What exactly is Ukraine?
In the past week, in nationally televised hearings, witness after witness in the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment hearings, those called by both Democrats and Republicans testified that Ukraine is critical to U.S. Foreign policy, both because the fledgling democracy has much to offer, and because it is a buffer against Russia and its world agenda.
Without exception, William Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Jennifer Williams, Kurt Volker, Tim Morrison, and Gordon Sondland have declared Ukraine’s success of pivotal importance to American interests, and some, notably Sondland and Volker, said they have striven to convince the White House of that.
Ukrainians have to love being called so important. Until the past generation or so, no one was certain who they were.
For most of the past millennium, Ukraine has been a place and a people in search of a country. And now that it has its own sovereign independence, it is arguably the biggest battleground, both literal and political, between western and Russian ambitions and values.
Not ironically, the country’s name derives from the old Rus language word for borderland. For many centuries the region was known simply as The Borderland.
It didn’t start that way.
The empire of Kyiv first rose more than 1,000 years ago, and the city of Kyiv emerged as one of the great imperial capital cities of the Middle Ages. But starting in the 12th century, the Kyiv empire fell to waves of invasions, conquests, and domination by foreign powers from both the east and the west, in bloody sweeps back and forth across the borderland throughout the centuries.
“Until very recently Ukraine’s neighbors did not see it as a separate country, or Ukrainians as a separate people, at all. To Russians it was part of Russia; to Poles, part of Poland,” Anna Reid wrote in her 1997 history book of Ukraine, “Borderland.”
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries that power was mostly Russia and the Soviet Union, with a couple of brief, unsuccessful moments of Ukraine independence. Ukraine bristled from the start under Bolshevik rule, and the Soviets responded viciously. That included the Holodomor genocide, the great famine engineered by Josef Stalin in the 1930s to punish Ukraine for disloyalty. As many as 6 million Ukrainians starved to death. Ukraine also suffered widespread massacres in World War II, first by invading Nazis, and then by Soviet armies, again punishing Ukrainians for disloyalty. Ukrainians have not forgotten or forgiven.
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, independent Ukraine finally emerged in 1991.
Ukraine of today remains a borderland between Europe and Russia in many ways.
Ukraine’s 603,000 square miles makes it larger than either Alaska or France.
Its people have history, culture, religion, and language borrowing from both its European and its Russian and Asian overlords. The cultural mix has made ethnic Ukrainians not Polish, Austrian, or Scandinavian, because of the Russian and Asian influences; and not Russian or Asian, because of the Polish, Austrian, and Scandinavian influences.
Ukraine now has 43 million people, roughly the same population as Spain, Argentina, or Canada. There are sharp divides and uneasy social truces between the ethnic Ukrainian majority and a large minority, more than 7 million ethnic Russians whose families migrated there during the Soviet era, and who are most prominent in the eastern oblasts.
This borderland mix, and the fledgling country’s initial dependence on Russia, led Ukraine to remain somewhat neutral in the European-Russian divide, mostly leaning toward Russia for its first 13 years. As Ukraine began to achieve some stability, its majority ethnic Ukrainian population took power in 2014 and pushed for European and Western economic and political alliances, over Russian. That brought Russian military, political, and economic retributions.
Ukraine is a country rich in natural resources, with agricultural lands so fertile it always was the bread basket of whatever power controlled it. But its newly-independent economy was built without much experience in capitalism, and, at least initially, with widespread corruption. Ukraine has important warm-water sea ports on the Black Sea, though it lost major ones when Russia invaded and seized the Crimea peninsula in 2014. Much of Ukraine’s industrial strength, outside of Kyiv, is in the eastern oblasts, the region where Russia President Vladimir Putin now is waging war, trying to wrest land, natural resources, and industrial assets away from Ukraine.
Ukraine has shameful anti-Semitism past, most notably as many Ukrainians sided with Nazis in World War II, in no small part, however, for mistaking them as liberators from brutal Russian oppression.
Now Ukrainians believe a new era has opened with the landslide election last spring of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president. Zelenskiy is unabashedly pro-western and an avowed strong reformer. He’s also Jewish, signaling a Ukrainian ethos break from some of the worst of its past.
“The election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president sets the stage to finally define the national idea of Ukraine. Since independence, it has not been clear to the world — or Ukrainians — what exactly Ukraine is and what defines Ukrainians,” Oleh Havrylyshyn a professor at Carleton University in Canada, wrote in an article published by The Atlantic Council in August, just before UkraineGate broke in the United States.
“In sum, the elections results suggest that Ukraine has a strongly democratic society and government espousing diversity in ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and regional dimensions. If this is not a multicultural democracy, what is?” Havrylyshyn challenged.
Scott Powers’ maternal grandparents both fled Ukraine as refugees in the 1920s and met and married in Detroit, where they lived happily ever after.