The 2014 conflicts in Ukraine are among the most complex we will examine this semester. They are complicated because they fall at the intersection of three separate issues:
- A longstanding and deep polarization of Ukraine between East and West,
- A massive and violent series of political protests that took place in winter 2013-2014 (Euromaidan), and
- Russian opportunism, which translated the first two challenges into the annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine.
These causes of conflict are related, but in order to understand them in more detail, I will separate them out. In this video, I will talk about Ukrainian identity and nationality, which served as a structural, but background cause of protest and war. We will talk about Euromaidan and Russian foreign policy in Ukraine in later course units.
As noted in the video on Russian national identity, there is one version of Russian identity that encompasses East Slavs more generally. While Ukrainian nationalists reject subsuming Ukrainian identity in this way, there are many Ukrainians, especially those who are ethnically Russian or Russian speakers, who adopt it. Ukraine is around 17% ethnic Russian, with those populations geographically concentrated in familiar areas – Crimea and the east.
The divisions in Ukraine don’t stop at language, ethnicity, and geography however. They are reproduced in voting and social attitudes more generally. You can see this difference in the vote for president in 1994, where voters in the east favored the Russian supported Leonid Kuchma over nationalist Leonid Kravchik. These results were replicated in the 2004 race between Victor Yushchenko and Victor Yanukovych and again in 2010 when Yulia Tymoshenko ran against Yanukovich.
Opinion polls have shown that this division was repeated in favorable views toward Europe (in the West) vs Russia (in the East), nostalgia about the Soviet past, and opinions on economic reform. The 2014 conflict disrupted these patterns, but some of its origins lie in this deep and overlapping ethno-linguistic and ideological polarization.
I want to end this short video with a few notes on Crimea. Crimea does have a history distinct from Ukraine and as seen earlier, the highest concentration of Russian speakers in the country. It was annexed by the Russian Empire from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 and became an autonomous republic within the Russian SFSR in 1917. Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russian administration to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. A review of the Soviet archives by Mark Kramer for the Wilson Center concludes this was done to increase the Russian population within Ukraine and for factional purposes within the politburo.
I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a mention of the Crimean Tatars. Russians did not form a majority of the Crimean population until May 1944, when Stalin deported essentially all of the indigenous population (the Crimean Tatars) to Siberia. This ethnically Turkic and Muslim group was allowed to start returning in 1967 and now makes up around 12% of the population of the peninsula.