So, Ukraine may soon be at war once again. Over 100,000 Russian troops are massing at the Ukrainian border, including in Belarus – just a few miles from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The Americans are piling weapons into the country and pulling out their diplomats, Nato is reinforcing its eastern borders, and Israel is preparing for another mass wave of immigration by Ukrainian Jews.
Linked to Russia by centuries of history, and an economic powerhouse of the Soviet Union thanks to its agriculture, coal and heavy industry, Ukraine has changed enormously since gaining independence in 1991. When I first visited, in January 1992, Kiev was a drab, grey Soviet city, its beauty masked by leaden skies and decades of stagnation. The streets were covered in snow – lovely in the early morning after an overnight flurry, but later slushy and treacherous with ice.
There were few opportunities to escape the cold – pleasant ones at least. My friend and I ducked into a restaurant for some respite; it served nothing but cucumbers and garlic, both pickled, and unidentifiable meat and gristle patties, or kotleti. Being vegetarian in the embers of the Soviet Union wasn’t easy. The waitress brought us a sorry-looking bunch of red carnations and indicated two men at the only other occupied table, who wanted to give them to us. We declined. They started shouting. It all got a bit nasty and we left as quickly as we could. That was not an unusual experience at the time.
Today Kiev is a thriving city with a young, highly educated population, tech savvy industries and a wealth of eateries serving cuisines from all over the world. It looks to the west, rather than the east, after the hard-won popular uprising of 2013-14 – the Revolution of Dignity – which deposed the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
That brutal three-month stand-off brought tens of thousands of protestors to Kiev’s central Independence Square, or Maidan, in sub-zero temperatures. It began as a demonstration against the president’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union to enable greater rapprochement, and ended in all-out war against a government rife with corruption and cronyism that used horrifying violence against peaceful protestors. More than 100 people died during the conflict. I am currently immersed in the events of that winter, which form the backdrop to part of my half-finished novel.
Russia took its revenge for Ukraine’s reorientation to the west with the annexation of Crimea and by fostering war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has killed around 14,000 people, some 3,000 of them civilians caught in the crossfire. Over a million residents of eastern Ukraine have been forced to leave their homes. The conflict led to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight in July 2014 by pro-Russian separatist fighters, killing all 298 people on board. The war has continued to rumble on inconclusively ever since, with sporadic outbreaks of violence.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has always denied Russian military involvement in Crimea and the Donbas. Ukrainians referred to the armed troops piling into Crimea in February-March 2014 as “little green men”. Putin insisted the little green men were local self-defence groups – who just happened to be wearing Russian army uniforms – and had nothing to do with him. In the warring Donbas, he put responsibility firmly at the feet of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and insisted any Russian nationals in the rebel-held region were there on a purely voluntary basis. Western countries have always accused Russia of providing troops, equipment and funding to the separatists and have sanctioned Moscow over its role in the conflict. Indeed, the presence of Russian troops was proven during a recent unrelated court case.
Fast-forward to today and Putin is making no denials about the troops massed on Ukraine’s borders. The increasing militarisation is bringing the possibility of war in Europe ever closer. But the Russian leader has always been unpredictable and his intentions are very difficult to second guess. Destabilising an increasingly western-oriented democracy on his doorstep – in a country he considers within Russia’s sphere of influence – has long been his intention. If Ukraine is allowed to thrive, his worst nightmare could come true – Nato and the European Union wielding influence right on his doorstep.
What form this war may take is anyone’s guess. Hybrid warfare is already well underway with a cyber-attack on Ukrainian government websites earlier this month and warnings of a “false flag” operation by Russian saboteurs in the country to create a pretext for an attack. There is talk of a Russian puppet-leader – former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev – waiting in the wings to replace President Volodymyr Zelensky. Another politician named in the alleged plot is Mykola Azarov, formerly Ukraine’s prime minister under Yanukovych. Ukraine and the West will have to wait and see what Putin decides to do next. We may not have to wait very long.
The West is once again engaging in reprisals against Russia and considering wider sanctions in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The moves come four years after the European Union and United States first imposed sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On 16 March 2014, Crimea held a referendum on its status, and two days later it became a constituent part of Russia. The referendum was declared to have achieved an overwhelming majority, with more than 80% in favour of annexation by Russia. But no Western observers were able to monitor the ballot and it attracted widespread criticism. Turnout figures in particular were thought to have been massively inflated, with the number of citizens actually voting for a Russian takeover possibly closer to the 30% mark. Both Kiev and the leaders of the Tatar community urged their citizens to boycott the vote.
The annexation of Crimea, while shocking from a legal and human-rights perspective, should not have surprised informed observers. It followed months of unrest in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that had spread across the country, tipping the situation from protest to civil war. The dismissal of a compromise deal on 21 February by the leaders of the revolt, the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a so-called ‘unity’ government in fact made up predominantly of anti-Russian and nationalist members, were factors in the increasing radicalism taking hold in Ukraine.
Across the country, statues of Lenin were toppled, provoking a counter-mobilisation in Russian-speaking areas such as Crimea and the Donbas in the east of the country. Sections of society opposed to the pro-Western and nationalist forces that had occupied Kiev’s central Maidan, or square, since November began to seize government buildings, copying the tactics of the protesters in Kiev. Armed militants gained quasi-official status, patrolling the streets and providing ‘security’.
Anti-Maidan sentiment was strongest in Crimea and it is remarkable that Russia’s takeover of the region passed so peacefully given the state of confrontation elsewhere in the country.
Crimea’s history as a part of Ukraine was a short one. It was transferred from Russia to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1954, at a time when major water courses were being developed from Ukraine to irrigate Crimea’s arid, desert landscape with water from the River Dnieper – bringing Crimea under the Ukrainian republic’s jurisdiction at that time made logistical sense.
At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Crimea was treated as a special case, being home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Sevastopol was recognised as having ‘all-union significance’ and therefore would normally have reverted to Russia when Ukraine gained its independence, given Russia’s role as the ‘continuer state’ of the Soviet Union, assuming the former country’s obligations and privileges.
At the time Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, did not pursue the idea assuming, one imagines, that the relationship between the two countries would continue as before under the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States.
The events of early 2014 prompted Russian fears that it would be evicted from Sevastopol. On 28 February, soldiers took control of the local airport at Simferopol, under the pretext of protecting Russians in Crimea from Ukrainian nationalism. Although Russia officially denied sending in forces, armed military seized control of strategic areas. As late as 4 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied any intention of annexing Crimea, although he stated that residents should have the right to determine the region’s status by means of a referendum.
The status of Sevastopol was just one of the factors behind the Russian annexation. The Kiev protests began after President Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013. With much of the population of western Ukraine clamouring for closer ties with the West, Putin feared that Russia would continue to lose status and influence in a region it had once called its own. Already most of the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that had severed ties with the Soviet Union were fully-fledged members of the EU and NATO, including the three Baltic States that had been part of the USSR.
If this were not enough for Putin to bear, the EU and NATO appeared to be creeping even closer, right into his backyard. Ukraine’s history as the birthplace of modern Russia dating back to medieval Kievan Rus’ and the two nations’ close – even intertwining – ties throughout their history, make Ukraine a special case. “We are not simply close neighbours, but we are one people,” Putin said. “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin perceived that he was being repeatedly snubbed by the US and EU in their pursuit of closer ties with Ukraine, and as the West has repeatedly learnt, Hell hath no fury like the Russian president scorned. The Western powers should have paid more attention to that great diplomat of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, who said, “Far too often the Ukraine issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the east or west. But if it is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other, it should function as a bridge between them. The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.