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The Truth About the Ukraine Crisis is That History Really Doesn't Matter That Much

There are only a handful of people in North America who know as much about Eastern Europe as Padraic Kenney. A professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington, Kenney is the author of numerous books and articles on the history of Eastern Europe, and is regarded as one of the leading historians of modern Poland in the United States. A Fulbright fellow, Kenney’s most recent book is The Burdens of Freedom: Eastern Europe Since 1989.

With the deepening crisis in Ukraine, the movement of Russian and now reportedly Polish troops to near the Ukrainian border, I talked with Professor Kenney about the Polish position in the crisis, as well as the [limited] role of ethnic conflict in the standoff and the wrong lessons for policymakers to have drawn from the Yugoslav Wars and about why -- shockingly -- ancient ethnic hatreds, the bread-and-butter of "History" really aren't a factor in Ukraine right now.

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Professor Kenney, you are an historian of Eastern Europe and the former ­­­Soviet Union, and in particular Poland. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, had a stern warning today about the situation in Ukraine, and I believe Polish troops are moving toward the Ukrainian border. Could you walk us through Poland’s interest in Ukraine?

Sure. I think Poland has two interests.

Number one, we can’t be too surprised that the Poles would be a little bit concerned about any fighting just to their east, and Ukraine is right next door. There have been comments – as far as I can see unsubstantiated – that Belarus might also in some way mobilize its troops, perhaps to help out Putin, and that would alarm Poland even more. There’s a geopolitical aspect that is perfectly natural even if you didn’t have the experience of World War II.

But then in addition to that – really, entirely separate from that, in my opinion – you also have Poland’s sense that Poles have a kind of responsibility for Ukrainian democracy, because Poles were successful in gaining democracy in ’89. That sentiment increased when Ukrainians demonstrated for and won their independence in 1991. That happened because the Soviet Union fell apart, of course, but Ukrainians were very engaged in that, and a lot of Poles were excited about Ukrainian independence. And again, you have the Orange Revolution in 2004/2005. So there’s been that sort of tradition that Ukrainian independence and democracy and prosperity is something that matters to Poles because of Polish history.

That raises another point. To what extent are historical factors entering into the -- I’m going to ask you to play psychologist here for a moment. To what extent are historical factors entering into the minds of decision-makers in all of this? Because it seems that there are a variety of both contemporary political narratives and deep historical narratives that politicians on all sides of this crisis are drawing upon. And Poland of course has a deep history – we talk about 1989, but there’s a deep history going back well before World War II, during the Russian Revolution – and indeed well before then – of involvement in territories in at least western Ukraine.

Incidentally, is there still a substantial Polish population in that part of Ukraine?

There are still Poles in western Ukraine, but not in very large numbers. You have a larger Polish population now in Lithuania then you do in Ukraine. (There’s also a relatively large one in Belarus, by the way.) To a large extent that was sorted out in the aftermath of World War II through ethnic cleansing: Poles moving out of Ukraine, Ukrainians moving out of Poland.

But look, the larger issue that you raise is what difference do historical memories make? The perception that Ukrainians have of Poles has been gradually improving over the last two decades, and Poland and Ukraine have very laboriously gone through discussion of painful parts of their mutual past. So, for example, Poland’s war with the Soviets in 1919 and 1920, which gave the Poles a hold on what is now Ukrainian soil (including very briefly an occupation of Kiev), but more importantly the Volhynian massacres of 1943…

The Volhynian massacres?

A set of massacres that were largely mutual between Poles and Ukrainians in Volhynia, just north of Galicia, which were brutal massacres in which Ukrainian partisan forces would surround entire Polish villages and attempt to massacre everyone in the village, and less often Poles doing the same thing to Ukrainian villages, and tens of thousands of people were killed in these massacres…

And these massacres -- and I don’t want to belabor the point, but I’m relatively unfamiliar with them -- they were conducted largely independently of German or Soviet forces in the area?

Uh, yes, independent except that that was the framing conflict –


---- without which they never would have happened. My colleague Tim Snyder at Yale has written very eloquently about these massacres. The thing about them is that until the 1990s they really weren’t written about at all. They weren’t exactly a hidden story, but they were really unexplored. And it still has been enormously hard to talk about them. So those are the kinds of things that the Poles and the Ukrainians have had to talk about.

But they’ve been slowly reconciling.                        

Yes, but that’s not been entirely successful, because these are things that are not easy to resolve. Given that history, obviously Poland has to be enormously careful not to introduce new and difficult stories into the two national narratives.

That being said, I think for Poles at least there’s been a sense that that’s part of the past. Poland is now a member of the democratic, prosperous West, and Ukrainians can see us that way, and we no longer have that baggage. But it’s not that simple, and there are plenty of people in the Ukraine who might be susceptible to stories of the return of the Poles, or who might choose to foment such propaganda. It’s still something that Ukrainian politicians can use. 

So when thinking about how the past of Ukraine and its neighbors matters – and by that I mean the pre-1991 past – at one level it really doesn’t matter that much. What we so far do not see is an attempt to settle old scores or summoning those old scores and basing that fight to be about them. Let’s not forget that the Euromaidan protests started over a desire to have President Yanukovych sign an agreement with the EU. That was a very forward-looking protest. And to a large extent, that has been a theme of the protests -- not calling for some older wrongs to be righted, but for a better future.

So in other words, this isn’t a case of old ethnic resentments and hatreds giving birth to political mobilization, but those fears being to a small extent mobilized for geopolitical reasons.

Yes… Well, let’s say they can now be mobilized. The main way that’s been done is by Yanukovych and his allies talking about the West. And for the most part that’s been about the EU and its “gay agenda” and so that’s definitely not an ancient ethnic hatred kind of thing, but occasionally there has been a bit of “meddling by the Poles” or “meddling by the Germans” kind of rhetoric, and suggesting that this is a return to the past. But so far that’s been a relatively minor part of the story.

That’s not to say that it couldn’t get larger – if we plunged into a war, then anything is possible.

Well, how concerned are you about the prospect of war? We’re not, as of 2:00pm Eastern this Monday, in a war right now -- there are Russian troops in Crimea, but as of now there has been almost no violence there, at least between organized military forces.

That being said, there was an ultimatum issued approximately two hours ago by the Russian Black Sea Fleet that Ukrainian forces in Crimea abandon the peninsula or face “a storm.” Is there a danger here (there’s obviously a danger of violence in Crimea) of a broader Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine? There was an analyst who suggested that such a scenario is feasible, and in that event Russia would face a situation similar to Afghanistan or Chechnya. The invasion isn’t the tricky part -- it’s the occupation afterward.

Well, let’s remember that as late as Friday, the idea of a Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea seemed hard to imagine.

But why was that? In retrospect – and yes, it’s easy to see things in retrospect – it’s a part of Ukraine that is majority ethnically Russian, enjoyed a great deal of autonomy within Ukraine itself, and it’s the site of a major Russian military base…

Okay, here’s why it was hard to imagine. We were talking about ethnicity a moment ago. Ethnicity has not play a really significant role in this story so far, in the sense that there are plenty of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, or Ukrainian-speaking Russians, who were not supportive of Yanukoych and have been supportive of the new political direction in the country. It’s not been primarily an ethnic division, especially since a lot of ethnicity in Ukraine is relatively muddled.

There has not been massive popular demand for secession in Crimea. There’s been some manufactured stuff, and there’s been a few small demonstrations, but for the most part that’s been pretty small. And so, there wasn’t a demand for Russia to enter. It wasn’t that much unlike the demand for the Soviets to enter Afghanistan in 1979.

So it was hard to imagine for another reason, and that’s because the last decade or so has seen the emergence of hybrid state forms – quasi-states that no one really recognizes but exist outside of the normal framework of states. Think Transnistria or South Ossetia and Abkhazia. One could imagine that if the Russians wanted to wreak some havoc inside Ukraine, they could have simply encouraged local politicians to play that game and make things more and more complicated, and not have to come in and take things over for yourself. So it wasn’t obvious to anyone that this was going to happen.

Now as we look forward – is war possible? – that’s just a really hard thing to imagine we could actually get into a situation where tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides could fight each other, and the possibility of an incident provoking greater conflict. But let’s put that aside for the moment and imagine what that would actually look like. As some people have been pointing out, Crimea is very economically dependent on Ukraine. That’s where all of its services come from. Eastern Ukraine, especially southeastern Ukraine, is a land of increasingly fading industries that would cost a lot for Russia to prop up. Is that a great idea on Russia’s part? Maybe not. And so indeed the occupation would be tough, not only from a military perspective but also an economic perspective.

Is part of the problem that the West sees this conflict through the lens of the Yugoslav Wars – ancient ethnic hatreds waiting for a spark to ignite – whereas the reality is quite different? It’s not 1992 anymore, it’s 2014, and different dynamics are operating.

Well, that’s what we got wrong about the Yugoslav Wars! They weren’t about ancient ethnic hatreds.

Well, yeah, but that’s what people still think they were about…

Yes, exactly, and so we’re destined to still use the incorrect lessons from the Yugoslav Wars. Absolutely.

The ethnic story in Ukraine is just not that important. Now, it can turn into that. A couple years ago, there was a bombing of a mosque construction site in Crimea, and that didn’t spiral into greater ethnic tension, but it could have. It’s easy enough to provoke some kind of ethnic tension between Russians and Ukrainians through some kind of atrocity. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s still early. But you still have plenty of examples of people going out of their way to demonstrate the opposite. Russians showing up at pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Crimea with signs that say “I am Russian and I support Ukraine.”

The day of Russian speech in L’viv.

Right. Exactly. Exactly.

Now, these kinds of things you also saw in the early days of the Yugoslav Wars, so it could be that we’ll look back and say, wasn’t that naïve? But the ethnic narrative is so much less strong than it was in Yugoslavia because there aren’t enclaves that are identified with a particular nation. You could say western Ukraine – Galicia – is overwhelmingly Ukrainian, and southeastern Ukraine is overwhelmingly Russian, but there’s a vast area in the middle that is sorta Russian and sorta Ukrainian. You can’t take a ruler and draw a line and say, “this is how Ukraine could break up.”