Like the earth’s surface, nations can be split by fault lines that lead to earthquakes. Once-unified nations like Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia have dissolved along their political fault lines. Ukraine is yet another nation sharply divided by religious, linguistic, and political fissures.
Modern Ukraine has an extremely complex history of shifting borders. Over the past 400 years it has been ruled in part and at various times by Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians, Germans, Cossacks, Turks, and Swedes. This is particularly true in western Ukraine, much of which was Austrian from 1772 until 1918, then Polish until 1939, occupied by Germany during most of the Second World War and then part of the Soviet Union only from 1945 until 1991. The Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions were annexed to Ukraine by the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1922 and in 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev added the ethnically Russian Crimea to Ukraine by administrative fiat.
Unlike Canada, which found ways to meld anglophone Protestants and francophone Catholics into one nation, Ukraine failed to embrace pluralism. Ukrainian nationalist governments in Kiev rejected the a federal model with autonomy for Russian speaking regions. They rejected calls for adopting two official languages throughout the nation and went so far as to ban the use of Russian in administrative and commercial matters, even in predominantly Russian speaking regions.
Children play next to a destroyed tank in Dmytrivka, near Kyiv, on March 6.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
Politically Ukraine is divided between pro-Europe and pro-Russia factions, with those seeking closer ties to Russia found mostly among Orthodox Christians living in the east or Crimea. This division is not new. Fifteen years ago, the American ambassador in Moscow wrote to Washington that the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership “could spilt the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war…”.
In 2008, when NATO’s Secretary General announced that Ukraine would eventually become an alliance member, thousands of Russophile demonstrators took to the streets in protest, particularly in Russian speaking cites like Odessa and Kharkov. In 2013, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, Europhile protesters took to the streets, most notably in the west and Kiev, where they eventually overthrew his government. In numerous elections and referenda over many years, these regional divisions within Ukraine have been stark and persistent.
Though it remains a sensitive topic, these divisions are exacerbated by lingering scars from the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. After the collapse of the Czarist government in 1918, Ukrainian nationalists briefly succeed in creating an independent state until they were crushed by the Bolshevik Red Army, paradoxically led by the Ukrainian Leon Trotsky. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, many Ukrainian nationalists sensed another opportunity for independence and fought alongside the Nazis; something many Russians have neither forgotten nor forgiven.
It might well have been easier to unify an independent Ukraine had its government not been notoriously corrupt. In 2016, then Vice President Biden said that corruption was “eating Ukraine like a cancer.” Transparency International currently lists Ukraine as the second most corrupt nation in Europe; one where bribery and embezzlement have become endemic in the defense, energy, education, and justice systems. Only last month, investigative journalists uncovered wide-scale corruption that led to the resignation of 15 senior Ukrainian officials, including five provincial governors and half a dozen deputy ministers.
It could also have been easier to unify an independent Ukraine if its government had achieved more success protecting democracy and civil liberties. Freedom House’s most recent assessment lists Ukraine as “partly free,” with a score of 61 out of a possible 100. It noted that “attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent, and police responses are often inadequate.” Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights have all detailed significant human rights problems in Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion has dramatically deepened divisions in Ukraine. Eleven pro-Russian political parties have been banned. Five elected members of Ukraine’s Parliament were stripped of their citizenship for pro-Russian activities. Numerous independent media outlets that were mostly, but not entirely pro-Russian, have been closed. Russian books have been removed from libraries, and Russian music written after 1991 can no longer be played on the radio. If nothing else, the extent of this de-Russification program reveals just how widespread pro-Russian and anti-Russian sympathies are in different sectors of society.
While the country is divided linguistically between Russian and Ukrainian speakers, religiously it is divided primarily between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians who have for centuries looked to Moscow for religious leadership. In 2019, well before the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government sought to break this connection by establishing a new denomination that falls under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul. Then in December 2022, Ukraine adopted legislation forbidding “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine.”
In effect, Orthodox Christians are now free to worship only in government-approved Ukrainian Orthodox churches that look to religious leaders in Kiev and Istanbul rather than Moscow. The situation is like that in China where Catholics are allowed to worship only so long as they deny the authority of the Pope. In a very telling indication of intent, the new version of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has replaced the traditional Orthodox date for Christmas with the date used in Western Europe.
The reality is that many ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in the country do not identify with Ukrainian nationalism and never have. Now viewed as enemies, their political parties, media outlets and churches have been closed. Whether this is a genuine matter of national security or simply an effort to eliminate opposition to the current Ukrainian nationalist government is a matter of opinion, but these divisions existed long before the Russian invasion which has now made them worse.
David H. Rundell is a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political advisor to the U.S. Central Command and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served for 15 years in the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.