The wars in the former Yugoslavia taught us that ethnic nationalism can lead to degrading of civil societies and a long, dark period of economic and social decline.
Ukraine is a country of 40 million people, larger than France, with fertile land frequently called the “bread basket” of Europe. It is proving difficult to conquer but its possible subjugation to Russia will have long-term consequences for Europe and the world.
As a scholar of the Slavic peoples and their languages, I am heartbroken by the unprecedented violence unfolding since the invasion began last week. I am having flashbacks to the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s and early 2000s and how the whole region was set back economically and socially.
Russia has long feared Nato’s expansion eastward, while Ukraine has sought to be independent, democratic and western-leaning. In general, Russians and Ukrainians have long memories and are keenly aware of the historical tensions and conflicts that occurred on Ukrainian territory.
The reality is that Ukrainians and Russians are in many ways similar. Their languages are very close, belonging to the East Slavic branch of the Slavic languages. Ukraine’s capital, known in Ukrainian as Kyiv and in Russian as Kiev, was the main centre of East Slavic culture in the Middle Ages.
It was the Kievan Prince Vladimir who brought Christianity to these peoples in the year 988 when Kiev was a leading principality in a land then known as Rus.
Medieval culture thrived in Kievan Rus only to be destroyed when the Mongols invaded and captured Kiev in 1240. Thereafter, the centre of power among the Eastern Slavs shifted to Moscow, which was founded in the 12th century and slowly consolidated its hold on a vast territory as the Mongol Empire declined, beginning in the late 14th century.
Descendants of the early Rus peoples all have claims to the cultural heritage of medieval Kievan Rus, and some of those claims and counter-claims persist today. Russia has been larger and more dominant, and historians of Russia claim direct lineage back to Kievan Rus times. Ukrainians acknowledge their current territory is where early East Slavic culture flourished and claim a linkage directly back to those times as well.
The shift of East Slavic power from Kiev to Moscow has meant the area known today as Ukraine become a borderland region often contested among more powerful neighbours, including the Polish-Lithuanian State, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, of course, the Russian Empire.
Indeed, the word “Ukraine” comes from the Slavic root “kraj” or “edge,” so the word means something like “at the edge, or borderland”. When the wars broke out in Yugoslavia, contested borderlands within Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (also known as “Krajina” regions) were the scenes of some of the worst battles and instances of ethnic cleansing.
The differentiation of East Slavic peoples accelerated in the 19th century at a time of national awakenings in Europe when Byelorussians and Ukrainians began to form their national identities and literary languages – which is today Eastern Ukraine – firmly under control of the Russian Empire.
We also see efforts in Russia to suppress a separate Ukrainian identity and assimilate citizens in the areas of Ukraine under Russian rule into the rest of Russia. Russian authorities used to refer to their East Slavic cousins in Ukraine in a derogatory way, calling them “Little Russians”, as opposed to the “Great Russians” of Russia proper.
The period of 1917-1922 was tumultuous for Ukraine. What is today Western Ukraine was incorporated into Poland, and remaining parts of the country declared independence in 1918, marking the first time in history that Ukraine emerged as an independent country.
However, that independence coincided with great instability in the region with civil wars raging on the territory of Ukraine and Russia and by 1922, with the victories of the Red Army, Ukraine was fully incorporated into the Soviet Union.
After World War II, borders shifted again as the Soviet Union gained back today’s Western Ukrainian areas from inter-war Poland. Between 1945 and 1954, then, Ukraine was politically united for the first time in centuries under the umbrella of the Soviet Union.
It achieved what is now its internationally recognised boundaries only in 1954, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev changed internal Soviet borders, moving the Crimean Peninsula from the jurisdiction of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
During much of the Soviet period, leaders in the Kremlin asserted the dominance of the Russian language and culture over Ukraine, and the vast majority of people within Ukraine were fluent Russian speakers and often did not know the Ukrainian language.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that internal Soviet borders among its 15 republics suddenly became internal boundaries recognised by countries around the world. In many instances, these borders were artificial or did not always correspond to linguistic, ethnic, or historical boundaries.
Soon after the collapse, some minorities within the newly independent states rejected the new borders and sought to unite with their kin on the other side of one of the new borders. For instance, the Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan declared independence from that country and attempted to join neighbouring Armenia; similarly, Russian speakers in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova broke away from Moldova with the hope of joining Russia and is currently a pariah state known as Transnistria.
Similar issues engulfed newly independent Georgia with its breakaway region of South Ossetia. Ukraine was not immune from this phenomenon. In 2014, the pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was forced out of power after weeks of protests in Kyiv’s main square that turned violent.
Yanukovych fled to Russia, and was replaced by leaders who were seen as much more pro-western, promising to take Ukraine into the European Union and Nato. Putin’s Russia reacted within days, sending troops into the strategically important Crimean Peninsula which Russia quickly annexed.
Simultaneously, Russia supported local militia in Donetsk and Luhansk who started a local uprising against Ukrainian authorities, vowing to create rogue pro-Russian republics. Hostilities between these militia and Ukrainian armed forces broke out.
It looked like the pattern of Transnistria and South Ossetia was repeating in Ukraine. A shaky ceasefire was achieved through an agreement in Minsk that was meant to guarantee the autonomy of Ukraine’s breakaway regions, but all that changed in 2022 when Putin decided to recognise them as independent countries and launched his large-scale invasion of Ukraine, using the excuse of “protecting” the people of Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukrainian forces.
In 2014, Russia was very critical of events that led to the ousting of Yanukovych. They portrayed the Ukrainian perpetrators of the demonstrations as neo-fascists and neo-Nazis, and have kept up that rhetoric to this day.
Yanukovych was convicted in absentia for treason for calling on Russia even then to invade Ukraine. Ukraine’s future was not helped by the US presidency of Donald Trump, long an admirer of Vladimir Putin and who even threatened the Ukrainian government with withholding aid if they didn’t investigate Joe Biden’s son. These actions led to the first impeachment of Trump in 2019.
The invasion of Ukraine is a game-changing event in Europe, upsetting the world order put in place after World War II. The war demonstrates that one of the key underlying issues in the former Soviet Union is the status of Russia vis-à-vis significant numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who became separated from their mother country, Russia, when they found themselves on the other side of an international border once the Soviet Union collapsed.
There seems to be something of a domino effect, with conflict in Moldova, Georgia, and now Ukraine. There are sizeable Russian minorities also in Lithuania and Latvia, and these two countries are now Nato and EU members.
At the moment, it doesn’t look like there will be a quick resolution to the crisis. The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the riskier this situation is for the world. Already the global economy has been greatly affected by the pandemic, and now the uncertainty of instability and unpredictable leadership in Russia threaten global security.
I see no winners, just many victims on both sides. The wars in the former Yugoslavia taught us that ethnic nationalism can lead to degrading of civil societies and a long, dark period of economic and social decline.
Putin is reinforcing the notion that Russia has the right to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, and his own people will suffer economic hardship as a result of isolation and sanctions, not to speak of the destruction of millions of lives in Ukraine.
I fear irreparable damage may result from the present conflict unless common sense can somehow prevail and Russia backs down from its desire to gain back control of Ukraine.
Professor Robert Greenberg is Dean of Arts at the University of Auckland. He has been a frequent visitor to Russia and Ukraine and is a specialist in Slavic languages and cultures.