Located in Eastern Europe with Russia as its neighbor to the east, Ukraine has struggled to keep its existence over the last seven hundred years. From the 1600s to the end of World War I (1918) Poland, Russia, and Austria-Hungary controlled all of Ukraine. After World War I, Ukraine emerged as an independent country. However, from 1918-1922 Ukrainians fought a civil war that killed over 1.5 million people. In 1922, Ukraine became one of the founding countries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R., also called, The Soviet Union).
The Soviet Union was ruled by Communists and its power was centered in Moscow, Russia. Under the policies of the Soviet Communist Party, Ukrainians had no freedom of speech, no real right to vote, no freedom of religion, and, millions of Ukrainians were murdered. In the early 1930s, The Soviet Union took away all privately owned farms from Ukrainians. People who resisted were either killed or starved to death. Over 10,000,000 Ukrainians were killed. Nearly all Ukrainian army officers, writers, and religious leaders and intellectuals were killed by the Soviets. Later, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin led what has been called the “Great Terror,” killing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians so they would be terrorized in following the Communist state.
During World War II (1939-1945), much of the fight against the Germans took place in Ukraine. Because of this, Ukraine suffered incredible losses. Between 5 million and 8 million Ukrainian civilians died in the war, and 1.4 million Ukrainian soldiers perished. Over 500,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed, both by the Nazis and by the Ukrainians.
Ukraine’s life as a modern, free country began in 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Its 15 republics immediately declared independence, and Ukraine became a free country. In the 1990s, Ukraine suffered hard economic times. Ukrainians were free from the Soviet Communists but did not enjoy political freedom. In 2004, Ukrainians protested a rigged Presidential election, and in the “Orange Revolution” overthrew Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who stole the election. However, Yanukovych was reelected in 2006, and in 2010 he became President.
The current problems in Ukraine began in 2013. Ukraine, led by President Yanukovych, had been working closely with the European Union, and most Ukrainians wanted to join this economic group. The European Union is a common market where countries work closely with each other. Citizens have political liberties, like the right to free speech and free press, whereas in Russia the government represses individuals. The leader of Ukraine, Yanukovych, started to work with the Russians and stated that Ukraine will have closer ties with its neighbor to the east, and not with the west. Most Ukrainians were furious at Yanukovych’s actions and words and began to protest. During the protests, soldiers fired on the crowd, and nearly 100 Ukrainians died.
Ukraine’s Parliament removed President Yanukovych from power, called for new elections, and Petro Poroshenko was elected President. Yanukovych was wanted for ordering the military to fire on the protesters. He escaped to the arms of Vladimir Putin. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is a country where there is no freedom of speech, there are not free elections, and the Russian police violently control journalists. Ukrainians did not want to come under Russian control.
During this unrest, ethnic Russians in southern and eastern Russia claimed they wanted to join Russia, and Russian President Putin ordered Russian soldiers into these areas. Initially, unmarked and unarmed Russian soldiers took over the Crimean Peninsula, an important Ukrainian naval base. After a few days, the Russian men were armed. A quick vote was held in the Crimea, and the Crimean Parliament claims that a majority of the people voted to be part of Russia. Within a week or so, in eastern Ukraine, ethnic Russians began fighting a civil war with the Ukrainian army and people. During this war, the Russian military has supplied the Russian-Ukrainians and has also sent in the Russian military in an invasion. In one instance, the ethnic Russians shot down a civilian Malaysian airplane, killing over 200 passengers.
The western countries which comprise NATO has met the Russian aggression with mild resistance. Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, and its open support of ethnic Russians, is the first time since World War II that a country has invaded and taken land in Europe. Ukraine has asked the United States of America and NATO for weapons, but they have refused to offer military aid. Some fear that the West’s passive response sends Russian Vladimir Putin the message that he can invade any country he feels he wants to.
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is comprised of the United States of America, Great Britain, France, Germany, and nearly all other Western European countries. If one country of NATO is attacked, all are supposed to come to its aid. Ukraine is not a part of NATO, but the western countries favor a free and independent Ukraine. In 2008, Ukraine signed a document agreeing to work toward NATO integration. In 2010, however, President Yanukovych dropped this plan. President Poroshenko and Ukrainian Parliament are now petitioning NATO for membership.
1. Who controlled Ukraine from 1922 to 1991?
2. Why did Ukrainians protest President Yanukovych in 2013?
3. How is Russia different from the United States today?
Question for Discussion
1. What do you think the United States and NATO should do, if anything?
2. Should the U.S. help Ukraine fight against Russia and its ethnic Russians?
3. Should the U.S. stay out of Ukraine’s problems?
4. Does Russian aggression in Ukraine signal danger for the rest of Europe?