Russia’s occupation of Ukraine: a historical and centuries-old process
Article by: Oksana Syroyid
Editor’s NoteThis year’s Lviv Security Forum brought together security experts from different countries in order to model the resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict so that the sovereignty of Ukraine on territories temporarily occupied by Russia would be restored and Ukraine would be protected against Russian aggression in the future. In the preface to the report of the modeling exercise, the Security Forum’s co-chair Oksana Syroyid laid out an essential introduction to Russia’s war against Ukraine — that is, the centuries-old struggle of Russia to access warm-water ports. It is through this prism that the current war against Ukraine — and Russia’s attempts to resurrect its former empire altogether — should be viewed.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict reaches back to the times when Ukraine emerged on the world map. In fact, it had started long before Russia established itself as a state. The nature of this conflict, though, has remained unchanged.
Since the creation of the Tsardom of Muscovy, its eastern and northern territories have been protected by seas, and the southern territories have been protected by mountains.
However, basic human resources, agricultural land, and infrastructure routes were located along the western border. In addition, while possessing vast natural resources, the Russian Empire didn’t have access to warm-water ports.This determined the main strategy of its expansion westward – to secure access to the Baltic and Black Seas and increase the buffer zone around the lifeline containing vital infrastructure and resources.
The defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire in World War I and the October Coup didn’t in any way change the imperialist policies of Bolshevik Russia.
In fact, immediately after its formation in 1917, Soviet Russia began the occupation of the newly established Ukrainian People’s Republic. The occupation began with the formation of the “Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets” – an enclave controlled by the Bolsheviks (similar to today’s ORDLO – Separate Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions).
Nazi Germany was the closest ally for Stalin’s empire at that time. Hitler and Stalin relied on each other’s resources in preparation for their own wars.
Stalin intended to move west, establish control over the seas and increase the “sanitary zone” under the banner of the socialist revolution. Hitler needed Ukrainian lands as the source of a workforce and food for his future empire.Ukraine, or rather its land, remained the main trophy in the war between the two dictators. That’s why people weren’t spared. Ukrainians accounted for almost 40% of all human losses of the Soviet Union in World War II.
World War II was started by both dictators, but only one of them was punished.
Stalin ended the war as a winner who spelled the terms of peace. As a result, as of 1945, the Soviet empire had advanced its borders to Berlin.
Stalin intended to move even further west. He first laid siege to West Berlin and established the German Democratic Republic (once again, similar to today’s ORDLO) in breach of the conditions of the occupation zones.
Later on, in 1952, he attempted to expand westward, proposing that German leader Konrad Adenauer unite the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany under conditions of an amnesty to former members of the Nazi party, new elections, and the non-aligned status of a united Germany. To this Chancellor Adenauer replied,
“Refusal to integrate with the West will lead to the capture of Germany by the Bolsheviks and will be tantamount to “political suicide.”
Despite unsuccessful attempts at further expansion to the west, the Soviet empire achieved the cherished dream of all Russian tsars.
Control of the Baltic Sea was secured by the Kaliningrad enclave – the remnant of the Kingdom of Prussia with its capital Königsberg, as well as the occupation of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the GDR satellite.
The Black Sea was put under Russian control as a result of control of the Crimea and the Ukrainian coastline, which was further boosted by the occupation of Georgia and the turning Bulgaria and Romania into Soviet satellites. The “sanitary zone” was expanded enough to keep the empire’s lifeline safe.
Without control over the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as without control over Ukrainian resources, “Greater Russia” is impossible.Meanwhile, Europe needed to recover from the war of the past, protect itself from the Soviet military threat of the present, and prevent wars between European nations in the future.To maintain geopolitical balance on the European continent, the North Atlantic Alliance was established, whose aim, according to its first Secretary General, Baron Ismay, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
The democratic world assessed the purpose and methods of the Soviet threat adequately. However, the West was unable to look into the roots of the problem: throughout the decades of the Cold War, it was communism as an ideology, not the imperial nature of Russia which was considered a threat.
That is why Russian aggression against Ukraine, unfortunately, was inevitable. It is no coincidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.”
Without control over the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as without control over Ukrainian resources, “Greater Russia” is impossible.
Initially, Russia took advantage of Ukrainians’ lack of experience in state-building and management of their resources after independence, and during large-scale privatization, they freely bought up strategic enterprises and critical infrastructure.Most of the figures now called “oligarchs” have monopolized Ukrainian regional gas companies, oblenergos, thermal power plants, shipyards, and access to key natural resources for Russian money and in Russia’s interest.
They have never held a Ukrainian identity or interest in the development of Ukraine, so they easily pumped out and continue to pump out money from Ukraine through offshore jurisdictions. At the same time, in order to maintain their monopolies and guarantee Ukraine’s movement in the Russian fairway, those actors established control over Ukrainian politics through dependent media and political projects.
After all, today these oligarchs no longer make a secret of their reliance on Russia, openly lobbying for a Russian “appeasement” scenario in both Ukraine and the United States.
However, even this control wasn’t enough for Russia’s plans. Generations of people were born and raised in Ukraine, for whom any pro-Russian sentiments were alien and who increasingly looked to the West, identifying with European civilization and not with the “single Slavic people.” Time played against Russia – the territory got out of control.
The Revolution of Dignity proved to be only a pretext for the Russian invasion. The main purpose of the annexation of Crimea was to gain control of the Black Sea and strengthen geopolitical leverage in the greater Mediterranean region.
Thus, the main reasons for the occupation of East Ukraine were the levers of Russian pressure on Ukraine in both domestic and foreign policies.
Is it possible to resolve the age-old Russian-Ukrainian conflict? Is Ukraine able to do it alone? Is the democratic world ready to recognize the dependence of its own security on Ukraine’s security, realizing, in historical perspective, the price it will have to pay in the event of Ukraine’s loss of its freedom and independence?
“Thus it would be hypocrisy to deny that an independent Ukraine is as essential to […] the tranquility of the world. Merely because it is inconvenient to consider it and highly so to attempt its solution, the problem has too long been ignored. But it is a problem which has deep and intricate roots in history and in its modern form has assumed extreme urgency. Voltaire noted admiringly the persistence with which Ukrainians aspired to freedom and remarked that being surrounded by hostile lands, they were doomed to search for a Protector.
Until they are assured of liberty they will be faithless to whichever State they are bound and will continue freely to shed their own blood and that of their conquerors. So long, too, as this situation continues other nations will be tempted to exploit it. What then is the use of pretending that there is peace when there is no peace? Nor will there be any until this Ukrainian question is satisfactorily disposed of.”
These are the words of Lancelot Lawton, a British soldier, historian, economist, Ukrainian scholar, public figure, and international journalist, which he spoke in 1935. Ignoring these words then cost Europeans tens of millions of lives. Perhaps, history provides us with a chance to correct this mistake, doesn’t it?