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The Russian Ukrainian Conflict, Explained

As Russian forces mobilize on the Ukrainian border, many Westerners may see more similarities than differences between the two countries. Both are countries in Eastern Europe, use the Cyrillic alphabet and were parts of the USSR. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin said last year that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole,” stressing the historic union of the two countries. But this assertion ignores major historical and cultural differences between these two nations. 

Russia’s argument for Ukraine being historically Russian likely stems from the first major organized settlement in the Russian area, Kievan Rus, founded in 882 AD. Kievan Rus was centered around the now-Ukranian city of Kyiv. Additionally, many major Russian political figures, such as Leon Trotsky and Leonid Brezhnev, as well as cultural icons like Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Gogol, all hail from Ukraine.

Russian aggression is deeply rooted in a sense of nationalistic pride, says Professor Anni Cecil, who teaches Russian History at Wheaton.. “Beginning in 2011 and 2012, Putin began beating the drum of national humiliation and regeneration of national pride,” Cecil said.

Despite Russia’s sense of kinship with Ukraine, a significant part of Ukrainian identity comes from its historical oppression by Russia. Runaway serfs and slaves from Russia often moved south to Ukraine, making Ukraine known as a place of ‘shelter’ from Russian persecution. These Russian refugees eventually formed the Cossacks, integral to Ukraine’s identity and sense of pride.

Credit: Britannica

In the 1600s, the Russian Empire invaded Ukraine, taking control by force. Russia continually suppressed a series of rebellions in Ukraine around this time, including a major war for independence from 1917 to 1921. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine suffered the infamous Holodomor famine that killed 3.9 million Ukrainians. Beginning in the 1700 and continuing through the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Russia has enacted policies of ‘Russification’ in Ukraine, a process that involves Russia imposing Russian language and culture into non-Russian lands, as a form of assimilation. “This oppression of Ukraine by Russia creates a sense of historical difference,” Cecil says.

This coercive adoption of Russian identity in Ukraine includes the translation of names of Ukrainian locations. Such coercion even extends to the Ukrainian capital. The Russian language-name translates to “Kiev”, while the Ukrainian language-name translates to “Kyiv”. Ukraine has made repeated attempts to get English-language media to spell it as “Kyiv”, because Ukrainians view the word “Kiev” as yet another reinforcement of Russia’s oppressive impact on Ukrainian culture. The same applies to the phrase “The Ukraine” instead of just “Ukraine”. The Soviet government referred to Ukraine as “The Ukraine”. Ukrainians view the use of that term as a dismissive and belittling linguistic assault on their identity.

Despite Putin’s assertions of the countries’ similarities, Ukrainian culture and customs are historically distinct from Russia’s. Ukraine was part of Poland-Lithuania for a significant period of time, and remnants of Polish and Lithuanian culture still exist in Ukraine today. This European influence on Ukrainian culture is one that is not as prominent in Russian culture, but still a reality that deeply troubles Putin.

What appears to have upset Russia is Ukraine’s interest in joining European organizations such as NATO and the EU, which signifies Ukraine showing allegiance to the West, rather than to the East, an indication of the waning Russian influence. Currently, Ukraine serves as a buffer nation between Russia and the West. If Ukraine joins the EU or NATO, it would put the multinational alliance right up against Russia’s border.

However, as a fully independent nation, Ukraine is free to make its own decisions on alliances, Cecil says. Ukraine has always had a strong connection to Europe, and it should be free to act on it. “Putin is making claims that Russia and Ukraine should be historically united. So what? They were united by force in the 1600s and are independent now. Let it go.” says Cecil. “Just because this was part of that country doesn’t mean it always has to be.”