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How Russia and Ukraine’s Tangled Histories Led to War

In a new book, a Tufts political scientist describes the internal politics and external divisions that contributed to the current conflict

By Taylor McNeil, featuring Oxana Shevel, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Tufts University

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022, was no isolated event. In one sense, it could be seen as the culmination of tensions between an independent Ukraine and its former rulers in Moscow. The histories of the two countries have been entwined for centuries, and untangling those connections and the conflicts that have resulted is the center of a new book co-written by Oxana Shevel, an associate professor of political science. 

Russia and Ukraine: Entangled Histories, Diverging States, by Shevel and Maria Popova, an associate professor of political science at McGill University, recounts the story behind the two states and peoples, with a focus on understanding the politics of the past three decades. 

After the 2022 invasion, Shevel and Popova wrote articles about issues related to the origins of the war, but were frustrated with the common view “that it was somehow NATO encroachment into a Russian rightful sphere of influence that was in large part responsible for the war,” Shevel says. 

Being scholars who had studied the region for many years, they knew it was a much more complex story. They were approached by Policy Press, and the resulting book “shows how the war is the result of a longstanding divergence between Ukraine and Russia and their own domestic political situations, and how Vladimir Putin was really not willing to reconcile with the idea that Ukraine would strike its own path,” Shevel says.

The book especially details domestic political events in Ukraine and Russia that led to the current situation. It shows how in Ukraine power went back and forth between politicians seeking to distance the country from Russia and those favoring closer connections with Russia—culminating in the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 and Euromaidan demonstrations of 2013-2014—and how that affected Ukrainian-Russian relations, given how Russia interpreted these events. 

Tufts Now recently spoke with Shevel about the conflict, and how its origins might indicate where it is headed.

Oxana Shevel: Maria Popova and I aren’t historians, but we wanted to talk about how history affects this story. We concluded that the main way it matters for contemporary developments is that the same history can be interpreted very differently.

Ukraine and Russia both trace their origins to Kyivan Rus’, an early medieval state formed in the ninth century. People living in that territory came to think of themselves as Russian or Ukrainian much later, as a result of complex social, political, and historical processes.

The people who live in Ukraine today could have potentially thought of themselves as Polish or Russian or even Austrian had geopolitical circumstances been different over the centuries. But eventually the Ukrainian national idea rose in the 19th century—it was an organic historical process, not that different from the formation of the German or Latvian nations.

“The more Russia pushes, the more it produces in Ukraine the exact outcome Russian leaders want to avoid.” 

Oxana Shevel: Putin says Lenin artificially created the Ukrainian nation and state, but there is no basis in history for that view—the Bolsheviks had to fight a very strong Ukrainian national movement at during the civil war in the former Russian empire from 1917 to 1921. Lenin’s decision in early 1920s to promote cultural development of ethnic groups through the policy known as nativization was in large part a strategy to neutralize the perceived threat posed by Ukrainian national mobilization.

Did the growth of Ukrainian identity begin at the breakup of the Soviet Union?

Before perestroika, Ukrainian identity in Ukraine, then a republic within the Soviet Union, was quite complex. There was a very small minority, so-called dissidents, for whom the preservation of Ukrainian language and culture and the goal of Ukrainian sovereignty was very important. They were considered by Soviet leaders as bourgeois nationalists and were oppressed by the Soviet state. Many of them spent years in the gulags. 

Many others in Ukraine became Russified in the years following the 1930s, when nativization policy of Lenin was scaled down, giving way to Russification under the guise of creating “single Soviet people”—in this Soviet era you really couldn’t advance in your career without speaking Russian. 

So a substantial and growing portion of people who were Ukrainian had acquiesced to functioning in Russian, but for many their Ukrainian identity still mattered to them. My family was like this. A lot of Russian was spoken at home, and school and work were primarily or even exclusively in Russian, but nobody considered themselves Russian. We were Ukrainian, although how it was significant was not clear and we didn’t really think much about it.  

What happened as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began the perestroika political and economic reforms in the late 1980s?

Things began to change when information about Soviet state oppression of non-Russian nationalities really got out in the open. This is the period when there were public discussions of, for example, the murderous Holodomor famine of the 1932-33s—when Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians in the process of collectivization. Before that, you couldn’t talk about it. The Ukrainian sovereignty movement formed in late 1980s and became an important political force after the 1990s legislative elections—the first fully competitive elections in the USSR.

These elections produced a three-fold division of the political spectrum.

On the one hand, there was the committed pro-sovereignty, pro-independence movement called Rukh, on the right. They controlled about 25% of the parliament. On the opposite side, there were unreformed communists on the left, who wanted to go back to the previous status quo and didn’t like Gorbachev’s changes. 

And then there was the center. Most of them were still communists, but they realized that the winds were blowing for greater sovereignty and the power of the Communist Party and the central state in Moscow was diminishing. This group was pragmatic. They thought: Why take orders from Moscow when I can become the top dog? They saw that they could appeal to this pro-sovereignty sentiment and get elected.

So the center became the power brokers in Ukraine? 

It is what we call in the book the Grand Bargain—an alliance of the right and the center. The right supported independence for identity reasons, due to their commitment to Ukrainian cultural revival and to the idea of independent Ukrainian state, and the center supported sovereignty and ultimately independence for pragmatic reasons. In return, the right basically allowed the centrists—former communist elites and new business actors—to do whatever they want with the economy. This contributed to corruption problems in Ukraine, lack of judicial independence, oligarchs, and all of that. 

“Ukrainians . . . see the war as an existential struggle, because Putin ultimately wants to eliminate the Ukrainian state and nation. That’s what this war is really about. It’s not about NATO, it’s not about military bases, and not about Russia controlling some piece of Ukraine. It is really about Ukrainians not having the right to exist as a distinct and separate nation and state.”

Oxana Shevel: Ukrainians widely supported independence in the referendum of December 1991—92% of the population, with majorities in every region, including Crimea, vote for independence. Many people associated independence not so much with national revival but with economic improvement. The expectation was that if Ukraine became independent, living standards would increase rapidly. 

But that’s not what happened. The 1990s was a period of economic crisis, and substantial parts of the population came to think that maybe some kind of closer connection with Russia and the former Soviet countries economically would bring improvement. But the elites remained committed to independent state and pursued cooperation with Russia only to the extent that it didn’t threaten state sovereignty. 

For its part, Russia consistently tried to foster closer political ties with Ukraine. Measures such as dual citizenship, participation in regional Russia-led political integration initiatives, and status for Russian as the second state language in Ukraine are examples of policies we discuss in our book that Russia tried to get Ukraine to agree to, but that Ukrainian elites—including elites who were Russian-speakers themselves and came from eastern regions of Ukraine where pro-Russian sentiments were strong in the 1990s and 2000s—resisted.

How did the Russian annexation of Crimea and takeover of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine in 2014 change the sentiment toward Ukrainian identity?

The more Russia pushes, the more it produces in Ukraine the exact outcome Russian leaders want to avoid. In our book we refer to this dynamic as an escalatory cycle. Russian leaders resented Ukraine drawing away, even when this process was slow and gradual, as it was before mid-2000s. But the more Russia pushed to keep Ukraine in the fold, the more this backfired. 

For example, the annexation of Crimea and the support of the anti-government, separatist insurgency in the Donbas in 2014 cut about 12% of the Ukrainian voting population from the electorate. Those were areas that historically were the most sympathetic to Russia in all Ukraine. Russia’s post-2014 aggression also increased “anti-Russian” sentiments in the rest of Ukraine. 

That really changed the political landscape in Ukraine. The political parties that advocated a stronger anti-Russian course then got elected with majorities—they didn’t have to compromise with the center anymore. So legislation that Putin said was completely unacceptable—strengthening the status of the Ukrainian language or legislating interpretation of historical events differently from how Russia wanted, for example—now got passed in the parliament, which it couldn’t before.

Popular opinion also started shifting, and more and more people said they didn’t see Russia in a good light. And not just the Russian government—increasingly, and especially after February 2022, Ukrainians say they view the Russian people—in a negative light. Support for European integration, and support for NATO membership really grew substantially after 2014 as well.

It seems that pretty much every move that Putin makes has the unintended consequence of strengthening Ukrainian identity and sense of nationhood. Do you think Putin and the Russians around him will learn a lesson from that?

I don’t think Putin has learned anything. He thought the invading Russian troops in 2022 were going to be welcomed by Ukrainians—they traveled with parade uniforms. But because of the gradual evolution of identities, preferences, and views of the Ukrainian political nation in the last 30 years, that obviously didn’t happen. Putin seems to be completely incapable of acknowledging this reality and keeps insisting that Ukrainians and Russians are a single people.

That’s why Ukrainians are still fighting—they see the war as an existential struggle, because Putin ultimately wants to eliminate the Ukrainian state and nation. That’s what this war is really about. It’s not about NATO, it’s not about military bases, and not about Russia controlling some piece of Ukraine. It is really about Ukrainians not having the right to exist as a distinct and separate nation and state. 

You offer some alternative scenarios in the book for ways the conflict might have been avoided. 

In our book we suggest several potential scenarios of how the war might have been avoided. One is if Russia retained a degree of political competition instead of becoming a full-fledged autocracy under Putin. Even if Russian elites remained imperialistic and thought that they are entitled to control Ukraine, there would have been disagreements on methods to achieve such control, so invasion may not have taken place. Also, non-imperial democratic political forces in Russia would have had more influence. 

Another alternative was consolidation of autocracy in Ukraine. This might have taken place had the 2004 Orange Revolution or the 2014 Euromaidan uprising ended with a Yanukovych victory. Yanukovych tried but failed to destroy democracy in Ukraine during his tenure as president in 2010-2014. If he had more time, he may have succeeded and then “delivered” an authoritarian Ukraine to Putin without the need for military intervention. 

Finally, the West could have acted differently. It could have contained Russia sooner and more strongly—if not after the 2008 invasion of Georgia, then after 2014 invasion of Crimea. This might have deterred Putin from launching a full-scale invasion in 2022. But the West was deferential and continued to cooperate with Russia, which only emboldened Putin. In hindsight, a different Western response was another alternative scenario that might have avoided the war but that didn’t come to pass. 

(This post is republished from Tufts Now.)

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