Why Ukraine is Europe's most dangerous border

The hidden frontiers in the battle for Ukraine

As tanks assemble on Russia’s border with Ukraine, fears of outright war on the edge of Europe are mounting, with some incendiary language from officials in Moscow hailing ‘the end of Ukraine’. The region has been a hotspot ever since Russia annexed the Donbas region in 2014, drawing anxious global attention. But what makes Ukraine such an important point of tension between Russia and the West? This is an ancient conflict on many fronts - for the land of Ukraine, the minds of its people and the keys to Europe itself, writes Bohdan Ben.


As Putin sends more and more troops, the mounting conflict on the Ukrainian border threatens a large-scale war on the edge of Europe. The precarious development of the country of Ukraine – as a territory and a self-identifying nation - is being severely endangered by the war in the Donbas. That fate is the key to Europe’s relationship to Russia, a relationship with serious, global consequences. But to understand this conflict one must understand the history – military and psychological – of this ancient, disputed border.

For the last two centuries Russia controlled over 80% of Ukrainian territory. Despite a brief period of independence proclaimed in 1918, it was only in 1991 that Ukrainians could truly establish an independent state. Today, As Ukranian-American historian Plokhy explained in a recent television interview.

“For the first time since 1991, there is a clear benchmark, a clear majority among our electorate regarding the orientation towards Europe…Before there were two groups [pro-Russian and pro-European] in the equilibrium of constant competition with each other.”

It is only recently that Russian culture has become a minority identity in Ukraine after a long period of Imperial and Soviet dominance and Ukrainian self-identity is evolving. But this is an active project; it is a battle for the public sphere and for the self-perception of Ukrainian people. To help clarify this shift in self-perception, Ukrainians needed an independent historical narrative—one not influenced by Imperial or Soviet propaganda.

The same is true of the Western audience, anxiously watching these developments play out. When, in 2014, Ukraine started appearing in the news rebelling against Russia, foreigners began asking: “What is Ukraine and where is its place among other nations?” The narrative of Serhii Ploky’s recent book, The Gates of Europe, explores that question which has been relevant for at least 1,000 years, and sheds light upon a conflict which is back in news reports across the globe.

The precarious development of the country of Ukraine – as a territory and a self-identifying nation - is being severely endangered by the war in the Donbas.

In fact, there are two frontiers of Ukrainian self-identification – the physical terrain between the Eurasian steppes and the east-European forests, and the religious divide between Eastern and Western Christianity. These two borders make Ukraine a frontier country in a very unique sense. For centuries it was an outpost which served to buffer Europe from marauding eastern hordes. And for centuries these churches were promoted for political purposes by the politicians of the ruling Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Ukraine’s physical terrain has always impacted the country, separating agricultural settlements in the northwest from cattle breeding and trade-centers of the south. This not only influenced the country’s economy, it also separated European civilization from what the ancients called the Wild Fields, the vast area of grassland between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. During the era of the Kyivan Rus federation, between the 9th and 13th centuries, the natural contour between the steppes and the forests physically separated the people of that region, culminating in continual battling between them. In 1240, a Mongol invasion destroyed the Kyivan Rus state but this land contour was still important. It now separated the Mongol state from its vassal states.

In the 15th  and 16th centuries the borderlines shifted again. Ukrainian Kozak warriors had established their stronghold in the lower region of the Dnipro, colonizing Wild Fields of contemporary south-eastern Ukraine and protecting Ukraine from the remnants of the great Mongol State. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Ukrainian Kozaks lost the autonomy of the Kozak Hetmanate, which was divided between the Russian Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although Ukrainians continued colonizing Crimea and the Donbas, Russians were settling alongside (and these regions never had the experience of state autonomy).

Although a territorial borderline between the steppes and forests is no longer recognized, the social and cultural differences between the deep-rooted agricultural settlements of the north and the industrial cities of the south remain. Moreover, the current hostilities by the Russians — annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, the war in the Donbas, and now a build-up of military power on the new border — echo the ancient adversities on the frontier of the Wild Fields. In this way, the terrain still plays a role in provoking regional conflict. The difference today is that Ukrainians have a real chance to consolidate all their territories for the first time in centuries. In that way, the physical gates of Europe can be further strengthened.

But, as already mentioned, there is a psychological frontier in Ukraine as well as a physical one. The separation between Western and Eastern Christianity became especially important in the 16th century. The divide between the two main churches — Catholic and Orthodox —created a space for largely dogmatic learned discussion but also wider intellectual diversity. But a bloody war in 1648 deepened divisions and embittered the churches to one other.

In that way, Ukraine was divided between the European and Catholic Austrian Empire, and the Orthodox Russian Empire. Whether the Russian Orthodox Empire could be seen as European was an open question in the 18th and 19th centuries and many intellectuals emphasized the distinctiveness of Russia. Thus, Ukraine once again became a gateway between Europe and the Russian “unique way.”

But if Ukraine is the gateway to Europe, then what is Russia? This is a tricky question. On the one hand, European history cannot be considered without including Russia. On the other hand, Russia was always different and hardily proclaimed — and still proclaims — its difference. In this matter, Plokhy refers to Larry Wolff, a historian specializing in the history of Eastern Europe. Wolff points out that Russia has made overtures to Europe at certain times in its history, but isolated itself entirely at other times — positioning itself as having interest and influence in Europe, yet setting itself apart.

So if Kyiv and Ukraine are indeed the gates of Europe, both Russian-Ukrainian relations and Russian-European relations are dominated by the struggle for the keys of Kyiv. A poignant example is the period after the Second World War, when Russia (then, the Soviet Union) occupied all of Ukraine, and Europe could not stand against Russia without foreign support from the United States.

The war in the east is more than just a conflict between two states, it represents a clash of values — if not civilizations.

This struggle between Ukraine and Russia for Kyiv reaches back to the 12th century, when the northern and southern kings of the Rus fought for prominence. And Ukrainian and Russian historians have been clashing over the heritage of Kyivan Rus for centuries, even contesting the skeletal remains of the Rus king Yaroslav the Wise. Yaroslav is depicted on the banknotes of both Russia and Ukraine, and is claimed to be one of the most famous historical figures both by Russians and Ukrainians. To protect the Ukrainian claim to Yaroslav, in 1943, when the Soviet army was descending upon Kyiv, Ukrainian activists transported Yaroslav’s remains to the United States so that the Russians could not abscond with them to Moscow.

The historical battle for the Rus legacy and for the Gates of Europe, although rooted in the past, remains firmly in the present. Whenever Russian President Putin claims that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people, he distorts history and subsumes Ukraine into Russia. This was his oft-repeated rationale more than a year before the annexation of Crimea. He openly made the statement in a speech delivered on 18 March 2015, on the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.

In the end, the question of boundaries and frontiers remains vital, not only in relation to Russia’s claim over the Donbas for Ukraine and the whole of Europe.

In 2014, Russian mercenaries and volunteers came to the Donbas, ostensibly to protect the values of the “Russian world” from the “attacks of the West.” In this context, they sought to portray Ukraine as a battleground between decadent Western attitudes and purist Russian beliefs. Russia continues to promulgate its propaganda that the West tries to warp the minds of Ukrainians, while Russia purports to use warfare to convey the truth.

The political difference between the two countries has been evident on many occasions. In 1993, then Russian President Yeltsin shelled the Russian Parliament to resolve a power struggle, while Ukrainians conducted their inaugural transfer of power, from the first president and parliament to the second, peacefully, without a drop of blood. The escalating situation in Ukraine is more than a conflict between two states, it represents a clash of values — if not civilizations. Ultimately, the news headlines, political declarations and military posturing are continuation of historical conflicts, only too familiar to a frontier country like Ukraine.


Adapted from an article originally published in Euromaidan Press.

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John geasouy 29 June 2021

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