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Protest signs against Russian aggression in Ukraine
A protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine, Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

PoliticsFebruary 24, 2022

Ukraine in crisis: A short introduction to its long conflict with Russia

Protest signs against Russian aggression in Ukraine
A protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine, Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy declares a state of emergency and makes a last-ditch appeal to Vladimir Putin to back down, Peter Bale gives a primer on Russian-Ukranian history, and how it’s led to apparently imminent war in Ukraine.

Update 8pm:

Just before dawn Kyiv time on Thursday, Putin announced he had ordered his forces to carry out a “special military operation”. Almost immediately reporters heard explosions in the vicinity of Kyiv, the southern city of Odessa on the Black Sea, and along the frontier with the two puppet republics Putin officially recognised the day before.

The attack coincided with the end of a United Nations Security Council meeting – chaired by Russia in as the current president of the council – at which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres begged Putin to “give peace a chance”. The Russian leader opted for war and warned foreigners to stay out of the conflict and insisted it was not an occupation.

To keep track of the breaking news on Ukraine, The Guardian has an open live page on the conflict; CNN has a running blog; and Germany’s Deutsche Welle has a live blog in English.

First question, is it The Ukraine or Ukraine, I get confused?

If you are Vladimir Putin and trying to deny the sovereignty of Ukraine as a state then it’s probably The Ukraine. It was referred to as The Ukraine when it was no more than region or province of the Soviet Union, albeit a critical agricultural breadbasket.

Ukrainians tend to object to the use of “The” by outsiders and especially Russians.

“By appending the article to the name, they were inadvertently insulting the nation, as if Ukraine were merely a region, an object of subjection,” Franklin Foer, the American author who has Ukrainian Jewish heritage, wrote in The Atlantic. “For most of Ukraine’s history, that’s how much of the outside world treated it: as a swath of black earth ripe for conquest, whose fertile fields could feed empires.”

Alright, tell me a bit about the history of Ukraine.

Ukraine and its ancient capital Kyiv, (which predates Moscow by hundreds of years) were the foundation of ethnic Slavs on the edge of Europe. The shared mythology of both Russia and Ukraine is of an ancient nation Kievan Rus’. It’s been a power struggle ever since. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin presided over the “Holomodor” or death by hunger in which millions died as part of farm collectivisation, including in Ukraine. The state was a battleground under the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and saw some of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led almost immediately to Ukrainian independence and its renunciation of nuclear weapons. Ukraine moved towards closer ties with western Europe and Nato, but Russia under Putin undermined that, including by poisoning a Ukrainian president. Moscow accused Washington of prompting “colour” revolutions in its former states, including Ukraine’s own “orange revolution”, which successfully installed a pro-west president in early 2005. That was far from the end of the story, however. Ukraine has remained mired in corruption, Russian interference, and the rise of oligarchs in business and politics. In 2014 Putin annexed the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and threw Moscow’s support behind a disparate group of Russian-speaking militia in the east of the country.

I’m under 30. Can I have a primer on the Cold War?

The Cold War began in the final days of World War Two as Europe was divided into spheres of influence between Stalin, a weakened Winston Churchill, and the United States. Churchill described an “Iron Curtain” from the Baltic states to Trieste – running down the borders between present-day Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Stalin’s successor Nikita Kruschev was from Ukraine. The Cold War became a near 50-year struggle between the capitalist West and the Soviet Union with proxy conflicts in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and southeast Asia.

The Soviet Union and its satellite states in eastern Europe, led by the then German Democratic Republic, collapsed under the weight of their contradictions and failure to generate consumer goods and opportunities, plus decades of economic war, espionage, and a nuclear arms race with Washington. Vladimir Putin was a KGB secret service agent in Dresden when the GDR collapsed and has described the end of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

And now he’s invading Ukraine. How is that different than the US invading Iraq?

It’s true that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on fake intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and lacked the approval of the UN Security Council. As Otago University history professor Robert Patman put it to me, “US behaviour during the war on terror has provided a precedent for countries like China and Russia to use their power in this unilateral way.” Does that make Putin’s actions right? No, he has invaded a sovereign state and that overturns international law.

What’s New Zealand doing about it?

Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta called the Russian Ambassador in for talks this week, saying New Zealand supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and opposed military aggression. Professor Patman reckons our actions do matter: “I think it’s very important for countries like New Zealand to rally small and middle powers that depend on the rules-based order which has been so often undermined by key members of the UN Security Council…New Zealand has a lot of credibility and we can’t keep our head down about this. This has huge implications for us.”

There’s a Balaclava Street and a Crimea Road in my town, what’s that about?

It’s a reminder of Ukraine’s longstanding strategic importance as a huge borderland between east and west in Europe – and how those factors played into wars of the 19th century. The Battle of Balaclava (yes, the woolly hats are named for the same place) was a pivotal moment in the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 which set Russia against a now-strange alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), and an Italian republic. The Crimean War gave us the Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale.

Wait, isn’t Chernobyl in Ukraine?

Yes, the worst civilian nuclear accident in history occurred in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1986 when an inherently unstable design of reactor in the Chernobyl power station went critical and exploded, spewing radiation across the immediate area and into much of Europe as far as Wales and Sweden. The site is a no man’s land and is still being cleaned up. It is arguable that the initial attempts by leaders in Moscow to suppress news of the explosion contributed to Ukrainian mistrust and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence.

Is Putin really such a total bastard? I’ve heard he’s a great ice hockey player.

Vladimir Putin rose to power after the chaos of post-communist president Boris Yeltsin by capitalising on his KGB links, a corrupt network from his days as a public official in St Petersburg, and total ruthlessness against rivals. He turned the rampant theft of state assets by what became known as oligarchs (under so-called reforms pushed by the West) into a “grand bargain” in which he allowed them to get rich and they stayed out of politics. Those who resisted were imprisoned, exiled, or died in suspicious circumstances.

Putin is also accused of presiding over a “false flag” bombing of Russian apartment buildings to justify the second Chechen war; a possibly deliberately disastrous attempted rescue of children held by separatists, a disastrous attempt to end a presumed Chechen occupation of a Moscow theatre, and the murders of several journalists (including one on his birthday), not to mention the killing and poisoning of political rivals. There’s more, believe me.

Alright, I’m interested, what can I read or watch to know more about the history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia?

Here’s a few favourite books, TV shows and movies to get you started.

Peter Bale is the writer of the Weekly World Bulletin, a weekly global affairs newsletter exclusively for Spinoff members. Become a Spinoff member here.


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