Pitt’s Slavic Department Explains the History of the Russian-Ukrainian War

When Russian missiles began ravaging several towns across Ukraine, Tetyana Shlikhar’s friends back home desperately sought safety. Some were able to flee the country, but others continue to live in fear in the now war-torn country.

“They didn’t know where to go, so they just crossed the border,” said Shlikhar, Russia’s top undergraduate adviser and guest speaker.

The reasoning behind Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine lies in the long and complicated history of both nations. Professors from Pitt’s Slavic Department and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies help take a closer look at what led and caused this war.

A journalist connected Shlikhar’s friend with a Polish woman on Facebook who helped her cross the border and provided shelter for a few days until they could find relatives in France. Poland has quickly become the first place of refuge for Ukrainians, but not everyone is allowed or wants to leave Ukraine.

Shlikhar said that men – specifically male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 – are currently not allowed to leave the country. Not wanting to break up their family and leave their husbands, some of Shlikhar’s friends decided not to travel abroad. Others couldn’t leave because they simply didn’t know anyone abroad, and Shlikhar said those who remained fled to western Ukraine or villages outside kyiv.

“Villages are also not safe, especially villages around Kyiv, they were completely destroyed and it was very devastating,” Shlikhar said. “It’s a very difficult reality.”

Trevor Erlacher, academic adviser to the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, said Russia and Ukraine had an “asymmetrical” relationship dating back to the 17th century, when they existed as two separate states. The Russian Empire eventually assimilated what is now called Ukraine after a series of conquests during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Erlacher said two factions existed in 19th century Imperial Russia – Russian nationalists and Ukrainian nationalists. The conflict between these two factions was not of a violent nature – they had competing ideas of what the Russian Empire should look like.

“On the one hand there is this idea that they are all one people, that they all belong to the Tsar and that they all belong to one state,” Erlacher said. “And then on the Ukrainian side, [they believe] that there should be at least some sort of local autonomy, and that they should have equal rights within a federation of nations.

Ukraine claimed full independence in 1918, but once World War I began, Erlacher said empires across Europe and Eurasia began to split apart and formed “new nation states”. This element ushered in the formation of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was one of its founding members in 1922, according to Erlacher.

“For a time there was a policy called ukranization in which the Ukrainian language and culture was elevated and promoted by the Soviet authorities. It was a period of Ukrainian revival,” Erlacher said. “In the 1930s, as Stalin consolidated his power, there was a reversal of this policy and a return to what we might call Russification, which was combined with a man-made famine in 1932-33 who killed millions of Ukrainians and others living in the republic.”

Erlacher said the “years of terror” that followed these events and the tragedies of World War II left a traumatic effect on the people of Ukraine. The nation finally gained independence in 1991, and Ukrainian society has changed rapidly since then, according to Erlacher.

He said that Russia and Ukraine will not meet in violent conflict until war breaks out in the Donbass region in 2014.

Shlikhar said that the two main factors that led to the Donbass war were the Euromaidan revolution in 2013 and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. She said the Euromaidan revolution resulted from former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, which meant that Ukrainians had to continue to deal with Russia and “turn their backs “to Europe.

“Most Ukrainians were already oriented towards the West. They wanted European life and no longer wanted dictatorship and totalitarian rule,” Shlikhar said. “They started to oppose this alliance with Russia.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea became an autonomous republic of Ukraine until its annexation by Russia. Shlikhar said the annexation of Crimea was “peaceful”, but a fake referendum was used to accomplish it, so Ukrainians still see the region as “occupied territory of Ukraine”.

The Euromaidan revolution remained intact during this time, and Erlacher said reactions to the revolution were much more “hostile” in Ukraine’s Donbass region. This hostility allowed the Russian government to form a separatist movement and intervene directly with Russian soldiers.

Shlikhar said Ukraine was a “luxurious” piece of land that Russia always wanted to have, and as the country began to move towards Europe, President Putin saw Ukraine as a threat and started the war for fear that Russia would permanently lose this land. in Europe.

“Without Ukraine, Russia is just a country. With Ukraine, it’s an empire. It has power, the Black Sea,” Shlikhar said. “Ukraine is a very resource-rich country. It has very fertile soil and is one of the largest countries in Europe outside of Russia.

The war never officially ended and has racked up nearly 14,000 deaths over the past eight years, according to Erlacher. He said the world had finally forgotten about this conflict until its most recent escalation – the full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine from late February.

The international community has shown its condemnation of the Russian attacks by imposing sanctions and other financial restrictions on Russia. Nancy Condee, director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, said a sanction is a restriction on business transactions that one country can impose on another.

“U.S. bans include restrictions on telecommunications, semiconductors, lasers, encryption security, as well as navigation, air and sea technologies,” Condee said. “Internationally, each country or group of member states, like the EU, has a different profile.”

The European Union sanctioned Russia’s seven largest banks, but have exempted the two largest financial institutions – Sberbank and Gazprombank – because those institutions are needed to stabilize EU payments for Russia’s oil and gas imports, according to Condee .

But she said the United States had banned both Sberbank and Gazprom because they are much less dependent on Russian natural gas and oil than EU countries.

Condee said the United States and EU member states had pushed to disconnect these seven Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. SWIFT connects more than 200 countries and territories through 11,000 financial institutions, according to Condee, and she said disconnecting Russian banks from the system will prevent other SWIFT institutions from receiving their payment messages.

Condee said the sanctions and restrictions imposed on Russia affect the daily lives of its citizens in “inconsistent and unpredictable ways” and are expected to hit the wealthy hardest.

“The ‘liberal intelligentsia’ – although ‘liberal’ has different associations in Russian – is appalled and sickened by the invasion and its consequences. This confirms the impossibility of any positive association with their state and its ideology,” said Condee: “They don’t see any good results, so the restrictions are just confirmation of that desperation.

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