Upon declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine was home to a number of ethnic minorities. The most prominent of which were Russians. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea was the only part of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority. However, there were a significant number of Russians in Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kharkiv, and other regions mainly in eastern Ukraine. Part of the fighting in Ukraine can be attributed to a political divide between a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking population in the west and north and a predominantly Russian-speaking population in the east and south. While maintaining that it is difficult to make sweeping assertions about the political divide, it could perhaps be asserted that western Ukraine is predominantly pro-European while eastern Ukraine maintains closer ties with Russia. This can particularly be seen through the educational system which propagates very different historical narratives depending on the region analyzed.
In the 1930s, particularly during WWII there was a rise of nationalism in Ukraine which led to the formation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In western-Ukraine, these groups are often associated with independence and freedom from the Soviet Union and Russian Federation while other narratives, particularly in eastern-Ukraine, associate them not only with anti-Soviet rhetoric but pro-Nazi and anti-semitic propaganda. For example, in 2010, The Wiesenthal Center condemned Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for awarding Stephan Bandera the “Hero of Ukraine” award. Stating that Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist leader whose followers killed thousands of people of Jewish and other descent during WWII. Other narratives have justified these killings by characterizing them as self-defense against historical Polish oppression of Ukrainian peasants.
A dual narrative has defined the past decade of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Some observers highlight a rise in neo-Nazi nationalism in Kiev, while others warn that such statements are often used for Putin propaganda. In 2018, a joint was sent to Ukrainian authorities from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, and Freedom House urging the prosecution of radical hate groups which have committed violent attacks against Roma people, LGBTI groups, feminists, and rights activists in the region. Adding that the current government has done very little to investigate or address these attacks. Western media, nervous about adding fuel to the Russian propaganda machine, sometimes fails to address the far-right presence in the Ukrainian conflict. In 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko granted a Ukrainian passport to Sergei Korotkykh. A Belarusian militant in the Azov Battalion, he is often regarded as a neo-Nazi by human rights activist groups. Poroshenko also thanked Korotkykh for his service fighting the Russian-separatist groups in Mariupol. The Azov Battalion that Korotkykh is a member of is one of the far-right militia groups Kiev has utilized in the fight against pro-Russian separatist. The leader of the Azov, Andriy Biletsky, once wrote that Ukraine’s mission was to “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade…against the Semite-led Untermenschen.” This group, which has been accused by both Human Rights Watch and the UN of human rights abuses, was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in the fall of 2014.
While it’s important to provide a voice to the side of the conflict often forgotten by western media, the UN and Human Rights Watch reports maintain that Russia-backed separatists have committed serious human rights violations. Additionally, while there are still serious concerns about right-wing extremism in Ukraine, there have been actions taken to mitigate this threat. What is known though is that the Ukrainian crisis has become a devastatingly brutal conflict caused by a prominent political divide. As in all conflicts, the most severely impacted remain the citizens on the ground torn between two histories, two regions, and two ideologies/agendas.
Russia has long considered post-Soviet states still under its sphere of influence. It has made several attempts to expand its power over these republics, first by creating an association similar to the USSR called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and then by actively annexing neighboring territories with strong Russian ties. During the Georgia War in 2008, Russia managed to achieve occupation of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia which now maintain statuses as de facto Russian puppet states. The same is now occurring in several Ukrainian territories including Crimea, Donbas, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine.
The conflict began as low-scale fighting between the Ukrainian government and separatists in eastern-Ukraine. Separatists initially fought for independence from Ukraine, while the Ukrainian government fought to maintain unity within the region. However, the conflict would inevitably extend to a greater territorial dispute between the Russian Federation and Ukrainian government. If the regions currently controlled by separatist forces were to gain independence they would most likely align with the Russian Federation. At the time, Ukraine feared this would provide Russia with the power and resources to seize all of Ukraine.
On February 24th, 2022, the Russian Federation launched a full scale invasion into Ukraine on the premise of “denazification.” Although many observers predicted that the Ukrainian government would fall quickly, it has continued to hold out and has regained territory lost to Russian forces. This is in part due to unprecedented levels of Western aid, which has allowed Ukraine to maintain a strong fighting force. The war has come to represent a fight between democracy and authoritarianism, part of a broader global paradigm. As the conflict persists, Putin has done little to back down from his stagnating invasion. If anything, the war has escalated under his watch, with both conscription and attacks on civilian targets increasing significantly. While imperfect, Ukraine has demonstrated a commitment to protecting civilians and pursuing a peaceful end to the conflict, without sacrificing its sovereignty.
Established in 1991 after declaring independence from the Soviet Union. Since gaining independence, the government has shifted between pro-Russian leaders advocating for closer ties with Russia and pro-European leaders advocating for European integration into the EU. There has also been prominent economic corruption within the government which remains under the control of Ukrainian oligarchs created after the controversial privatization of Ukrainian industries. The government presently aims to achieve economic stability through European integration; enhance Ukrainian legitimacy in the eyes of the international community; and wants to maintain power over its borders and unity within Ukraine.
DNR and LNR
The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk Republic are republics in the region of Donbass that were created shortly after Crimea’s secession in referendums deemed illegitimate by the international community. They are currently only recognized as legitimate republics by Russia and the Republic of South Ossetia. The groups aims to gain autonomy form Ukrainian government and be allowed to elect their own leaders.
Russia has actively supported the separatists forces in Ukraine claiming to protect the oppression of Russian minorities in the region. Sanctions have been imposed on Russia by both the US and EU in hopes of convincing Putin to stop supporting these troops in eastern-Ukraine.
The European Union and the possibility of Ukrainian European integration essentially sparked the conflict. In 2013, the Ukrainian president’s rejection of a trade deal with the EU led to protests in western-Ukraine that would culminate in a coup that would then encourage pro-Russian separatists in eastern-Ukraine to claim independence.