Since When did Ukrainians Become Entitled to the State they Got?
This is the history of the transformation of a tiny area occupied by Zaporozhian Cossacks into the largest country in Europe after Russia, larger than France or Germany. How did Ukraine pull off an expansion of this magnitude without a single conquest?
The starting point of the history of Ukraine began is 1654 when Bohdan Khmelnitsky, a Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host, leader of Cossacks living beyond the Dnieper Rapids, petitioned Russian czar Alexey to accept the Zaporozhian Host into Russia. The land inhabited by the Cossacks (the orange area on the map) was part of what Russians called the Wild Fields, or “u kraine,” which means in Russian “at the edge.” The term originated in the 12th century to describe lands populated by half-savage tribes on the outskirts of Russia.
Khmelnitsky was desperate to save his Cossacks from annihilation by the Poles. Initially, Alexey turned down the request. But eventually, the request was granted, and the Treaty of Pereyaslav was signed. According to the treaty, the territory was to be absorbed into Russia and named Malorossiya or Little Russia, administered by the Hetmanate with limited suzerainty.
During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), the Russian Empire underwent a massive expansion, and new territories were added to Malorossiya, including the city of Kiev, where the land of the Rus began in the 8th century (yellow and orange areas on the map). In 1764, as Malorossiya had grown in size, Catherine, for administrative reasons, abolished the Hetmanate and created the Malorossian Governorate.
In the same year, the Russian Empire conquered the Crimean Khanate and founded a new province, Novorossiya or New Russia (the blue area on the map). In a relatively short time, Russia turned the region from an undeveloped steppe with rare pastures into a powerful agricultural and later an industrial region that became the backbone of the economy of the first Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
In 1783, Catherine the Great wrested Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in a bloody war, securing access to the Black Sea and completing Peter the Great’s vision of making the Russian Empire the dominant European power.
In 1919, two years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin became the architect of Ukraine, combining Novorossiya and Malorossiya into the new Socialist State of Ukraine (the yellow, blue, and orange areas on the map). In 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed, and the Socialist State of Ukraine was inaugurated as the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic, hereafter Ukraine, with the capital Kharkov. Novorossiya was renamed Eastern Ukraine, and the term Malorossiya was no longer in use. In 1934, the capital of the new republic was moved to Kiev.
Between 1939 and 1940 as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin annexed the eastern territories, including the Polish city of Lvov and Northern Bukovina from Romania. In 1945, he annexed Hungarian Carpathian Ruthenia, nowadays Zakarpattia. All those territories were merged with Ukraine and became known as Western Ukraine (the green area on the map).
By 1950, Ukraine’s territory exceeded that of any country in Europe other than Russia. But the territorial handouts to Ukraine did not end there. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine. The status change was mainly symbolic since the transfer was within the Soviet Union, governed by a single set of laws, common defense, and total Moscow control. No one in the Kremlin could foresee that it would manifest as an unimaginable strategic error a few decades later.
The historical record demonstrates that contemporary Ukraine emerged from a mosaic of lands assembled by Russian conquests and paid for with Russian blood and treasure. Except for a small area of the Zaporozhian Host (the red area on the map), Ukraine has no historical connection to the land it occupies and is the product of Russian geopolitical engineering.
The foregoing is the reason Henry Kissinger wrote, “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
If Americans had been more aware of Ukrainian history, they would have raised reasonable doubts about the validity of Ukraine’s territorial aspirations. Konrad Adenauer once said, “History is the sum total of things that could be avoided.” It couldn’t be better said about Ukraine; if Czar Alexey in 1654 had not protected the Zaporozhian Host’s Cossacks, the precursors of Ukrainians, from annihilation, we would never have heard about Ukraine.
In 1991, taking advantage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared independence. So when the initial jubilation and smoke of promises of democracy and prosperity cleared, Ukrainians who had never governed themselves faced the gloomy reality of governing. Trying to make a clean break from Russia, Ukraine failed economically and politically.
The Ukrainian economy had been integrated into the Soviet Union’s economy. It produced a variety of goods and services, and though the products were outdated by Western standards, they were reliable and cheap. Russia was the natural market for Ukraine. However, Ukraine decided to join the EU. But the EU was not interested and Ukraine lost the Russian market. As a result, the economy contracted to the point that Ukraine was not able to shape its future by itself. Ukraine landed in the unfortunate position of needing financial assistance from the USA and Western Europe to survive.
To impress donors, the Ukrainian leaders have tried to convince the world that they are on a mission to protect democracy. Regrettably, their commitment to democracy was limited to the declaration of principles. Politically immature and inexperienced, the Ukrainian people have consistently elected leaders who recognize the importance of democracy primarily as means for achieving their enrichment. Indeed, endemic corruption became a fundamental necessity, a precondition for functioning governance. Ukraine’s most distinguishing features are thefts of economic aid and natural resources.
The history, geography, the state of the economy, and the nature of domestic institutions predetermine a country's behavior internationally. Ukraine, lacking strategic vision and experience in geopolitics, did not grasp the underlying reality when she pushed for NATO participation, ostensibly for security reasons. Whatever the motivation, she failed to realize that the issue of war and peace is the product of mutual security -- the security of one doesn’t produce insecurity for other. Ukraine’s drive to join NATO ignored thirty years of Russia’s warnings that NATO’s eastward expansion poses an existential threat to Russia.
Even the New York Times, no friend of Putin, in its January 9, 2022 editorial, just before the invasion, challenged the wisdom of Ukraine joining NATO and admitted that "Mr. Putin's concerns cannot be entirely dismissed. Were Ukraine to join NATO, the alliance would then have a 1,200-mile land border with Russia, a situation no major power would abide, no matter how loudly the Atlantic alliance claims to be purely defensive."
Whether political naiveté, recklessness, incessant appetite for foreign aid, or all of the above, Ukraine’s tenacious insistence on NATO membership, even in the face of a looming Russian invasion, instigated a war that could easily be avoided.
It was a blunder of historic magnitude.
And, as this failed state, with the borders drawn by the Soviet Union, rotten with incompetence and corruption, collapses in blood and destruction, the eerie premonition is that Ukraine will remain a wasteland for generations.
So, if Ukrainians deserve a state, they may indeed deserve the state they got.
Alexander G. Markovsky is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, a conservative think tank that examines national security, energy, risk analysis, and other public policy issues. He is the author of “Anatomy of a Bolshevik” and “Liberal Bolshevism: America Did Not Defeat Communism, She Adopted It.” Mr. Markovsky is the owner and CEO of Litwin Management Services, LLC. He can be reached at email@example.com