The situation in Ukraine has been constantly evolving for over a year now. But let’s take a step back and look into Ukraine’s history and geography in order to understand the disputes and wars around Ukraine’s uncertain position between Russia and West.
The EU trade deal that sparked the Russian-Ukrainian conflict had about 44% of support of Ukrainians (mostly in the west), while 31% supported the course to trade deal with the Russia-led Customs Union instead (mostly in the east and south). When Yanukovych refused to sign the EU deal, many western Ukrainians viewed it as a betrayal, while eastern Ukrainians supported this decision.
So basically, Ukraine, settled on the frontier between EU and Russia, is the biggest country separating the West and the East. It might even seem that Ukraine is resembling a pawn between the West and Russia. For example, the successful signing of the EU trade deal would mean that the West’s reach would spread further into the East. And on the other hand, the Russians see Ukraine not as a separate country, but a rightful part of Russia.
Internally, Ukrainians never actually solved the national identity matter that was sparked by its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union for themselves. And so now that internal matter has spread and grown into an external one. The national identity crisis of Ukrainian people has become a big worldwide issue now.
The people of the eastern and western Ukraine disagree greatly on a lot of things: what kind of county they want to live in, what countries they want to be friends with, what language they are supposed to speak in etc. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east and south, particularly in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, cherish the idea that their regions should be absorbed into Russia, and have never regarded themselves as citizens of Ukraine.
Pro-Western Ukrainian: “We see the ugly manifestation of prisoners’ influence in the eastern Ukraine now”
Let’s take a closer look at what the situation is like in L’viv, the biggest city in the western Ukraine. L’viv souvenir shops have been selling mugs, cups and fridge magnets with the slogan “Thank you God that I was not born a Moskal” for a couple of years now. Moskal is a derogatory term for Russians.
During the Maidan events one year ago, it was a common thing to observe in restaurants, diners and generally on the streets of L’viv: people were greeting each other with the words “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”) and wanted to know whether there were any Moskali around. If a Moskal was detected, a case of mockery took place. Of course, this was not a serious matter, but the anti-Russian sentiment was and is pretty real. Some western Ukrainians, however, may speak Russian language in their everyday lives.
“In 1954, Khrushchev liberated a lot of prisoners mainly convicted for robberies, lesser crimes and felonies,” said Ostap, 32, a history teacher from L’viv. “1.5 million of them were sent to Donetsk in order to work at the factories. Since then and up to date, they haven’t just influenced the culture of the region, they’ve created one. And this is not a coincidence that the former president and the favorite politician of eastern people Yanukovych, who was born in Donetsk, is in fact an ex-con,” he added. “All the culture, all the traditions of the region, with all the accompanying negativity that led to the crisis between the pro-Western and pro-Russian Ukrainians – we see that ugly manifestation in the eastern Ukraine right now”.
Pro-Russian Ukrainian: “Have you achieved what you wanted?”
In turn, the eastern Ukrainians viewed the west as naive and lazy during the Maidan protests in Kyiv: “You’re out on the streets protesting while we toil hard in coal mines and metal plants to keep the economy going,” said Sergey Vasilenko, Luhansk citizen, 64, the driver of a truck tractor. Even now, Sergey V. hasn’t changed his opinion: “So how is it, Maidan people? Have you achieved what you wanted? A bloody tyrant was overthrown, and what now? Are you enjoying the war? Are you satisfied with your European salaries? I have a family to provide for, but I can barely make both ends meet. So thank you, Maidan people. Thank you very much,” he said, suppressing the tears.
Very understandably, a lot of Ukrainians despise Russia and want nothing to do with it. On the other hand, there are lots of Ukrainian families that have tight connections to Russia, and so they would rather be friends with Russia than the West. However, it is important to note that past (before the 2014 Ukrainian-Russian crisis) polls have repeatedly indicated that a majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians have expressed their loyalty to Ukraine, not Russia.