This article was written by Han Slater
The Ukraine Crisis
We think of WW I and WW II most of the time when we think of war. An era that feels so remote and removed from our own time when in reality, the first world war ended 104 years ago, and the second one ended 77 years ago. Events happened long ago, but we still have people who lived through them. Time has proven to be the most effective form of distancing and making recent generations unable to truly understand the human cost of war. Waking up on February 24th, 2022, showed us that war is not a thing of the past and is a real thing that can happen at any moment. Russia officially invaded Ukraine on that day once more. This, of course, is not the first time that Russia has violated Ukraine’s borders and terrorized its citizens. Unfortunately, the invasion of Ukraine has been an ongoing battle for eight years now.
Furthermore, misinformation is at an all-time high, which harms the people of Ukraine and people who want to help. Doing the diligence to stay informed and fact check is essential when it comes to wars because of the humanitarian crisis that comes with them. The United Nations have speculated that 13,000 people have been killed, and 1.4 million people have been displaced since 2014 (Devi, 2021). This is a massive humanitarian crisis with no end seemingly in sight. Is there a reason for this? Why is Russia invading Ukraine after all this time? Perhaps if we investigate the historical reasons, there may be some insight into the tumultuous relationship between Russia and Ukraine. So that said, I want to clarify that we do not condone Russia’s actions and that we, The Meliorist, and myself, stand with the people of Ukraine and Ukraine itself. As a content warning moving forward, this article will explore death, oppression, genocide, rape, and war.
The Soviet Union
What was the Soviet Union? As time passes, it is becoming more and more apparent that a lot of people are unsure of what the Soviet Union was. Russia emerged from a Civil War in 1921 with a new communist regime that had toppled its previous government system, which was known as the Romanov monarchy. The Russian Revolution gave rise to this revolt against its monarchy, and the Bolshevik government backed the Red Army against the White Army. The White Army was a loose group of people that still supported monarch rule and socialist ideas. The Red Terror followed, and the establishment of secret police known as the Cheka hunted down and massacred thousands of supporters of the Czarist regime and upper-class society. Vladimir Lenin rose to power and caused mass famine throughout Russia to feed his Red Army, causing the death of 5 million Russians in 1921, followed by mass poverty across the land. In 1922, Lenin crafted a treaty to establish the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR). The union comprised 15 republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. After this, Lenin would suffer a series of five strokes and pave the way for Joseph Stalin to rise to power. However, Lenin opposed Stalin’s ideas and deemed him a threat to his own rule and the USSR as a whole. Lenin died in 1924, but Stalin had already risen to power, and The Great Purge threatened the people of the USSR.
Joseph Stalin: The Great Purge and The Holodomor
Joseph Stalin rose to power upon the death of Lenin but still had to fight to assume absolute control and proclaimed himself dictator in 1929. The Great Purge (1934-1938) was a series of executions of Bolsheviks that supported Lenin or held any contempt towards Stalin. Arguably the beginning of The Great Purge was the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934; he was a prominent Bolshevik leader. After Kirov’s death, many more anti-Stalin communists were killed or imprisoned, as Stalin claimed he had uncovered a conspiracy against him. Millions of people died under Stalin’s reign, and Russia became a military, industrial superpower because of his merciless rule. However, Russia and other Soviet republics were subjected to the inhumane treatment of Stalin. A decade before Hitler’s Final Solution policy mandated the liquidation of European Jewish people (i.e. the Holocaust), Joseph Stalin unleashed an assault on Soviet Ukraine that in 1932–33 culminated in the ‘Holodomor’ – a Ukrainian expression denoting death by forced starvation (Pyrcz, 2017). Virtually until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Holodomor – unlike the Holocaust in the West – was considered a taboo topic (Pyrcz, 2017). The ironclad political culture of denial surrounding the Holodomor mirrored USSR foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s perpetual denial of a secret protocol attached to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (Pyrcz, 2017). Only in 1987, in Ukraine itself, during the Gorbachev era of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), did the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, dare to offer official recognition of the 1932–33 Great Famine (Pyrcz, 2017). The actual number of how many people who died during the Holodomor is unknown, but it is speculated that it is anywhere between 3 million to 5 million (Pyrcz, 2017). Stalin died in 1953, but the horrid living conditions persisted into the 1960s, and some of the Gulag camps were still used as prisons.
Nikita Khrushchev: The Cold War
After World War II, the alliance between Great Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union began to collapse. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came together because of the Western fear of the spread of communism. Soviet Russia had control of Eastern Europe and Eastern Germany after the war, and the potential spread of communism was apparent. In response, the Soviet Union crafted the Warsaw Pact (1955) with its Eastern European affiliates. Once more, Europe was divided, and this time America and the Soviet Union were clashing. 1953 saw the change of power once more in Soviet Russia, with Nikita Khrushchev rising to power and officially becoming the premier in 1958. The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) was during Khrushchev’s reign; Khrushchev ordered the establishment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, and the US felt threatened by the establishment of the missiles so close to Florida. Thankfully, neither party engaged in a hot war, but after this, Khrushchev saw his downfall. It was becoming apparent that deteriorating relations between the Soviet Union and neighbouring China because of the major food shortages across the USSR eroded Khrushchev’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Communist party leadership. Members of his own political party removed Khrushchev from office in 1964.
Mikhail Gorbachev: The Fall of The Soviet Union
This essentially has been a crash course on Russian history and its leaders of the past. Why am I doing this? It is important to understand Russian history and politics because of the drastic militarization, constantly changing political figureheads, and how there is so much civil unrest throughout the Soviet Union and its 15 republics. They explain the reasoning behind the republics wanting to leave the union and become their independent states because of the horridly mismanaged mess that was the Soviet Union—now, going back to the discussion of Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union. Before the USSR fell, there was already discontent among the 15 republics that only got worse during the 1960s and 1970s. The elite of the Communist Party rapidly gained wealth and power while millions of Soviet citizens faced starvation. Gorbachev’s government pushed to industrialize at any cost, resulting in frequent shortages of food and consumer goods. What was known as bread lines were common throughout the 1970s and 1980s, meaning that many people were often lining up to receive free food. Soviet citizens often did not have access to basic needs, such as clothing or shoes. A failed coup d’etat in August 1991 against Gorbachev revealed how much the Soviet Union had enough of his slow and ineffective change. The same year, Ukraine and Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union, and the rest of the republics followed suit. Now, I know this has been a lot of information regarding the Soviet Union and Russian politics. Still, it is imperative that we understand the state of the Soviet Union and its political turmoil to understand the current problems that plague Ukraine.
Ukraine: Moving Forward With Independence
Ukraine adopted state sovereignty in 1990 and officially became independent on August 24th, 1991. The process of becoming independent and suddenly governing your own country is usually filled with hardship and unprecedented issues. However, Ukraine garnered acknowledgment immediately for being an independent state from Canada, Poland, and America. An arduous journey to becoming a sovereign state, but Ukraine managed for a time until 2004 when the Orange Revolution demonstrated that Ukrainian leaders, specifically Viktor Yanukovych, still wanted to hold strong ties to Russia rather than reach out to the West and the EU (Maksymiuk, 2005). The election of Yanukovych was accused of being rigged by scare tactics, miscounting of ballots, and as a result, many people took to the streets to protest the election results (Maksymiuk, 2005). Yushchenko became president after Yanukovych stepped down. Yushchenko appealed to the constituents of Ukraine and presented his ideas in a non-soviet orientated way, and supported reaching out to Western countries and the EU. The dramatic events of civic action in Ukraine from December 2013 to February 2014, referred to as the Revolution of Dignity or Euromaidan, were caused by the refusal by Yushchenko and the government of Ukraine to sign Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement (Reznik, 2016).
The Revolution of Dignity is the first post-Soviet revolutionary protest not directly connected to election processes (Reznik, 2016). On February 27 and 28, pro-Russian gunmen seized key buildings in Crimea and took control of the Crimean Peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority (UN, 2015). On March 16, in a disputed referendum that Ukraine and the West deemed illegal, a section of the Crimean population chose to secede from Ukraine (UN, 2015). On March 18, Russian and Crimean leaders signed a deal in Moscow to join the region in Russia (UN, 2015). Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many people from the Ukrainian community and the Crimean Tatar minority community, fearing repression, fled the region. Those who stayed behind have faced persecution. Other vulnerable groups have also suffered; for instance, methadone treatment for former drug users is not allowed under Russian law and was stopped after the annexation—an estimated 100 people have died in Crimea as a result (UN, 2015). In April 2014, pro-Russian separatist activity spread to other eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbas region (UN, 2015). This escalated into an armed conflict between the Ukrainian government and the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, whose demands range from self-rule to union with Russia (UN, 2015). President Putin went on television to deny Moscow’s military involvement in the war, claiming ‘Ikh tam nyet [They aren’t there]’ (Mykhnenko, 2022). A sarcastic social media meme (#ихтамнет) was generated, usually tagged with gruesome footage of blown-up Russian tanks and service members killed in action in Ukraine (Mykhnenko, 2022). President Putin maintained that the Ukrainian army was fighting a civil war against ‘former coal-miners from the Donbas and not the Russian army. However, the claim that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014 was triggered by domestic and economically-determined factors was not believed, as evidenced by the social media posts of the Russian military (Mykhnenko, 2022). The apparent disrespect shown by President Putin and the Russian army is evident in the conflict from 2014 to 2018. Many still argue that the conflict never truly ended, and many argue that it only lasted four years. However, we are right back to the original conflict of Russia being discontent with Ukraine and their decisions despite them being an independent nation.
The Invasion of Ukraine
Perhaps now, dear readers, it is becoming increasingly clear why Ukraine is fed up with their looming neighbor that is Russia. This is putting it mildly, but the facts remain that Ukraine does not want to deal with Russia any longer. February 24th, 2022 was the day that the Western countries woke up to discover that Russia had invaded Ukraine officially. A strange and removed concept for the North American countries, but something that Europe, Eurasia, Africa, and East Asia are familiar with. This is not to indicate that these continents are always fighting with each other, but rather, inter-continental fighting is not unheard of in these places. Not to mention, North America is geographically removed from most of this fighting in the East. It is arguable that due to this very removed nature, there is an air of separation and emotional distancing from the true impact and devastation that war has on people. In the latest news and discussion of Ukraine in the media, Biden announced that he has offered $800 million in military aid to Kyiv amidst this crisis (Bellware, Timothy Bella, Ellen Francis, &, etc, 2022). A Russian military commander said on Friday that Moscow aims to seize full control over eastern and southern Ukraine, providing a path to the annexed Crimean Peninsula and to a breakaway enclave of Moldova — the most serious threat issued to that country. However, according to the Washington Post and their live updates, they are unclear whether the Russian commander in question was describing official policy, meaning if this was a concrete plan or not (Bellware, Timothy Bella, Ellen Francis, &, etc, 2022). Moldova responded to these bolstering plans and immediately summoned the Russian ambassador in the capital, Chisinau, to express its concerns about forces potentially advancing toward the separatist region of Transnistria, a region that has caused a lot of issues.