In 2014, Ukraine was a country that many Americans had not heard of- let alone could point to on a map. Buffeted through the wars and conflict of the 20th century, Ukraine had to fight for its independence while being treated as a voiceless territory by Russia and other European neighbors. Into the 21st century, Ukraine had a short-lived independence from the early 1990’s to 2014, until Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula and triggered an armed conflict over the territory that has continued into 2018. Ukraine’s internal divide between pro-Russian and nationalist regions allowed Russia to easily infiltrate the government and invade the peninsula under President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s persistent and unforgiving leader. Global powers have and continue to criticize Russia to no avail; ultimately, Ukraine has been left to fend for itself against a country with a centuries-long record of militaristic and political prowess. A 2014 article in the Christian Science Monitor, titled “Russia Advances into Ukraine, West Wonders What to Do Now,” discusses reactions to the Ukrainian crisis, yet the root of the conflict starts a century before, not 2014. In A.F. Branco’s cartoon, “Obamabear Penalty,” Russia’s aggressive actions are showcased in the form of a bear unflinching to the meager efforts of the U.S President, Barack Obama, as he clips the bear’s nails. Russia is shown tearing into Crimea, representing its self-serving purpose and apathetic regard for Ukraine’s struggles.
Ukraine had been a land made up of many ethnicities, influenced greatly by Poland and Russia before the 20th century. It’s own sense of nationalism emerged in the mid 19th century. Ukraine began to establish political parties and a stronger government, but ethnic and cultural conflicts persisted in some of its regions (Yekelchyk). Through WWI, Russia had become so involved in Ukraine that in 1917 Ukraine was absorbed into Russia as a province- Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea was of key interest to Russia (Yekelchyk). This was during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, and as politics shifted, Ukraine tried to distance itself from Russia. Soon, both countries were claiming opposite ideas about Ukrainian independence. After a short conflict, Russia ceded Ukraine a year later, and Ukraine claimed the Crimean Peninsula as its own. Crimea had previously belonged to Russia since the 18th century (Kuzio). However, the country endured political unrest until Ukraine, along with Crimea, fell back into Russia’s hands in the 1920’s (Yekelchyk).
The Union of Soviet Social Republics(U.S.S.R.) was formed in 1922, with Ukraine as one of the four founding states, yet Russia ruled over the other members of the union with unequal power. Ukrainian resentment towards Russian mistreatment began to grow.
WWII threw Europe into extreme turmoil and Ukraine was occupied by Germany. Many of Ukraine’s Jews were exterminated. After the war Russia liberated the country, once again absorbing it and bringing back into the Soviet Union for the next five decades.
A movement for independence began to develop, and in 1991 the U.S.S.R. was disbanded because of Russian political unrest (Brown). Ukraine was now autonomous, yet not without difficulties. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Crimea began to develop a movement for pro- Russian secession, yet nothing came to fruition because of Ukrainian pressure and lack of Russian support (Kuzio). Crimea, along with other eastern regions, identified more with Russia because of an intimate history, geographic proximity and a shared language(Russian). Ukraine had a rocky independence through the 1990’s and 2000’s with many economic issues. Nevertheless, Russian relations remained friendly, especially since they were still allowed access to the Black Sea through the Crimean Peninsula (Kuzio).
In 2013, the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was facing criticism for deciding not to sign a European Union trade deal. Russia pressured Ukraine to not get too close to the EU and to keep Russia as its main ally. This sparked some protests in the capital city of Kiev, as citizens were angry that the President was throwing away a beneficial deal. The violence began in February 2014 when protesters were attacked and killed by government snipers and police(Thompson). President Yanukovych fled to Russia, and within days Russian troops entered Crimea effortlessly; east Ukraine was sympathetic to the cause as the troops slowly began to establish checkpoints (Simpson). The government in Kiev started a campaign against pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, with fruitless ceasefires being established only to be broken repeatedly.
Russian President Putin denied Russia’s involvement in Ukraine for many months, attempting to remain as unassuming as possible despite clear evidence of its military in Crimea. Russia was able to skirt behind the line so that its actions could not be considered a direct invasion. This left the United Nations unable to punish Russia harshly, resulting in only sanctions as a threat. Yet these sanctions did not hinder Russia, as portrayed in Branco’s cartoon.
96.7% of Crimeans voted to join Russia in a referendum, yet the ballot didn’t even have the option of remaining in Ukraine (Tamkin). Through 2015, over 1,000 people had been killed in Ukraine, and casualties continued to rise as the stalemate proceeded through the years, trapping Eastern Ukrainian citizens in a bleak war zone to this day(Tamkin).
The Christian Science Monitor article, “Russia Advances in Ukraine, West Wonders What to do Now”, explains the dilemma of the U.N. as it decided how to act when Russia first entered Crimea. The United States had denied providing armed assistance to the Ukrainians, fearing an escalation of conflict with Russia. Russia responded to criticism by blaming Ukraine for the conflict and warning Western countries not to interfere. Although President Obama had spoken of providing arms, training and equipment to Ukraine, no action was taken to realize such a plan.
This inaction on the U.N.’s part is reminiscent of the conflict over Manchuria in the early 1930’s, when Japan invaded the region and broke a global agreement of peace. A political cartoon by the Dallas Morning News’ John Knott in 1932 depicts Russia as watchful of Japan’s hold over Manchuria. At the time, the League of Nations only imposed sanctions in response to the invasion. Russia was a key player in that dispute since it had interests in Manchuria’s sea ports, much like the access to the Black Sea in Crimea. In both situations, Russia was able to avoid resistance from other powers because of its patient tactics. In Manchuria, Russia waited for Japan to be weak enough to (re)claim power in that territory. Similarly, Russia avoided military conflict by influencing rebellion within the Ukrainian population, secretly sending in troops without a grand expression of violence that would warrant heavy punishment from the United Nations.
Russia has always been an imperial, assertive force, whereas Ukraine never has been able to find peace. The back-and-forth relationship between Ukraine and Russia has stretched over the past century with peace never lasting long. Russia had always believed it had a right to Ukraine, and its divided population has made it unclear what would be best for regions such as Crimea. Perhaps the stalemate dragging on today might convince the two countries to finally come to an agreement.
Branco, A F. “Branco Cartoon – ObamaBear Penalty.” Le·Gal In·Sur·Rec·Tion, Le·Gal In·Sur·Rec·Tion, 24 Mar. 2014, legalinsurrection.com/2014/03/branco-cartoon-obamabear-penalty/.
BROWN, ARCHIE. “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 1608-1610. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3404101426/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=aec45a99. Accessed 1 May 2018
KUZIO, TARAS. “Crimea.” Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 339-340. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3404100316/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=0a98946e. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
LaFranchi, Howard. “Russia Advances into Ukraine, West Wonders What to Do Now.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 28 Aug. 2014, m.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2014/0828/Russia-advances-into-Ukraine-West-wonders-what-to-do-now.
Simpson, John. “Russia’s Crimea Plan Detailed, Secret and Successful.” BBC News, BBC, 19 Mar. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26644082.
Tamkin, Emily. “A Timeline of Vladimir Putin’s Excuses and Evasions Regarding Russia’s Actions in Ukraine.” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group, 5 Sept. 2014, www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2014/09/05/the_art_of_doublespeak_a_timeline_of_vladimir_putin_s_excuses_and_evasions.html
Thompson, Nick. “Ukraine: Everything You Need to Know about How We Got Here.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 Feb. 2017, www.cnn.com/2015/02/10/europe/ukraine-war-how-we-got-here/index.html.
YEKELCHYK, SERHY. “Ukraine and Ukrainians.” Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 1600-1605. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/apps/doc/CX3404101422/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=77b16099. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.