Recently, Ukraine celebrated its 30th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, the modern incarnation of the centuries-old Russian Empire. Some still may argue that Ukraine got its independence accidentally due to a ‘perfect storm’ created by several unfortunate events or Nassim Taleb’s famous ‘black swans,’ which contributed to the Soviet Empire’s collapse. At first glance, such an explanation seems plausible, but the reality is more complex. The origins of today’s Ukraine could be found in Rus, the first polity which existed on its territory in early medieval times. However, from the 13th century throughout the 20th century, the people of Ukraine did not have their own state and were divided amongst various polities. For centuries, Ukrainians lived in different empires and states and experienced various political, religious and cultural influences. The major cultural difference that Ukraine experiences even today is between Ukrainians from the west and centre and those from the east and south of the country. For over three centuries, the eastern and southern Ukraine was dominated by despotic tsarist Russia. For most of this period, the Ukrainian language and identity were either oppressed or denied or ridiculed.
Meanwhile, the western parts of the country developed within various more liberal European polities, such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Habsburg Empire, amongst others with their institutions of private ownership, Magdeburg rights, the autonomy of churches, and so forth. In particular, a powerful influence on the formation of the national identity and political culture of Ukrainians was the legendary Cossack semi-state Zaporizhian Sich (Zaporozhian Host), which existed from the mid-sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. For a few centuries, Ukrainian Cossack self-rule was based on the strong tradition of democratic governance, with elected officials accountable to the assembly of the Cossacks. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, the short period of the existence of an independent democratic Ukrainian state (Ukrainian People’s Republic) between 1918 – 1921 was a significant episode in recent history, which further influenced the formation of national identity and political culture of Ukraine’s people. The fight for freedom and national independence during this period and then subsequently the struggle led by Ukraine’s Insurgency Army (UPA) during and after WWII made a substantial contribution towards constructing the narratives of Ukraine’s national mythology. The self-representation to emerge from this period views Ukrainians as free-spirited, brave, and rebellious people who for centuries suffered from external oppression and were willing to fight for their freedom and independence. In the decades preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in many respects was the 20th century’s embodiment of the Russian empire, Ukrainian nationalists formed arguably the most numerous and active part within the Soviet dissident movement. For example, well-known Jewish Ukrainian human rights activist and dissident medical doctor Semen Gluzman, who spent seven years in the Soviet labour camps and three years in Siberian exile in the 1970s-80s, claims that Ukrainian dissidents of different ethnic backgrounds, including the nationalists, formed a disproportionately large part amongst the population of imprisoned Soviet dissidents. Thus, concludes the former dissident, anti-Soviet political, human rights, and civic activities in Soviet Ukraine were the most pronounced in the whole USSR.
However, that is just half of the story. Ukrainians also played an important role in building and developing empires in which they lived, similar to Scots in British Empire. This was especially evident in the Russian Empire, the very idea of which can be traced back to the Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and churchman of Ukrainian origin, Theofan Prokopovich. In the early 1700s, he laid the ideological foundations of the Russian Orthodox empire and became a close adviser and the mastermind of the reforms executed by the Moscovite Tsar Peter I. The natives of Ukraine played an important role and hugely contributed to the building and development of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Moreover, they were disproportionately highly represented in Russian science, higher education and military command. However, this came with the cost of a successful career only being possible if they renounced their ethnic identity and became Russian. So there is no wonder that in his recent article, as many times before, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people and independent Ukraine is historical nonsense artificially created by the West to divide and weaken historical Russia. And it does not matter whether he genuinely believes in these statements or if it is just a propaganda stunt. One thing is crystal clear: as long as Putin is in power, he will never leave Ukraine alone. He will use all available means to subjugate or even fully annex Ukraine. Still, whether the Kremlin sticks to its present hybrid warfare strategy or instead opts for a full-scale military offensive depends on the favourability of conditions for open aggression. Vladimir Putin, a skilled and pragmatic politician, unlikely will gamble with luck, and will only act if confident about the positive outcome. If he believes that Ukraine will not resist or the West will not come to assist Ukraine in the event of a full-scale war, then one can be sure Putin will go ahead with the military offensive. Thus, Ukraine’s leadership and the people must be ready to fight for its statehood, and the West must make it clear to Kremlin that Ukraine will get full support in the supply of weapons, intelligence data etc., and Russia will suffer from international isolation, oil and gas embargo, and so on. Without such assurance firmly given to Russia, the West should get ready to suffer from millions of war refugees from Ukraine, ecological disasters, and eventually collapse of all the European and international security system as we know it. It has been thirteen years since Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, over seven years since the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its proxy intervention in Donbass in 2014. It has been more than enough time for the collective West to learn that the Kremlin is ready to openly use military force every time it is confident of its impunity.
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