Understanding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine

Six months after Russian military troops invaded Ukraine, Dylan Moucka examines the history behind the two nations.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. After six months of fighting, the war has led to the emigration of over 10 million Ukrainians, along with tens of thousands of deaths for those who chose to stay, according to recent estimates. Numerous cities have been destroyed, leaving ruins in the wake of a once vibrant country. At this point, there appears to be little prospect of the war ending anytime soon. In order to understand how this war broke out, and how it has evolved over the past half year, we ought to return to history.

The majority of Americans have minimal, if any, knowledge of Ukraine or its history. This is a problem. If this war is to be understood, then it has to be placed within its recent historical context. This serves a few key purposes: first of all, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has claimed multiple times that Russia and Ukraine are actually one people, thus allowing him to “unite” them by whatever means he deems necessary. In this instance, unification is just another word for colonialism. To be clear, there is no historical unity between Russia and Ukraine. This would be akin to saying there is historical unity between the United States and England. Unification may have existed at one point in the past, but a lot has happened since then. The idea that Russia and Ukraine were once united, and thus retain said unity, is in reality a misunderstanding of history that has been appropriated for Putin’s own desires. Putin understands that when Ukraine was previously unified with Russia, it came as a result of the Ukrainian-Soviet War, which quelled Ukrainian independence movements by forcefully adopting Ukraine into the emerging Soviet Union. The colonization of Ukraine lasted for 70 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Therefore, if unity is to be achieved once again, according to Putin, then Russia must colonize Ukraine under the guise they are one people.

The second case for understanding Ukraine and Russia’s history is that it allows the current war to be understood outside of a few major political figures. The courage of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the colonial mindset of Vladimir Putin are not to be undermined, but if we only understand this war as a collection of these men’s actions, then we lose track of the experiences of everyday Ukrainians and Russians. President Putin undeniably wants this war, and President Zelensky has been crucial in maintaining the morale of all Ukrainians, but the actions of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are not solely indicative of their leaders. The people fighting this war each bear their own responsibilities. If the Ukrainian people did not choose to defend their country, Russia would have quickly won this war. Instead, Ukraine has surprised the world by standing up to one of its biggest militaries and winning the fight against them.

The Russian military presents an important reason for seeing this war beyond just Putin: Russian soldiers have committed numerous war crimes throughout this conflict. The massacre of Ukrainian civilians at Bucha, for instance, included the execution of prisoners whose hands were tied behind their backs. This, sadly, is only one of many examples. The Russian military have repeatedly subjected Ukrainians to torture and barbaric killings. These acts cannot be simply regarded as a result of Putin’s will. It is evident that plenty of Russian soldiers are more than willing to commit heinous acts of their own volition. The history of the 20th century sheds light on how we might be able to understand this. In her famous account of the Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt suggested the Holocaust occurred not because people were evil but because they were banal. To put it another way, the senseless killings perpetrated by the Nazis were a result of men who refused to think for themselves, question their actions and stand up against injustice. The banality of evil, as Arendt coined, has not gone away, and still, the world has not learned from the 20th century.

History is not eternal, nor an uncharted wasteland where the roots of the past have not spread into the present. There are no rules of history that solidify ties between sovereign nations: every nation is constantly evolving and is the product of the will of its people. The Ukrainian people have made it clear that unification with Russia is not something they desire. The last thirty years have proven that: Ukrainian independence in 1991 helped to bring the Soviet Union to an end; the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the 2014 Maidan Revolution further cemented Ukraine’s yearning for freedom from foreign interference and corruption; and finally, their courage to defend their country from an invading Russian military has so far proved successful, albeit in a pyrrhic manner.

Post Author: Dylan Moucka