Whatever date is used to mark the start of the war of the 13 colonies with Great Britain, the roots are often considered to lie one or two decades earlier. Ukraine’s war for freedom against its more ruthless colonial master has been going on for centuries, and there is little indication of an end in sight.
All the same, the colonies’ declaration on July 4, 1776, rings true to Ukrainians now engaged once again in a battle for their national survival. Any Ukrainian might say that it has become necessary “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume . . . the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”
Following the decline of Kyivan Rus in the 12th century, there were few opportunities for Ukrainians to establish an independent state until the 20th century. The geopolitical situation did not allow the Ukrainian People’s Republic, a young independent state founded in 1918, to gather sufficient international support to prevent its occupation by the Soviet Union three years later.
Another opportunity arrived with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, but then too, the Kremlin bridled; it launched a hybrid war and applied the full arsenal of political, economic, cultural, information, and military tools to return Ukraine to its colonial status.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, Russia has rooted itself in two forms of imperialism — Soviet and Tsarist-Russian, neither of which is compatible with ideas of inalienable rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Russian empire offers strong-arm control instead of rights and freedoms and a culture that romanticizes death for the “Greatness of the Motherland” amid endless (and to outsiders) senseless suffering.
While Russian authorities teach their people to die, promising them heavenly paradise in exchange, Ukrainians have sought to build, if not paradise on Earth, a European country that puts human beings at the center of its value system.
The only thing that will satiate Moscow’s obsession is the elimination of a 40 million-strong Ukrainian nation unwilling to accept Russia’s social contract, which is rooted in the legacy of the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror.
Ukrainians remember too well the oppression and russification by the Russian Empire, but even more Stalin’s terror, the Holodomor, and the persecution of Ukraine’s intelligentsia.
Ukrainian MP Olha Stefanyshyna, whose husband Bohdan died fighting the Russians in 2022, said his family’s story maps the continuing struggles with Moscow over the past century.
“If we trace the history of the Stefanyshyn family from Kolomyia, we can understand that history is repeating itself. Bloody massacres, murders, and the torture of innocent people – Russia has been doing this with Ukraine for centuries,” she said. “Less than a hundred years ago, Bohdan’s grandfather gave his life for Ukraine [and was] killed by the KGB. His pregnant wife Stefa took her husband’s body out of the mass grave at night to bury him properly. Then Stefa was sent to a concentration camp, and her young son Yevhen ended up with his grandparents in Siberia.”
A hundred years later, Russia again plans to send Ukrainians to concentration camps in Western Siberia. In January, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a government decree instructing the Federal Penitentiary Service to set up 28 penal colonies in the four Russian-annexed regions of Ukraine – in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in Kherson and in Zaporizhzhia.
Kyiv’s Center for Countering Disinformation reported that Russian mobile crematoria taken to Ukraine were used not only for the disposal of dead soldiers’ bodies but to hide crimes against the civilian population. Russian lists for elimination uncovered by US intelligence included a broad range of activists and dissidents, alongside those not actively involved in politics at all, such as the director of a Ukrainian lyceum.
Almost immediately after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Russian Federation questioned the border between the countries. President Boris Yeltsin’s press secretary said Moscow reserved the right to address unresolved border disputes with republics of the former USSR. Its low-intensity campaign against Ukraine continued for years and ultimately became an open effort at national obliteration.
The effort at peaceful resolution, pursued by a small country in an effort to establish its existence in the shadow of a huge neighbor, has failed. It is tragic to say so, but war provides the only answer.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.’
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.