Within a matter of months, events in Ukraine have transformed the global political order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A startled world has watched Ukraine’s political crisis unfold as demonstrators took over Kyiv’s Independence Square and forced Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from office (and from the country). Then events became international with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the eruption of separatist insurgencies in Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. Sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union have followed, as has concern and brinksmanship over natural gas supplies.

Justifying Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his bewilderment at the very existence of the Ukrainian state in speeches he delivered on March 18 and April 17 (that took liberties with history). He claimed that for reasons he could not understand, the Bolsheviks created the Soviet Ukrainian republic “in the 1920s” including the traditional territories of “New Russia,” a tsarist-era name for southern and southeastern Ukraine dating from the 18th century.

At the same time, the ultranationalist Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky (known for his provocative declarations) shocked the Polish foreign ministry with an offer to divide Ukraine. The westernmost provinces would be returned to Poland, which had ruled large parts of Ukraine until the 18th century, and the rest would be subsumed by Russia.

Such pronouncements might be dismissed as chauvinistic political antics were it not for all the sabre rattling, bloodletting, and border changing. And, most importantly, these declarations highlight critical issues at play in the Ukrainian crisis.

At the very heart of the story is the question of Ukrainian national identity—especially the question of Russia’s recognition of the Ukrainian people as a separate nation and the present-day borders of Ukraine—and the importance of external powers, especially Russia and the Soviet Union, in determining the fate of the Ukrainian people.

For several centuries, Ukrainians found themselves divided in two, with parts claimed by the Russian and Polish (and later Austrian) empires. They were only reunited at the end of World War II, attaining independence in 1991. Depending on where they lived, Ukrainian elites developed two diverging conceptions of national identity during the nineteenth century—and the distinctions continue to influence events today.

The Russian army and Russia-sponsored separatist fighters have proven the point often made by historians of Ukraine: Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine and coming to terms with Ukraine’s separate nationhood is a litmus test of Russian democracy.

Putin may have decided to seize the Crimean peninsula to bolster his domestic popularity, but in so doing he exploited complexities and confusions about Ukrainian identity centuries in the making.

Ukraine, Russia, and History

Ukrainian-Russian relations suffer from differing attitudes toward the Russian imperial past. Both republics became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but what was a new beginning for Ukraine was a loss of empire and great-power status for Russia.

Linguistic nationalism simmers in Ukraine. Centuries of tsarist and Soviet rule established Russian as the imperial language Ukrainians would be expected to know. Ukrainian and Russian are closely related languages, yet unequal in practice. In an interaction between the two “fraternal” peoples, to use the Soviet expression, the Russian would likely understand Ukrainian, but would expect the Ukrainian to switch to speaking Russian and not the other way around.

Assimilation is also a nagging issue. Especially during the postwar period, Soviet authorities encouraged Ukrainians to identify with the Soviet Union, particularly with Russian culture.

Not only did the Russian-dominated tsarist and Soviet empires actively assimilate Ukrainians, but they also helped create a modern Ukrainian identity in the first place. Ukrainian national distinctiveness developed in response and resistance to imperial control, but also the Russian empire brought the majority of Ukrainians together through expansion, establishing a separate Ukrainian territory within the Soviet Union.

What it means to be Ukrainian is still a fluid concept, as is what it means to be Russian. Russians continue to identify with a greater imperial space that includes Ukraine, while many eastern Ukrainians express post-Soviet nostalgia by identifying with “Russia” either politically or ethnically.

The halting pace of democracy and economic reform also fuels trouble on the Russian-Ukrainian border. By contrast, there have been just as many cultural affinities and historical disputes on the Polish-Ukrainian border, but Poland’s development into a functioning democracy and a relatively transparent economic system put Polish-Ukrainian relations on a different footing. Imperial designs are weaker where new European values prove their worth.

The Elder “Younger Brother”

The acceptance of Ukraine’s nationhood is difficult for many Russians because it deprives them of their glorious past. Both Russians and Ukrainians look back to the mighty medieval empire of Kyivan Rus′, which accepted Christianity in 988, as the cradle of their respective modern nations.

With Ukrainian independence, Russia lost many sites enshrined in its historical memory, including the first Orthodox monastery and graves of legendary medieval knights.

For Russians after 1991, this foundational moment of their state tradition was centered in what is now Ukraine and the capital of Kyivan Rus′ was the present-day Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (Kiev in Russian). Moscow, by contrast, is first mentioned in the historical Hypatian Chronicle only in 1147 as a stockade on the distant frontier.

The true beginning of the Muscovite state is connected to the fall of Kyivan Rus′. After the Mongol invasion beginning in 1237 dealt the final blow to this loose federation of principalities, the princes of Muscovy rose to prominence as the Mongols’ most reliable local agents and soon-to-be challengers.

Meanwhile, beginning in the fourteenth century, the western half of the former Kyivan Rus′ state came under the domination of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later Poland. The developing differences between Russians and Ukrainians were sealed by this splitting of the former lands of Kyivan Rus′. Their separate group identity persisted, defined in pre-modern and early modern religious or social terms.

Ukrainians into Russia

The two children of Kyivan Rus’ met again in 1654, when the Ukrainian Zaporozhian Cossacks, located in the eastern part of what is today Ukraine, were accepted under the protection of the Orthodox Russian tsar after an exhaustive war against the Polish state.

During the next century and a half, the Russian imperial administration gradually absorbed Ukrainian lands, depriving them of autonomy and cultural specificity. The growing empire of the Romanovs also increased its Ukrainian territories in the west during the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century.

Soon the position of Ukrainians, or “Little Russians” as they were called on the official level, came to resemble that of the Scots in the United Kingdom. As individuals, Ukrainians could carve out careers in the Russian imperial service, yet their group political and cultural identity was increasingly marginalized or treated as an ethnographic curiosity.

The Russian Empire was late in entering Europe’s “age of nationalism.” Yet when the Polish rebellion of 1863 alerted Russian authorities to the political implications of ethnic identities, they reacted also with a crushing blow against the miniscule, politically moderate, and nearly deracinated Ukrainian intelligentsia.

A Decree of 1863 banned the publication of religious and educational works in the Ukrainian language. Then in 1876, Tsar Alexander II prohibited the publication of any Ukrainian books, now including literature, as well as the use of Ukrainian onstage.

The official ideology of the tsarist state considered the empire’s Ukrainians merely a “Little Russian tribe” of the Russian people—they did not need their own language or culture, and would soon simply merge into the Russian ethnicity.

Ironically, this perspective on Ukrainians also meant that the imperial government undertook no consistent effort to assimilate the Ukrainian peasantry, because for the tsarist leaders “Ukrainians” were in fact “Russian.” Tsarist functionaries merely tried to prevent the ideas of modern nationalism from reaching the Ukrainian people who, they expected, would identify with the tsarist empire and its dominant ethnic group.

“European” Ukraine

The Russian tsars, however, never controlled all the lands on which ethnic Ukrainians lived.

During the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century the westernmost region of Ukraine became part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire. The Habsburg emperors also acquired two smaller Ukrainian-populated areas from the Ottomans and the Hungarian Kingdom.

All Ukrainian lands in the Austrian Empire were agrarian backwaters with little industrial development and a stale cultural life. The Ukrainian peasantry had little influence in the largest of these regions, the crown land of Galicia, dominated by the Polish nobility.

Yet the very ethnic mosaic of the Habsburg Empire helped develop a modern Ukrainian identity.

Austrian Germans could not hope to assimilate small minorities in the ethnically patchwork empire they ruled, as the Russian government was doing in its own empire.

Instead, they worked to play minorities against one another. In the province of Galicia, the Austrians maintained their power by balancing the influence of the Polish political class with the pressure and votes of the Ukrainian peasantry—and, as time went by, the cultural work of the Ukrainian clergy and the intelligentsia.

The awkward and unwitting “European” choice of western Ukrainians had far-reaching implications. Not only were they acknowledged as a separate ethnic group by the government in Vienna, but the Austrian Empire also offered them an experience that was totally absent on the Russian side of the border—political participation. Ukrainians in the Habsburg Empire could both develop their culture and acquire a taste for parliamentarism, limited as it was.

Unlike their Ukrainian brethren to the east, Ukrainian intellectuals in Austria soon developed a clear concept of modern Ukrainian ethnic identity and reached out to the peasantry through a network of reading clubs and schools.

The Austrian government assisted in this nation-building process, in part to create a counterbalance to the Poles and in part because it was gearing up for war with Russia. In the 1890s, for example, the Austrian Ministry of Education helped switch Ukrainian schools to the modern orthography, a move that highlighted the differences between Ukrainian and Russian.

The Austrians were also instrumental in making the Ukrainian Catholic Church a national institution. Because it shared the Eastern rites with the Orthodox Church, the religion of Galician Ukrainians served as a marker of their difference from the Catholic Poles rather than from the Orthodox Eastern Ukrainians.

Ukrainians in War and Revolution

When both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires—one recognizing Ukrainians as a people and the other denying their existence—collapsed at the end of World War I, two Ukrainian states emerged on the map of Europe for a brief period. The Ukrainian People’s Republic with the capital in Kyiv and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic in Galicia even managed to proclaim their union but not to survive in the geopolitical turmoil that followed.

When the Galician Ukrainian army, defeated by the Poles, crossed over to former Russian-ruled Ukraine, the Ukrainians from the two empires confronted differences in political views and Ukrainian identity. To the nationalistic, conservative Galicians, easterners looked left-wing and more muddled in their ethnic identity.

This perceived distinction between western and eastern Ukrainians persisted for the next century, although the imagined “nationalistic West” gradually expanded over this time as the population of central and, to a lesser degree, eastern Ukraine also embraced modern Ukrainian national identity.

Both today and a century ago, however, outside military power was a major factor in shaping the Ukrainian state project.

In 1918, the German army supported a puppet Ukrainian state as a buffer against Bolshevik Russia and with the hope of using Ukraine’s agricultural lands as a bread basket. The Germans preferred a Ukrainian monarchy to parallel their own political system. But this idea was short-lived both because of the leftist impulse of the times and Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Allies.

Then, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, the Russian White Army marched into Ukrainian territories, hoping for a restoration of the Russian Empire in some more or less democratized form, but they too were defeated.

Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts, the Red Army managed to secure its hold over Ukraine. The last stronghold of the old tsarist Russia that the Bolshevik forces stormed in the late fall of 1920 was Crimea.

A Soviet Republic for Ukrainians

World War I and the Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution confirmed for Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin that nationalism was a force to be reckoned with, but one that could be overcome given time.

The Bolsheviks decided to keep intact as much of the Russian Empire as possible and they hoped to disarm potential nationalist sentiment by creating national homelands, or republics, for many of the state’s larger ethnicities. In Ukraine, the Bolsheviks also had to deal with the precedent of independence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic that made it impossible for them to simply absorb the Ukrainian provinces into a Soviet state.

In March 1919, the Bolsheviks created the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, in federation with Soviet Russia, out of the Ukrainian ethnic lands under their control. In 1922 the Ukrainian Soviet Republic became one of the (theoretically equal) founding republics of the Soviet Union.

The borders remained fluid, however, as Soviet Russia and Ukraine exchanged several counties during the 1920s due to ethnic composition and economic rationality. The city of Taganrog, where writer Anton Chekhov was born, was part of Soviet Ukraine briefly from 1920 to 1924.

The Crimea was not part of Ukraine but an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation intended as a national homeland for the Crimean Tatars, even though Russians were the largest ethnic group on the peninsula.

However, the Bolsheviks, like the Ukrainian national governments before them, had no doubt that the Donbas (the Donets Basin region in the eastern part of today’s Ukraine) and other eastern regions were ethnically Ukrainian. That much of the local population spoke Russian was largely irrelevant to the decisions of policy-makers at the time.

Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Bolsheviks began a policy known as “indigenization” that provided the non-Russian nationalities of the USSR with an affirmative-action mechanism to support their languages, cultures, education, and access to local leadership positions.

The Ukrainian republic became a showcase of indigenization because the Soviet authorities had designs on territory in Poland, which ended up retaining Galicia. The Soviet leaders wanted to present their state as fulfilling the dreams of the oppressed Ukrainians for a flourishing autonomous political and cultural region, and some Bolshevik politicians in the republic sincerely believed in this project.

By the early 1930s, however, the treatment of Ukrainians in the Soviet Union began to change from the promotion of Ukrainian culture and society, to its restriction and suppression. Joseph Stalin grew suspicious of the indigenization policies. He worried that by enacting policies that met the demands of the nationalist leaders in an effort to tame nationalism in the long term, Soviet leaders were actually promoting national identities in the short term that threatened the security of the Soviet system.

As part of many abrupt changes in policy during Stalin’s time, he instituted an end to the indigenization policies and unleased the Holodomor, the horrifying Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33.

Instead of making Soviet Ukraine attractive to Ukrainians abroad, he seized the opportunity to annex ethnically Ukrainian lands from Poland in 1939, Romania in 1940, and Czechoslovakia in 1945. Thus even in an era of domestic subjugation, Soviet expansionism helped to bring most Ukrainians into the same state.

Reuniting the Ukrainian people within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic served as a pretext for these geopolitical moves, and ironically it was Stalin’s Red Army that fulfilled the nationalist dream of a united Ukraine. The Ukrainian state he created, though, was fully incorporated into the Soviet political and social fabric, with every important decision made in the Kremlin.

The postwar period saw the reincarnation of the familiar imperial model. The official ideology presented Ukrainians as enthusiastic participants in a larger Soviet project and also the appreciative junior brethren of the Russians, the country’s guiding force.

It was in order to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the tsarist incorporation of Cossack Ukraine that, in 1954, Khrushchev engineered the transfer of Crimea from the Russian republic to the Ukrainian SSR—a shrewd economic move, as much as a symbolic political gesture. The peninsula was linked by land only to the Ukrainian republic and received its fresh water and electricity from there. The region had really been part of Ukraine economically long before the Soviet authorities processed the administrative transfer.

With indigenization policies long abandoned, it mattered little for the purposes of this decision that the majority of Crimeans were by then ethnic Russians. Stalin had deported the native Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in 1944, leaving Russians the majority. Creeping assimilation elsewhere in the republic to Russian norms also meant that Ukraine’s eastern regions could remain primarily Russian in culture, albeit with a majority Ukrainian population.

While this ethnic overlap caused few problems during the Soviet era, it would spell trouble for independent Ukraine.

How Ukraine Became Russia’s Other: From Red to Orange

Tellingly, mass protests that spelled the end of the Soviet federal state began in the regions annexed relatively late, especially western Ukraine and the Baltic republics. The power of ethnic identity and the memory of civic unity were strongest there.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, as the newly independent Ukrainian state sought to structure a new political system and to transform the economy from a Soviet mold, Ukrainians questioned their future relations with Russia to the east and Europe to the west.

Over the past two decades the Russia-Europe question came increasingly to be framed as either-or: Ukraine would need to choose between closer ties with Russia or with the European Union. With a Russia ascendant under Putin, maintaining strong ties with both sides was impossible.

Almost from the beginning, however, observers noted a curious political tide in Ukraine.

In the early elections, democratic nationalists favoring the “European choice”—that is, a policy of linking Ukraine ever more fully with Europe and the European Union economically, politically, and culturally—carried only Galicia in the far western part of Ukraine, where Ukrainian national identity and civil society were strongest. But soon their political influence began spreading eastward. By the early 2000s, voters in central Ukraine were also shifting to the national-democratic side.

By the time of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which was prompted by the rigged elections in favor of a pro-Russian candidate, the “pro-European” tide had reached Kyiv, thus for the first time enveloping more than half of Ukraine.

When Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych attempted to fix the election results in order to win the presidency, mass protests erupted in all the major cities. The deliberate poisoning of the opposition candidate, explicitly pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, fanned the flames. Under international pressure the pro-Russian side gave up, much to Putin’s displeasure. The election was re-run and monitored, bringing Yushchenko to power.

The Orange Revolution was a civic protest wrapped in Ukrainian national clothes. It was not primarily a revolution against Russian influence but rather an ethnically-blind protest against corruption and disfranchisement. In 2004 radical nationalists remained marginalized among the mass of protesters who hoped for a better future for everyone, but used the Ukrainian language as a marker and patriotic rhetoric as a mobilizing tool.

Ukraine between Russia and Europe

Regardless of their political positions, all Ukrainian leaders since 1991 have attempted to find a place for a Ukrainian national community between European and Russian influence. Indeed, although all the presidents of independent Ukraine before Victor Yanukovych promised closer cooperation with Russia, in the end they continued the nation-building project by supporting Ukrainian schooling and balancing between Russia and the West.

Significantly, however, Putin’s Russia openly sided with the defeated regime after the Orange Revolution, thus establishing for many Ukrainians a clear-cut connection between the imperial Russian/Soviet past and the miserable present against which they were rebelling.

This connection, subsequently reinforced by Russia’s uncooperative political stance towards the Orange governments, helps to explain the recent rise of the radical right in western Ukraine. This radical right—who the Russian state media style "fascists"—has in turn served as a pretext for even greater Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

The growing influence of right-wing nationalists in the western regions became especially pronounced after Yanukovych managed to win election in 2010. During the last parliamentary elections of 2012, the right-wing Freedom party not only made it into the parliament, but secured more seats than the once-powerful Communists.

Both, however, were relatively minor players in Ukrainian politics.

The implicit connection between Russia and the Soviet past, however, worked in the opposite way in the Donbas, Ukraine’s depressed industrial region, where nostalgia for Soviet paternalism and subsidies was kept alive first by the Communist Party during the 1990s and, after its electoral demise, by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

In the last decade, the political bosses of the region, with the help of Russian television, established “Europe” and “Ukrainian nationalism” as the twin bogeymen of Western modernity—a modernity that is presented as inferior to what Russia has to offer. In this way, a long-term campaign to win the hearts and minds of those in the Donbas region for Russia has been ongoing for several years.

Like ethnic Russians in Crimea with their nostalgia for both imperial military glory and wealthy vacationers from Moscow, Russian speakers in the Donbas miss the good old Soviet days. But they transpose their nostalgia into Putin’s Russia.

Russian culture, the Soviet welfare blanket, and imperial glory are the principal components of this ideological powder keg, which can only be neutralized by building a democratic and prosperous Ukraine.

The Ukrainian crisis revealed that the West let Ukraine down. Satisfied with winning the Cold War, Western powers did not invest in building a market economy and democracy in post-Soviet nations. There was no Marshall Plan for Ukraine (or other former Soviet countries) and the European Union never offered a clear accession path.

No wonder Russian-style authoritarianism supported by oil and gas revenues still looks attractive for many in eastern Ukraine, where national identities remain fluid. It is not that the Ukrainian identity is weak, but that the pro-Western and democratic choice associated with it does not receive the kind of financial and logistical support from the West that Russia offers to its proponents.

For Ukrainians a strong national identity and independent state has historically been connected with the European choice. This is in part true because the Russian choice is linked to an imperial project in which Ukraine plays the role of junior partner.

What this implies is that, in order to resolve the current Ukrainian crisis, Russia will have to change as well—a perhaps unlikely event.

Yet, such a change on Russia’s part is not without precedent. Polish-Ukrainian relations and the long history of Polish control of Ukrainian lands offer an example of how a former imperial master can be a beacon of democracy and economic reform instead of fomenting separatist violence in a neighboring country.