Did Anyone Ask the Ukrainians?

(Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images; Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Over 100,000 Russian soldiers are crouched at Ukraine’s eastern boarders. President Vladimir Putin denies any plans of invasion, but many feel he is waiting for an excuse to do so.

The idea of the first invasion in Europe since the Second World War has moved America and NATO partners into negotiations with Russia, which have so far yielded little. The West refuses to decrease its presence in Eastern Europe or to guarantee that Ukraine will never be permitted into NATO, which are Russia’s two key demands.

While part of President Putin’s strategy treats Ukraine as a pawn against NATO, his designs on making the state, which, for centuries was under Russian/Soviet rule, part of his vision for a greater sphere of Russian influence are equally apparent.

A question that has received less attention is what Ukrainians themselves think about the prospect of Russian rule or even of greater influence from Moscow. The question has multifaceted relevance. It shines a light on President Putin’s narrative of Ukrainians as Russians separated from their motherland by weak leaders and poor decisions. It also serves to illustrate what Russian troops would face should they seize control of all or part of Ukraine.

Russian Roulette Ricochet

Western media reports on how Ukrainians view the possibility of Russian invasion stress the readiness to resist and defend their county’s sovereignty.

Much of this coverage stands in contrast to attitudes before the 2014 Euromaidan protests that wrested power from pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. One stark difference is how unlikely it seems for a Moscow ally in the model of Mr. Yanukovych to be popularly elected, as he was around a decade ago.

Beyond that, in 2014, as the pro-Western government took power in Kiev, pro-Russian elements in Ukraine’s eastern provinces fomented what looked like the makings of a civil war. Moscow-backed separatists were successful in gaining the upper hand in the culturally Russian Donbas region. Other Russian-speaking areas such as Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, saw significant pro-Russian resistance as well, though Kiev eventually maintained power there.

Now, few Ukrainians seem eager for more Russian influence.

“Support for Russia has largely evaporated,” said Paul Kubicek, professor of Political Science at Oakland University in Michigan. “I don’t think there is a lot of sympathy for Russia to seize territory and even politically, pro-Russian voices are less pronounced than they were in years past.”

In 2014, President Putin annexed Crimea and backed Donbas separatists with the hopes that his show of strength would turn Ukrainian allegiance toward Russia. Yet many feel it had the opposite effect.

“It’s a great irony that Putin tried to keep Ukraine in his sphere of influence in 2014, and that it blew back on him and produced a surge of civic patriotism,” said Professor Peter Rutland, who teaches Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University.

Another factor some feel contributed to a dip in support for Russia is the contrast Ukrainians see between its pro-Western democracy and the Putin regime.

“Putin is his own worst enemy,” said Professor Kubieck. “People see an increasingly repressive society in Russia. … Ukraine is a society that is trying to be more open and inclusive, to get past its polarization and the Russian threat puts that into focus.”

Bridging Language Barriers

Since the early days of Ukraine’s independence in the 1990s, a divide existed between the nation’s Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, with many in the latter group viewing themselves as culturally Russian. Battles over which language and culture should be dominant raged for decades.

Even recently, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government banned several Russian-language media. Yet, now such moves have more to do with keeping Moscow-allied influences at bay rather than a culture war that many feel has been largely settled.

President Putin invested much effort in trying to exploit these tensions, pointing to and often exaggerating stories of government suppression of Russian culture.

Professor Kubieck said that while Ukrainian has become the increasingly used official language, President Zelensky, himself a native Russian speaker whose fluency in Ukrainian came later in life, has been effective in diffusing tensions between the two groups.

“Zelensky has tried to bridge the ethnic Russian-Ukrainian divide, and they’ve come a long way in making Russian speakers more comfortable in the Ukrainian state,” he said. “The battles in the ’90s over culture were rather fierce, but I think even most people who speak Russian at home are comfortable using Ukrainian in official settings. The fear of becoming Ukrainianized, and Russian being repressed, hasn’t really transpired.”

Another irony in Ukraine’s shift away from Russia is that much of that change had to do with demographic shifts engineered by Mr. Putin’s cutting off the most Russian regions from the rest of the country. Crimea and the Donbas hold the highest concentration of ethnic Russians, who were key to winning the presidency for a Moscow ally like the now exiled Mr. Yanukovych.

“Putin took Crimea and supported separatism in the Donbas but [in doing so] lost the rest of Ukraine,” said John O’Loughin, a Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “With those regions out of the picture, the base of pro-Russian support was diminished. The rest of Ukraine has largely, but not completely, coalesced around wanting less interference from Moscow.”

Shades of Gray

Even though data show little affection for President Putin among Ukrainians in all the nation’s regions, researchers say that a careful look at where Ukraine’s populace stands on relations with Russia and the West are far more complex than the binary clash widely presented in English-language media coverage.

“A lot of the news coverage features person-in-the-street interviews or interviews with pro-Western elite Ukrainians. This can provide a distorted picture of sentiment within the country as a whole,” said Gerard Toal, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. “Talking to people at a nationalist rally or those training to fight Russia tells a certain story. But there are many other stories across this large regionally diverse country.”

Ukrainian servicemen walk along a snow covered trench on the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists near Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, earlier this month. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Much of the complexity lies in understanding Ukraine’s regional and ethnic divisions. In addition to Ukrainian speakers, who see themselves chiefly as European; and Russian speakers, who are ethnic Ukrainians but have stronger ties to Russian culture and identity; there is also a large population of ethnic Russians who have yet stronger ties to Russia. The first group is largely concentrated in Ukraine’s west and the latter two in its eastern and southern regions.

Professors O’Loughlin and Toal conducted several studies gauging the feelings of ordinary Ukrainians in various regions on whether they identify more with the West or Russia. A study that asked where Ukraine “should be,” gave responders a choice to answer on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing the West and 10 Russia; 5 and other middle numbers constituted a majority. The question of “should NATO conduct military exercises near Russia,” garnered a majority of Ukrainians responding negatively. Like many issues, those most negative were Russian speakers and from the eastern and southern regions.

“Putin is viewed negatively by almost three quarters of Ukrainians. However, the vision of Ukraine as a fully European and pro-Western nation struggling to get out from Russia’s shadow is not accurate either,” said Professor O’Loughlin. “A lot of people have family and business connections in Russia. They see that Russia’s GDP is many times more than Ukraine’s and would like to have warmer relations. Ukraine is an in-between country; the majority of the population wants positive relations with both the West and Russia”

No Red Carpet for Russia

While many Ukrainians support a middle-of-the-road approach to their identity and relations with Moscow, few want Ukrainian sovereignty compromised or for Ukraine to become a vassal state. Ukraine’s leaders have said that their military is prepared to confront Russian troops. Yet, in the scenario of invasion and subsequent occupation, the question remains of how much resistance Russia would meet from Ukrainian citizens.

“I think a lot will depend on how well the Ukrainian army stands up,” said Professor Kubieck. “If they get steamrolled by the Russians, I’m not sure there would be major civilian resistance, but if the lines hold up and the Russians have trouble moving quickly, more people might take up arms.”

Professor Kubieck also speculated that civilian resistance would vary regionally.

“If they push further west, I would expect to see more resistance,” he said. “If they move into a place like Mariupol in the south and try to connect it to Crimea, that might be easier.”

In any scenario where President Putin invades Ukraine, he would be left with the difficult task of occupying a population that does not want his troops there.

“Putin managed to carve out the Donbas and maybe he thinks he could do something like that again, but it’s very hard to envision Russia going into a major Ukrainian city. I don’t see any long-term win for Russia from an occupation,” said Professor Kubieck.

However risky it seems for Russia to annex Ukraine or to forcibly install a friendly leader in Kiev, some feel that those assumptions are grounded in Western geopolitical ground rules that President Putin may not subscribe to.

“A drive on Kiev sounds ridiculous, but that’s the old Soviet playbook,” said Professor Rutland. “That’s what the Soviets did in Prague in 1968 and in Afghanistan in 1979. Treat the population as irrelevant, get a leader that’s loyal to you, and the population will fall in line. Putin might be thinking that Ukrainians are poor people who care more about stability than about NATO. It’s a risky strategy, but it might seem cleaner to him than carving out chunks around the Donbas.”

Past and Present

President Putin’s designs on Ukraine fit neatly into his anti-Western posture and attempts to reclaim Russia’s glory. This past summer, he composed a lengthy essay on the “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” that spans centuries and lays out a case for closer bonds between the two nations.

President Putin’s detailed opus speaks of common heritage rooted in the Ancient Rus based in Kiev, which united Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and other groups. His narrative spans to the present day, blaming the idea of Ukrainian nationalism and loss of Russian control on a series of historical mistakes.

“It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. We can disagree about minor details, background, and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed,” he wrote.

At the piece’s close, President Putin makes an appeal for Ukrainians to realize their common cause with Russia.

“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories,” he wrote. “Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”

The narrative is not without merit.

Since the 18th century, much of the western part of what is today Ukraine was controlled by the Hapsburg Empire and most of what is now the middle and east of the country was part of Czarist Russia.

The concept of Ukrainian nationalism did not take shape until the late 19th century, giving way to the violent struggles that briefly achieved an independent state after the First World War.

Yet, shortly afterward, Bolshevik forces gained the upper hand, and the nation was absorbed as a republic of the Soviet Union. Several other sections of what is now Ukraine were absorbed into Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other nations. During the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalists allied themselves with the Nazis with the hopes of reestablishing independence. Allied victory brought it once again under Moscow’s control and at the Yalta Conference the expanded borders that make up today’s Ukraine were drawn by the Soviets.

While the borders they established in 1945 included many disparate regions and ethnic groups, some of the cruel realities of the 20th century made the area more homogeneous. Pogroms in 1919 and genocide during the Holocaust decimated what was a sizable Jewish population. At the end of World War II, in keeping with terms designed by Josef Stalin, hundreds of thousands of Poles living in Ukraine were forcibly resettled in Poland and ethnic Ukrainians in Poland were sent to Ukraine.

Still, in the 30 years since its independence was declared after the fall of the Communist bloc, most feel that Ukrainians have established an identity of their own and that President Putin’s versions of history are a political foil.

“Historians tend to cringe when they hear politicians teaching history, since truth is not chiefly what interests them,” said Professor Toal.

“Putin’s version is one side of the history of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, one that is self-serving. Ukrainian national identity is legitimate, most importantly because so many Ukrainians view it and live it as such.”


A Jewish View of Ukraine


Eighty-five years ago, a Jew who hailed from Munkacs, or who traveled to the courts of Rebbes in Chernobyl, Belz, or Sadigura would have been most surprised to learn that those four locations would be part of one country. He would likely have been equally surprised that such a country would be called Ukraine, but that is indeed the case today.

In a peculiar way, Jewish communities, ones that have preserved the unique culture of the old-world locations they were rooted in, bear witness to the complexity of claims to a historical basis for Ukrainian nationhood.

The ohel of Harav Yisrael of Ruzhin, zy”a, in the beis hachaim of Sadigura, Ukraine.

Chernobyl, and most of the dynasties associated with it, were located the farthest east, and were surrounded by what, even then, were many ethnic Ukrainians. Still, Jews typically referred to the area as “Russland,” which also reflected the way it was viewed by gentiles as well until World War I.

The culture of Belz is emblematic of Galicia. The hallowed town was under Austria-Hungary until 1918 and was incorporated into Poland between the wars. Following the Second World War, Belz initially remained part of Poland, but in 1951, it was transferred to Soviet Ukraine as part of a border re-adjustment.

Sadigura and several other towns associated with the Ruzhiner dynasty were in an area of eastern Galicia known as Bukovina. The town was famously a refuge for the Tzaddik of Ruzhin after he was forced to flee Russian territory. During and after World War I, the area was a battleground between the populations of Ukrainians and Romanians that dominated the region, and its national identity changed several times.

Munkacs is located in a region known as Carpathian Ruthenia and was part of Czechoslovakia between the two world wars.

As it remains today among communities tied to traditions with their roots in these regions, Jews in the above locations had very distinct accents to their Hebrew and Yiddish.

While some of the gentiles whom they lived among were ethnic Ukrainians, the populations were heavily mixed with Russians, Poles, Ruthanians, Romanians, and other groups.

While most Jews living in modern Ukraine are supportive of its independence and suspicious of Russia, Ukrainian nationalism plays an infamous role in Jewish history.

In 1919, Ukraine was rocked by brutal pogroms that killed an estimated 100,000 Jews. While the Red and White armies of Russia’s Civil War carried out some of these attacks, the vast majority were the work of Ukrainian nationalists under the leadership of Simon Petliura.

Two decades later, Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera threw their lot in with the Nazis, hoping they would cast off the yoke of Soviet rule. Bandera’s troops played a key role in the mass murder of Jews in the region.

As World War II drew to a close, President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Marshal Josef Stalin met at Yalta to plan postwar Europe. It was there that Stalin established the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence over Eastern Europe. The agreement paved was for the broad strokes he drew which created the borders of a robust Soviet Ukraine that would place one border around Chernobyl, Munkacs, Sadigura, and Belz. A border that defines Ukraine to this day.

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