Ukraine is a nation with a rich history and a diverse people.
When you walk the streets of Kyiv (the Ukrainian spelling, pronounced KEE-eve), Lviv or Kharkiv, you are surrounded by historic buildings going back centuries.
You see the majestic, golden domes of the Orthodox Church, and you are surrounded by people who come from everywhere. This diversity stems from the ninth century.
Vladimir Putin’s recent polemic claiming that Ukraine was created by the former U.S.S.R. is as much disinformation as anything that came from Stalin’s KGB propaganda department or his newspaper Pravda (“Truth”).
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia,” he said. “This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia — by dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory.”
Let’s look briefly into the region’s history to reveal Putin’s revisionist history.
Kievan Rus was a loose federation of states that emerged in the ninth century CE and whose capital city was Kyiv, which was founded in the sixth or seven century CE. By comparison, the first historical reference to Moscow was in 1147 CE.
Ethnically, the region takes cues from the Slavonic tribes in the east, along with Finns and Baltic tribes of the north, a host of tribes from the Bulgars to Mordvinians, and the Khazanan empire that controlled the Dnieper River valley.
There is uncertainty about whether the Rus were a specific Slavic tribe or Varangians who were assimilated into the Slavic people. Regardless, Norse influence was seen throughout the region, with villages and outposts in what is now Western Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
In the mid-ninth century, many tribes were paying tribute to Varangians. According to the Primary Chronicle, in 862 CE the Finnic and Slavic tribes around Novgorod revolted, pushing the Norse out of the region.
Shortly afterwards, the tribes began fighting with each other for power until the Varangians were invited back in order to establish peace. The region was divided among three brothers; upon their deaths, the region was given to Prince Oleg in 879 CE.
In the 880’s, Oleg began a campaign south, ultimately capturing the city of Kyiv from the Khazars and proclaiming Kyiv, the “Mother of Rus’ cities.”
Kyiv quickly became a trading hub, which used the Dniper River to connect Constantinople to Varangian trade routes and the Khazars to the Germanic routes. It was very profitable, and the city and region expanded quickly.
Kievan Rus prospered until the 11th century when internal political strife and the weakening of Constantinople, Kyiv’s primary trading partner, saw its regional influence wane. The 12th century crusades created a new trading route for Europe and spelled economic doom for Kyiv.
As Kievan Rus declined, the center of influence shifted from Kyiv back to Novgorod, which maintained significant trade routes to the Baltic Sea. In 1136, Novgorod revolted against Kyiv, winning independence.
Novgorod, after obtaining independence from Kievan Rus, ultimately shifted its allegiance to Moscow. The final demise of Kievan Rus came with the Mongol invasion, splitting the empire into small principalities.
At the height of its power, Kievan Rus spanned from the White and Baltic seas to the Black Sea. Literacy rates exceeded that of Western Europe, women were granted basic rights of property and, in some cases inheritance, while Orthodox Christianity began to take a foothold.
The history of the region after Kievan Rus is too lengthy and complex to address here, as several nations controlled portions of what is now Ukraine. Its emergence as an independent state first took place from 1918-1920 before it became part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine then declared its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR.
Ukrainian identity has strong cultural and historical roots that long predate the USSR and modern Russia. As Yale University professor Timothy Snyde explained in response to Putin’s assertions, “The Soviet Union took the form it did – that is, as a union of republics with national names — precisely because the founders of the Soviet Union knew that there was a Ukrainian question and knew that they had to address it in some way.”
He continued, “The Ukrainian national movement went back 100 years before the Soviet Union. The elements of Ukrainian history go back to the Middle Ages.”
In short, Vladimir Puten has rewritten history. Ukraine was not a modern creation of the Bolsheviks. It is Russia that owes its origin story to the eastern Slavs who were heavily influenced by the Vikings.
While this condensed version of the rise and fall of Kievan Rus does not do enough to reflect the glory of ancient Ukraine, it does illustrate some important history lessons.
First, Ukraine is a diverse, multi-ethnic nation. It was the partnership of countless tribes that created the prosperity enjoyed by Kievan Rus.
Yes, there are separatist in the east and hyper-nationalists in the west, but the vast majority of citizens see themselves as Ukrainians, regardless of whether they speak Ukrainian (67%) or Russian (29%) at home. This diversity has always given Ukrainians their strength.
Second, economic instability yields political instability.
The Crusades, followed by the Mongol invasion, ultimately caused the fall of Kievan Rus, shifting the cultural and economic center of the region to Novgorod and ultimately to Moscow.
Ukraine saw some economic success in the 2000’s, but most of the post-Soviet era has been plagued with corruption, an unstable energy sector and poor planning.
The energy sector has been especially thorny. Russia and Ukraine have been in dispute over gas prices for a decade, and Ukraine still owes Russian-owned Gazprom gas company billions of dollars. Russia shut off supply to Ukraine in 2006, 2014 and 2015 to flex its political muscle.
It is no secret that Russia has used gas exports as a political bargaining chip. Around a quarter of the natural gas used by the European Union comes from Russia and in 2005, 80% passed through Ukrainian gas lines.
In short, this is not just a Ukrainian issue; it is a European problem.
None of this is new and most of the challenges have been around since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
If economic instability yields political instability, then the West needs to look at its inconsistent history with Ukraine and its inability to reign in Ukrainian corruption.
Today’s crisis in Ukraine is not related to a bad decision made by President Biden, President Trump or the EU. It is the result of three decades of broken promises and poor decisions about Ukraine made by the West.