Ukraine’s identity rift

Will the historical divide between Eastern and Western Ukraine lead to regional instability?

The Russian de facto takeover of Crimea reminds observers of the dark years of the Cold War, writes Piet [EPA]

As the Ukrainian crisis swiftly drifts from a domestic popular uprising to a large scale geopolitical conflict, one has to study the history of the country and its relations with its neighbours to fully comprehend each actor’s perspective.

The Russian de facto takeover of Crimea and the strong reaction from the West through NATO reminds observers of the dark years of the Cold War, far from the shared commitment over the respect of the Ukrainian sovereignty sealed by the 1994 Memorandum of Budapest signed by Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Inside Story – Ukraine: Warnings of war

The reasons for these domestic and geopolitical tensions are not to be found in the last decades, but rather in a very contrasted understanding of the regional history. If the very existence of a modern Ukraine within its current borders has been recognised for less than 30 years – including a short independence period between 1917 and 1922 when Crimea was still part of Russia – the origins of a Slavic society around Kiev can be traced as far back as the ninth century.

Historic split

In 882, the “Kievan Rus” was founded on the verge of the Byzantine Empire by Prince Oleg to gather Slavic tribes from the steppes fleeing from Central Asian nomadic raids. This historical date has always been claimed by Russia as its inheritance and civilization cradle. Before Moscow, there was Kiev: The first capital of a Slavic civilization which Putin aims at reinstating today through his Eurasian integration project.

This identity perspective is widely shared in Eastern Ukraine and in Crimea. However, on the other side of the Dniepr, the river which splits the country from North to South, Ukrainians have been more widely influenced by European powers and ideologies as they were successively ruled by the Lithuanian, the Poles and eventually the Austria-Hungarian empire.

Rather than the medieval Kievan Rus, Western Ukrainians refer to the revolt of the Cossacks, who freed the country from Polish domination in the 16th century, and later ensured the country’s independence against the Russians, as their foundational act.

Whether rooted in medieval Slavic origin or nationalistic uprising, the very understanding of what constitutes the Ukrainian identity is, therefore, diversely shared across the country.

This historical split has been widened by the traumatic experiences of the 20th century which culminated in the great famine of the 1930s and the Nazi occupation the following decade. The Eastern and Western part of Ukraine suffered a very different fate under Soviet and Nazi domination, and both events were central to the current diverging attitudes towards Europe and Russia.

Under Soviet domination since 1922, Ukraine struggled through the forced collectivisation and repression imposed by Stalin. This policy ruined the Ukrainian farming sector and no less than 6 million Ukrainians died of starvation, mostly in the West. This trauma, together with the memories of the privation during the communist regime, is essential to explain the rejection of Russia in the Western regions of Ukraine.

Under Soviet domination since 1922, Ukraine struggled through the forced collectivization and repression imposed by Stalin… This trauma, together with the memories of the privation during the communist regime, is essential to explain the rejection of Russia in the Western regions of Ukraine.

Similarly, as Germany invaded and controlled the country, the Eastern part of Ukraine became one of the most dreadfully hit regions by the Shoah and Nazis persecutions. While the Western regions remained relatively unharmed, thanks in parts to several cases of collaborative behaviour with the occupant, 6.7 million Ukrainians, mostly from the East, died in concentration camps, in resistance movements or serving the Soviet army. This is supporterd by Dr Vadim Erlikman in his 2004 book, Poteri narodonaseleniia v XX veke : spravochnik. 

In these troubled years lie the roots of the calls heard over the last few weeks from the Eastern Ukrainian regions to resist against a perceived fascist takeover in Kiev by nationalists movements. The current change of regime in Kiev is indeed reminiscent of some of the actions of pro-German militias during the World War II.

Identity rift

This identity rift which can also be found in religious practices and beliefs, with a Catholic Western Ukraine facing a majority Orthodox East, is deepened by economic considerations. The energy dependency of the country towards Russia is further reinforced by traditional trading patterns.

In Eastern Ukraine, Russia is  – by far –  the first customer for farming and industrial products.Ukrainian exports to Russia and the former Soviet Union (CIS) by far exceed exports to the EU (36 percent in comparison with 26.8 percent) and most of the production traded with Moscow (ferrous metals, mechanical machines, railway locomotives) originates from the Eastern part of the country. This interdependence has been regularly used by Putin through the implementation of commercial blackmail over Ukrainian exports. 

West of the Dniepr, however, the models of success looked up to by the population are individuals such as Jan Koum, co-founder of the smartphone application WhatsApp, who escaped poverty in Ukraine by immigrating to the Silicon Valley. Eyes and dreams are firmly geared towards the European Union and North America.

Yet, although so many opposite perspectives and interests oppose the two sides of Ukraine, a voluntary dislocation is unlikely. Both the East and the West of the country adamantly call for an independent Ukraine.

Even the Donetsk and Lougansk region which border Russia and have a majority Russian-speaking population reject the idea of an annexation by Moscow.

The recent agreement from two of the main oligarchs from the Eastern regions, billionaires Igor Kolomoisky from Dnipropetrovsk and Serhiy Taruta from Donetsk, to serve as governor of their respective region under the new Kiev authorities, in order to “protect the homeland in danger”, reinforces the prospects for a united Ukraine.

In 1991, both parts of the country massively voted in favour of independence and this desire for a Ukrainian sovereignty is still vivid today. The Ukrainian population, whether from the East or the West, vehemently rejects a renewed domination from one of its neighbors, be it European or Russian. The path that a united Ukrainian population opts for, whether European or Eurasian, remains to be decided and this will be the key underlying question of the May elections.

De facto annexation

The same cannot be said of Crimea, the strategic southern province controlling the access to the Black Sea, which possesses the status of autonomous region since being reattached to Ukraine as recently as 1954. Before that date, Crimea was under Soviet rule and still has a particular place in Russian politics.

From a military perspective, it is essential to the deployment of the Russian navy. But, as important, if not more, is the fact that the majority of the Crimean population is Russian and that a large part of the Russian establishment regularly spends weekends and vacations under the clement weather of its capital Sevastopol.

Counting the Cost – Ukraine: The East-West tug of war

Arseny Yatsenyuk, the new Ukrainian prime minister, understands well the specificity and interest of the region since he started his political career as acting Minister of Economy of Crimea from 2001 to 2003.

Kiev has, therefore, been active on all fronts to try to prevent Russian advances during the last few hours, calling for international support but also trying to stir up local disputes to gain the support of the vehemently anti-Russian Tatar minority.

The history of Crimea is indeed unique as it was ruled by the Tatars, allied with the Ottoman Empire against the Slavic Russians, until the end of the 18th century. This traditionally shamanic tribe later converted to Islam, has been persecuted for decades by Moscow and still represents 12 percent of the Crimean population.

The most likely outcome in Crimea is a de facto annexation by Russia, a similar scenario to the politics of the Kremlin over the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What is at risk here is a severe destabilisation of the region, much as in Chechnya, with a violent radicalisation of a historic Muslim minority calling for independence to prevent further discrimination and abuse.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy Department of International Affairs College of Arts and Sciences Qatar University, Doha, Qatar