History shows us that there will be no winners in Ukraine, just many casualties on both sides

Foreign Affairs

The wars in the former Yugoslavia have taught us that ethnic nationalism can lead to the breakdown of civil societies and a long, dark period of economic and social decline.

Ukraine is a country of 40 million inhabitants, larger than France, with fertile land often called the “breadbasket” of Europe. It is proving difficult to conquer, but its eventual subjugation by Russia will have long-term consequences for Europe and the world.

As a scholar of Slavic peoples and their languages, I am heartbroken by the unprecedented violence that has been unfolding since the invasion began last week. I have flashbacks to the Yugoslav succession wars in the 1990s and early 2000s and how the whole region was pushed back economically and socially.

Russia has long feared NATO’s eastward expansion, while Ukraine has sought to be independent, democratic and Western-leaning. In general, Russians and Ukrainians have a long memory and are well aware of the historical tensions and conflicts that have taken place on Ukrainian territory.

The reality is that Ukrainians and Russians are in many ways similar. Their languages ​​are very close, belonging to the East Slavic branch of Slavic languages. The capital of Ukraine, known in Ukrainian as Kyiv and in Russian as Kyiv, was the main center of East Slavic culture during the Middle Ages.

It was Prince Vladimir of Kiev who brought Christianity to these peoples in the year 988, when Kiev was a prominent principality in a country then known as Rus.

Medieval culture flourished in Kievan Rus only to be destroyed when the Mongols invaded and captured Kiev in 1240. Subsequently, the center of power among the Eastern Slavs shifted to Moscow, which was founded in the 12th century and slowly consolidated its hold over a vast territory. as the Mongol Empire declined, from the end of the 14th century.

The descendants of the early Rus peoples all have claims to the cultural heritage of medieval Kyiv Rus, and some of these claims and counterclaims persist today. Russia was larger and more dominant, and historians of Russia claim a direct lineage dating back to the time of Kievan Rus. Ukrainians recognize their current territory as where East Slavic culture flourished and also claim a direct connection to that era.

The transfer of East Slavic power from Kiev to Moscow made the region known today as Ukraine an often disputed border region between more powerful neighbors, including the Polish-Lithuanian state, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, of course, the Russian Empire. .

Indeed, the word “Ukraine” comes from the Slavic root “kraj” or “edge”, so the word means something like “on the edge, or on the border”. When wars broke out in Yugoslavia, the disputed border regions of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (also known as the “Krajina” regions) were the scene of some of the worst battles and examples of ethnic cleansing.

The differentiation of East Slavic peoples accelerated in the 19th century at a time of national awakenings in Europe when Belarusians and Ukrainians began to form their national identities and literary languages ​​– which is now Ukraine Eastern – firmly under the control of the Russian Empire.

We also see efforts in Russia to suppress a separate Ukrainian identity and assimilate citizens of Russian-dominated regions of Ukraine into the rest of Russia. Russian authorities used to refer to their Eastern Slavic cousins ​​in Ukraine in a pejorative way, calling them “Little Russians”, as opposed to the “Great Russians” of Russia proper.

The period 1917-1922 was tumultuous for Ukraine. What is now Western Ukraine was incorporated into Poland and the remaining parts of the country declared independence in 1918, marking the first time in history that Ukraine became an independent country.

However, this independence coincided with great instability in the region with civil wars raging in the territory of Ukraine and Russia and in 1922, with the victories of the Red Army, Ukraine was fully integrated into Soviet Union.

After World War II, the borders changed again when the Soviet Union reclaimed today’s western Ukrainian regions from interwar Poland. Between 1945 and 1954, Ukraine was therefore politically united for the first time in centuries under the aegis of the Soviet Union.

It did not reach what are now its internationally recognized borders until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev changed internal Soviet borders, moving the Crimean Peninsula from the jurisdiction of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

For much of the Soviet period, Kremlin rulers asserted the dominance of Russian language and culture over Ukraine, and the vast majority of people in Ukraine were fluent in Russian and often unfamiliar with the Russian language. Ukrainian language.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the internal Soviet borders between its 15 republics suddenly became internal borders recognized by countries around the world. In many cases, these borders were artificial or did not always correspond to linguistic, ethnic or historical borders.

Shortly after the collapse, some minorities within the newly independent states rejected the new borders and sought to unite with their relatives across one of the new borders. For example, Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan declared independence from that country and attempted to join neighboring Armenia; similarly, the Russian speakers of the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova split off from Moldova in hopes of joining Russia and are currently a pariah state known as Transnistria.

Similar problems have overwhelmed newly independent Georgia with its breakaway region of South Ossetia. Ukraine was not immune to this phenomenon. In 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power after weeks of protests in Kiev’s main square turned violent.

Yanukovych fled to Russia and was replaced by leaders seen as much more pro-Western, promising to bring Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. Putin’s Russia responded within days by sending troops to the strategically important Crimean peninsula which Russia quickly annexed.

Simultaneously, Russia backed local militias in Donetsk and Luhansk who sparked a local uprising against Ukrainian authorities, vowing to create rogue pro-Russian republics. Hostilities between these militias and the Ukrainian armed forces broke out.

It seemed that the pattern of Transnistria and South Ossetia was repeating itself in Ukraine. A precarious ceasefire was achieved through an agreement in Minsk that was supposed to guarantee the autonomy of Ukraine’s breakaway regions, but all that changed in 2022 when Putin decided to recognize them as independent countries and launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, using the excuse of “protecting” the people of Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukrainian forces.

In 2014, Russia was highly critical of the events that led to Yanukovych’s ousting. They portrayed the Ukrainian perpetrators of the protests as neo-fascists and neo-Nazis, and have maintained this rhetoric to this day.

Yanukovych was convicted in absentia of treason for having already called on Russia to invade Ukraine. Ukraine’s future has not been helped by the US presidency of Donald Trump, a long-time admirer of Vladimir Putin who even threatened the Ukrainian government with withholding aid if it did not investigate Joe’s son Biden. These actions led to Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.

The invasion of Ukraine is a game-changing event in Europe, shaking up the world order established after World War II. The war demonstrates that one of the main underlying problems of the former Soviet Union is Russia’s status vis-à-vis a significant number of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers who separated from their mothers. homeland, Russia, when they found themselves on the other side. side of an international border after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There seems to be a sort of domino effect, with conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine. There are also significant Russian minorities in Lithuania and Latvia, and both countries are now members of NATO and the EU.

At the moment, it does not look like there will be a quick resolution to the crisis. The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the riskier this situation is for the world. The global economy has already been greatly affected by the pandemic, and now the uncertainty of Russia’s instability and unpredictable leadership threaten global security.

I see no winners, just many victims on both sides. The wars in the former Yugoslavia have taught us that ethnic nationalism can lead to the breakdown of civil societies and a long, dark period of economic and social decline.

Putin reinforces the idea that Russia has the right to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, and that its own people will suffer economic hardship due to isolation and sanctions, not to mention the destruction of millions of lives in Ukraine.

I fear that irreparable damage will result from the current conflict unless common sense somehow prevails and Russia gives up its desire to regain control of Ukraine.

Professor Robert Greenberg is Dean of Arts at the University of Auckland. He has traveled frequently to Russia and Ukraine and is a specialist in Slavic languages ​​and cultures.

James C. Tibbs