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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?

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    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
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:55
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    Related (on Politics.SE): Why does Russia try to stop Ukraine from approching to the EU
    – yannis
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:58
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    @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
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:18
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    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. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:26
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    @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
    Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 8:36

4 Answers 4

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I re-read my answer to this question written in 2014, and concluded that the answer was WRONG.

Therefore I replace it. There was no "crisis" in Ukraine in 2014. There was Russian invasion, which started a war, on "small scale" in 2014, and full scale since 2022.

In my previous answer, I addressed cultural and linguistic differences that existed (and still exist) in Ukraine, and their history. But these differences are NOT the main reason of the "crisis" in 2014. The real reason of what happened then and what is going on now is the attempt by Russia to restore the former empire, by brute military force.

In the 1991 Ukrainian independence referendum 92.3% of Ukrainian population approved the declaration of independence.

It was overwhelmingly approved in ALL regions including Crimea and Donbas.

Cultural background and language differences played no role in this. Ukrainians, independently of their language and cultural background want to live in a democratic state, not in an empire ruled by a dictator from Moscow.

This did not change during the years of independence. So the real reason of the "crisis" is not within the Ukraine; it is outside. And this reason is Moscow imperialism.

And it is absolutely irrelevant that until 2014 approximately 30% of Ukrainians spoke Russian. (Populations of Taiwan and Mainland China speak the same language). After the 2022 full scale invasion, people switch to Ukrainian, even those who never spoke Ukrainian before.

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    Alex, do you have a source other than your personal impression for this last updated claim?
    – jjack
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 17:24
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    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
    Commented Dec 31, 2015 at 15:56
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    @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
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 13:13
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    @John Donn: No one is more effective in "whitewashing WWII crimes", and other crimes of the past and present, than Russia. We may continue this discussion on chat if you wish.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 16:12
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    @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
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 0:03
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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.

Sources:

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

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

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    He thinks it is myopic of Western historians to treat the Soviet reconquest of Ukraine and the Caucasus as an internal "Russian" event.
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:49
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    "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
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:54
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    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
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:28
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    West Ukraine was mainly conquered by Poland in 1919 rather than by the Soviet Union (who took the rest of Ukraine).
    – Henry
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:33
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    @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
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 0:00
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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.

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To answer specifically the question of the difference between "East and West" of Ukraine, the timeframe should considered the creation of Ukraine as one of the most important point.

Note: Speaking of East and West might make things look like Ukraine is evenly separated. In reality, only few parts in Donbass and Crimea had been subjected to prefer Russia, and not all the time.

In 1991, USSR collasped. The process of collapsed included several steps, but it is important to note that an important point that interests us was that presidents of the Republics in USSR wanted independence. All of them. Even Eltsine, president of the Republic of Russia, had a dispute with Gorbatchev AND the militaries who tried to putsch against Gorbatchev. It is important to understand that, at some point and even if in various lands (Baltic countries, Caucasian ones, Ukraine) and for various reasons, nearly ALL people that rioted or manifest were against communism and in favour of Perestroika. President of the Republics that were parts of USSR, Eltsine of Russia as well as Kratchouk of Ukraine, wanted independence in 1991.

In Ukraine specifically, religious organisations played an important role in affirming Ukrainian nationalism and the opposition to communism, which would also meant for them liberty. Russian language was acknowledged as a language that should stay in Ukraine to speak between the different ethnic groups, but the majority of protests were done in Western Ukraine, especially in Lviv.

In the chain of events of 1991, it is important to note that contrary to what happened in Baltic or Caucasus countries, Ukraine was still waiting for a solution like the one Gorbatchev proposed with a federation replacing the Union of the Republics. But the failed Coup d'Etat had precipitated everything and Ukraine promulgated independence.

Contrary to Transnistria in Moldavia, there were no immediate war about the position of the Russian minority in the Republic of Ukraine. BUT borders of the Republic of Ukraine were determined by what the communists had decided when creating USSR, in 1922.

And, if you look at that, you see that the Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Ukraine followed the pattern of the previous independent Popular Republic of Ukraine (PRU), that was promulgated by a council, the Rada, that wanted to take distances with Lenine's promulgation of Russian republic (because Lenine was unclear on his promises of giving autonomy to Ukraine). This Republic had following borders:

In light green, the territory that the Rada proclamed independent as PRU, even if all was not controlled (communists and Germans controlled some)

On this picture, you see that the litigious regions of 2014 (Crimea and Donbass) were not part of Ukraine.

When the Soviets conquerred Ukraine, they created the SSR of Ukraine, following similar borders. It is only between 1939 and 1954 that the litigious regions were added. Which, with the hindsights of 2023, could be considered as an historic mistake because for probably only administrative dispustes, they created the conditions for a more than 100 000 dead war...

SO WHAT?

So we have answered why there is a dispute between "East and West" of Ukraine today, which caused the dispute of 2014. Now, there are reasons for this dispute:

  • Difference of language: Usually a difference that triggers conflict when people have other reasons for that
  • Difference of religions (Catholic, "Ukrainian orthodox", vs "Russian orthdox"): A more common reason for violent opposition
  • Holodomor and all the domination that Russians of the USSR exerted on Ukrainians: this is a very important reason
  • Post independence Russian influence on Ukraine, that through the corruption of elites, triggers resentment: Russia wanted Ukrainian political men favorable to her, so she involved in Ukrainian political life and when these men (and women) revealed corrupted, Ukrainian accused Russia. This triggers resentment. Note that today's Ukraine political men are also corrupted

For all these reasons, Ukrainian and Russians had reasons to hate each other. In 2014, the conflict inside Ukraine and the Russian intervention fed this hate. Then in 2022, Russian attack fed even more.

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    Re "On this picture, you see that the litigious regions of 2014 (Crimea and Donbass) were not part of Ukraine." Sorry, I am not following in regards to Donbas. The cities Luhansk (Luhansk Oblast), Bakhmut and Mariupol (Donetsk Oblast) are shown in the light green area of the map, which is presumably "Ukraine proper" in the context of this answer?
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 0:10
  • @njuffa You're right. I should have specified "the litigious regions of Donbass" and not the litigious regions equal to Donbass. I wanted to say that 2014 self-said "autonomous republic" in Donbass supported by Russia are not in the light green area Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 10:42

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