013, when a freely elected pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, who had defeated the once-admired Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko, suspended his predecessor’s preparations for an association agreement with the European Union, and proposed an economic union with Moscow. This precipitated months of mass protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), known as Euromaidan. Parliament voted Yanukovych out of office and he fled to Russia.

As the poorest country in Europe alongside neighboring Moldova, many western Ukrainians were banking on the EU to pull them out of poverty and into the Western orbit. The more Russophile east, never as eager as the west for independence from Moscow, began pulling away, with Russian encouragement.

President Vladimir Putin’s near bloodless invasion and annexation of Crimea – Ukraine’s most Russianized region – in February-March 2014 restored some Russian pride, prompting pro-Russian rebels to establish “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region, 800 kms. east of Kyiv. Almost 70,000 sq. kms. of the area, including Crimea, have been, in practice, under Russian sway for eight years. This 12 percent of the population no longer votes in Ukraine elections, virtually ensuring future nationalist, anti-Russian victories every time, regardless of the economic situation.

Sporadic fighting between the pro-Russian rebels and the Ukraine army since then, up to the invasion on February 24, claimed up to 14,000 lives, including 3,000 civilians, the UN reports.

 Illustration of troops. (credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ILLUSTRATION) Illustration of troops. (credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ILLUSTRATION)

Time after time Putin and his spokesmen condemned Biden’s panic-mongering and denied plans to invade. The US State Department said Putin would likely invent a provocation and so he did, citing eight years of “genocide” and urgent “denazification.”  

Crimea

Long before 1919 the cossacks of what became the Ukraine opted for voluntary union with Tsarist Russia in 1654 under Bogdan Chmielnicki, a pogromist no less than a great nationalist. He opted for partnership with Russia to save his land from the detested Poles. But Polish influence remained extensive. Though Ukraine’s Orthodox faith is closer to Russia’s its language, despite its Cyrillic script, bears striking Polish influence and is now the official language in Kyiv.

Crimea is another story. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the former party boss of the Ukrainian SSR, gifted the Black Sea peninsula to Ukraine, ostensibly to mark the tricentennial of union in 1654, but intended to win Ukrainian politburo support for his Soviet leadership bid. So little did it matter who “owned” Crimea under Soviet rule that Khrushchev didn’t even mention the gift in his memoirs. But when Ukraine opted for independence and took Crimea with it, Moscow wanted it back.

Beyond Crimea, many suspected prior to the invasion that Putin’s strategy was to prevent Ukraine developing economically without Moscow. There is some evidence for that.

In 1991, more than 90% of Ukraine’s voters supported independence, far beyond the 73% who are ethnic Ukrainian. A significant majority in the Donbas region voted for independence. Only in Crimea did a majority say no.

But instead of the increase in prosperity expected with freedom from the moribund Russian state planning, the economy tanked. By 1994, support for independence dropped to 57%, mainly due to disaffection in eastern Ukraine.

Under Yuschenko, a poisoning victim, like Russian dissident leader Alexei Navalny, the economy tanked again. He fell out with his Orange Revolution partner Yulia Tymoshenko, replaced her as prime minister with Yanukovytch, made a national hero of  Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, [assassinated by the KGB and denounced by the Wiesenthal Center] and virtually engineered Yanukovytch’s narrow victory by opposing Tymoshenko. Ukraine’s politics was by then swinging wildly between nationalists and Putin supporters.

The remarkable landslide victory of political novice Volodymr Zelensky over Yanukovych’s nationalist successor Petro Poroshenko in 2019 was considered a sharp move back to the center and a negotiated end to the war.

The “sword of Damocles,” Putin’s estimated 150,000-plus troops along Ukraine’s borders, resembled – in miniature and perhaps in revenge,– US president Reagan’s “Star Wars” project in the 1980s, which threatened to bankrupt the USSR as it tried to shore up the military balance with its superpower rival while mired in Afghanistan. The question is why did Putin not stick with it to achieve the same result for Ukraine?

The NATO Question

If EU membership, thwarted by Moscow, provoked a Ukrainian uprising in 2013-14, the bigger geo-strategic issue of NATO and America replaced it. In 1990, president George Bush Sr.’s administration promised Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, that NATO would not advance east, but that, US officials say, disingenuously, referred only to discussions about the future of East Germany, before the USSR disintegrated.

Since then, former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, have become NATO and EU members, each hugging Ukraine’s western border, making it the last buffer between the West and Russia, not counting the three Baltic NATO-EU states on Russia’s northern border.

Putin says his country was deceived, but even if it was not a NATO advance into Ukraine itself would bring alliance troops potentially deep into Russia’s underbelly.

“NATO Is a Cancer” was the headline in one pro-Kremlin newspaper, Argumenti i Fakty, in January, reported in the New Yorker magazine.

International relations “realists” like Henry Kissinger and political scientist John Mearsheimer respect Putin’s NATO objection, especially as it applies to Ukraine. But then, as late as February 15, Mearsheimer predicted that Putin "the strategic genius" would not invade because "The benefits of not invading are quite significant. They've made it clear that Ukraine is not going to become part of NATO."  Now Putin has invaded Mearsheimer has another "rational" explanation for it. Others have all along called NATO a red herring and argue that Putin’s objections are a transparent bid to restore the influence of the defeated Soviet Empire. 

Since the US said in 2008  that Ukraine and Georgia could be potential NATO members, the ball, it seems, is in Ukraine’s court. But why has it become a hot issue only lately?

In 2012, shortly before the Euromaidan protests, the Ukrainian Democratic Initiatives Foundation found only 28% of Ukrainians polled said that they favored joining NATO. In 2017, three years after the annexation of Crimea, support had risen to 69%. Thus, Russian actions doubtless prompted the change. This percentage, almost corresponds to the percentage of ethnic Ukrainians, further widening the east-west chasm in Ukraine, for pro-Russians always objected to NATO.

Putin was always unlikely to restore Crimea to Ukraine in return for its agreement to drop NATO. But, it is legitimate to ask what purpose the Cold War-instigated NATO alliance serves so close to post-Soviet Russia if it is resuscitating war in Europe, assuming the “realists” are right. But are they?

 Ukrainian s take part in a Unity March, a procession to demonstrate patriotic spirit amid growing tensions with Russia, in Kyiv on February 12, 2022. (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS) Ukrainian s take part in a Unity March, a procession to demonstrate patriotic spirit amid growing tensions with Russia, in Kyiv on February 12, 2022. (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)

What is Ukraine?

Russians regard the partnership with the tsarist empire in 1654 as Ukraine’s natural adhesion to the Russian motherland. However, it was precisely in western Ukraine that the original Russo-Slavic nation, Kievan Rus, emerged in the ninth century, a nation from which both Russia and Belarus derive their very names.

So Ukraine considers itself to be the mother of Russia, and Kiev its capital. In a country full of ironies, starting with Unity Day, Kievan Rus (or perhaps it should be Kyivan Rus) included all of today’s western Ukraine but little of eastern Ukraine, which does regard Russia as the motherland.

Western Ukrainians play up Donetsk’s non-Russian origins. The industrial city of one million was established only in 1869 by John Hughes, a Welsh mining entrepreneur who attracted a large population to the town once called Hughsovka after him.

Just 38 kilometers north is New York, (pop. 10,000), founded and named by a German to please his American wife. German Mennonites settled there and it has even published a newspaper called the New Yorker. Stalin russianized its name in 1951 and banished the Mennonites, but Ukraine’s parliament recently restored its original name, with some dissenters, even from Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party.

The Minority Question

Ukraine’s first bid for independence in 1917-19 was led by the western provinces, and is associated in Russia’s mind with anti-Soviet, pro-German collaborators and anti-Jewish pogroms, and even more so between 1941-1944 when Bandera foolishly hoped to achieve Ukrainian independence with Nazi support.

However, in 2022 his attack on Neo-Nazis and defense of Jews, who are mostly Russian-speakers, falls flat in a country with a Jewish president (elected when it also had a Jewish prime minister). A Pew Research Center poll in 2016 found Ukraine to be the least antisemitic country in eastern Europe – 5% said they disliked Jews compared with 14% in Russia. Still, Putin considers himself to be a defender of all native Russian-speakers in non-Russian lands of the former USSR, and Jews are almost all Russian-speakers.  

Kyiv’s chief Chabad rabbi, Yonatan Markovitch, insists that Jews do not need Russian protection and “do not live in any way different from others.” Widespread condemnation of antisemitic incidents followed vandalism to three Hanukkah menorot last December, he notes, but “hundreds” more of the eight-leaved candelabra erected all over the country were respected.

Minority questions, the bugbear of Europe between the two World Wars, were mostly “resolved” by Nazi genocide, by emigration and by expulsion of 12 million minority Germans in 1945 to their truncated homeland, where many had never lived.

The problem, if there is one, of a new Russian-speaking minority could be resolved by the return of Russian immigrants in Soviet times back to their gargantuan motherland. However, Russia does not see itself as a guilty aggressor defeated in war, like Germany in 1945, but more like the Germany that claimed it was deceived when it “voluntarily” laid down arms in 1918.

Putin has even defended Russia’s respect for national self-determination by quoting Woodrow Wilson’s suggestion in 1918 that the Russian Empire be divided into four republics,noting that when the Soviet Union dissolved itself Russia recognized some 12 new nation states.

But in the process of extending self-determination, Russians became victims, in Putin’s words, of the “worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” by which he meant not the breakup of the Soviet Union so much as the abandonment of “tens of millions of our fellow countrymen” to the mercy of non-Russian “Nazis” who would commit “genocide” against them.

Most of them are in Ukraine where the Russian population doubled to over 20% during the twentieth century, while Jews, actual victims of genocidal Nazis, once an equal 10% with Russians, diminished to less than one percent.

Putin insists the USSR itself created a united Ukraine, which is partly true, if invading and effectively annexing it, is unifying it. Ukrainians, like Belorussians, he says, are really Russian brothers who can only prosper under a Russian umbrella. Neither its inclusion in NATO nor in the EU will do that.

Perhaps, under the pressure of the Russian invasion the current impasse will end with the most Russophile areas of Ukraine, excepting Crimea, remaining autonomous within Ukraine, as the Minsk II protocol (accepted by France and Germany) in 2015 attempted.

Ukraine also accepted the protocol by 2019 but it was not fully implemented in Russia’s view, and Putin has now declared it obsolete by recognizing the independence of the rebel areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, then invading Ukraine, both east and west of the Dnieper River. Ukraine initially feared that autonomy for the rebel areas would be a Munich, leading to further demands that could slowly deliver up the whole land to Russia and apparently were right.

Thanks to Putin, Zelensky, a native Russian-speaker, elected as a centrist to negotiate peace, has inevitably moved politically toward the nationalistic right, as Putin’s actions have basically disenfranchised many pro-Russian voters. Zelensky even took non-democratic steps like closing pro-Russian TV stations.

Nationwide support for an independent democracy in 1991 was tied to expectations of economic prosperity. Said Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, a month before the invasion, “We already suffer economically and become weaker still because of the panic spread in society.” The economy will suffer considerably more now.

War will accelerate the process that Putin seemed to be pursuing before it: expanding the chasm between his supporters in the east and what are now his enemies in the west, for one thing alone is clear: a distinct breach, which appears irreparable, has opened between the national patriots of the west and the pro-Russian patriots of the east, a breach which Zelensky had been expected to heal.

Without invasion Russia could have continued to widen the east-west chasm significantly, nurturing, as it was doing, two mutually antagonistic peoples, speaking different languages in more ways than one. Even the army was divided and several senior Ukrainian officers had defected to Russia or to the rebels in recent years.

“There aren’t many people in eastern Ukraine who support the Ukrainian armed forces in this war,” explained Deputy Ukrainian Commander Timur Stetsky to Vice News on the frontlines in Donbass two weeks before Russia launched what it called a ‘special military operation.’  “People here think of Russians as their brothers. The local population may smile in your face, but they help and work with the other side. They pass on information. They even help aim the gunfire.”

We do not now know Putin’s endgame, but as refugees stream out of the east to the west and out of the west into Poland, a realignment of populations is taking place. Many refugees will not return. Perhaps, some years from now, it will culminate, as in 1993, when neighboring Czechs and Slovaks, recognizing their own historic and cultural differences, split amicably into two more cohesive nations.

A NATO presence in western Ukraine would then have a clearer rationale, and, if created roughly along the wide Dnieper River, the long Ukrainian-Russian land border to the north would be considerably shortened, and connect Russia directly only to a pro-Russian entity emerging in the east.

This is surely not what the West and most Ukrainians want, nor Putin for that matter, but in the past decade millions of ethnic Ukrainians east of the Dnieper River had already fled west.

Zelensky's apparent readiness to talk about “neutral status” in Ukraine’s future foreign affairs – a code word for dropping aspirations to NATO membership – was picked up like a radio blip and quickly ignored by the Kremlin.  But as Russian troops advance on central Kyiv, Putin’s aspirations appear to have gone beyond NATO. The word on Putin’s mind is more likely to be “neutralization” of Zelensky and his government. After that who knows?

Jon Immanuel is the author of Britain, the Bible and Balfour (Lexington Books 2019), which explores the origins of Christian Zionism in 17th century England.