The unprovoked February 24 invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of the Russian Federation has revealed much about the condition of Russia, under its ever more tyrannical leader, Vladimir Putin.

The conflict is characterised in much of the media as a black and white situation, angels versus devils. US President Joe Biden put it like this:

“And — and we know that the United States is leading our Allies and partners around the world to make sure that courageous Ukrainians who are fighting for the future of their nation have the weapons and the capacity and ammunition and equipment to defend themselves against Putin’s brutal war.”

Clearly, Russia is guilty of aggression and it should simply pull all of its troops out of Ukraine (including Crimea and the Donbass “people’s republics”.) None of what I say below is intended to undermine that. But nor should we in the West blindly give in to all of Ukraine’s demands, whether that be for EU or NATO membership, or more and bigger weapons. We need to avoid being swept away in a war hysteria.

Ukraine has come under the influence of both democratic and undemocratic influences, and while the freedom-loving part is well documented on daily reports of the war against the Russian invaders, there is another side to Ukraine.

The novelty of nationhood 

Ukraine is a nation undergoing birth-pangs. It is one of the youngest countries of the modern era, having become independent on 24 August 1991. Ukrainian nationhood is naturally older than this, with many tracing it back to the 9th century Kievan Rus, which is claimed by all East Slavs, including Belarus and Russia. However, a distinct Ukrainian identity emerges only in the Cossack Hetmanates of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The territory of modern Ukraine is not the same as the medieval Rus – far from it. Most of Kievan Rus stretched from a line south of Kyiv to the Baltic Sea, and was more a collection of autonomous principalities, all to the north and east of modern Ukraine.

It must also be noted that much of the territory of modern-day Ukraine was not historically either Russian or Ukrainian until around 1500 at the earliest, as this land is wooded steppe or open steppe (prairie) inhabited by nomadic and semi-nomadic “horse peoples”. The list of these peoples is long, beginning with the Scythians in 700 BC, followed by the Huns, the Mongol Empire, the Nogai Horde and the Crimean Khanate. The Khanate was conquered by Catherine the Great in 1783.

The history of “All the Russias” (whose head was the “Czar of all the Russias”) can be divided into a period before the Mongol conquest (known as the ’Tatar Yoke’) from 1240 to 1480 and after it. In this time, Kiev was destroyed and a new principality became dominant among the Rus(sians), that of Muscovy. The Muscovites were greatly influenced by the Mongols and became, like them, a militarist and expansionist power. Eventually, Russia would occupy land all the way from the Polish-Lithuanian border to Alaska in the 18th century.

This idea of responding to threats (real or imagined) by expansion, which was begun by the Principality of Moscow, continues today. A history of endless invasions – by the Mongols, Sweden, France, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Imperial Germany and then Nazi Germany has given the Russians a paranoid view of their history and is played upon by politicians. Stalin did this every bit as much as his admirer, Putin, does today.

A land of invasions

After this thumbnail sketch of the Russian side of Ukraine’s history, the other side of Ukraine’s history is Poland. Both Poland and Russia are nations founded on the European plain, which was heavily wooded in the north and open steppe in the south. It spreads from the French coast to the Ural Mountains, north of the Alps and the Carpathians. It has no natural lines of defence.

As a result, the Polish-Russian borders have shifted a great deal, right up until 1947 when Stalin expelled Poles from the Western parts of Ukraine and Belarus, known euphemistically as a ”population transfer”.  But let’s not get ahead of the story:

The Western half of the present territory of Ukraine was ruled from the mid-13th century by the Golden Horde, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the 16th century and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1772).

This is significant because, together with the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom (1526-1570), later the Principality of Transylvania (1570-1711), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath was the most liberal and democratic part of Europe, apart from Switzerland.

At this time, Western Europe was locked in religious wars, like the French Wars of religion and the dreadful Thirty Years’ War (1616-1648). By contrast, the first laws guaranteeing religious liberty were declared by the Transylvanians and Polish-Lithuanians. The best-known is the Transylvanian Edict of Torda of 1568, which reads, in part:

“No one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone … and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching.”

The Edict was first proclaimed in part in 1557. This applies to Ukrainian history because the Principality of Transylvania and Poland had very close ties, and the Polish Parliament ratified the similar Warsaw Confederation in 1573. These laws were early attempts at freedom of conscience – although they did not include all religions. The Vlach Orthodox (now Romanian) and Jews were not included — but neither were they persecuted.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also experimented with forms of government and numerous attempts at establishing a republic (with an elected king) were tried. While these would ultimately be crushed by more powerful neighbours, the ideas of the Reformation and the Enlightenment influenced its territories, including Ukrainians.

Another important point is the early separation of church and state. While this, like the idea of religious freedom, was not as liberal as it is today, there was a concept among Catholics of the pope and the hierarchy having one sphere of life, spirituality, while the “secular” or worldly powers were exercised by knights, barons, counts or kings. Protestants were even more aware of the need to have freedom to govern themselves, and this led, in slow steps, to today’s separation.

In Orthodox Russia, none of these ideas took root. They appeared in the 18th century, but only among educated intellectuals, most of whom were aristocrats or members of Russia’s very small middle class. This lack of connection to the mainstream events of Europe and America has been a major drawback for Russia, with the Orthodox Church being an integral part of government.

This has been challenged in other Orthodox nations like Greece and Bulgaria, but Russia has maintained the original Byzantine idea of government, in which the emperor and the patriarch of the church work closely together to run a holy empire. Thus, the split between Ukraine (especially its Western part) and Russia goes very deep – it is not just about Ukraine’s links to the EU and NATO.

In the 16th century and after, the sparsely inhabited region referred to as the “Wild Fields” came to be called the “Borderland” — which is what “Ukraine” means.

One of the proto-Ukrainian groups was the Cossacks, frontiersmen who were runaway serfs and adventure-seeking Tatars (Turkic peoples) who lived much as the American settlers did in the Old Wild West. They are often regarded as bandits, but one of them, Bogdan Khmelnitsky, had a strong impact on Ukraine. He led an uprising against Polish rule in 1647 and, together with his Crimean Tatar allies, inflicted serious defeats on Poland-Lithuania.

The Cossacks’ fortunes changed and by the middle of the century, Poland had retaken much of the land. Khmelnitsky then signed the controversial 1654 Treaty of Pereyeslav swearing fealty to the Russian Tsar. He had hoped that by linking the Cossacks to a fellow Orthodox nation, he would be able to defeat the Poles.

Khmelnitsky’s attacks were characterised by massacres of Jews and Catholics, and indeed, “The Cossack” was the archetypal anti-Semite among Jewish people — until the Nazis arrived. Cossack attacks against Jews gave us the word “pogrom”.

There is little doubt that the Cossacks would come to regret the overlordship of their Muscovite coreligionists. The divide between the more enlightened Polish-influenced part and the Russian influence continues today. Sadly, some of the old Tsarist and Soviet mentality has left its mark not only on Russia, but also on Ukraine.

Post-War II Ukraine

Following a brief interval of independence from 1917 to 1921 Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union. This naturally had a negative impact (to put it mildly) on the people.

During World War II, Ukraine suffered terribly from the Nazi invasion, the Nazi occupation, the Nazi retreat, and the Soviet re-occupation. Even before the War, Ukrainians had created a guerrilla organisation to oppose what they saw as Polish occupation. One of their early leaders was Stepan Bandera, who took part in the assassination of a Polish government minister in 1934, for which he received a life sentence.

During the German occupation, Bandera’s guerillas at first fought the Germans, but later, when they realised the Soviets would return, switched to fighting them. They were every bit as ruthless as the Soviet partisans, killing tens of thousands of Poles and Jews. Later, the Polish partisans would turn to mass killings of Ukrainians. To many, Bandera is a national hero; to others, he is a mass murderer.

After independence

Following independence in 1991, Ukraine was a corrupt and poor backwater, which slowly, with helped and hindered by Western entrepreneurs and institutions, struggled in the direction of a modern, free society. Since then, the country has experienced political turbulence, notably during the popular Maidan protests of 2014, in which at least 26 people were killed. Both Russia and the US meddled in Ukrainian politics. US involvement was more obvious, with prominent politicians like Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy directly addressing crowds.

Although much remains murky about the Maidan protests, one thing does seem clear. Most Ukrainians wish to be closer to Europe and the US than to Russia and they definitely consider themselves to be an independent nation. For some in the Russian leadership, this was a bridge too far, and the seeds of the present war were sown.

The dark side

While the media have focused on the behaviour of the Russians and how it led to an overt invasion and annexation, what Ukraine could have done more wisely has received less attention.

While the country has, according to reports, made strides in moving away from Soviet-style corruption and violence (an example would be the shutting down of the paramilitary police unit Berkut, which was instrumental in much of the violence on the Maidan but was also used as a private militia by politicians.)

Corruption and shady deals remain a problem. The release of the Pandora Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) fingered former president Petro Poroshenko, a supposedly pro-Western politician, as well as the new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in massive offshore corruption.

According to the leaks, Zelensky is himself a rich oligarch. When his office was contacted to comment, his spokesman, Sergiy Nikiforof, sent a text: “Won’t be an answer.”

Zelensky previously owned a television production company, Kvartal 95, and had an international network of assets in banks and property in places as far apart as Cyprus, Belize and the British Virgin Islands. Before his election, he transferred most of his interests to his close friend Serhiy Shefir. However, the assets were transferred to pay Zelensky’s wife every month. Shefir is now his top presidential aid.

The Zelensky presidency seems very much a “jobs for the boys” set-up, not unusual in the Third World — but for a nation hoping to join the West, far from ideal. Zelensky and his friends have bought high-end properties in London as well, much like their Russian counterparts. The Pandora Papers also reveal Zelensky’s close contacts with the best-known Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky.

Another old friend, Ivan Bakanov, is much more sinister. Zalensky’s former TV associate is now in charge of the SBU, the Ukrainian intelligence service. The organisation is in effect a second police force, a riot police force, a foreign intelligence service, a home intelligence service, and a paramilitary group. This organisation, the direct successor of the Soviet KGB, has been accused of murder, unlawful detention, and torture. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in 2016 issued a joint report about a secret detention centre in Kharkiv — thanking the prosecutor for releasing people from the centre, but adding names of further “disappeared” people.

A US State Department country report of 2019 mentions – outside of Donbas – arbitrary arrests in places as distant as Transcarpathia in the West and Kharkiv in the East. The report expressed great concern over arrests and conditions in prisons, where beatings and rape were reported. It stated: “The government generally failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.”

In May 2021, an internet discussion with members of the Ukrainian parliament discussed reform of the SBU, but it concluded that nothing substantial had happened.

Ukraine and its minorities

The distinction between “Great Russia” (Russia) and “Little Russia” ( Ukraine) was not a major one at the time of the breakup of the USSR. Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1991 book Rebuilding Russia makes a very clear distinction between the Baltic States, the Transcaucasian countries and the Central Asian republics on the one hand, and the Rossiiskii, that is, all Russians, be they Great Russians, White Russians or Little Russians (ie, Russians, Belorussions, Ukrainians.) He wrote to Ukrainians:

“Brothers! We have no need of this cruel partition. The very idea comes from the darkening of minds brought on by the communist years. Together we have borne the suffering of the Soviet period, together we have tumbled into this pit, and together, too, we shall find our way out.”

That is not what happened. Mikhail Pogrebinskiy has pointed out that: “The idea of Russians in Ukraine being a national minority similar to, for instance, Hungarians in Romania or Slovakia, Swedes in Finland, or even Russians in Estonia, is in fact profoundly fallacious.” He argues that Russian speakers were quite happy to live in Ukraine, as long as it remained within the Russian cultural sphere. However, as the years went by, they experienced a loss of language rights and were caricatured as “the Soviets” and demonised as the enemy.

As the years went by, they experienced a constant, insistent “Ukrainianisation”, which they began to resent and resist. Had Ukraine experimented with a more tolerant ideas, such as a federal system, it is possible that none of the violence of 2014 and 2022 would have happened.

This program of “Ukrainianisation” meant that minority languages were not tolerated in schools, the media and public discourse. This was aimed at minimising the influence of Russia, but it also affected Ukraine’s numerous minorities. In 2001, Russian-speakers made up almost 20 percent of the population. But there were also 300,000 Belarussians, 250,000 Moldovans, 250,000 Crimean Tatars and 200,000 Bulgarians. Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Jews, and Armenians numbered about 100,000 each. There were also smaller groups like the Gypsies.

Many of these peoples had been there before the Ukrainians arrived and their situation is more similar to that of the Native Americans than to immigrants to America, Australia or the UK. The exception is of course the Russians, who arrived around the same time as the Ukrainians.

The situation for minorities became much worse with the introduction of the 2017 language law. This was slammed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) as well as the Venice Commission. It not only angered Russian-speakers, but also damaged Ukraine’s relationship with Poland and Romania. Hungary – one of the first countries to recognise Ukraine’s independence — threatened to veto an attempt by Ukraine to join the EU or NATO unless it dropped the law. But Ukraine doubled down by mistreating minorities, using the SBU to terrorise them and causing many to flee.

Even the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Council in 2017 reported on discrimination of national and ethnic minorities. Gypsies were reportedly physically assaulted and discriminated against.

Ukraine’s poor recent record on minorities

Two minorities in Western Ukraine have come in for particularly harsh treatment since 2011. These are the Hungarians, whose presence is well documented since the 9th century, and the Rusyns, who are not even acknowledged as a national minority in Ukraine, although they are recognised in all neighbouring countries. Rusyns likely make up a majority in Transcarpathia; Ukrainians mostly moved in after the Soviet occupation in 1945. Some 70,000 Hungarians were deported to the Gulag (including my Uncle Elemér) and Rusyns were deported to Czechoslovakia or Germany. Some 170,000 Ukrainians and around 50,000 Russians moved into the region, changing the demographic balance.

Following the Maidan Revolution, many hoped things would improve for minorities under the pro-EU governments of Presidents Poroshenko and Zelensky. But these hopes were dashed. According to the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), in response to a February 2022 report by Ukraine, Hungarian minority leaders stated:

“Several legislative steps have been taken in the last years that directly affect the rights of national minorities and hinder their effective participation in public affairs. Examples include the adoption of the Law on Civil Service (2015), the laws changing the language use in the electronic media (2017), the new Framework Law on Education (2017), the Law on Support for the State Language (2019), the Law on Complete General Secondary Education (2020) and the Law on Higher Education (2014). The repeal of the Law on the Fundamentals of State Language Policy (2012) has also significantly curtailed the rights to use the languages of national minorities. The report also points out that the decision-makers do not engage in talks with the representatives of the minorities in the matters concerning them.”

This followed a Soviet-style court case brought against Hungarian minority leaders claiming “separatism”. The SBU raided schools, colleges and private homes. This was followed by government-backed demonstrations backed by paramilitary groups.

It is worth mentioning the Ukrainian extremist website Myrotvorets, which publishes a “Death List” (because many who have appeared there have subsequently been assassinated). The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Ukrainian government to shut the site down. They wrote that they “condemn the unfounded and damaging allegations published on Myrotvorets, and to clarify publicly that the Ukrainian Interior Ministry is dedicated to protecting journalists and apprehending the people responsible for threatening them.

It’s worth noting that in 2021 The Economist described Ukraine as a “hybrid regime” in its Democracy Index, somewhere between democracy and authoritarianism. It was ranked with Fiji, Senegal and Madagascar. Of course Russia was simply described as authoritarian. But Ukraine was much closer to Russia than to Norway or New Zealand.

I hope that Ukraine retains its sovereignty. Just because Ukraine is a long way from being a model democracy, Russia has no right to invade it and lay its cities waste. But the EU and NATO should beware of embracing a country which is still an emerging democracy. In some ways it is just as corrupt, thuggish, and authoritarian as Russia.

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist in Pretoria specialising in international affairs and military matters. He recently earned an M.A. in Military History from the University of Birmingham.