History Abridged: The Ukrainian Conflict

By Elaina Barbieri


It is a risky thing to abridge history. The sheer scope of all the events that go on in just one day is absolutely mindboggling. The stories seen on television screens and twitter updates are merely a blip of the world’s activity. While what people see is so disproportionate to what truly occurs, it makes sense that journalists narrow everything down to only the bare bones of news given that there is never enough time in the day to present everything fully and fairly.

With the situation in Ukraine, one that spans back centuries and is unfathomably complex, most people especially students, avoid getting bogged down with political news that is both too lengthy to understand and assumed to be unrelated with anyone but those in that troubled little section of the earth- though it should be said that that is absolutely not the case, but that’s something to be addressed later.

So, is it possible fit all of Ukrainian-Russian history into one article? No. To accurately sum up a century of discord between two countries in a mere article is a task that is impossible to achieve, or will at least turn an article into a real headache. However, it is entirely in the realm of reason to go through the largest points in history and sum them up in way that is both understandable and mildly enjoyable- well, as enjoyable as a current events article can be for a college that is mainly comprised of health science majors. With that in mind, this article is to serve as a simple guide through the maze of events seen on TV. A little information is better than no information at all and while no one is going to become an expert on the conflict after reading this, hopefully some interest is sparked so that students may see the crucial impact these controversies have on the rest of the globe.


Part I:  The History

Tug of war!

To spare the hours of endless lecturing that would go into explaining who-had-Ukraine-when pre-20th century, it’s much easier  to fast forward to the beginning of Ukraine and Russia’s long abusive relationship. For centuries, Ukraine bounced between the hands of Lithuania and Poland. Only until the late 18th century did  Imperial Russia swoop in and divide the power, splitting the country. It was a long history of “who has what” as well as a dose of drama that comes with the divvying of Ukrainian land. The easiest thing to remember is that Ukraine always struggled with independence, Russia’s hands simply started to get into the mix, and quite large hands they were as Russia had power over most of the Ukrainian land.

Freedom at last?

After being divided and fought over for centuries, Ukraine finally catches a break. But, like every unfortunate trend, nothing good ever lasts for Ukraine. In 1917, Ukraine finally understood what freedom tasted like. It was their first time being independent and they got to enjoy it for a whopping five years. Poland and Russia started another battle between who gets dibs on Ukraine, with Bolshevik controlled Russia being the new winner.

How bad can it be?

Ok, Ukraine lost their independence. But can being completely ruled by the Soviet Union really make things worse? The answer is simple: if any student knows the Soviet Union then they probably know about Stalin. And if people know anything about Stalin then its not that hard to guess what the answer to the question above is.  The lower class citizens reject the Soviet Union’s collective farming system that was being imposed at the time and- in natural Stalin fashion- he executes millions.

 Stalin shoots himself in the foot.

The executions and exiles that took place are as fascinating as they are tragic. If one good thing came out of it, it is that Stalin realized he screwed up big time when the population dipped too low to reap any benefits from the fertile Ukrainian land. Oops. 

Bandaging the Wound.

In response to the weak population, Stalin ships out millions of Russian citizens to repopulate and work the land, thus beginning the split between the Polish leaning Ukrainians and the Russian leaning Ukrainians.

Are we finally free now…?

While the remainder of the century was not much happier, one major event occurred that finally gave Ukraine the freedom they dreamed of… sort of. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 made Ukraine a shining new independent state, a big relief for a country that just could never seem to catch a break. So are things better now? Despite finally being recognized as an independent country Russia still found ways to encroach on their free neighbor.


Part II: The Past Decade and the Present

No one likes a cheater!

Remember how Russia never really left? In 2004, an election was held where Russian-backed president to be Viktor Yanukovych won under the allegations of some serious fraud. The idea that Russia may have unfairly tipped the scales in Viktor’s favor did not exactly make Ukrainians want to congratulate him with a pat on the back and a muffin basket. Ukranians responded with the famous Orange Revolution, the people’s protest against Yanukovych’s corrupt win. It worked in successful kicking Yanukovych out of office, that is, until 2010 when he ran again and won fairly..

Is everything better now?

That is a good joke. In 2013, Yanukovych refused to sign a largely supported agreement with the EU to revive their economy. Instead, he chooses to take money from Russia. No one, especially Western-leaning Ukrainians, is thrilled. Once again, Yanukovych is sent packing.

So what about Crimea?

The large-scale debacle with Crimea came in April 2014 with Russia’s invasion but the situation dates back much further than that. Crimea is a largely Russian populated territory under Ukraine-or was until it was annexed by Russia this past year. For centuries Crimea had belonged to Russia and also holds a significant Russian fleet at its port. It was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 in order to make amends for the atrocities Stalin had committed previously to the Ukrainian people and for the starvation and poverty that occurred when Russia was fighting over the territory. Apparently horrendous crimes against humanity can leave a bad taste in the mouth and the only solution is a free gift-wrapped territory. The rest of Russia was not exactly thrilled with this idea.  Crimea’s largely pro-Russian population as well as the tension between the two countries that has boiled for over a century has eventually caused the violent breakouts we see today.

What’s happening today?

Fighting broke out between the separatists and pro-Ukrainians after Crimea was overtaken by Russia until September 5th when a ceasefire was signed. But in good old Ukrainian fashion, the peace never lasted for long. In fact, it was not all that peaceful even during the ceasefire. Opinionated citizens still clashed amongst one another and finally any fragment of peace was shattered this past January. Both groups, now stronger than they were before the ceasefire, are battling for control over important territories near the Ukrainian-Russian border. During all this fighting for the upper hand, many civilians were killed in the crossfire, most notably a shelling in Mariupol where 30 people were killed by, with what many claimed to be, rebel fire.

Is Russia the “Big Baddy” in this?

With all the violence going around, most of it blamed by the allegedly Russian supported rebels, it is easy to completely see Russia as an evil overlord. And while Putin swears he is not involved despite the numerous Russian soldiers identified in Ukraine, Russia has its reasons for invading in the first place. Part of the reason Russia is desperate to gain control of Crimea and Ukraine is because of their need to regain power. Imagine being as mighty as Russia was back when it was the Soviet Union. Imagine how devastating it must be to collapse and lose that strength you once loved. Now imagine you can regain that former glory if you re-take some good old territory. For Russia, Crimea and Ukraine is their ticket to be back on the winner’s pedestal. It may not necessarily forgive any violent actions, but it is important to understand why a country does what it does in order to maintain power and security.

Why does any of this matter to an American?

Good question. Technically, it does not have to. Just like any international issue, it may not have any great effect on a student in Waukesha. The reader can stop reading now if  they like, though that is not a great idea. Just because the effect of this crisis on ordinary American adults isn’t immediate, it doesn’t mean that no effect exists. In fact there are two big things that need to be considered: One actually focuses on the safety and involvement of the US. The second is more focused on the humanitarian side of things; something that a person like the average reader can actually do to affect what is happening overseas in a positive light. 

  1. What many don’t know is that America has already thrown itself into the catastrophe by threatening sanctions and delivering warnings. Much like many other countries, America has gone so far as to give Russia a hard slap on the wrist, but many in Ukraine are mad that America has not gone far enough and, without more definite action, may come across as appeasing the Russians.  On the other hand, if America acts too aggressive it can trigger a defensive Russia to drag us into war. Tensions already exist between Russian and NATO that some say make Russia’s actions more defensive than offensive, and one wrong move can set them fighting more than just Ukraine. This struggle is, in a sense, the same question that is brought up in most debate and history classes: Should America be the policeman of the world?
  2. Sometimes we forget that soldiers are not fighting in an abandoned wasteland. They are fighting in populated towns and cities. There are nearly one million people who have been displaced as conflict tears through their homeland. The death toll is rising to 6,000 with nearly doubled the amount of injured. Civilians are caught up in shootings and rocket-fire, causing over half a million to flee the country. To make matters worse, there exists people who can not really leave even if they are in a conflict zone such as patients and the elderly. Hospitals and mental care facilities are lacking in supplies as war rages on. There is a shortage of medicine, food, and basic hygiene supplies, making for appalling conditions. Most are relying on aid and charitable donations. The war has destroyed the Ukrainian economy with most of the people running the health facilities not being paid for their work. Worst, is the psychological effect war has on the human mind. Surrounded by death and violence, people everywhere are losing hope. While donating products or money to charitable organizations is not going to stop any war, it is the easiest thing a student can do to lessen the terrible burden the Ukrainian conflict has left on it’s people.


Hopefully this article has shed the slightest ray of light on the crisis that is ravaging through Ukraine.  The information that one can absorb on the history of a single country alone seems endless, and there is no way that one article can entirely capture the massive lifespan of Ukraine. Despite that impossibility, there has to be an effort made to provide even the simplest of information to the public about the events overseas. If American’s choose to avoid a situation because the context is too overwhelming, then we do an injustice to those surviving the violence and braving the terror. No one has to be an expert to understand what makes the Ukrainian conflict so intense and impactful.

To simply overcome the warm womb of ignorance and acknowledge the brevity of Ukraine’s situation is far better than not knowing at all. Reading this story is already the first step. The next step is to take action, but that exists behind the confines of a single article.

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