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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

UKRAINE: Past Present Future

This is my second blog posted on the subject of Ukraine. Scroll down for 'History is Dangerous', the first blog.

There were, at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, differing views as to Putin's objective. We can dismiss Putin's declared casus belli of removing a drug addicted and Neo-Nazi Government in Kiev as complete moonshine. One considered view was that he wished to decouple the Donbas Eastern Region of the country and annex it, or at least place puppet regimes in place, with a further objective of linking The Crimea to Russia by land. With his recognition of two breakaway provinces in the east, namely Donetsk and Luhansk, this view gained support. The alternative view, based on Putin's faux history (v. my earlier blog). was that his goal was Kiev, the capital, and with it the entire country. As the story played out it became clearer, at least in the present trajectory of the war, that this view was the closest to Putin's.

I shall return to the question, as to how these alternative version of Russian objectives might play out in the future, later in the blog.

Please note that the history which follows is in parts a somewhat simplified version of the events. If you are well versed in Ukrainian history you will see where my broad brush has swept across the page. Moreover, if you have family links to a part of this world then again you will see evidence of my broad brush approach. My intention is to use the broader story in an attempt to explain the present crisis and look at possible outcomes.

THE HISTORY of what countries and under which Empires Ukrainians have lived is arguably one of the most complex of national stories in the whole of Europe. Thus, for simplicity's sake I start my story in the years immediately before The First World War, which began in 1914.

This pre war history is perhaps the simplest in Ukraine's entire story. The country we know today as Ukraine was divided between the two Empires of Russia and Austro-Hungary. The Russian part was stabilised around the end of the 18th century.

The Austro- Hungarian part was actually divided into three parts, viz

  1. Galicia, in the North with its capital at Lviv (then called Lemberg). Note on your television coverage that Lviv railway station is very definitely Austro-Hungarian in design.

  2. Transcarpathia ( from the Carpathian Mountain range) in the North West with its capital at Uzhorod (in modern day Ukraine)

  3. Bukovina in the North West too with its capital at Chenisti (in modern day Ukraine)

Galicia had a mixed population of Ukrainians, Poles, Austrian Germans, and Jews. Transcarpathia also had a mixed population of Ukrainians, Slovaks, Romanians, Poles, Hungarians and Jews. Very typical of the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire. Bukovina was also racially mixed with Ukrainians, Romanians, Hungarians, Moldovans, and Jews.

One point to note that under the Austrians Ukrainians were referred to as Ruthenians.

Two events shattered this picture by 1918. The first was the overthrow of the Russian Tsar in 1917 and the second the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the following year. This led to a mad scramble by various areas and ethnicities for a new map to be drawn up, with the enthusiastic backing of the American President, Woodrow Wilson, and his doctrine of self determination for the people of Europe. Initially with the collapse of The Russian Empire, the Russian part of modern Ukraine sought freedom from Moscow and Independence, although the country was effectively divided into two countries, East and West Ukraine. The Soviets recovered all this territory in The Russian Civil War ending in 1921.

As for the Habsburg lands, Galicia went to newly independent Poland, Transcarpathia (after a short lived bid for independence) to the newly created Czechoslovakia, and Bukovina was seized by The Kingdom of Romania. This remained the situation until The Second World War when the pieces were again thrown up into the air, and bitterly fought over between the Nazis and The Red Army. At the war's end, the USSR took over Transcarpathia, but Bukovina was divided between Russia and Romania, as too was Galicia, divided between Poland and Russia, the latter getting the greater share.

THE FUTURE? Historians should stick to their last and not indulge in futurology, but sometimes, as now, the temptation proves too strong.

We can all list the possible scenarios (and still in the end be proved wrong!)

  1. Fall of Ukraine and the establishment by Putin of either a puppet Ukrainian Government or a Russian military Governor - possibly both in tandem

  2. An internal Russian coup that takes Putin out followed by a Russian withdrawal

  3. A negotiated settlement in which the country is divided again into two, a Russian East and a Democratic Ukrainian West

  4. Alternatively, far worse, a wider European, even World, War

  5. Further Putin imperialism to restore the old Empire. What might his targets be?

Georgia, a non NATO member that Putin would dearly love to reincorporate into Russia

The three Baltic States, but they are members of NATO and a full European war would

almost certainly develop

Moldova, the likeliest candidate for Putin's expansion being a non NATO member but

more importantly lying down the side of the Ukrainian western border providing easy

access. Moreover Odessa could be used as a forward launch point for such an


But the most important factor of all, and a useful casus belli for Putin, however falsely

concocted, is the fact that that part of Moldova lying alongside the Ukrainian border is

a thin strip of land that separated in a short war with Moldova, with Russian military

support, in 1992. There remain Russian troops in this self proclaimed independent state of Transnistria, with its capital at Tiraspol.


I owe much to the Epilogue of Professor Plokhy (Harvard University) 2017 book, 'Lost Kingdom'.

Plokhy's opening sentence sets the tone, 'The question of where Russia begins and ends, and who constitutes the Russian people, has preoccupied Russian thinkers for centuries'. The Professor takes the fall of The USSR in 1991 as a starting point, and poses the question, 'What should be the relationship of the new Russian state to its former imperial possessions - now independent post-Soviet republics - and to the Russian and Russian-speaking enclaves in those republics?'

The Ukraine, as Plokhy correctly said in 2017 - and even more so five years on -, is at the very heart of this question. Russia for its own interpretation of Russian history to be maintained, (Kiev was the original Russian state and Russian Orthodoxy first arrived in that city), has to continue to believe that Ukrainians are in fact Russians. It then follows that were Ukraine be allowed into the camp of the enemy (EU, NATO) then they would be betraying Russia and all Russians. Ukrainians, naturally, profoundly disagree that they are simply Russians by another name.

Plokhy quotes Brzezinski in a 1994 article in 'Foreign Affairs', 'Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire'. Brzezinski continues by saying, 'Russia can either be an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both'.

Finally, Plokhy himself writes, 'Will the Russian government and the Russian political and cultural elites accept the 'loss of Ukraine'?' The obvious inference to be drawn is they can't and won't.

With great foresight in 2017 he wrote, 'It remains to be seen whether the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbas are the final episodes in the disintegration of the USSR or

a new and terrible stage in the reshaping of European borders and populations'. Well, now we know the answer to that question, and it is a terrifying one.

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Mar 07, 2022

Listening to your lecture WWII 3-7-22 and reading your recent posts, etc. I predicted the possibility of Putin trying to annex Moldava after his conquest of Odessa and rest of Ukraine. Considering Russia's tortured history from the Czars onward to the Communist Revolution, etc. and the examples of Hitler's pursuit of power and conquest of Western Europe and in particular, Austria, I think History is repeating itself in NAtO's and America's slowness of effective particular the issue of open air and immediate search for alternative energy sources of oil, natural gas. How about using drones rather than actual fighter planes to control the air space and destroy Russian convoys, tanks, armed infantry, etc. Naomi Bernhard Levinson

Mar 07, 2022
Replying to

William your talk on the Anschluss and the parallels with the hubris of Hitler and Stalin were fascinating. But this is a war being fought with every step being watched by the entire world in conventional and social media. Surely it is different than any other invasion. How long can the Russian people be kept in the dark? Are they in fact in the dark?

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