Ukraine’s Identity Crisis – from Independence to Invasion

Listen to “Ukraine’s Identity Crisis – from Independence to Invasion” on Spreaker.

This article covers:

Notable events in Ukraine dating back to the end of the Soviet Era that tie in to current events, including:

    • A culture war driven by language differences
    • The kidnapping of journalist Georgiy Gongadze
    • Leaked Nixon-esque tapes
    • Attempted assasination of a presidential candidate
    • Verified election fraud
    • The Orange Revolution
    • Euromaidan mass protests
    • Foreign powers exerting influence in Ukrainian politics
    • And more.

May 2nd, 2014, months of protests exploded into violence in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. Hundreds of pro-Russian protestors battled with thousands of pro-European Union (EU) protestors. Both sides wore helmets and masks and carried axes and guns. Outnumbered, the pro-Russians initiated a fighting retreat to nearby tents. The opposing mob chased them down, hurled molotov cocktails, and forced them into the trade union building, where they barricaded themselves and shot back at their opponents. Somehow, a fire started. 32 pro-Russian protestors burned alive, and ten, including a woman and a child, jumped to their deaths to escape the blaze. The fire department took 40 minutes to arrive; the trade union building was only 650 meters from the station.

From a Russian perspective, and in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words, this was a massacre. “Ukrainian nationalists drove defenseless people into the trade union building and burned them alive.” On February 24, 2022, Putin announced an invasion of Ukraine, promising to bring “justice to those who committed numerous, bloody crimes against civilians.” A week later, Russian warships were en route to Odessa.

There is great difficulty in telling a universalizing narrative about how the recent invasion came about. The 2014 uprising and trade union fire is a good place to start because, while the current war is a nakedly imperialistic invasion, it started as an intra-Ukrainian conflict. At its core, this is a story of internal civil unrest sustained and taken advantage of by foreign powers. 

These domestic origins are seldom mentioned in Western and Russian press, who prefer focusing on Ukraine’s role in geopolitics. A different framing would see the conflict start in 2007, with Putin’s warning at Munich that NATO’s further expansion toward Russia’s borders was unacceptable. Or a year later in 2008, with NATO’s declaration that Ukraine and Georgia, which border Russia, were on their way to membership. Prior to the 2022 invasion, Putin decided to start the story in 1917 by blaming Vladimir Lenin and his bolsheviks for creating the concept of Ukraine as a nation. Aside from that last one, these beginnings are not inaccurate, but incomplete. They de-emphasize Ukrainian history, sovereignty, and internal political disagreements.

Ukraine, a country and a people unable to agree on a common destiny and a shared identity, is fragmented, with many different groups within Ukraine competing, cooperating, and overlapping with each other.

In western Ukraine are Ukrainian nationalists in favor of a strong, independent Ukrainian state. They tend to favor closer ties with the West (through the EU and NATO) and have a certain amount of suspicion about Russia’s plans for Ukraine, but not all of them agree with all of these things. 

Then there are Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine that are much more attached to Russia—Russophiles. They range from friendly toward Russia all the way to favoring part of Ukraine becoming part of Russia. 

Then there are external actors—Russian, European, and American politicians all playing parts. Out of all the potential angles to this topic, this article will focus on the (mostly) internal disagreements and tensions that provide the Ukrainian context to the current Russo-Ukrainian War.

Independence

The bulk of the information to follow comes from four primary sources: Through Times of Trouble: Conflict in Southeastern Ukraine Explained from Within (2017) by Anna Matveeva; Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War: A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity (2019) by Mychailo Wynnyckyj; A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples (2010) by Paul Robert Magocsi; and The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015) by Serhii Plokhy. [Any purchases made through these affiliate links will generate income for 2ndLook News.]

In the final days of the Soviet Union, its component republics began expressing a desire to be independent. Ukrainians were the second largest population within the Union after ethnic Russians. As Soviet President Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost encouraged society to critique the government, Ukrainian artists organized and argued for a rebirth of the nation, stressing the importance of Ukrainian identity as something unique and opposed to Russia.

Historically, Ukrainian culture has been suppressed. The Russian empire banned their language in the 19th century, and Stalin’s centralization of power in the 1930s purged many of the region’s independent-minded elite. Now, a new nationalism was stirring, and as the Soviet Union collapsed around them, liberal reformers joined with democratic communists to declare independence, which they put to a vote. The numbers were overwhelming. 92% voted for independence, including the already troublesome province of Crimea. In 1991, Ukraine became the largest country in Europe.

Image by the BBC

Even in this moment of jubilation, Crimea only returned a 54% majority and a conditional one at that. Its importance as a naval base and resort area due to its location on the Black Sea meant it had always been close to Moscow. Crimea’s independence came with its own president, constitution, and status as an autonomous republic within Ukraine. As Ukraine tightened control over its borders during the 90s, the president of Crimea was overthrown and the constitution was rewritten. Separatism was curbed for the moment, although Crimea remained an autonomous province in name and secured some powers for itself.

The Crimea situation made obvious from the outset that Ukrainian nationalism would be a hard pill to swallow for some, especially Russia. Over the following decades the eastern provinces which border Russia would diverge from the western, nationalistic provinces that face toward Europe. Their disagreements would fester, evolving into a cultural conflict which would intensify whenever Ukraine faced a decision about its future.

The Battle for Ukrainian Culture

“The limits of language are the limits of my world.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Ukrainian and Russian are not the same language, but are intelligible to an extent. They share an alphabet, words, roots, and some grammar—it’s akin to communicating between Romance languages such as Spanish and Portuguese. In Ukraine, most people either speak or understand both, and they blend the languages to form a dialect called surzhyk. The current president, Zelenskyy, gets tongue tied when speaking Ukrainian and reverts to Russian to finish sentences. Around 60% of the population considers Ukrainian their native language, compared to 30% for Russian. However, the Russian tongue is dominant in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk—which are industrial areas—and Crimea, which is a tourist area with a strategically important naval base. These provinces received more ethnic Russian workers and administrators from the Soviet metropole. These are the same areas that rebelled in 2014 (covered below) and are occupied by Russia today.

In Soviet times, Ukrainian was considered uncouth peasant speech, not fit to be spoken in the industrialized cities. After independence, the nationalists struck back and made Ukrainian the sole recognized language of the state. The policy of Ukranization targeted schools, closing down most that taught subjects in Russian. By 2015, in areas controlled by the government, the percentage of schools which taught in Russian was 3.5%, down from 47.8% in 1991.The joke went that in Crimea only the TV spoke Ukrainian. This was a policy of forceful cultural conversion, a top down imposition of western Ukrainian identity on the entire country. Language is one of the most concrete ways that cultural difference reveals itself, and when two groups share a nation but are inclined to dislike each other, this barrier becomes grist for the grievance mill. Kyiv tolerated the de facto dominance of Russian in the big cities, but opposed it whenever it could. Since language is an instantly recognizable auditory marker, it became a shorthand for identifying an us from a them.

As western and eastern Ukraine split over language, disagreements about culture and destiny grew. Ukraine has been pulled in two directions since the 1990s. One is toward the democratic liberalism that European integration represents—a world of technocrats, civil rights, fair elections, NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) meddling, NATO expansion, and western-facing trade deals. The other is toward the traditional ties with Russia and its economic alliance of ex-Soviet states—called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—heavily subsidized with cheap oil, following the moral teachings of the Orthodox church, and desiring a greater role in global affairs. The Ukrainian presidents have tried to balance these poles, some more beholden to one camp than the other.

A well-known example of these disagreements revolves around Stepan Bandera, the WWII Ukrainian nationalist who pushed for independence from the Soviets. In an attempt to reclaim the past, western Ukrainians erected statues and hung his portrait in government offices. What made this so insulting to eastern Ukrainian Russophiles was that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator, the leader of a quasi-fascist independence movement with a bad record on anti-semitism. The Great Patriotic War—what Russians call WWII—has a singular place in Russian mythos as the proudest moment of struggle and sacrifice. Their ancestors died fighting Nazis. Raising Bandera to the status of national hero was akin to spitting on their graves, similar to the offense many Americans feel at seeing Confederate statues in the South.

As the 21st century dawned, Ukraine would have to make decisions about its economic policy, domestic values, and foreign disposition in a world losing its End of History cohesion. The differences between east and west Ukraine became more pronounced, with the two sides forming opposing political parties and voting blocs. Each conflict would see their mutual antipathy intensify.

Political Fracture

The political problems of the 90s had to do with resisting a return to communism and transitioning to a market economy. As such, there was a political demarcation line between democratic reformers and supporters of the communist system. By the 2000s, that fight was settled. Soviet-style communism was not coming back. As the economy expanded and businessmen turned into oligarchs, their internal cohesion fractured. Economic pluralism led to political pluralism, with every big shot wanting a say.

On September 16th, 2000, popular Ukrainian dissident journalist Georgiy Gongadze was pushed into a car and disappeared. His body was found months later 80 miles outside of Kyiv, decapitated and burned to impede identification. Gongadze had been a critic of the Ukrainian goverment, chastizing President Leonid Kuchma on national television for failing to investigate a political assassination attempt. Naturally, people accused the Kuchma regime of murdering the dissident journalist, but evidence was hard to obtain. That was until President Kuchma’s inner circle sprung a leak. His bodyguard had been secretly recording him for years and fled the country with a stash of cassette tapes.

The contents of the expletive-filled tapes—Nixon-esque in nature—were fatal to the administration. They revealed spying, election rigging, corruption, and the president’s dislike of NATO and preference for Russia. Kuchma had skimmed $50 million dollars from Ukrainian state banks and transferred it to Putin for the 2000 election, which Putin returned five-fold when he was victorious. Also caught on tape was the president telling his top advisers that Gongadze must be kidnapped by Chechens or deported to Georgia. This convinced many that Kuchma had the journalist assassinated just ahead of a presidential election. To opponents of the regime, 2004 would be a referendum on whether Ukraine would remain mired in a post-Soviet sleaze or advance toward a European future. Then, the administration cheated.

The Revolution, Now in Color

Color revolutions are something that opponents of the West view with suspicion and fear. The term became popular when scholars noted a wave of mass protests against corruption during election times in the post-Soviet world. Dissident leaders and opposition parties joined protestors and were successful in overthrowing the government without excessive bloodletting. There was the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. In 2004, Ukraine would have an Orange Revolution, named after the campaign color of the eventual president, Viktor Yushchenko.

The 2004 presidential election was dirty. The pro-Western opponent of the administration, Viktor Yushchenko was likely the target of dioxide poisoning, which causes liver damage, heart disease, and cancer, among other things. He fell ill but survived, his face now bearing pockmarks and visible jaundice from the probable assassination attempt. In the first round, no candidate won a majority of votes. The second round pitted Viktor Yuschenko against the president’s hand-picked successor, Viktor Yanukovych.

Exit polls had Yuschenko clearly winning the night of the second round, but when the election board announced the final tally, his opponent had a slight margin. Yushenko called foul, and in 24 hours tens of thousands of supporters surrounded the presidential palace and ministries. Several cities refused to accept the results, and an emergency meeting of the Ukrainian legislature voted to sack the supposedly fraudulently elected president and the election board. In response, the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk—the ones still occupied by Russia today—threatened to create a South-Eastern Ukrainian Autonomous Republic. Moscow and Washington also picked winners, with the former congratulating the new government and the latter accusing it of aggressive fraud. Ultimately, it would be up to the Ukrainian Supreme Court to decide what would happen. Namely, it called for a redo of the election, which Yuschenko subsequently won.

Map courtesy the Washington Post

The West lauded that a post-Soviet state had the strength to pull such a course correction. Moscow accused the West of funding and fomenting dissent. Yuschenko’s presidency proved unsuccessful. On top of not being able to unite the elements that brought him to power, he had to contend with Putin cutting off oil because of a dispute over price and payments, which some perceived as punishment for the Orange Revolution. Yuschenko also had the misfortune of being in office during the 2007 worldwide recession. The man he defeated, Viktor Yanukovych, would win the 2010 election and assume the presidency. Four years later, he would face a second revolution against him. This one would be far worse.

Euromaidan

In 2013, Viktor Yanukovych had a decision to make. On one hand, Ukraine was part of the CIS, a free trade area with Russia and several other former Soviet republics. On the other, it was being offered admittance into the EU’s common market, a trade deal that allows for the tariff-free movement of goods and the visa-free movement of people. It was never clear whether these deals were mutually exclusive, or whether the three parties could reach some agreement. What mattered was the symbolism. This deal was the first step to join the EU, something most Westerners supported but opposed in the East.

Prior to the outbreak of mass protests in 2014, President Yanukovych was neither hero nor villain. He was unpopular, but was faring no worse than his predecessors, who had left office in states of disgrace and unpopularity. His administration was tainted with the usual vice of corruption, and through constitutional wrangling he had managed to capture more power for himself. In 2012, he pushed through a new language law, recognizing minority languages if 10% of the province spoke it. This added kindling to the cultural conflict that pitted nationalist Ukrainians against Russophiles, and there were hunger strikes in the capital. 

On November 21st, 2013, the government announced it would not go through with the European trade deal. This struck many as an abrupt about-face, as Yanukovych had affirmed that Ukraine had a European future. As if pouring salt on a wound, that date also happened to be the ninth anniversary of the Orange Revolution. That evening a journalist posted the following on Facebook, “Seriously now. Who is ready tonight before midnight, to come out onto Maidan? Likes don’t count. Only comments to this post with the words ‘I’m ready.’”

In the night of Eastern European winter, three to five thousand people showed up to demonstrate for European integration in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). The protests took on the name Euromaidan (sometimes shortened to Maidan), after the square and the pro-EU views of the participants. This would be the beginning of protests that would last for four months and spread throughout Ukraine. Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a professor and participant in Euromaidan who went on to write a positive account of the revolution admits the plan was never to give the government much of a choice. Either Yanukovych signed the deal, or the “long and drawn out process of revolution had started.”

That same week, the president took to the television to explain his reasoning. The EU had given Ukraine a pitiful deal, and Russia was offering much better. He was right, but this did not matter to protestors. It wasn’t about money, but about values. The protestors, many of them students, wished to rid themselves of corruption, oligarchy, and post-Soviet creeping authoritarianism that disdained civil rights. They saw joining the EU as a step to salvation. But the needle was not moving and the EU leaders were unwilling to haggle for the president’s signature. Without a change, the movement would lose steam and dissipate.

Nine days after the president’s first announcement, that change arrived. At 4 a.m., the special police, called the Berkut, went to clear out the square. They descended on mostly sleeping students and beat them. Video surfaced, and what followed became the stuff of Ukrainian legend and tragedy. 300 to 600 thousand people marched on the square in protest, erected barricades, and both sides entrenched. First, the government kidnapped, beat, and tortured Euromaidan leaders who left the square. Then came anti-protest laws with harsh prison terms. The conflict dragged on from November to February, when the protestors marched on the legislature to force early elections. As the protestors marched, someone fired a gun. Soon the Berkut were gunning down unarmed protestors indiscriminately, most controversially firing with sniper rifles. The battle lasted three days, and when the shooting was over, around 107 protestors and 13 police were dead in the capital.

Yanukovych’s government seemed lost. The president did something one seldom sees a president do—he took a sick leave. Yanukovych traveled to the opening of the Sochi Olympic games where he met with Vladimir Putin. He then returned to preside over the violence, only to flee for Russia when he realized very few would defend him after Euromaidan. His cabinet resigned and the legislature removed him from office, an unconstitutional act carried out in the name of revolutionary immediacy. The next day, the legislature committed a colossal political mistake. They repealed the 2012 language law, and even though the interim president vetoed the repeal, it remains a fact that the first thing the revolution did when they attained control was poke Russian speakers in their eye after removing the president they had supported. The West saw a triumph of national will, a people overthrowing a dictator. Russia saw something far more ominous, a Western-backed coup engineered at the highest levels of the US. To them, this was the last straw.

The Russian Rationale

In the wake of the 2016 American presidential election and the subsequent Muller investigation over Russian interference, a wave of politicized Russophobia became the norm. If a political operative had any connection with Russia, this was sufficient evidence that their opinions were not entirely their own. Proximity to Russia was proof that one was somehow a Kremlin asset, either in their pay or because they had something on you.

It’s important to frame the discussion of American distaste with Russian influence peddling in those terms because Russia believes the same thing about Americans, particularly in Ukraine. When US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland proudly announced that the US spent $5 billion to promote “good governance” and “democratic skill” in Ukraine it sounded good to Americans. Who wouldn’t want to promote good things? But if Russia announces they are also spending billions there, the mind ponders what sinister, self-interested motives they could have. One nation’s promotion is another’s subversion.

Russia and its supporters did not look favorably upon the Orange Revolution. To them, Western-funded NGOs like Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Soros-funded Open Society are involved in an open conspiracy to weaken Russia, peel off their allies, and overthrow governments when their leaders prove unfriendly. They see these groups cheer every color revolution and have come to believe, much as we would in their shoes, that political unrest isn’t homegrown, but financed and exported. In their version of domino theory, once pro-Western governments accede in eastern Europe and western Asia, the next stop is Moscow.

There were several details about Euromaidan that stuck in the Russian craw. In a leaked phone call, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine could be heard discussing which Ukrainian politicians would form the new government, all before the shooting broke out. It sounded like they were handpicking their favorites, with their preferred choice of prime minister getting the job after the government fled. Nuland had previously been handing out cookies to the protestors. Prominent US senators, including John McCain, flew into Ukraine and openly admitted their goal was regime change. Russia saw the anti-Russian politicians being funded and instructed by the US and employing US pollsters, consultants, and focus groups to advise on strategy. Even in the infamous sniper fire the Russians saw a ploy. They claimed it was a false flag attack carried out by ultra-nationalist Ukrainian right wingers, who shot the protestors to escalate the situation. This received independent confirmation in a thorough academic study.

If the West got its way, Ukraine would be drawn closer to the EU, something the Kremlin maintains is a Trojan horse for their biggest fear: NATO. NATO is a military alliance started by the West in 1949 explicitly aimed at containing the Soviet Union. If one member is attacked, all members must respond. Russia has a 30-year track record of opposing NATO expansion. In their view, after Russians themselves overthrew the Soviet government there was nothing to contain. As NATO inched closer to Russia’s borders, their discomfort grew. The same year that Time magazine recognized Putin as Person of the Year (2007), he delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference that remains the definitive encapsulation of this world view. His point was that the world already had a ruling body—the United Nations—and that NATO is not a replacement for it. When pressed on sovereign countries like Ukraine making the decision for themselves to join NATO, whether Russia liked it or not, Putin defended with:

Of course we are not objecting to this. But why is it necessary to put military infrastructure on our borders during this expansion? Can someone answer this question? Unless the expansion of military infrastructure is connected with fighting against today’s global threats?

The following year, NATO announced Ukraine would be joining the alliance some time in the future. After Euromaidan, Putin saw a friendly, democratically elected president on Russia’s border overthrown and the fate of NATO expansion seemingly inevitable. He decided to take military action.

Rebellion

On February 23rd, 2014, a day after President Yanukovych fled the country, Russophile Crimea broke out in counter-protest to Euromaidan. 80% of voters had supported the president, and many of the Berkut special police who fired on protestors were Crimean. The province feared reprisal. Just as protestors did in the capital, pro-Russian activists struck decisively. They deposed the mayor of Sevastapool, the largest city, and installed a Russian citizen instead. The Crimean separatists were rightly fearful that soon, a convoy from the capital would arrive and show them who was still their boss. As early as February 4th, nineteen days before the president fled, the Crimean parliament was considering asking for Russian help.

Days after Yanukovych’s flight, “little green men” started appearing all over the province. They did not answer questions about who they were or who had sent them. They have since been identified as Russian soldiers.

They took over the Crimean legislature at gunpoint and forced a pro-Russian prime minister on the body. A few days later, armed with an official letter from this puppet leader asking for help, the Russian parliament gave Putin permission to do something he had already done—deploy troops in Crimea. As Russian troops advanced, Crimeans were presented with a referendum and given ten days to decide to join Russia or remain an autonomous province of Ukraine. In a climate of fear, torture, and dissaperances, with Ukrainian media not allowed to observe, the result was 96.77% for joining Russia. The vote was obviously falsified, though it is possible that a majority of Crimeans preferred joining Russia after Euromaidan. In a little over a month from the operation’s start, Russia annexed Crimea.

Other pro-Russian Ukrainian cities looked to the actions taken in Crimea as inspiration, which led to serious clashes with Euromaidan supporters. In the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, pro-Russian protesters occupied government buildings and proclaimed two independent “People’s Republics.” It’s during this time that this article began, in Odessa, with 32 pro-Russian protesters burned alive.

Image by Wikimedia Commons user RGloucester. Used under ShareAlike 3.0 license.

A rebellion was underway. Paramilitary groups formed in Donetsk and Luhansk, bolstered by a steady stream of Russian veterans and civilians who volunteered to fight in the conflict. The Ukrainian government branded them as terrorists and authorized the creation of its own privately-funded paramilitary battalions to supplement the military.

Situations like these attract the wrong sorts of people. Wherever states cannot fully project power in armed conflict, ideologues, adventurers, and anyone compelled to pick up a gun fill the gap. Free from the rules of engagement, codes of conduct, and hierarchy common to professional militaries, they wage war brutally. The paramilitaries became infamous for their cruelty and flashiness, with leaders engaging in social media campaigns. For instance, the infamous Azov battalion has been accused by the United Nations of human rights violations, among them raping a mentally disabled man, torture by removal of teeth, waterboarding, and looting of property. Government forces and the rebel armies have faced similar accusations.

In the chaos of rebellion, extrajudicial killings, abductions, and beatings are common occurrences, radicalizing participants in a cycle of recrimination. This makes compromise unlikely. All attempts at negotiation failed. The government would not agree to a decentralized structure, and the rebels would not surrender autonomy. What came in 2014 was a year of heated conflict followed by years of stalemate lasting to today. The Ukrainian government was almost successful in destroying the rebel forces until Russia came to their aid and defeated the Ukrainian army. The combatants have now settled into something akin to WWI, with frequent shelling and a fixed front that became an effective border separating the two sides. In the meantime, the rebels consolidated power, transitioning from warlord rule to a structure with the makings of a state. Between April 2014 and May 2017, 10,090 people were killed, including 2,777 civilians.

So far, Ukraine and the rebels have tried and failed to compromise. The first ceasefire, called Minsk-1, collapsed as soon as it was signed. The second agreement, Minsk-2, was signed in 2015. It has thirteen points including standard things like amnesty and hostage exchange but also long term promises from Ukraine of constitutional reform, decentralization, and linguistic self-determination. Donetsk and Luhansk, the main rebel provinces, would become “special zones,” but nobody agrees on what that means exactly. Ukraine insists that before implementing reforms, it must regain control of its full borders. The rebels see it the other way around, and leaked emails show they intend to maintain independence within Ukraine and resist laws from the capital. Before this February’s invasion, Ukraine and the two breakaway self-proclaimed states existed in an uneasy state of not quite peace, not quite war.

Today’s Catastrophe

This extended conflict has not proved profitable for Russia. Not only were they sanctioned for the seizure of Crimea, they’ve had to subsidize two breakaway states at the cost of men, money, and international scorn for seven years. Russia is not an immensely wealthy country, with an economy smaller than South Korea’s with a population three times as large. Ukraine has become hostile in the face of Russian aggression. Putin’s meddling in the rebellion squandered a lot of goodwill that Ukrainians who were not separatists—but nonetheless wanted friendly relations—might have had for Russia. With every passing season Ukraine grows closer to the EU and NATO while rebuilding its military with the aid it receives from the US.

Aside from its Ukrainian ulcer, Russia also grows isolated from the Western world. The 2016 American election fiasco only made things worse. The Kremlin has come to the dark conclusion that the West is no longer interested in even pretending Russia’s government is legitimate, and waiting hasn’t done them any favors. Perhaps Russia assumed that the Trump presidency sufficiently weakened NATO alliances, or that western governments were too busy dealing with domestic turmoil over COVID-19 to put up a fight. Sometimes when you’re in too deep, it seems like the best option is just to go all in. Perhaps that’s why Putin, believing he has little to lose, mustered his best arguments to invade Ukraine.

Since then, Ukrainian cities have been leveled and millions of people have been displaced, with civilians—including children—caught in the way of bombings and shootings. With democratic aspirations Ukraine entered the 21st century, looking to exercise freedoms denied to previous generations at gunpoint. Through the bad luck of geography, their infighting has rendered them a rook on a chessboard, demarcating the border between two spheres of influence. Now, they face that same old peril. How long the Ukrainians can hold out and what its government will look like afterward is impossible to tell.

Editors: Craig Carroll, Stacia Wilson
Peer Review Completed By 3 Individuals
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By Nick Ramos

Nick Ramos is a Cuban-born writer and consultant with 3 years of experience in policy research for businesses looking to expand operations into Cuba. He attended NYU’s Gallatin school and now consults on Cuban/American history for television, news media, and individual clients. He is the host of The History of the Cuban Revolution podcast. A former debate national champion, he has coached kids to overcome speech impediments. As a writer on 2ndLook, he focuses on the ways in which history has been misunderstood or distorted, and how to use that information to bridge partisan divides.

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