St Petersburg, Russia – On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his armed forces to deploy on what he called a peacekeeping mission to Donbas, eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels have been fighting the central government in Kyiv for the past eight years.
In a televised speech, Putin reiterated his concerns about a possible NATO expansion into Ukraine, describing it as a “direct threat” to Russia’s national security, and made provocative interpretations of Ukrainian history.
Among other things, the Russian president asserted that “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood,” and that the nation now known as Ukraine was carved out of Russia by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
In 2021, Putin wrote an essay titled, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, explaining his belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people divided artificially by borders and outsiders.
In it, he accused modern Ukraine of an “anti-Russian project” in which longstanding ties with Russia are cast aside, Nazi collaborators are glorified and the Russian language, spoken by around a third of Ukraine’s population, is shunned from public life.
To find out how accurate these statements are, as well as the roots of the current crisis, a closer look at the two countries’ shared history is needed.
Russia and Ukraine, as well as Belarus, share a common ancestry in Kievan Rus’, a loose federation of medieval city-states with its capital in Kyiv.
But in the 13th century, the area which became Russia was conquered by the Mongol Golden Horde, while western portions later fell to the Polish-Lithuanian Empire.
From there, three separate languages, and national identities, evolved.
It was not until the 17th century that Ukrainian Cossacks, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, rebelled, throwing off Polish rule and willingly reuniting with Russia.
But by the 19th century, the tsars had quite enough of the Ukrainian national spirit, which they saw as undermining their rule, and banned the Ukrainian language from many walks of public life.
The westernmost parts of Ukraine, meanwhile, were never ruled by imperial Russia and came under Polish or Austrian dominion instead, where the Ukrainian language was still allowed and as a result, nationalist sentiments are still strongest in western Ukrainian cities such as Lviv.
This identity split lies behind many of the troubles today.
“People living in these lands developed different geopolitical orientations, have different interpretations of their historical memory, different pantheons of heroes,” Russian political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova told Al Jazeera.
“Additionally, there are the issue of Russian chauvinism relating to Ukraine and Belarus – as ‘younger brothers’ in the elite’s rhetoric, revealing their desire to control Ukraine’s choices.”
As the empire plunged into civil war after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukraine was one of several nations, along with Finland, Poland and the Baltics, which attempted to break free of Russian rule.
When the Bolsheviks emerged victorious, they indeed created a new Ukrainian state among the fifteen Soviet republics which made up the USSR. But that does not mean a distinct Ukrainian identity did not already exist.
“That [part of Putin’s speech] had me the most confused,” said Emily Channell-Justice, an anthropologist at Harvard University.
“There’s not any kind of historical grounding for that claim.”
“The eastern part of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922,” she told Al Jazeera. “That’s only part of the territory of contemporary Ukraine, and the rest of Ukraine spent up until 1945 fighting the Soviet Union. So, that’s far beyond Lenin.”
Stepan Bandera controversy
During the second world war, the Red Army took over Lviv, bringing it under Moscow’s rule for the first time. Unlike southern and eastern Ukraine, and to a degree Kyiv, Lviv and western Ukraine remained distinctly un-Russified.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army led by Stepan Bandera collaborated with the Nazis in their bid for Ukrainian independence.
The hero status sometimes bestowed on him in modern Ukraine hits a nerve with the country’s Russian-speaking minority, as well as in Poland, for committing atrocities against Poles and Jews.
“The view of Ukrainian and Russian people being one nation is not supported by the continuous struggle on the part of Ukrainian nationalists, even during the Soviet period,” Sharafutdinova explained. “Although Ukrainians and Russians are related through their Slavic roots and linguistic proximity, these are different nations, undoubtedly.
Russian national identity is today the more insecure and vulnerable one – because Russia’s national evolution always had an imperial character, and imagining the Russian nation in non-imperial terms is not easy; indeed, it appears to be quite painful.”
As the Cold War reached its final moments in 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, himself of Ukrainian descent, was assured by his Western counterparts that NATO, an alliance established explicitly to contain the Soviet Union, would expand “not one inch” to the east.
A year later, the USSR collapsed and Ukraine, as one of its constituent republics, declared independence.
But the divisions within Ukraine itself were far from settled.
In the 2004 Orange Revolution, mass protests were held against what was seen as a rigged election in favour of Viktor Yanukovych of Donbas, who leaned towards Russia.
His opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, became president, and later bestowed the honour of “Hero of Ukraine” upon Bandera, sparking protests in east Ukraine which burned effigies of the leader.
“Yushchenko started the policies of nation-building that marginalised the national identity of the pro-Russian south and east, and privileged the nationalist interpretations, memories and heroes of western Ukraine,” Sharafutdinova said.
“In Russia, the Orange Revolution was viewed as a political change guided and even organised from the United States. It sparked fear and paranoia in the Kremlin.”
Nevertheless, as historian Robert David English points out, a mere five years later, Ukrainians elected Yanukovych again, suggesting that matters of identity were not as important as ordinary people’s desire to live a decent life.
“And when he failed to improve the economy as well, there was another explosion,” English told Al Jazeera.
In 2014, after Yanukovych signed a trade deal with Russia, rather than with the EU as most Ukrainians had hoped, he was toppled in the Euromaidan revolution and fled to Russia.
Far-right fighters played an active role in the street battles with riot police in Kyiv, which was seen in Russia and parts of Ukraine as an ultranationalist coup evoking memories of Bandera.
Shortly after the overthrow of Yanukovych, Bandera’s portrait was seen hanging in Kyiv’s city hall.
“I am personally very sceptical of the glorification of him as a hero,” said Channell-Justice, “but I do think that Bandera and the neo-Nazi threat has been blown out of proportion by the Russian media.
“Yes, there is a far-right presence in Ukraine. There’s a far-right presence in Russia. There’s a far-right presence in the US. There’s one almost everywhere.
“They do not have significant representation in Kyiv’s government so by that measure, the far-right isn’t very strong in terms of deciding Ukraine’s policy.
“But there is a very vocal far-right within the civic sector.”
Indeed, far-right parties performed dismally in the 2019 elections, winning only 2.9 percent of the vote, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Russian-speaking Jew, was elected president.
Zelenskyy’s platform, among other things, promised to end the conflict with Russia, but at the same time, supported joining the alliance. His unwillingness to give up that support may arguably lie at the heart of the crisis.
“Preventing NATO expansion into Ukraine is Putin’s overwhelming motivation. Ukraine is positioned at Russia’s strategic heartland, and it is so big – so the potential for NATO bases and weapons all over the country is huge,” English, the historian, explained.
“Remember, while in the West people often think of NATO as a defensive force, in Russia, they were long indoctrinated against it, and then it bombed Serbia and Libya with no UN mandate and in violation of international law.”
Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Baltics have all joined NATO.
Although Russia, as the successor to the Soviet Union, was not offered any written guarantees the alliance would not expand “one inch”, the Kremlin nevertheless views a potentially hostile alliance creeping towards its doorstep as a threat, not unlike the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although English considers Ukraine’s special identity to Russia a minor factor in the continuing standoff, Sharafutdinova disagreed.
“As Ukraine has slipped out of Russia’s control and found a greater engagement from the West and the United States – for the Russian political elites, it created a threat of NATO troops in places that are dear to the Russian heart and soul,” she said.
“Given Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine as a little brother, the Kremlin has a hard time imagining such potential scenarios that Ukraine might be able, one day, to join the Western alliance … even a faraway possibility for such a scenario causes them to see red.
“So identity issues and Russia’s view of how Russia and Ukraine are related – connected through blood, so to say – hinder Russia’s ability to recognise Ukraine as a sovereign nation, as a grown-up country that can make its own choices.”