What is Ukraine?

FRONTLINE UKRAINE: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa (2015, 2016)

The Ukrainian flag consists of a field of blue, symbolizing the sky, above a field of yellow, symbolizing a field of wheat.

To Richard Sakwa, a scholar specializing in Russian and European politics, the flag also symbolizes the two schools of Ukrainian nationalism.

The blue sky symbolizes a unified blood-and-soil nationalism, the idea that Ukraine belongs only to those of Ukrainian lineage who speak the Ukrainian language, and everybody else is a lesser citizen or a foreigner.

The yellow field of wheat symbolizes a pluralistic nationalism, one that respects the cultures of all the peoples who live in Ukraine, not just Ukrainians and Russians, but Poles, Jews, Tatars and other minorities.

In Frontline Ukraine, Sakwa traced the history of Ukraine from 1991, when Ukraine become an independent nation, to 2014, when anationalistic anti-Russian government took power, and Ukraine was set on its present course of irreconcilable conflict with Russia and its own Russian-speaking minority.

Europe 2014. Click to enlarge.

He said Ukraine’s problems are due to a shift from the yellow to the blue.  I think this is true as far as it goes.  But Ukraine’s problems are not all of its own making.

One is that Ukraine’s boundaries were not determined by Ukrainians.  They were drawn by Joseph Stalin, and were created with the intention of making trouble down the line.

When the Soviet Union was formed, V.I. Lenin promised the Russian Empire’s former subject peoples that they could have self-government.  Stalin was given the job of drawing the boundaries of the new Soviet republics.

As someone pointed out to me, these boundaries were drawn so that each of the republics would have a large minority group and so would lack national unity.  The result has been frozen conflicts and ethnic clashes all across the former Soviet Union.  In many cases, they invited—or provided an excuse for—Russian intervention.  

Ukraine was part of this pattern.  Its eastern boundary was set so as to include many ethnic Russians.  Then, following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Polish and Rumanian territories were added to Ukraine in the west, 

However, Stalin was careful to keep Crimea, with its important naval base and Russian-majority population, as part of the Russian Soviet republic.  It didn’t become part of Ukraine until 1954, by decision of Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian.

But the real explanation for the intensity of Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalism lies in what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, the deliberate killing of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin’s government in 1929-1933  This was twofold: an attack on independent peasants, who were the majority of the population of Ukraine, and a specific attack on Ukrainian culture and nationality.

 Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow tells the story of the Holodomor.  It makes extremely painful reading.  The consequence was that some Ukrainian nationalists saw the Nazi invaders as a lesser evil than the Soviets.  Their legacy continues to this day.


Sakwa’s book has a pro-Russian tilt, but it seems like an accurate account of Ukrainian politics and Ukraine’s relations with Russia.  I’m not going to try to summarize it, but just keep on telling some of my thoughts after finishing reading it.

Ukraine’s independence was not the result of a liberation struggle, although they did vote for independence in a referendum.  The Ukrainians suddenly found themselves free as a result of the heads of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Like the Russians, they had to transform themselves overnight from a Communist autocracy to a liberal democracy, and the leaders leading that transition were people in power under the old regime.

Public assets were privatized, a new class of financial oligarchs came into being and living standards crashed in both countries.  Ukrainian poverty and corruption were possibly the worst in Europe, even worse than Russia’s.

In Russia, things changed when Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999.  He allowed the oligarchs to keep their wealth, but he was not their puppet.  His power was based on the military, the police and the security system.  

He allowed elections and limited freedom of speech, but only within limits that did not threaten his power.  For good or ill, Russia had a strong government capable of setting long-range goals.

Ukrainians took a different path.  On the surface, they had more of a democracy than Russia.   Voters had a meaningful choice of candidates and there was real freedom of speech and the press.  There was no Ukrainian president-for-life.

But their elections did not change things.  The oligarchs continued to have power.  Ukrainians kept electing candidates who promised change, but nothing changed.

Both Russia and Ukraine hoped to become part of the European family of nations.  

Mikhail Gorbachev, like Charles de Gaulle, had a vision of a “common European home” stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.  But that vision excluded the United States and so was not acceptable to the United States.  Because of geography and population, Russia would have dominated any European Union limited to the European continent.

The same was true of Russia joining NATO.  At present NATO consists of the United States and its vassals—that is, of a powerful overlord who provides protection in return for loyalty and support.  If Russia had joined, there would have been two overlords, which would be unacceptable to the USA.

Partnership for Peace was a substitute idea.  It meant that the United States and its NATO allies would work with Russia and its allies so as to assure the security of both.  But Russia was never accepted as an equal partner.  This would have been contrary the U.S. national security establishment’s goal of making the USA the world’s dominant military and financial power.

Ukraine membership in the EU and NATO were a different matter, because Ukraine would have been a subordinate, not a dominant, member.  But Ukraine had too many poor people to easily fit into the EU and was too big a country to be easily defended by NATO.

Another thing, which I hadn’t realized until I read this book, is that a new member of the European Union is required to coordinate its military and foreign policies with the existing members, most of whom are members of NATO.  This also applies to Ukraine’s 2014 association agreement.

In other words, the European Union does not have a European identity separate from the United States.  As Saka wrote, the EU has become the civilian wing of NATO.


All these things came to a head in the 2014 crisis, which Sakwa described in detail.  The crisis began with protests against Victor Yanukovich, the unpopular and deeply corrupt President of Ukraine.  An agreement was reached for early elections, which he certainly would have lost.

While he was waiting for this to happen, Ukraine was offered a much-needed loan from the International Monetary Fund.  Its terms called for higher taxes, government budget cuts, general austerity for all and opening up Ukraine’s resources and assets for purchase by foreigners.  Vladimir Putin then offered a better deal, which Yanukovich accepted.

Richard Sakwa

This was followed by a violent uprising and coup, which drove Yanukovich from the country and put in place a government headed by Arseny Yatsenuk, who was the choice of U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland.  The new government included pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists, who continue in power to this day.

The new government was strongly anti-Russian.  The Russian government responded by taking control of Crimea so as to safeguard its naval base there.  Russians in Crimea supported the takeover.  Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine rebelled and set up autonomous regions, which Russia moved to protect.

Ukraine was given an associate membership in the European Union, which meant that it was open to European Union exports, but that Ukrainians did not have the automatic right to live and work in EU countries.

Ukraine was not admitted to NATO, but it began receiving weapons and training from the USA and other NATO members.  It became a NATO member in everything but name and voting rights.  

In short, Ukraine became a U.S. vassal in its Cold War with Russia, with the results we now see.

None of this means that President Putin was justified in invading Ukraine.  But there’s a lot of blame to go around.


In an interview a month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sakwa held out hope for reconciliation between the two nations.  I wonder whether he thinks it is possible now.


Frontline Ukraine: How Europe failed to slay the demons of war, an excerpt from Frontline Ukraine in The Guardian.

Frontline Ukraine: an unrivaled account, a review by Jonathan Steele for The Guardian.

Biden’s Escalation With Russia Over Ukraine Is a Terrible Idea, an interview with Richard Sakwa for Jacobin magazine.

Partnering With Neo-Nazis in Ukraine: an Inconvenient History by Ted Snider for Antiwar.com.  [Added 04/26/2022]

Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “What is Ukraine?”

  1. wtfbuddy1 Says:

    Only thing missing is Art 51 of the UN Charter which Russia controls the Security Council at the present time. Ukraine can not catch a break. Cheers


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    A big reason Ukraine was never let into NATO was because of Crimea and Sebastapol. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was based there and the port was leased to Russia. It was not very likely that Russia would tolerate being dependent on a port completely under the control of NATO and it was imagined that consideration for NATO membership might provoke a preemptive invasion. Then 2014 happened and the chances of Ukraine joining NATO dropped from close to zero to negative numbers.

    Still, NATO did have connections with Ukraine just as it has with Sweden and Finland. However, unlike Finland and Sweden, the West was (and still is) very careful never to send weaponry to Ukraine that had any offensive use nor even a modern air defense system. By keeping such a low profile it kept Ukraine from being a military threat.

    Ukraine never made it into the EU because of the oligarch problem. Over the years they had been brought (somewhat) under control and until recently it seemed a possibility. Russia would not have liked that but the NATO issue was far more dangerous. The 2022 invasion put an end to that.


  3. philebersole Says:

    This is from an e-mail sent by a friend who lives in Ireland

    Thanks for this. Interested in the book–will ask our department’s Russia specialist about it. I must, however, object to the claim that “the EU has become the civilian wing of NATO.” As someone living in Ireland, I see that as a huge overstatement. I guess Ireland is “required to coordinate its military and foreign policies with the existing members”–hard to see how you could have a relationship as deep as the EU without that–but Ireland is not in NATO, and is pretty determined to assert its neutrality. It’s not always perfect at it–there have been a lot of questions raised about the U.S. use of its airports–but it does pretty well for a country this small. Much better than small states on Russia’s periphery, I’d say!


  4. philebersole Says:

    This is from an e-mail sent by a second friend

    Hi Phil,

    I’d like to respond to your review of ’Frontline Ukraine”

    I think an alternate viewpoint to your review is needed because from what you write one walks away with the impression of Richard Sakwa conflating issues swirling around the Ukraine crisis, thereby relegating his book, in my estimation, as minor footnote to the conflict.

    Let’s prioritize items: First would be the over-arching fact that today we are experiencing nihilism by Putin against Ukraine perhaps greater than Hitler’s nihilism on Lidice in 1942, or Hafez-al Assad — another of Hitler’s many myrmidons — responsible for the total destruction of Hama in 1982. None of us prior to today’s Ukraine genocide would have believed being witness again to last century’s madness.

    While reading your review, I was reminded of a discussion years ago with [a mutual acquaintance] when he tried to explain to me that the attack on Pearl Harbor was in part a result of a severe economic policy directed by the United States against the Japanese in the 1930’s. In essence [he] was explaining – as you did in your review of Sakwa’s book – that ‘there was enough blame to go around’. Well, would my discussion with [him] have continued, I would have asked him to explain, using his logic of mutual blame, as to what wretched policies the Chinese inflicted on Japan in the 1930’s resulting in the horrors the Japanese did to Manchuria, 1938 — otherwise known as the Asian Holocaust or the Nanking Massacre.

    If Richard Sakwa wants to document mishaps and sinister motivations of the United States, NATO, and the European Union, let him address and develop these issues in a cogent manner and enhance understanding. By having the Ukraine horror stand alongside an array of other political issues, he does not add any insight to today’s conflict.

    Vladimir Putin is a monster. He poses a direct threat to the West. Should he triumph in Ukraine, we will stand on the threshold of returning to what was known as the Dark Ages. I disagree when you write that there is plenty of blame to go around. Richard Sakwa’s book demonstrates a need for a scholarly analysis of Putin’s madness and Russia’s twisted historical psyche of religious zeal to expand its empire.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: