Barrie Dunsmore: A primer on Ukraine

Editor’s note: This commentary by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald Sunday edition. All his columns can be found on his website,

During the years I reported from the Soviet Union, English speakers almost always called it the Ukraine. That implied a region, rather than a sovereign state. Even though there was clearly a distinct Ukrainian people, language and culture, for centuries Ukraine’s borders had constantly shifted as the result of wars and hostile neighbors. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine voted for independence and officially became Ukraine — without the article.

I was in Ukraine during that period and can vouch for the sheer joy that most Ukrainians felt at the prospect of being free from Moscow’s often brutal embrace. Yet independence has provided Ukrainians little escape from their centuries-long, complex history with Russia. The worst of that history took place under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, an experience now embedded in Ukraine’s DNA.

Following World War I and the bloody civil war that followed the Russian revolution, Ukraine became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As the breadbasket for much of the entire Soviet state, Stalin counted on Ukraine to feed and finance his huge industrial projects. And so began agricultural collectivization — forcing Ukrainian peasants onto collective farms, keeping them there with troops and secret police, and confiscating most of their crops for the benefit of the state. This had a devastating effect on agricultural productivity, leading to widespread food shortages. Stalin’s response was to impose starvation as punishment for those peasants who failed to meet their unrealistic quotas. By the end of the 1930s, an estimated 10 million Ukrainians had died in the “Great Famine” — caused mainly by a form of genocide, unmatched by even the worst of the czars.

At the same time Stalin tried to stamp out any notion of Ukrainian identity. Throughout the 1930s he conducted purges of Ukraine’s writers, artists and intellectuals for being “nationalist deviationists.” This resulted in the killings of nearly 700,000 people including four-fifths of the Ukrainian cultural elite and three-quarters of the Red Army’s highest ranking officers.

Ukraine’s cruel fate continued with World War II. While numerous Ukrainian resistance units emerged, and some joined the Nazi invaders, most Ukrainians fought with Russia’s Red Army. By war’s end, an estimated five million to eight million Ukrainians had been killed. This includes about half a million Jews who were victims of the invading Nazis, sometimes abetted by local collaborators.

Ukraine is divided between those mainly in Western Ukraine who want closer ties with Europe and those in Eastern and Southern Ukraine who are pro-Russia. Of Ukraine’s 45 million people, three-quarters are ethnic Ukrainians and only 17 percent are Russian.


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Things improved for Ukrainians after Stalin’s death in 1953. He was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev, who was born in Russia near the Ukrainian border and rose to become head of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Evidently to atone for Stalin’s sins (and his own), Khrushchev began to emphasize Russian-Ukrainian friendship. In a major gesture he gave control of the Crimea, which was historically part of Russia, to Ukraine. This is significant in today’s context because the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimea, which remains an autonomous region of Ukraine. It is also where ethnic Russians still comprise a substantial majority, some of whom have been demanding Crimean independence.

Under Khrushchev, and then Leonid Brezhnev who was a Ukrainian, Ukraine became the center for Soviet armaments and high tech industries and Ukrainians became prominent in the Soviet Communist party leadership, as well as in the arts, sciences and athletics. Still, on Dec. 1, 1991, 90 percent of Ukrainians voted in favor of the Act of Independence, declaring Ukraine an independent, democratic state.

The independence road has been a rocky one. In its first decade, Ukraine’s gross national product dropped by 60 percent and inflation ran rampant. Old Soviet habits die hard and pervasive political corruption has stymied economic growth and the development of democratic institutions. Those problems have been compounded by the rise to power in Russia of the autocratic Vladimir Putin.

Putin may not be trying to recreate the old Soviet Union, but he clearly has the old Imperial Russia in mind, when among other things, Ukraine was usually a Russian vassal state. So when Ukraine began to flirt with the European Union, broadening economic links with the EU and even toying with the idea of membership, Putin said “nyet” to that — adding the threat to jack up the price of Russian natural gas exports to Ukraine by 30 percent, and the bribe of a $15 billion bailout to ease its debt crisis.

This issue of the “Eurofication” of Ukraine is behind the latest political crisis which exploded last month when nearly a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand injured, mostly by security forces attacking anti- government protesters. That led to President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Kiev and the parliament voting for his impeachment and arrest. Putin’s government has challenged the legitimacy of these actions, as have some Ukrainians.

Ukraine is divided between those mainly in Western Ukraine who want closer ties with Europe and those in Eastern and Southern Ukraine who are pro-Russia. Of Ukraine’s 45 million people, three-quarters are ethnic Ukrainians and only 17 percent are Russian. But 40 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian. So especially amidst the current political uncertainties in Kiev, Ukraine remains in danger of much greater civil strife. For the moment, all parties, including the Russians, the European Union and the U.S. agree that Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” must be maintained. That is key and serves everyone’s interests.

It is also in European and American interests to help the Ukrainians financially, with conditions that encourage the further development of democracy. At the same time, the West needs to at least tacitly recognize Russia’s historical and contemporary connections to Ukraine. It should not over-react to Putin’s blusters such as the big, new, Russian military exercises this weekend.

Remember how ferociously America once fought Soviet attempts to gain influence in Central and South America. In 1962 the world barely escaped nuclear war when the Soviets tried to introduce nuclear missiles into Cuba. Big powers, and Russia still is one, tend to be very sensitive about potential threats in their own backyards.


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