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The conflict in the Ukraine A historical perspective By Franciszek Grabowski

The conflict in the Ukraine A historical perspective By Franciszek Grabowski

The conflict in the Ukraine

A historical perspective

  • By Franciszek Grabowski

Special analysis prepared for the NSF

To understand the complex, on-going violence in Ukraine, a look back into its history is as always a most useful place to start.   And the starting point in this case is the early-XVIIth century, when the region was a commonwealth consisting of the Kingdom of Poland, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Duchy of Masovia and other lesser-states. At its peak the Commonwealth was the leading power in Europe, including within its borders most of modern-day Ukraine.

The Commonwealth began unraveling in the mid-1600s in a two decades-long war with Sweden; ultimately ‘won’ by Poland in a pyrrhic victory that cost the Commonwealth nearly one-third of its population as well as its stature as a great power. Thus began the partitioning of the Commonwealth between Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  Most of the eastern territories were incorporated into Russia, while modern-day western Ukraine became known as Eastern Galicia by its new Austrian rulers.

Not surprisingly the former-Commonwealth’s elite class chafed under foreign domination, attempting various ploys to restore their homeland (and of course their high role in it).  No less surprising, Russia and Austria made their own countermoves to this covert rebellion, stirring ethnic and religious conflicts in a classic ‘divide and conquer’ campaign.

The upshot of all this was the birth of an aggressive Ukrainian nationalism in Eastern Galicia in mid-XIXth century.  Targeting primarily Poles, the nationalists aimed to incorporate and ‘Ukrainize’ the local population then known as ‘Ruthenians’.  To this day various Ukrainian groups and locales fiercely still identify themselves as Ruthenians, not Ukrainians.

The Ruthenian rebellion reached its peak in 1917 with its establishment of a Ukrainian state, supported by Prussia. This Prussian foreign policy, dubbed ’Mitteleuropa’, led to a much-reduced Poland, and the Ukraine in close to present borders, with Donbass and Kuban being autonomous regions. The important Crimean peninsula was to be under Turkey’s control.  Four short years later it was again partitioned, the western region back into Poland, while the eastern regions were seized by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Thus deprived yet again of their own state during the inter-war period (1921-1939), Ukrainians reverted yet again to guerrilla warfare and terrorism by creating the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This group operated mainly in the areas partitioned by Poland, severely destabilizing great swaths of the area.

Meanwhile the Soviet Union was hit by famine, a result of bad weather and the Soviet Politburo actions. Soviet-controlled eastern Ukraine suffered most badly, and it is arguable the Ukraine population has not yet fully-recovered from it. Only recently the OUN used the human tragedy as a rallying-cry for its cause, at the time they continued to attack Poles rather than the more obvious Soviet instigators of the disaster. This could be partially excused by the fact OUN did not exist on the Soviet side.

During the World War II German occupation of Poland, the OUN-B faction (often called ’Banderites’ after their leader Stepan Bandera), organized mass murders or ethnic cleansing of Poles in the Ukrainian populated areas partitioned earlier by Poland.  Crude and brutal, the ’Banderites’ exterminated some 100,000 Poles including elderly, women and children. In addition to the Poles, other ethnics were targeted e.g., Armenians, Czechs, and Jews as well as any Ruthenians who opposed the ’Banderites’.

The OUN appears to have been under strong Soviet influence, and in the early, post-war years the CIA considered OUN-B an organized crime syndicate; probably under the control of Soviet agents. Thus contacts with OUN-B were generally avoided until just prior to Bandera’s death. Other Ukrainian nationalistic organizations as well were treated by the CIA with reluctance.

Present-day Ukraine is a politically unstable and poor country, riddled by corruption and ruled by widely-despised oligarchs. The ’Banderites’ or their nationalistic successors still cause considerable fear in the population as well as neighboring countries. Despite their low popularity amongst most Ukrainians, these nationalistic groups remain very influential and seem to have wide contacts and financial support from abroad; especially from Ukrainian émigrés.

Predictably, such Ukrainian disaffection leaves the populace susceptible to Russian propaganda.  Likewise another Ukrainian move that favors Russian claims of ethnic minority abuse was taken on 23 February 2014, when the current government withdrew the law allowing minorities to use their own language in their official correspondence.

Russian Panslavic propaganda is in fact quite active, further suggesting the Ruthenians are to be regarded as part of some ’Russian Slavic Nation’.  But the reality is that Ruthenians have much more in common with Poles, Czechs and Slovaks than the Russians, who are not Slavic at all.

Thus a major challenge is to counter such Russian propaganda, as well as the one of Ukrainian nationalists who paradoxically fight in support of Russian interests.  Simply telling the truth about the history of the land as well as the people would likely prove a significant benefit to uniting the country.

Beyond targeting Russian propaganda, the much harder target is unquestionably the corruption endemic in Ukraine.  Such a domestic program is far more important than any military support the West could provide to Kiev. Russia is militarily weak in the region thus is not a significant threat.  In fact, the recent Putin show of power is in reality simply trying to cover up the sad reality of diminished Soviet military influence. It is the Ukraine which is killing itself through its inability to establish law and order.


Franciszek Grabowski, Msc. Is an engineer, researcher, consultant, freelance journalist, living in Warsaw, Poland. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum.