13,000 fatalities. 3,300 dead civilians. These are the casualty numbers of a European war that seems like it could have taken place in the nineteenth century; nevertheless, it is de facto a war of the twenty-first century, and the numbers date from 2019. The war in Eastern Ukraine, sparked in 2014, continues to this day. Yet, it has been largely forgotten by West European media coverage, particularly in this year of social and political upheaval caused by the global health crisis.
The last time this conflict received major international attention was when the passenger plane MH17 was accidentally shot down over Ukrainian territory in 2014 through the military activities there. Yet after this tragedy, the fight between the Ukrainian army and volunteer forces, and the separatists who aim for the autonomy of the two oblasts, Donezk and Luhansk, remains at the obscure margins of political news. The continuation of this war, however, should again receive more attention from the rest of Europe. Not merely because it is a war that takes place right on Europe’s borders – which in itself should be a strong incitement for international action – but, more importantly, because it is a disquieting sign of post-Soviet nationalisms that foster a conflictive political climate in Eastern Europe and particularly in the countries along the Russian borders.
To expand on this thesis, it is vital to examine Ukraine’s Soviet and pre-Soviet past more closely in order to shed light on present-day tensions between the new countries that emerged from the Russian-dominated Union. National movements that demanded Ukrainian independence were present during the final decades of the Tsarist Empire, which broke apart after the February Revolution of 1917; in 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was founded – the first independent Ukrainian state in history. Yet its existence was as brief as it was revolutionary: between tensions with Poland and the newly-founded Russian Soviet Republic, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. With the regime change under Josef Stalin, the Ukrainian territory began to be exploited for its agricultural riches; the infamous collectivization of agricultural produce, a Soviet concept, led to what is now known as Holodomor, a famine that took the lives of several millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. Historians nowadays consider this event as man-made and potentially even as a Stalinist way of intentionally weakening nationalist independence movements in Ukraine.
In 1991, Ukrainians voted for their independence from the shattered Soviet Union. At the time, the country was struggling with its re-orientation as an independent nation between the East and West, and this post-Soviet burden cumulated into tensions which were released in the 2013 Revolution. The chaos of the Maidan, and the years of corruption and destabilization of the state under President Viktor Yanukovych, provided the Russian-backed separatist movements in eastern Ukraine with a convenient opportunity when the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia and the fighting for independence from Ukraine ensued. Although Russia itself continues to deny its military involvement, it is difficult to interpret the annexation of Crimea in any other way than Russian interest in territorial expansion hidden behind nationalist narratives – Ukrainian territory is sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the “true” Russian nation – and widening of Russian influence under Putin. And while it would be too speculative to argue that Russia is actively intending to recreate some of the former greatness of both the USSR and the Tsarist Empire, it cannot be denied that having politically weakened neighbours seems to be in its interest, and potentially even leads to cases such as the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Neo-nationalisms on both sides, however, aggravate the problem, and the concrete issue of the ongoing military conflict will thus hardly find a swift conclusion. After all, it not only depends on Ukraine’s decision on which way to go in its position between East and West, but also if, and how, Russia manifests its – at times provocative – foreign policy.