Apparently the "Ukraine" is actually split east and west. Many people in the eastern part would prefer for their country to be part of Russia, while protesters in the western Ukraine wants something different, perhaps full "independence." Unless they want to align with some country in Europe, or "Europe" generally.

Both parts of Ukraine were originally part of Kievan Rus, early in the past millenium. But they seemed to diverge around mid-millenium when the eastern part became part of Russia, while the western part became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet under e.g. Bogdan Khiemelnytsky, many in the western Ukraine didn't want to be part of the Commonwealth, either.

Where do the stated wishes of western (and eastern) Ukrainians differ today, and how do those statements align with those of the past? Or put another way, what historical differences between western and eastern Ukrainians would cause them to differ today? Or is the distinction between west and east Ukraine, although grounded in "history," now an artificial one today?

  • 7
    Although it's easy to assume Euromaidan is rooted in the Ukrainian cultural split (West/Ukrainian speaking vs East/Russian speaking), it's not. It has a lot more to do with economics, human rights and corruption than it has to do with history. You'll find a good overview here: forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2014/02/19/…
    – yannis
    Feb 20 '14 at 15:55
  • 2
    Related (on Politics.SE): Why does Russia try to stop Ukraine from approching to the EU
    – yannis
    Feb 20 '14 at 15:58
  • 1
    @YannisRizos Good point that although historical context is important, it is not always a prime determinant. Other more immediate issues can force action as much or more than history does.
    – Mike
    Feb 20 '14 at 16:18
  • 4
    Actually, I doubt that many people anywhere in Ukraine would actually want to become Russian citizens, given how much (about 0) an ordinary citizen's life/health/property is worth in Russia, should he fun afoul of even the lowest official. People know that, even in East Ukraine and hardly want the same kind of insecure life for themselves. Cultural identification is something else, of course - no argument about that. Feb 20 '14 at 16:26
  • 4
    @FelixGoldberg: corruption in Ukraine is even worse than in Russia. In fact, I think that the current crises was caused by frustration with the abuses Ukrainians constantly suffer from their own government. "Berkut", the police that attacks the "maidans", was involved in intimidating voters during elections that installed Yanukovich, among other things. From what I hear from people who live there the "anti-maidan" protesters were mostly organized and paid by the government; there are a few videos on youtube with evidence. The East-West split much discussed here is not the primary cause.
    – Michael
    Feb 22 '14 at 8:36

Population of Ukraine is split into two parts. Roughly by the Dnieper river. These parts have very different history. They speak different languages (most of them). Shortly the story goes like this.

Western Ukraine has its origin in Kievan Rus. Soon after Mongol invasion, part of this territory joined the Kingdom of Poland, another part the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Later Poland and Lithuania united in one state called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwelth. However the population of the present Western Ukraine never mingled with the rest of the population of the Commonwealth because of the religious difference. (Ukrainians were mostly Orthodox, Poles and most "Lithuanians" Catholic). Modern Belorussia was also a part of the Commonwealth.

The territory of Eastern Ukraine (Wild steppe) was settled much later, by settlers from Russia and from the Commonwealth (Cossacs). Until 18th century this was a nomad territory, controlled by various Tatar descendents of the Mongol state.

As a result of 17th century wars it went to Russia, and the territory of the modern Ukraine was split along Dnieper between Russia and the Commonwealth.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was destroyed in the end of 18th century, jointly by Russia, Prussia and Austria. As a result, most of the Ukraine "united" within Russian empire, except a small part which remained in Austria. After WWI, this part went to Poland and Roumania, and in 1939-40 Soviet Union invaded Poland and Roumania, and joined this remaining part to Soviet Ukraine.

So there was always a tension, within Ukraine: one part of the population feels "European" and another feels "Russian". One historian noticed that the dividing line almost exactly coincides with the dividing line between steppe and forest geographical zones:-)

The most radical pro-European part is exactly that one which was annexed by Soviet Union in 1939-40. (Lviv, Ternopol regions). The most pro-Russian are eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, etc.

A separate part is Crimea peninsula. Its population was Tatar. It was invaded and annexed by Russia in 18th century. In 1940-s the Soviets expelled all Tatar population from Crimea. Only after collapse of Soviet union they were permitted to return. Crimea was administratively joined with Ukraine in the second half of 20th century, though historically and geographically it was always closer to Ukraine then to Moscowia. Most of the non-Tatar population nowadays speaks Russian. It is very questionable which part Crimea will take in the current conflict.

(Added in 2020: the doubts about this completely disappeared in 2014: majority of Tatar population is on Ukraine's side).

This, to my understanding explains the differences in Ukraine. I don't give any references, all this information can be easily checked with Wikipedia. (Or you may consider this first-hand account as I lived most of my life in Ukraine, in both parts of it:-)

EDIT. This was written more than a year ago, and dramatic changes happened in this period, so I will update. One can shortly say that during the last year Ukrainians finally consolidated in a modern nation. In the face of the Russian aggression, the differences between the East and West, and also between ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars and Jews, as well as language and religious differences became secondary: an overwhelming majority of citizens of Ukraine feel themselves as one nation now. Unfortunately, one has to thank Russian invasion for this unexpected development.

  • 3
    Alex, do you have a source other than your personal impression for this last updated claim?
    – jjack
    Jul 5 '15 at 17:24
  • 3
    Thank you for updating this answer with the edit. Years from now, someone may read this to see "the view as it was happening." Hooray for a free and independent Ukraine!
    – Mike
    Dec 31 '15 at 15:56
  • 1
    What Alex forgets to mention in his "EDIT" is the anti-russian propaganda in Ukraine since the fall of Soviet Union (similar in spirit to the insane and murderous Ukrainian nationalism in WWII, see Lvov pogroms just to start to understand). Actually, if this propaganda was directed against jews, it would be called "antisemitism". Since the west uses Ukraine as a battering ram against Russia, this aspect of Ukrainian independency is "omitted" from the western mass media. This propaganda, together with "western support", should also explain the "Ukrainian consolidation last year".
    – John Donn
    Apr 1 '16 at 10:12
  • 1
    @John Donn: In my short answer I could not mention all aspects of the situation. Russia and Ukraine are in fact in the state of war. During a war, everyone uses some propaganda. And you forget to mention the really rabid Russian propaganda which is going on now, and of which your comment is a part.
    – Alex
    Apr 1 '16 at 13:13
  • 2
    @John Donn "Since the west uses Ukraine as a battering ram against Russia, " Do you eve notice how you are influenced by russian propaganda?
    – Orsinus
    Apr 4 '16 at 0:03

One could look to the 1596 Union of Brest when the Ukrainian bishops (in Poland-Lithuania) chose not to recognize the new Muscovite Patriarch and formed the Uniate communion (Greek Catholic Church of the Slavic Rite). The Uniates formed in what is today western Ukraine and Belarus, whereas those across the border in the expanding Muscovy (what we now call Russia) chose to become Russian Orthodox.

One could make a case that this religious division kept the border between Poland-Lithuania and Russia as a cultural fault line even after the political border shifted westward with Russian expansion.

You can see the remnants of the old border in other ways too. Western Ukraine was considered part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the nineteenth century whereas eastern Ukraine was not.

During the "Russian Civil War" of 1918-1921 (which Norman Davies claims is a misnomer), the short lived "West Ukrainian Republic" fought both Pilsudski's Polish forces and the Russian backed Bolshevik army. Unfortunately, the Soviet reconquest of Ukraine kept us from seeing how an independent West Ukraine would behave.

In "Clash of Civilizations", Samuel Huntington uses the old Polish-Lithuanian/Russian border as the dividing line between the Western and the Orthodox civilizations. Interestingly, he makes several mentions of the possibility of Ukraine splitting in two. This did not happen in the almost 20 years since he wrote it, but it remains a possibility.


"Europe: A History" by Norman Davies (1996)

"The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" by Samuel Huntington (1996)

  • 2
    He thinks it is myopic of Western historians to treat the Soviet reconquest of Ukraine and the Caucasus as an internal "Russian" event.
    – Mike
    Feb 20 '14 at 16:49
  • 2
    "It is still more unfortunate that the creation of the Soviet Union, which began in December 1922, is often thought to have involved a mere change of name. In this way the lengthy process of decomposition of the Empire, and the five-year labors of the Bolshevik's to replace it, can be passed over in silence. Crucial distinctions between "Russia", "the Russian Empire", "Soviet Russia", and "the Soviet Union" only entered general discourse when the Bolshevik's handiwork started to fall apart 70 years later."
    – Mike
    Feb 20 '14 at 16:54
  • 1
    I would say it is a good term for Reds vs Whites in Russia itself, not as good elsewhere in the empire with diverse break-away movements that failed.
    – Mike
    Feb 20 '14 at 17:28
  • 1
    West Ukraine was mainly conquered by Poland in 1919 rather than by the Soviet Union (who took the rest of Ukraine).
    – Henry
    Feb 20 '14 at 23:33
  • 1
    @FelixGoldberg - at a guess, I'd say that most of the fighting was between Russia proper on one side and the satellite areas like the Ukraine, White Russia, the Crimea and so on. So it could be described as a new Russian state reforming its imperial borders.
    – Oldcat
    Feb 21 '14 at 0:00

Question: What is the historical background of the current Ukraine crisis?

Short Answer:
The historic background of the current Ukrainian Crisis has more to do with Ukraine's division/independence from Russia (August 24, 1991) and the subsequent break up of the Soviet Union(December 26, 1991) than it does with any internal Ukrainian motivation. The "Ukrainian Crisis" is not a reflection of Ukrainian division. It's more rightfully named a Ukrainian Russian War. A war which pits the "divided" Ukranian people on one side and an only semi clandestine Russian force on the other.

Detailed Answer:
This is a very controversial question. Ukraine is indeed split between east and west along religious grounds Orthodox and Catholic. But the "split" concerning Russia does not follow this divide. 2/3rds of Ukranians self identify as Orthodox and only 10% Roman Catholic. Many Ukranians call themselves Christians and do not specify a branch.

CIA Factbook Ukraine
Ukraine's population is overwhelmingly Christian; the vast majority - up to two thirds - identify themselves as Orthodox, but many do not specify a particular branch; the OCU and the UOC-MP each represent less than a quarter of the country's population, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church accounts for 8-10%, and the UAOC accounts for 1-2%; Muslim and Jewish adherents each compose less than 1% of the total population

If Orthodox Christians actually favored reunification with Russia their would be no need for a Russian army to invade and occupy Eastern parts of the country.

Russo-Ukrainian War: Putin must be held accountable
Putin’s ex-advisor Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the Donbas war according to his former US counterpart in negotiations Kurt Volker, stated in February 2020, “forceful coercion to establish brotherly relations is the only method that has historically proven effective in relation to Ukraine.”

From everything we know in the west. The current Ukrainian crisis does not involve Ukranians beyond them being the victims of Russian aggression.

Russia Is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine New York Times
It is an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russian forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.
In essence, Moscow’s state-controlled news media outlets are loudly and incessantly calling on Ukraine and the international community to calm a situation that Ukraine, the United States and the European Union say the Kremlin is doing its best to destabilize.

It is true that there were numerous historical propaganda justifications for the "split", also for the "intervention". They are pretty much all bogus. They are just political cover for the Russian land grab. A war instigated by Russia, manned by Russian citizens both active duty and paramilitary forces and paid for Russia. Clearly much of the Western world believes Russia responsible because the sanctions Russia has been facing now since their semi clandestine invasion.

What we know is Russia sponsored paramilitary forces which caused civil unrest in the Ukraine which broadened into a sudo clandestine invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military.

A Separatist Militia in Ukraine With Russian Fighters Holds a Key
When more than 40 of the militia’s fighters were killed in heavy fighting near the Donetsk airport last month, separatist leaders said that 33 were Russian citizens. Their bodies were sent in a refrigerated truck to the Russian border for repatriation.

Pro-Russia Troops Take Symbol of Ukraine Uprising
Increasingly, a cadre of commanders with Russian citizenship like Mr. Borodai and a shadowy military commander named Igor Strelkov seem to be seizing control of the often rudderless rebellion as clashes with the Ukrainian Army intensify.

We know the "little green men" wearing Russian Uniforms, driving Russian tanks, and carrying Russian weapons; were in fact Russian active duty military personnel because they posted photos and notices on social media proclaiming such.

Russia Has Deployed Thousands of Tanks, Troops to Ukraine, Top Official Says
Moscow sends a ‘continuous flow of munitions’ into the conflict zone as part of a broader scheme to degrade Ukraine’s army.

It is after all why Russia is currently under sanctions by many countries including US, EU, Australia, and Canada. We know Russian paramilitary groups were enlisted to enter Ukraine and destabilize the country because the leaders of these groups are mostly Russian and the men involved in their militia's supporting separation with Ukraine are also mostly Russian. That's over an above the actual Russian armies involvement there.

Now as to your question about historical background. When the Ukraine separated from Russia, it took with it Russia's best black sea ports. These ports are an important asset for Russia and something down through time under the Czar's something Russia historically was willing to go to war over. Russia want's back what it once had. It's as simple as that.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.