The massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is raising the specter of war between two countries that share a complex history of ethnic, linguistic and political conflict and coexistence.
Seven years after annexing Crimea and instigating a separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be gambling that he can easily annex further territory — or he might be bluffing about war to win concessions elsewhere. Whatever Mr. Putin’s motivation, the possible incursion is exposing the failure of NATO’s post-Cold War eastward expansion.
In this episode of History As It Happens, the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven discusses the deep historical roots of the Russia-Ukraine dispute, a history lost on U.S. military analysts who advocated pushing NATO into Russia’s historic backyard.
“Russia and Ukraine have been tied together — the Ukrainians, of course, would say Ukraine has been ruled by Russia — for many centuries,” Mr. Lieven said. “Beyond that, Russians trace their statehood to the early medieval kingdom of Rus, which was actually based in Kiev.”
That history undergirds the current conflict between Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists and the pro-Western government in Kiev — a slow-burning civil war that has claimed at least 10,000 lives.
For while the pro-Russian government of Victor Yanukovych was toppled in a bloody revolt in 2014, much of the eastern part of Ukraine remains sympathetic or outright supportive of Russia, as many are ethnic Russians with a multi-generational connection to the land.
“There are tremendously deep contacts between the populations. A very large segment of the population of Siberia is of Ukrainian origin. Many [Russians] are married to Ukrainians, many Ukrainians are married to Russians. About a third of the Ukrainian population speaks Russian as its first language,” Mr. Lieven said.
“Russia regards Ukraine as a country to lose which would destroy Russia’s position on the international stage.”
This is why, Mr. Lieven said, the U.S. push to expand NATO east was shortsighted and counter productive, especially since neither the U.S. nor Europe is in a position to militarily stop Mr. Putin if he acts quickly.
“Russia regards a Ukraine in NATO in very much the same way that America would regard Mexico in a military alliance with China and with Chinese military bases. Russia is not responding well to the idea of Ukraine as a military ally of the United States.”
For more of Mr. Lieven’s thoughts on the Russia-Ukraine conflict — and the precarious U.S. position in southeastern Europe — download this episode of History As It Happens.