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From the Archives: Russia, Ukraine and the Battle of Yesterday

January 4, 2020

image.pngSix years ago, those of us who had studied Russian and East European history and culture already understood that the emerging conflict between Russia and Ukraine would shake the world, but we could not have predicted the strange ways in which its tremors have rattled internal politics across Europe, North America and beyond. In early 2014, Ukraine, placed once again on the balance beam between East and West, deposed its leader and attempted a westward tilt. Russia responded swiftly, exploiting Ukraine’s cultural rifts and historical peculiarities to annex Crimea and stoke a civil war in eastern Ukraine. Western sanctions followed, which were in turn followed by an accelerated Russian information (and disinformation) campaign to undermine faith in the kind of Western political structures Ukraine had wanted to join and emulate: Liberal democracy would seem far less enticing if it could be demonstrated that it worked poorly and led to chaos.

Today, with the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union, illiberalism on the rise in Central Europe, and transnational bodies of liberal governance ridiculed across the West as feckless and out of touch, it’s hard to envision a world in which, just a few years ago, Ukrainians risked everything to take a step toward an EU that seemed the guarantor of stability. It also remains difficult, after six years of political and geopolitical repercussions, for Westerners to understand what Ukraine’s choice that fateful winter meant to Russians (and many Ukrainians) who considered the histories of the two countries inextricably bound. In March 2014, I wrote a short essay introducing those complicated histories to the readers of Vegas Seven. (Even in the age of the global Web, it’s important to have thoughtful local discourse on international matters.)  After years of political posturing in which interested parties try to simplify and spin the conflict to their advantage, it seems worthwhile to post this little primer once more: “Russia, Ukraine and the Battle of Yesterday.”

Greg Blake Miller is a former staff writer for The Moscow Times. He holds a doctorate in international communication from the University of Oregon and earned his master’s in Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

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