Geography and history can help us understand what’s happening in Ukraine in a way newspaper stories focusing on current developments can’t.
The geography: Ukraine is a large country touching on the north shore of the Black Sea, with Russia is to the east and northeast; Belarus to the northwest; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the west; and Romania and Moldova to the southwest. Having located Ukraine within the map of Europe, imagine it divided by a line from northeast to southwest. The upper, western side, historically dominated by Poland and more influenced by the Roman church, is the area where mass protests against the government have recently occurred and where government centers, including the capital, Kiev, have been seized by protestors. The lower, eastern side, historically dominated by Russia and Eastern Orthodox in religion, has supported the newly ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych. Western Ukraine, largely Ukrainian-speaking, leans toward Europe, while eastern Ukraine, with many Russian speakers, is oriented toward Russia.
Other key facts: Ukraine has long been a global breadbasket due to its fertile conditions. As of 2011, it was the world’s third-largest grain exporter. Ukraine also maintains the second-largest military in Europe, after that of Russia. Finally, it’s dependent on Russia for 65% of its energy supplies (oil and natural gas), and 85% of Russian gas is delivered to Western Europe through Ukraine.
Understandably, given its central location, Ukraine has been an often-fought-over crossroads of many cultures. During the Middle Ages it was a key center of East Slavic culture, which developed the powerful state of Kiev. After Kiev fell to the Mongols in the 1240s, the area was contested, ruled, and divided by a variety of powers. Finally, after a devastating 30-year war between Russia, Poland, Turks, and Cossacks, a 1686 peace treaty between Russia and Poland gave Kiev and the Cossack lands east of the Dnieper over to Russian rule and the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper to Poland. The later partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century by Prussia, Habsburg Austria, and Russia, resulted in western Ukraine (Galicia) being absorbed by Austria. Polish landlords controlled vast estates and were a law unto themselves in western Ukraine, with peasants heavily taxed and tied to the land as serfs. In 1596, they these landlords set up the “Greek-Catholic” or Uniate Church, under the authority of the Catholic pope but using Eastern rituals, that dominates western Ukraine to this day. Meanwhile, the Russian tsars established a policy of Russification in “their” Ukrainian lands, suppressing the use of the Ukrainian language.
Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I: with the Allies in the imperial Russian army and on the side of Germany in the Austro-Hungarian army. The war caused the collapse of both the Austrian and Russian empires, with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and postwar treaties. Eastern Ukraine (Galicia) was incorporated into Poland and western Ukraine into the Soviet Union. The Russian civil war that brought the Soviet government to power devastated Ukraine, leaving over 1.5 million people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. There were more deaths to come in eastern (Soviet) Ukraine: up to 10 million starved to death in the early ‘30s as a result of Stalin’s program of forced collectivized agriculture.
World War II brought more suffering. Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis, with some western Ukrainians collaborating and others fighting on the Russian side. Brutal German rule in the occupied territories eventually turned most of its Ukrainian supporters against them. The Nazis preserved the collective-farm system, carried out genocidal policies against Jews, and deported men to work in forced labor camps in Germany. The total losses inflicted upon the Ukrainian population during the war are estimated to be between five and eight million, including over half a million Jews killed by the Einsatzgruppen, sometimes with the help of local collaborators. More than 700 Ukrainian cities and towns and 28,000 villages were destroyed.
Ukraine became independent in 1991, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but economic struggles and political problems ensued, including charges of rigged elections and political corruption. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, then prime minister, was declared the winner of the presidential elections, which the Supreme Court later ruled had been largely rigged. The opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, challenged the outcome, bringing himself and and Yulia Tymoshenko to power in the “Orange Revolution.” Yanukovych was again elected President in 2010, however, with 48% of votes.
The current protests against Yanukovych began in November 2013, when some Ukrainians demanded more integration with the European Union. Violence escalated after January 16, 2014 when the government adopted so-called “anti-protest” laws. Anti-government demonstrators occupied buildings in the center of Kiev, and riots left 98 dead and thousands injured on Feb 18-20.
Conclusion: Ukraine is still being tugged in two different directions by its neighbors, and is still torn by historical internal divisions.