Ukraine; a deeply divided country with dangers of escalation

Sent On: 
Sun, 2022-03-20
Newsletter Number: 

The Centre for Arab-West Understanding has since 2007 received over 400 student interns, including Russians. I am impressed by the quality of Russian students. They tend to be well educated in different languages and research skills. One of them is Valeria Bez. Of course, the war also affects her. This is unfair. The economic boycott of Russians also hit millions of people who have nothing to do with Russian politics. For an impression about current life in Russia read Nikita Petrov.


We agreed with Valeria to write about the Russian-Ukrainian war from her perspective as a Russian. In my previous newsletter I referred to American political scientist John Mearsheimer who blames the West for stirring up the conflict. Valeria believes that Mearsheimer seems to underestimate the inner conflict between the Russian and Ukrainian nations.


Valeria’s report is published in Arab-West Report. Her story is very historical which is essential in understanding how two closely related Slavic nations have grown so far apart.


Russians and Ukrainians are ethnically very close. Yet, throughout history, the north-east of Ukraine has been under the influence of the Catholic West, mostly Polish but also other nations, while the south-eastern part of Ukraine was initially under the influence of the Ottoman Empire and later the Russian Empire.


Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine



With the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917, Valeria writes, “Ukraine was proclaimed a sovereign People’s Republic, yet this territory was being torn apart by Bolsheviks, the white movement, Ukrainians, the Polish, anarchist, and other military forces: in 1918 and 1919 new governments would come to power and get overthrown. Finally, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic created by Bolsheviks was integrated into the USSR with its emergence in 1922. By this time, despite the proclaimed independence within the Union, its armed forces, communications, economical infrastructure, and other elements of a sovereign state had merged with those of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, turning Ukraine into a sort of colony.”


The merger into the USSR resulted in a separatist movement. Joseph Stalin responded with a deliberate policy to starve the Ukrainians, resulting in millions of deaths. This was accompanied by a violent russification of Ukraine. The more violence, however, was used, the stronger the wish to become independent from Russia became. This was obvious in the Second World War when many nationalists, such as Stepan Bandera, collaborated with Nazi Germany against the USSR. He fled after the Red Army conquered Ukraine and was assassinated by the KGB in 1959. The neo-Nazi elements are still present and strong in Ukraine. The right-wing Azov battalion that is now fighting in Mariupol is such an example. They are not large in numbers, but the war gives them the chance to play a devastating role.


Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (president between 2005 and 2010) made Bandera posthumously “Hero of Ukraine.”  That shows a preference of Nazi collaboration over Russian interference. Both groups as Azov and declaring a major Nazi-collaborator as hero strengthened the Russian argument that Ukraine is deeply influenced by neo-Nazi elements.


The division of Ukraine was clear in the 2010 Presidential elections.


Map of Ukraine with voting preferences
Source: Ukraine Central Election Commission


Valeria concludes that the tendency of great powers is to decide people’s fates. This has proven to be destructive in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other countries. Political interference has driven Russians and Ukrainians apart but there are also heartbreaking narratives of the brotherhood between Russians and Ukrainians which somehow co-exists despite the destruction of the latter in the war of 2022. Valeria concludes her report with the statement that “we must keep in mind that Europe is at risk of a war that will leave no winners.”


For Valeria’s full story please click here.


Prof. Dr. Rob de Wijk, professor of international relations and security at the University of Leiden and founder of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), fears that many European leaders have no affinity to foreign policy and qualifications to contain international conflicts. Ukrainians president Zelensky wants more weapons, fighter jets and a no-fly zone and if European leaders would give in would draw Europe into a war of disastrous consequences (Trouw, March 18, 2022).


The complexity of the war, the (potential) consequences of continuation and escalations and the inability of many leaders to contain conflict situations makes this war indeed very dangerous for Europe and the rest of the world.



March 20, 2022

Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report