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Alternative Accounts of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: a history of the US-Russia relations, part II

Cont’d from Part


The history of Ukraine, especially vis-à-vis adjacent Russia, dates back to the 10th century, and it’s a checkered one. [1]

It’d do us no good trying to adjudicate the present-day conflict by tracing it to its origins; this would be like trying to adjudicate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by tracing it to biblical times. But starting somewhere we must, and the 20th century, arbitrary as it may be, is as good a starting point as any. [2] [3]

And here, one fact stands out: “Despite the animosity between the two nations, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for over seven decades.” [4]  


The early 17th-century bifurcation of Ukraine into territories east and west, the first under Russia’s control and the second under Poland’s became clear before the outbreak of the Great War and made itself felt throughout the ensuing conflict. [5] [6] [7] Later annexation of western Ukraine by the Russian Empire in 1793 didn’t amount to much, for the anti-Russian, nationalistic sentiments, far from being extinguished in the annexed territories, had only intensified as the Great War became inevitable.

There’s no better proof of this bifurcation and its aftereffects than the very fact that the Great War had pitted Ukrainians against Ukrainians: “3.5 million had fought with the Imperial Russian Army, while 250,000 fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army. Many Ukrainians thus ended up fighting each other… and many Ukrainian civilians suffered as armies shot and killed them after accusing them of collaborating with opposing armies.” [8]


It was likewise about Ukraine’s support of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was mixed.

On the one hand, the Bolshevik Ukrainian Republic, aka the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, was founded in December 1917, and it supported the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; on the other, the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks ignited a (Ukrainian) civil war, as counterrevolutionaries such as the Don Cossacks and Ukrainian nationalists rose against the new government. [9]

What complicated matters was a protracted Civil War, from November 7, 1917, till June 16, 1923, that embroiled Russia against enemies foreign and domestic. [10] No sooner than the Bolsheviks took power, there had emerged, with the blessing and material support from the West, a loosely tied coalition of several anti-communist, nationalistic, and anarchistic factions with no unifying ideology in mind other than crushing the “Bolshevik menace.”It came to be known as the “White Army” or the “White Guard.” [11] [12] [13]

Once again, we see Ukrainians pitted against Ukrainians—this time in the so-called Ukraine War of Independence, and as part of a larger conflict between the Red and White armies. [14] [15] [16] And the future of the October 1917 revolution would hang in the balance until the Red Army prevailed in 1923. [17]


In the forthcoming installments, we’ll trace the history of the East-West relations, starting with the forming of the Soviet Union (the USSR), an event that shaped and continues to shape geopolitics to this very day, the current Russia-Ukraine conflict included,

  1. See Mar 4, 2022 factsheet in The Times of India for a comprehensive timeline of Russia-Ukraine relations, as per this link. Also, “United States Relations with Russia: Establishment of Relations to World War Two,” this time by the U.S. Department of State, and “Russian Empire–United States relations,” a Wikipedia entry.
  2. The 17th-century war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Tsardom of Russia provides an interesting backdrop. It split Ukraine in half: the east, which was controlled by Russia, and the west, which fell under Polish control. “This divide existed until 1793, when [according to the Claire Fitzgerald’s February 26, 2022 article, ‘The Contentious History of Russia-Ukraine Relations,’ in War History Online] the Russian Empire annexed western Ukraine, plunging the country into a century of ‘Russification.’ For Russia, they claimed this was ‘reunification’ of the Kyivan Rus’, but for Ukrainians, it was… subjugation.”
  3. The Kyivan Rus’ itself—a governing system based near modern-day Kyiv—has a long and contested history. Formed in the 10th century by many tribes, it was plagued from the outset with feudal conflict, and 300 years later it was invaded by the Mongols. Thereupon, part of the Kyivan Rus’ stayed in modern-day Ukraine, reforming as the Cossack Hetmanate under Mongol rule, while another section left and moved north, towards modern-day Moscow. The Kyivan Rus’ who moved north established the Tsardom of Russia, while the Kyivan Rus, who remained transformed into the Cossack Hetmanate, were overrun by the Polish and Lithuanian armies in the 16th century. Again, see the link in the endnote above, and this Britannica entry.
  4. The Times of India article.
  5. Although the territory that made up the modern country of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire administered Ukraine’s southwestern region and the border between them, dating to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. (See “Western Ukraine under the Habsburg monarchy” in Britannica.) Towards the latter 19th century, however, both Empires attempted to exert their influence on the adjacent territory on the tide of rising national awareness of the period as borders didn’t undermine the ethnic composition of Europe. The Russian Empire viewed Ukrainians as Little Russians and had the support of the large Russophile community among the Ukrainian and Ruthenian populations in Galicia. Austria, on the contrary, supported the late-19th century rise in Ukrainian Nationalism, as per this Wiki entry. It only added fuel to the fire. (For a comprehensive albeit controversial account of “modern Ukraine” as  geopolitical fiction, see endnote #17.)
  6. The Russian advance into Galicia began in August 1914. During the offensive, the Russian army pushed the Austrians right up to the Carpathian ridge, capturing the lowland territory and fulfilling their long aspirations of annexing the territory. Ukrainians participated on both sides of the conflict. In Galicia, over twenty thousand Ukrainians who were suspected of sympathizing with Russian interests were arrested and placed in Austrian concentration camps, both in Talerhof, Styria and in Terezín fortress, now in the Czech Republic.
  7. For more on Ruthenians, see Maria Nesheva’s article, “Ruthenians: a nation on the territory of Ukraine forgotten by historians,” in EMPR Media, a Ukraine news outlet. Also, see the Ukrainian Austrian internment in Wikipedia.
  8. “Ukraine during World War I,” a Wiki entry.
  9. See “Ukraine Socialist Republic,” and “Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine,” both Wikipedia entries.
  10. “The war consisted of military conflicts between different governmental, political, and military forces. Belligerents included Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainian anarchists, Bolsheviks, the forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the White Russian Volunteer Army, and Second Polish Republic forces. They struggled for control of Ukraine after the February Revolution (March 1917) in the Russian Empire. The Allied forces of Romania and France became involved as well. The struggle lasted from February 1917 to November 1921 and resulted in dividing Ukraine between the Bolshevik Ukrainian SSR, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.” See “Ukrainian War of Independence,” a Wiki entry.
  11. The support came from thirteen foreign nations, notably the former Allied military forces from the World War with the goal of re-establishing the Eastern Front. And while the Great War was still on, even three foreign nations of the Central Powers had intervened, with the main goal of retaining the territory they had received in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. (See the “Russian Civil War” Wikipedia entry.)
  12. For more on this treaty, see: (i) “The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk” in History of Western Civilization II; (ii) “Treaties of Brest-Litovks, 1918” in Britannica; (iii) “The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk” in Alpha History; and (iv), “Revolutions: The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk,” a must-see 2018 video by David Stone. The video is of particular relevance because it examines the terms of the 1918 Brest-Litovks treaty from the vantage point of the present-day Russia-Ukraine conflict, and it provides us with a clue to Vladimir Putin’s thinking about the West’s idea of a “peace treaty” whenever West has an upper hand.
  13. The treaty turned out to be far more severe than the one imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. It forced the Bolsheviks in Moscow to cede over 1.3 million square miles of key territory into Eastern Europe and Western Asia. (The land held nearly one-third of Russia’s population and consisted of prime agricultural land and key agricultural and industrial centers.) In addition, Russia was forced to pay the Central Powers nearly 6 billion marks in war reparations and to concede the independence of Finland, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic States. It wasn’t, however, a “lose-lose proposition”, for “while the Russians were humiliated by the terms of the… treaty, Lenin had other concerns. The ceded territory was held by the Bolsheviks’ enemies and Lenin needed to focus on consolidating the Bolshevik’s hold on power closer to home. It could always be regained at a later point, [which] is what happened two decades later….” See “The Terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk” in History in Charts.
  14. The story of Ukraine’s struggle for independence is complex. It features many twists and turns, and it deserves a separate treatment, “World War I and the struggle for independence,” a Britannica entry, serving as an introduction. The February 9, 1918 treaty between the Central Powers and the Ukraine People’s Republic, recognizing the latter’s sovereignty (see “Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Ukraine–Central Powers)” in Wikipedia) was pivotal, for, in the treaty’s aftermath, German troops provided military assistance to Ukraine against the Bolsheviks and succeeded in a coup against the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the establishment of the short-lived Ukrainian (puppet) State. The puppet state was installed by German military authorities after the socialist-leaning Central Council of the Ukrainian People’s Republic was dispersed on 28 April 1918. Ukraine turned thus into a provisional dictatorship of Hetman of Ukraine Pavlo Skoropadskyi, who outlawed all socialist-oriented political parties, creating an anti-Bolshevik front. It collapsed in December 1918, when Skoropadskyi was deposed and the Ukrainian People’s Republic returned to power as the Directorate.(See “Germany-Ukraine relations,” a Wikipedia entry. Also, see “Ukraine declares its independence” in History.)
  15. As indicated earlier—see “Treaties of Brest-Litovks, 1918” in Britannica—the Ukraine-Central Powers treaty of February 9, 1918, had preceded the treaty between the Central Powers and Soviet Russia on March 3, and the reasons were two-fold. First, there were logistic considerations. Ukraine was a rich soil, long-recognized as “the bread basket of Europe” (see, e.g., Ian M. Sheldon’s June 2022 article in The Ohio State University website), and the Central Powers, Germany in particular, were more than eager on acquiring unhampered access to food-supplies in what, everybody thought, was going to be a protracted war. (The treaty, in everyday parlance, came to be known as Brotfrieden—the “bread peace”—a term coined by the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Chernin, and it captures the underlying rationale of the Central Powers to a tee.) And then, there was a matter of strategy: and here, the idea was to bring the Bolsheviks back to the negotiating table after Leon Trotsky’s withdrawal from negotiations, articulated by his conviction that Russia should leave the war and sign no peace treaty of any kind—in short, a policy of “neither war nor peace.” (Again, see “Treaties of Brest-Litovks, 1918,” endnote #12, Primary Documents” in, and “Leon Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk” in Marxists Internet Archive.) Both Brest-Litovks treaties were nullified by the November 11, 1918 armistice, which resulted in Germany’s withdrawal from the occupied territories—see “Treaty of Brest-Litovks—Lasting Effects”– but the Ukrainian War of Independence (aka “Ukrainian Civil War” or “the Ukrainian-Soviet War”) was still raging. Apart from the forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary—no longer in effect since the Central Powers’ defeat at the hands of the Allies—the war continued just the same, and it comprised military conflicts between different governmental, political and military forces. Belligerents included Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainian anarchists, Bolsheviks, the White Russian Volunteer Army, and Second Polish Republic forces, each struggling for control of Ukraine after the February Revolution of March 1917. The hostilities came to an abrupt end in November 1921 with a resounding Bolshevik victory, and Ukraine was partitioned between the Bolshevik Ukrainian SSR, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia: Bukovina was annexed to Romania; Transcarpathia was joined to the new country of Czechoslovakia; Poland incorporated Galicia and western Volhynia, together with smaller adjacent areas in the northwest; and the lands east of the Polish border came to make up Soviet Ukraine, as per “The War in Ukraine—Ukraine during the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War (1917-1922)” and “World War I and the struggle for independence” in Britannica. (As regards moral justification of Ukraine’s partition, there’re conflicting views. The following is one account by Jana Kobzova and Svitlana Kobzar in their April 17, 2014 article, “Partition of Ukraine,” in The Rand Blog, and it has much to recommend itself.) It was then that Ukraine, represented by the Ukrainian SSR, had become one of the first Soviet republics, along with Byelorussian and Transcaucasian SFSRs, and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. (See “History of the Soviet Union,” a Wikipedia entry, and “Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917-1921” in Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine.) According to Soviet historical tradition, the Bolshevik victory amounted to Ukraine’s liberation from the military forces of Western and Central Europe, including the Polish Republic‘s military. Conversely, modern Ukrainian historians consider it a failed war of independence by the Ukrainian People’s Republic against the Bolsheviks. (Again, see “Ukrainian-Soviet War,” a Wiki entry.)
  16. There are alternative accounts of the Ukrainian War of Independence. Some have been written with the present conflict in mind—for which reason they’re likely to be colored by the unfolding events. See, for instance, “Ukraine in the Flames of the 1917 Revolution,” a September 13, 2017 article in HURI (Ukraine Research Institute) sponsored by Harvard University, or an April 22, 2022 report, “Russia’s War in Ukraine: Identity, History, and Conflict,” in CSIS, a Center for Strategic & International Studies. “Ukraine’s Role in the Bolshevik Revolution is Airbrushed,” an October 4, 2017 opinion piece in Newsweek, is another must-read article. Although it’s pro-Western, it alerts us to several misconceptions that may cloud our understanding of the situation on the ground: in particular, it alerts us to the possibility that Russia is perhaps better understood as an empire instead of a nation. John Rose’s June 26, 2014 account in International Socialism, “Ukraine and the Bolsheviks,” could well be the most balanced of them all. (For a different, apolitical take on Ukraine as a seat of cultural Renaissance in the early 20th century, see July 23, 2017, Marina Pesenti’s article, “Beyond the Bolsheviks: Ukraine’s 1917 revolution remains geopolitically relevant,” in Ukraine Institute, London.)   
  17. Let us close with a provocative April 5, 2014 article, “Ukraine, an artificial state created by Germany,” by Webster G. Tarpley in Justice4Poland. Mr. Tarpley doesn’t have a stellar reputation, especially for his predilection for conspiracy theories, as per this Wiki article, for one. I’d distinguish, however, Mr. Tarpley’s polemical writings—diatribes may be a better term! — from his academic endeavors, and the subject article belongs to the latter. The article’s subtitle, “Metaphysical Doubts Concerning the Existence of Modern Ukraine, a 1918 Creation of the German General Staff,” says it all: “modern Ukraine,” as state qua state, is a geopolitical fiction! True or not, Mr. Tarpley’s riveting account is replete with graphic detail and represents the best in historical scholarship. And although the article is in direct response to an earlier event—the March 18, 2022 reunification of the Crimean peninsula with Russia (an article in The Diplomatic Insight)–it’s still a must-read, especially for its continued relevance to today’s crisis. For more on the subject of “reunification,” see (i) “Day of the Reunification of Crimea with Russia” in Top War, (ii) “Celebrating the 5th Anniversary of Crimea’s Reunification with Russia” in (iii) “Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation” in Wikipedia: and (iv) “How Crimea’s Complex History with Russia Dates Back to the 19th century” in History. Accounts (iii) and (iv), both critical of Russia’s “takeover” of Crimea, speak of annexation instead—a label the Russian government opposes because the reunification referendum complied with the principle of the self-determination of peoples. For the Russian Empire’s annexation of Crimea in 1783, see this Wikipedia entry.

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