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The Global Consortium of Political Analysts

Tug-of-War: Ukraine’s Parallels with the Past

Updated: Nov 18, 2023


The unfolding crisis on the Ukrainian border paints a picture akin to a game of tug-of-war, with Ukraine being the prize. On one side, western countries, along with the multilateral organizations that they form, attempt to coordinate their strengths and bring the rope into their values-based orbit defined by mutually assured security, free trade, and respect for national sovereignty. On the other side, Russia digs its heels into the dirt and leans backward, vying to tug the rope back into its sphere of influence, in which they insist Ukraine belongs.

Unfortunately, this is merely the latest episode of Ukraine being the center of a geopolitical tug-of-war. Even before the creation of modern nation-states, Ukraine’s strategic territory has been subject to rival powers competing for influence. Nothing reflects this better than the name Ukraine itself, which is generally believed to stem from an old Slavic word for borderlands. Indeed, apart from a period when Ukraine was its own sphere of influence, it has been bordering others.

This article aims to expand on the fact Ukraine has long been pulled and pushed from various directions, which may help in giving perspective to the current crisis that continues to unfold.

Geographical Importance

To understand why Ukraine has been such a hotly contested prize for regional powers throughout history, it is important to first understand the three distinct features that define its geography.

The first is its location on the grasslands of the Great European Steppe, meaning it has been the highway into Europe for a number of nomadic hordes like the Alans, Huns, Pannonian Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and in the 13th century, the Mongols. Many settled in Ukraine due to its fertile soil and landscape that suited the nomadic lifestyle. This made the land attractive, although the ease in which myriad hordes passed through also meant that regional powers viewed it as a buffer zone that needed to be secured.

The second is the spanning web of navigable rivers – with the Dnieper being of prime significance – that allowed trade and commerce to flourish. The Vikings were the first to capitalize on this network of waterways, turning Kiev into a thriving commercial center that later became the crown jewel of the Kievan Rus', which formed the roots of the Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish empires. The profitable trading routes in concert with its cultural significance help explain why these powers have long desired to keep Ukraine in their realms.

The third is the southern coastline that overlooks the Black Sea, a feature that provided easy access to the lucrative port of Constantinople and the Mediterranean beyond. The strategic location of the Crimean Peninsula also gives whoever controls it an upper hand in the Black Sea and complete control over the Sea of Azov. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that many powers throughout history have sought to control Ukraine for this reason.

These geographic features made the Kievan Rus’, which existed from the ninth to the 13th centuries, prosperous and powerful. With its advanced legal code, impressive architecture, and close ties to the Byzantine Empire, the Rus’ served as an interlocutor for goods and ideas traded between northern Europe and the southern Mediterranean. The golden age of the Rus’ was arguably the last time Ukraine was the center of its own sphere of influence. After that, the tug-of-war games between other regional powers commenced.

The Unravelling of the Rus’

The fall of the Rus’ can be attributed to the invasion of the Cumans, a Turkic nomadic people who took control of Crimea. This severely disrupted trade with Constantinople, a city already in decline due to the Venetian siege of the Fourth Crusade. Fragmentation within the Rus’ ensued as regional clans vied for influence. And that internal division meant the Rus’ was no match for the Mongol Golden Horde that swept through it in 1237.

Mongol rule over the Rus’ lands lasted until the 15th century when its grip weakened into a vacuum filled by three main actors: Moscow in the north, which gave rise to the Russian state; Lithuania in the south and west, where the lion’s share of Rus’ land was incorporated; and the Turkic Tartars who ruled a Khanate centered on the Crimean Peninsula that became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. In 1569, the Union of Lublin combined Lithuania and Poland into a commonwealth that, at its height, included much of modern-day Ukraine.

In its wars against the Ottomans and Tartars, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth enjoyed the support of the Ukrainian Cossacks, who were effective soldiers, but loyal insofar that their relative autonomy was respected. During the Great Northern War, their sense of autonomy clashed with the Poles, so they aligned themselves with Russia. However, the Russians didn’t care much for Cossack's autonomy either, ordering them to defend against Tartar attacks and invade Siberia. This lack of respect pushed many Cossacks to align with Sweden later in the war, a fatal decision reflected in their crushing defeat at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.

Following their miscalculated alliance with the Swedes, the Cossacks found themselves under the heavy-handed rule of Russia, which pummeled any hopes for autonomy. Russification was propagated on Ukraine by Catherine the Great, who violently suppressed any rebellions and ruthlessly expanded Russia’s political and intellectual control over Ukrainian territory. The dissolution of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century compounded the position of Ukraine in the Russian orbit even further.

Over the course of the 19th century, much of Ukraine remained part of the Russian Empire, while other parts made up the eastern flank of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Resistance to this reality grew thanks to the propagation of Enlightenment ideals, the Revolutions of 1848, and in the wake of the Crimean and Russo-Japanese Wars, the realization that Russia was not the invincible power it fancied itself and that subjugation rested upon. By the time Europe was engulfed in the Great War, Ukraine was ready to go its own way.

The Ukrainian War of Independence is what emerged from the discontent of being a part of the crumbling empires of central and eastern Europe. However, instead of unlocking a new era of independence, this chapter of history saw one of the most complicated games of geopolitical tug-of-war, which resulted in Ukraine being pulled back into the Russian orbit, this time as part of the USSR.

A Multi-Dimensional Tug-of-War

When the February Revolution occurred, ousting the Tsar and installing the Provisional Government, the Ukrainian Nationalist Republic was established as an autonomous region of Russia that pledged loyalty to the new government in Petrograd. However, when the Bolsheviks swept into power after the October Revolution, Ukraine wanted nothing to do with this and declared full independence. Unwilling to allow this, the Bolsheviks established their own capital in Kharkiv, from which they spearheaded the invasion of Kiev in February 1918.

In March of the same year, however, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, which made peace between Russia and Germany and saw the transfer of Ukrainian territory into German hands. The Bolsheviks left and Ukraine thus became a puppet state of the embattled German Empire. This was short-lived, however, as by November of 1918, Germany capitulated in the wider war, leading to the Bolsheviks annulling Brest-Litovsk and recapturing Kiev in early 1919.

Complicating the picture further was the establishment of the Second Polish Republic, which sought to secure its borders that reflected those of the old Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918-19 is what came of the Polish desire for new lands. The conflict applied pressure on the west of Ukraine, while the Bolsheviks pushed in from the east.

At this point, the White Russian Army made an explosive debut, briefly succeeding in pushing the Bolsheviks from the territory. However, the White Army was overextended, and the Bolshevik Red Army, in concert with the anarchist Black Army that it later betrayed, launched a successful counterattack that pushed the Whites out. The main fight returned to the Ukrainian nationalists.

In dire straits, Ukrainian nationalists made a truce with Poland and joined forces against the Red Army. At first, the Poles and Ukrainians were successful in keeping the Reds at bay. But before long, in 1920, they lost their footing and the Red Army made an advance all the way through Ukrainian territory to Warsaw, where the Poles had to fight for their existence. Needless to say, the focus on the Ukrainian theatre was lost.

With Poland out of the picture, the Bolsheviks could turn their attention to eradicating the remnants of the White Army in Ukraine and subjecting the nationalists into their sphere. This was achieved when Ukraine eventually became congealed into the USSR in 1922.

Concluding Thoughts

Ever since the breakup of the Mongol Yoke that consumed the Kievan Rus’, the territory of Ukraine has been sandwiched between an array of regional powers that have sought to control it. The Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Ottomans, Germans, French, Austrians, along with myriad factions, have all vied for influence within its borders. Its geography, with its strategic coast, navigable rivers, and easily traversed and fertile landscape, helps explain why it has been eyed hungrily by so many.

Today, Ukrainians can be happy that the pull from the west is not characterized by coercion and military threats, but rather by attraction to its community of institutions. The same cannot be said for Russia, which is wielding a big stick as it pulls ferociously on the rope attached to Ukrainian sovereignty. While the developments in Ukraine over the past few years may not appear to have obvious parallels with the past, they in fact just add nuance to historic reality. That reality is that Ukrainian territory has long been the prize awarded to some vicious games of tug-of-war.


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