Russian invasion of Ukraine, from a historical point of view


As I watched the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it scared me as it probably scared many of you into wondering what will happen next. Not that it helps the bigger picture, but I thought I’d write about the events to give some historical perspective.

This week began with the invasion of two Ukrainian territories by Russian forces. Putin’s justification is that these two sections broke away from Ukraine in 2014 and fought for freedom. Putin only claims to recognize their independence and send troops for their protection.

He also claims that in fact Ukraine should not be considered a sovereign nation, but is in fact part of Russia and the land was stolen from Russia. Given this, Putin asserts that Russia has the right to reclaim its ancient lands and people. While some of his claims are valid, historically speaking, this is not the first time a tyrannical ruler has used this approach of bringing his people together to justify invasion and conquest.

Like all good villains, Putin doesn’t tell a complete lie. He got involved in certain truths to justify and confuse his actions. Where Putin has some justification is this, and I only have room for a very short version.

In the 9th century, Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, was once the capital of the first Slavic state, Kyvian Rusin, which today spans both Russia and Ukraine. This means that Russians have always considered Kiev the cradle of their nation. The lands that are Ukraine were then disputed for the next century until 1793 when it became part of the Russian Empire. Trying to control this new territory, the Tsar forbade speaking Ukrainian but could only really enforce his decisions on the eastern half. So eastern Ukraine, where Luhansk and Donetsk are located, became very Russian in language and Orthodox Christianity, while western Ukraine still tried to retain its language and Catholicism.

During World War I, when the new Russian Bolshevik government came to power and signed a treaty with the Central Powers (Germany) to withdraw from the war, it agreed to grant independence to Ukraine. However, when Germany lost the war in 1918, the Russians went back on their agreement. There were some Ukrainian nationalist movements, especially in the west, but these were crushed by the Russians. In 1922, Ukraine was completely under Russian control and the Russian language was imposed.

Ukraine became an independent nation in 1994 with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the nation remained somewhat divided as the West turned more towards Europe and the European Union, while the East remained linked to the Russian Federation. Thus, the two regions in question, Luhansk and Donetsk, have actually been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and consider themselves independent. They have erected statues of Lenin, follow the Russian constitution and are ruled by tyrannical petty rulers. Only now has Russia officially recognized them as independent and moved troops.

The question now is: will Putin stay put? His actions this week don’t seem to suggest that. The borders of these regions have always been larger, and other regions of eastern Ukraine support Russia. If Putin is not stopped now, he may want to start adding other parts of Ukraine loyal to Russia.

I’m not sure about Putin’s knowledge of history. He may think his plan of consolidating all like-minded people into one nation is his own. However, whether he knows it or not, he is simply following the plan of one of Russia’s worst enemies, Nazi Germany.

When Hitler took control of Germany, one of his main priorities was to restore German pride to gain popular support. One of the ways he did this was to reclaim the lost German lands that had been taken from them after World War I and, thus, bring all German speakers back into the fold. After the end of World War I, Germany lost territory to Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and France. Then, in 1936, Germany invaded the Rhineland, claiming that the land belonged to Germany. Neither France nor England wanted to engage Hitler, so instead they did nothing, a policy known as appeasement, a policy that only emboldened Hitler.

Hitler then invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria under the same pretext. There was a Nazi party in Austria that even welcomed Hitler, much like the Russian rebel groups in Ukraine. Despite these two aggressive movements, England and France continued their policy of diplomacy and appeasement. It was not until Germany invaded Poland that the other powers declared war, but by then Hitler was already too powerful to stop.

Hitler’s invasion of Alsace-Lorraine territory is personal to me. My great-grandfather Alfons Finck was born in the German town of Haguenau. During the Great War, he fought for his nation and was awarded the Iron Cross for being wounded in the Battle of Flanders. Yet when Germany lost the war, her home became part of France. He left France for the United States before Germany could reclaim the land.

I never discussed it with my grandfather, and he never mentioned it in his writings, but I wonder what he thought of Hitler’s takeover of this region. I know he didn’t support Hitler. He sent two of his sons to war against him, but at the same time I know he considered himself German, not French.

The point of all this rambling is that the situation in Ukraine is complicated. I don’t agree with Putin or Hitler in any way. Putin is an evil tyrant who must be stopped. However, we cannot ignore history, and history reminds us that German speakers of an earlier era, who were in a similar situation, considered themselves German and supported the takeover of another country.

Today, some Ukrainians support Putin. At the same time, some evidence suggests that some of the support in each case was manufactured from outside by the two dictators. It is also important to remember that most Ukrainians want independence and will fight for their freedom.

The other complicated issue is appeasement. Most believe that if England had stopped Hitler early on, the world would have avoided World War II. England only moved on Hitler when Churchill took over and by then it was too late.

I am in no way saying that we should go to war against Ukraine, only that history shows what could happen if the tyrants are not stopped. President Biden has important decisions to make in the weeks ahead and hopefully he understands that he can learn from what has gone before.


Dr. James W. Finck is an associate professor of history at Oklahoma University of Science and the Arts at Chickasha. He can be reached by email at jfinck@usao.edu or by phone at 405-574-1229. Follow Historically speaking on www.Let’s talk historically.blog.

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