Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe, endures a deeply troubled relationship with the largest — Russia. Their long historical entanglement has seen wars, famines, economic blockades, mass deportations and the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Now the convulsions from their clashes have hit American shores and are rocking U.S. politics as well.
Ukraine has suffered this tumultuous fate because it has often been on the front line between East and West. The United States is now the most powerful player in that struggle, and America has become deeply enmeshed in the region. The U.S. is keen to support democracy in the country, as well as Kyiv’s efforts to be linked more closely with its prosperous neighbors in the European Union, and to protect it from Russia’s designs. Moscow, though, is determined to keep the country locked in its orbit, and has incited the Russian-speaking population in the east of the country to rebel against the authorities in the capital.
All of which means there’s money to be made in Ukraine, an energy-rich country where regulation is still trying to catch up with capitalism, and the democratic government is struggling to govern the whole territory. That has lured politically connected Americans — such as Paul Manafort, Tony Podesta and Hunter Biden — to work as political and economic consultants in the country. But it’s Ukraine’s geostrategic importance, and a battle over political values, that has fueled the clash between the U.S. and Europe on one side and Russia on the other, keeping the country in the spotlight.
Ukraine is currently home to some 43 million people in the southeast of Europe. As with most countries in the region, its borders shifted with passing waves of marauders, settlers and empires. Prehistoric people mined iron and copper in the Carpathian Mountains in the west, while its southerly coastline on the Black Sea hosted colonies from ancient Greece and Rome. The Goths and Huns— nomadic warriors who went on to destroy the Roman Empire — came through Ukraine first.
In the millennium from the Dark Ages to the Industrial Revolution, the land that is now Ukraine was part of a succession of empires. These included the Viking realm of Kievan Rus that, 1,000 years ago, was the largest empire in Europe and run from Kiev. That was then conquered by Ghenis Khan’s Mongol Empire, which was in turn was displaced by the Polish Empire. Russia, Austria and Hungary have also controlled parts of Ukraine at various times.
When the United States was declaring independence, Ukrainians were also trying to establish themselves as a single nation, unyoked from Russian and Polish rule — both through uprisings of their Cossack paramilitaries and by consolidating their cultural identity through language and literature. But it was only after the First World War, in 1918, that Ukraine emerged as a truly sovereign and independent country, left standing as the empires around it collapsed.
That independence was brief, however. In 1922, Ukraine was forcibly incorporated into the emerging Soviet Union. Abundant grain made it the breadbasket of the USSR, but that didn’t stop some 4 million Ukrainians from dying of famine in the early 1930s when Stalin ordered family food supplies confiscated — just one of the many outrages that continue to leave Ukrainians chafing at the idea of Russian control.
Even more Ukrainians died when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941 and occupied Kyiv for more than two years, going on to murder 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews in the Holocaust. The Soviet Army eventually repelled the Germans but demanded subservience and authoritarian rule from the Ukrainian government in its place. That misrule lasted more than four decades, punctuated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 60 miles north of Kyiv, which exposed the toxic truth about Soviet mismanagement and indifference when its lethal radioactive waste was released onto the local population.
With the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine finally became independent again. But the euphoria was short-lived, as the corruption and poverty of the post-Soviet privatization era set in. And once established atop the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly began plotting to make Ukraine a satellite again — particularly the strategic Crimean Peninsula surrounding a key Russia military port.
Wary of Russian ambitions, from 2004 until 2013 Ukraine moved toward the West. In 2008, it even applied to join NATO— a call backed by both Barack Obama and John McCain in that year’s U.S. presidential election — though the organization rebuffed its overtures, in part to avoid provoking the Kremlin. When Kyiv also sought membership in the European Union, it was the final straw for Putin. In 2013, Moscow forced the Ukrainian president to abandon an E.U. entry deal, leading to street protests that were in turn suppressed with lethal force, on an order from the Russian-backed president. Russia invaded Crimea and sent troops into eastern Ukraine (the Donbas region) to start an insurrection. The conflict continues to this day — the longest running war in Europe since 1945.
It was into this turbulent landscape that several prominent Americans landed. Paul Manafort, Trumps’ former campaign chief, worked as a political adviser and lobbyist to pro-Russian politicians trying to stall Ukraine’s moves to join the West. Manafort’s evasion of paying taxes on his earnings from Kyiv has since made him a convicted felon, activity that was brought to light under special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. The Podesta Group, run by Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, Hilary Clinton’s former campaign chief, was also caught failing to fully disclose its lobbying work on Ukraine. And Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, became a director at a Ukrainian gas company, although allegations that he, too, acted improperly have not been substantiated.
Today, Russia is still supplying its proxies in the country with weaponry, making sure to keep the country unstable and trying to give pro-Russian politicians the upper hand. NATO has responded with both military equipment and nonlethal aid, which helps support the Kyiv government, now led by former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, elected president in April. President Donald Trump, however, has expressed some ambivalence about this aid, and suggested other NATO countries should do more so the United States can do less.
Trump’s call with Zelenskiy on July 25 is now the focus of impeachment proceedings because of allegations that, to help his re-election prospects, he asked his counterpart to reopen the investigation into Biden’s son. He also revived a conspiracy theory that Ukraine hacked Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 campaign and framed the breach on Russia — a continuation of Trump’s efforts to disown U.S. intelligence that squarely blames Moscow for the hack. The U.S. president, it seems, is another figure who sees an opportunity in Ukraine’s regional tensions.
Yet Ukraine — a country so long shaped by the power struggle between Russia and the West — is now itself shaping events in both Moscow and Washington. It is the most peculiar twist yet in its very long and complicated history.