Cultural Differences and a Historical Perspective
Another factor that has either been ignored, or possibly overhyped by the media, is this vast cultural and language divide between the south and east parts of Ukraine and the west and north parts of Ukraine. Western Ukraine mostly speaks the Ukrainian language and has never historically been part of the Russian empire. In much of eastern and southern Ukraine the Russian language is widely spoken. Only in 1945, following WWII did Transcarpathia come under control of the Soviet Union. That was the first time in history that they had ever been ruled by Russians. Lviv, the largest city of western Ukraine, and the surrounding region, which historically has been populated by Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews, has mainly been under Polish, Habsburg and even Lithuanian rule throughout its history; most of the territory of western Ukraine had never been controlled by Russians until WWII. Russians often are despised as occupiers. I am not sure what to make of the Russians that populate areas of Ukraine; one might question how many are truly local. Ukraine had a terrible history in the 20th century that has also been ignored. When Stalin collectivized Soviet Ukraine in the 1930’s he orchestrated a planned famine that murdered anywhere from 3-6 million Ukrainians and Poles living in Ukraine and up to 8 million total in the Soviet Union. Nearly as many Ukrainians and Poles were murdered from 1932-1933 alone than Jews in the entire holocaust. Stalin starved the farmers, and murdered or sent to gulags anyone of influence. Then Hitler came and Ukraine became a bloody battle ground between the Red Army and Germany. Hitler killed off Jews and basically anyone who Stalin hadn’t already killed in an attempt to colonize Ukraine to use its vast agriculture capability to feed Germany. In between the years of 1932-1944 Hitler and Stalin probably murdered or deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan around 20 million Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews (the exact number can never be known) who for centuries had populated what is present day Ukraine. Stalin had a practice that after he killed off and deported a local minority population (that he perceived as a threat) he would repopulate the territory with Russians who were on his side or at least more easily controlled. The book Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder is a good read on the bloody history of 20th century Ukraine and well explains much of this history.
Some might disagree, but for me the history of occupiers and the populations of Central and Eastern Europe have changed and shifted so much it is often impossible (and always disputed) for any country to claim a specific piece of ground as rightly and historically theirs. Every country wishes to see its borders extended to the territory it controlled at the height of its power. Obviously that leads to a lot of overlapping territorial claims and spheres of influence.
A third important factor not always reported is Ukraine’s significance to Russia. Ukrainians and Russians both come from an ancient people called the Rus. The Rus first showed up in history in what is present day Ukraine. Kyiv is a place of great significance because it is the ancient capital of the Rus and the territory is viewed by Russians and Ukrainians as their ancestral homeland. Russians and true Ukrainians have such an intertwined history that, I believe, not all Russians distinguish Ukrainians and Russians as separate people. Rather, Russians see Ukrainians as brothers who have gone astray, confused about their heritage. (Ukraine and Russia do not even require passports of each other’s citizens for border crossing). The Russians also keep their Black Sea navy fleet in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, leaving the Crimea peninsula a highly strategic Russian military location. Putin is also trying to start a Euro/Asian union made up of former Soviet republics to compete economically with the European Union. Belarus and Kazakhstan have signed on. Other than Russia itself, Ukraine is the biggest and most important potential member of this planned Euro/Asian union. Ukraine moving into a NATO/European Union sphere of influence would further shatter the traditional Cold War boundary that existed between the Soviet Union and NATO. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was allied with Warsaw Pact countries (Communist Eastern European countries controlled by the Soviet Union such as Poland, Hungary, etc.) against NATO. Following the fall of communism and the democratization of Eastern Europe, former communist countries of Eastern Europe have joined NATO, Russia’s chief rival. Russia has been threatened by the shift as NATO encroaches upon the borders of present day Russia. Ukraine joining NATO could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Not only a buffer zone is eliminated, but an integral part of the heart of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, hypothetically becomes part of NATO. For all these historical, ancestral, military, current political and economic reasons, I am convinced that the Russians are going to do everything within their power to keep from losing Ukraine and seeing their sphere of influence shrink.
Hope and Fear for the Future
This whole revolution and protests (at least before the Putin invasion) has never been about Russians vs. Ukrainians, or East vs. West, or Russian financial support vs. EU trade agreements. The protests and revolution have been about the lack of true democracy and the corruption that is so pervasive across the country. It is a sophisticated corruption that robs the entire country of hope and opportunity. Corruption is a vicious cycle that goes round and round and is nearly impossible to bleed out. Corruption breeds more corruption and the love of money taints the heart of many.
The situation in Crimea has brought fears anew. Crimea is being occupied by a reported 20,000 Russian troops. On March 16 the people of Crimea will vote on whether or not they will separate from Ukraine and eventually join Russia. Crimea has a long history with Russia and is culturally quite Russian. Crimea has a population of roughly 60% Russian, 25% Ukrainian, and 12% Tatar. The Ukrainians and Tatars will no doubt vote against joining Russia, and I suspect that a few Russians will also have interests that will keep them from voting for unification with Russia. I think it will be a close vote, but history has shown that like everything else, voting in Ukraine is often corrupt and fraudulent. I suspect that the official vote will be to leave Ukraine with the intent to join Russia.
What began as a genuine attempt by protestors to end corruption and turn Ukraine into a true democracy has now turned into a global showcase for power. These are historical times for Ukraine and I believe this will go down as one of the biggest happening of modern Eastern European history. So many questions remain. Will Crimea be annexed by Russia? Will Russian aggression stop with Crimea or will its hunger for more swallow up Eastern Ukraine? Is Putin deranged, is he in control, is he the neighborhood bully showing his true colors and convictions or is he backed into a corner and acting out against perceived NATO and European Union aggression and encroachment onto Russian turf? Does the West have genuine concern or is it just greedy for more markets and to see Russian influence wane? Will the new Ukrainian government unite in fairness and strength or are they a bunch of nationalists as some suggest?
Hopefully Ukrainian people in their desire for change do not get more than they bargain for. How often has peace, democracy, prosperity, and wealth only led a nation to secularization abounding in materialism leading people to faith in their own ability and comforts while eliminating God from their lives. Affluence without dependence on God and faith being a cornerstone in one’s life can be a dangerous road. This is one of my biggest fears in dealing with youth in Ukraine. It is tempting for so many to put faith and hope into material prosperity, temptations of the flesh, and a higher standard of living while distancing themselves from the grace we receive from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We have a faithful God who is sovereign over all things. God is in control and His grace is enough to forbear in these times. It is our hope and prayer that Christ and the fellowship of believers can fill the void in Ukraine. Neither Russia, nor the EU, nor the U.S., can offer the peace that a nation can find by falling on its knees before God. It is our hope and prayer that Ukraine can see its need for salvation through Christ alone, and that the people of Ukraine will see that government systems and institutions of man will only crumble and fall. Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”