Third Rome: A Very Brief History of Russia and Ukraine

This week I’d like to talk about Russia and its favourite neighbour, Ukraine.

To say that the two have a shared history is an understatement. Over the last thousand years, states based in the areas covered by the modern states of the Russian Federation and Ukraine have been intertwined in a spectacular odyssey of war, religion, and culture.

It all begins in the 10th century, in the aftermath of the Great Schism, and like so many things in European history, Romans are involved. The Byzantines, medieval Eastern Romans, were fighting wars on multiple fronts. Arabs competed with them in their East, Bulgars in their north, and Catholics in their spirits. The Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople had been at loggerheads for centuries over a number of theological disputes, and there were many tussles over autonomy, authority, and claims to primacy. Their respective churches had been proselytising over much of Europe, often encouraged by pagan rulers, who, like late imperial Rome, saw the potential benefits that allying with a Church could bring to their attempts to build a State.

Volodymyr preaches away. He’s wearing the high fashion of the Byzantine court, and you can see Byzantine icons and pages behind him.

One such ruler was Volodymyr, ruler of a powerful state centred around Kyiv in what is now Ukraine. Kyiv was strategically positioned at the hub of a network of trade routes from Constantinople to Scandinavia, from Asia into Europe. Volodymyr was a member of the people called the Rus’, warlike Scandinavian raiders who had migrated across much of Northern Europe, using their longboats to rapidly move across rivers and oceans. His ancestors had raided Constantinople and frequently interfered in wars between the Byzantines and Bulgars, and posed a serious threat to Byzantine control of Black Sea trade, particularly their outposts in Crimea. In the late 980s, Volodymyr supposedly led a successful attack on the city of Cherson at the southern edge of the Crimean Peninsula. At the same time, the reigning Byzantine emperor was facing a serious revolt by two of his senior generals, and Volodymyr very shrewdly offered to help and evacuate Cherson provided that the emperor’s sister was given to him in marriage. The embattled emperor agreed, and Volodymyr, who had up to this point been the staunchest of pagans, now saw an opportunity to solidify his control over the fledgeling Rus states by becoming a proponent of organised religion. Kyiv was now the newest outpost for Orthodox (=Byzantine) proselytising, and within a few centuries, the Orthodox Church held sway over most of this part of Europe, including lands around Novgorod and Muscovy.

Kyiv’s pre-eminence in trade also proved to be its undoing, as it was sacked and destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Ukraine’s vast grasslands eventually became home to nomadic tribes such as the Cossacks. The “centre of gravity”, as it were, of the Rus peoples then shifted further North, to Novgorod and Muscovy. Muscovy, centred around Moscow, would eventually expand to fill the vacuum left by the retreating Mongols. When the Byzantines were eventually defeated by the Ottomans, and Constantinople became Istanbul, Muscovy redefined itself as the new bastion of Byzantine (=Roman) culture, its rulers claiming the title of Caesar (Czar, Tsar) and the mantle of the Third Rome (the second having been Constantinople). This served it very well indeed in its conquest of the other Rus’ states and its rechristening as the Russian Empire.

The Zaparozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, a painting depicting the fierce semi-nomads who settled in Ukraine laughing at the creative insults they are sending to the Sultan.

The Russian Empire would emerge as a European superpower by the late 18th century, after adopting Western European administrative and technological ideas. This included gunpowder, which gave it a massive edge over the cavalry archer-focussed nomads of the vast Eurasian steppe. Russia was now able to undertake an unprecedented expansion all the way to Siberia, Russian colonies dotting the Asian plains while vast agrarian estates emerged in its European territories. Ukraine was no exception – though the Ottomans clung to Crimea until the late 19th century, Ukraine itself became part of the Russian Empire, and the rich coal and mineral deposits of Eastern Ukraine were particularly attractive to the industrialising Russians, who began to migrate there en masse, encouraged by the machinery of the imperial state, which embarked on “Russification” policies. The state frowned on the use of Ukrainian, encouraging Russian instead.

Things began to heat up in the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Devastating famines wracked Ukraine, decimating rural Ukrainians and further increasing the share of ethnic Russians in urban centres. Ukraine was further torn by the Second World War, with Eastern Ukraine, which had once attracted the attention of Russian imperialists, now attracting the attention of Nazi imperialists. After the end of the War, Russian immigrants became an even larger part of the demographic makeup of Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine itself became an important part of the USSR, with its own Supreme Soviet, and it was the focus of much investment and reconstruction in the immediate postwar years. The economic slowdown that plagued the last years of the Soviet Union also hurt Ukraine, however, and it would secede from the Union in 1991, ending any realistic hope of the USSR surviving and ending a period of Moscow-based rule that had lasted for nearly 300 years.

If Ukraine thought that it would be easier to chart its own path, however, it was wrong. The 90s were a period of extreme political and economic turmoil, paralleling developments in the Russian Federation. By the early 2000s, though, with the rise of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to the Presidency, Russia began to limp back to normalcy with an economy dependent on petrodollars, with an alliance emerging between the state and the infamous oligarchs. With him came a resurgence in Russia’s international activity, with the former superpower making tentative attempts to reclaim its position on the global stage in an unabashedly unipolar world. From the Russian perspective, former Soviet republics, especially those with significant Russian minorities, should rightfully have been within its sphere of influence, and their inclination towards the West – especially NATO and the EU – was extremely alarming. In 2004, a Ukrainian Presidential candidate challenging an oligarch who was standing for election was poisoned, and he declared that Russia was likely responsible. This same oligarch would eventually become President and remain so till 2014 before being toppled by pro-EU protests. His removal triggered drastic action from Russia, which annexed Crimea and attempted to do the same in Eastern Ukraine. The method used was to trigger protests and have separatist “governments” request Russian interference. Eastern Ukraine, as mentioned, had already been the target of Russian colonisation efforts for centuries, and the failure of the Ukrainian government to develop the region would result in large swathes of the population demanding that it “stand alone” in an ambiguously worded referendum. Of course, considering the mineral wealth of Eastern Ukraine, the central government was not going to let Russia take over seriously. A grinding war has begun to play out in the region, with over 9,000 casualties so far. The Russian goal seems to be little more than to impose high costs on Ukraine, as opposed to actually doing something in these territories – the economic situation remains as terrible as it always has. As a result, anti-Russia sentiment in Ukraine is high, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, hearkening back to the efforts of St Volodymyr, is now attempting to chart its own course, breaking free of the authority of Moscow, whose control of the Ukrainian Church stems back to the time of the Tsars.

The Euromaidan Protests. January 20, 2014.

The inability of the Ukrainian government to deliver development, and the widespread belief that it is corrupt and incompetent, has prompted voters to choose anti-establishment candidates with more bluster than competence (in this matter, Ukraine seems to be going the same way as many other democracies). However, with Russia breathing down their neck, their current President might not have been the most ideal choice. Volodymyr Zelensky is a TV comedian rose to fame playing an everyman who becomes President as a result of a viral video of him ranting about corruption. He is now President of Ukraine. He is undoubtedly out of his depth, and Putin’s recent declarations of a simplified procedure for Ukrainians – not just from Eastern Ukraine, where the war continues to this day, but all Ukrainians, hints that Russia still sees itself as the dominant partner in this relationship. A Ukrainian task force is exchanging artillery shells with Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine as I type this, but it is unlikely that it will lead to any sort of conclusion – it’s likely little more than a PR exercise for both sides. Zelensky has also put out a rather vague statement on Facebook declaring that the annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s “aggression” in the eastern regions, have put to an end their common ties, and that a solution can only be found once the border between the two states has been restored. He has, however, hinted that he will accept Russian control over Crimea, saying that “Crimea will return only when power changes in Russia”, an event that seems rather improbable at the moment.

What does this mean for the future of Russia-Ukraine relations? I doubt that Putin expects to regain control over the entire country given how entrenched anti-Russia sentiment is, and will settle for increased autonomy from Russia-leaning Eastern Ukraine, which will give him a say in electoral matters for years to come. Energy deals are also likely to materialise. Provided that Russia does not feel threatened by US presence in Eastern Europe – which is unlikely given the US’ broader paranoia about a Russia-China axis, its annoyance at Russian support for the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and Russia’s ambitious plans for the Arctic, which seem to have rattled the Nordic countries. That said, Europe is apparently more inclined to seek trade and accommodation with Russia than the US is at this point, and the Trump administration’s belligerence does not seem to be going down well with its NATO allies. A multipolar world might not be as bad for international order as American think tanks would have us believe, perhaps.