Russia has been threatening the democratic sovereignty of Ukraine since the country declared independence from the USSR shortly before its official dissolution in the early 1990’s. Under the rule of Russia and the Soviet Union, the identity of Ukrainians was heavily suppressed in an attempt at “Russification” or elimination of this cultural group. It wasn’t until anti-communist movements in the 1980’s and concern for the safety of Ukrainians under Soviet rule that led to the liberation of Ukraine from its oppressor after years of conforming to the standards of the autocratic regime. The budding democracy had a rocky start in getting its footing, but was able to establish a semi-presidential system with a parliamentary legislative branch in 1991. Though Ukraine was able to create a democratic system while recovering from the aftermath of years under Soviet rule, their independence has always been under scrutiny by their oppressor, as the former empire has attempted to intervene in the fragile new nations governance by influencing elections and public officials, as well as inciting violence at the eastern border to create further democratic instability.
The threat of Russia was far from over after Ukraine declared their independence, despite international recognition of the new country’s freedom and borders through the Bucharest Summit. Territorial disputes, primarily in the Eastern Donbas region and Crimea, as well as false accusations of genocide by Ukrainian rebel forces in the area were imminent. The Kremlin has long claimed that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine are being targeted and killed, these claims have little backing and has served as a scapegoat for Russia’s military presence at the border for years. The current war in Ukraine has been called a genocide by some, and is not the first claim from the young nation that they are being targeted by the Russian regime. The history of claims of genocide by both parties dates back to the era of Stalin, most notably with the starvation of millions of Ukrainians at the hands of the USSR.
In 1933 a horrific man-made famine caused by Stalin’s grain requisition policies in the southwestern Soviet Union took more than 2 million lives in Ukraine, and was later referred to as the Holodomor, or “extermination by hunger”. Not all the victims were ethnic Ukrainians, and the famine was not limited to this nation, but ethnic Ukrainians were hardest hit; and the famine was, to a significant degree, the result of an intentional plan by Stalin to break the will of collective Ukrainian resistance to the USSR (De Wal 2014). It is through this famine that we are able to see the true intentions of the USSR; to eradicate ethnic minorities in order to instill communist Soviet uniformity throughout all occupied territories. Obviously this goal did not come to fruition, but the damage caused by the USSR would later be viewed by many as the beginning of Russia’s attempts at genocide against Ukrainians.
False claims of genocide are a way to assert Russia’s sovereignty throughout an ethnic Russian empire that they claim extends well beyond the nations formal borders, this comes with the belief that they also have a right to control and protect this empire through force. The Kremlin has long asserted that Ukraine’s government persecutes ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking citizens; these claims served as justification in 2014 for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine. The resurgence of such language in 2022, voiced directly by Putin, indicates the use of these false claims of persecution once again to concoct a justification of invasion. While claims of genocide of Russians have been proven to be false, the ramifications of these allegations provides a serious warning: Russia will continue to claim Ukraine is the aggressor despite the invasion and mass murder within their borders being instigated by Putin and the Kremlin. The war in Ukraine is not the first attempt by Russia to eradicate the Ukrainian people’s identity through false claims of merely responding to aggression. Ukraine has been recognized by the world as a sovereign nation, and Russia’s long history of trying to uproot this legitimate democratic system should be cause for concern for the security of democracy globally. If Russia is able to launch a full scale war on democracy close to home, what is to stop Putin from expanding his goals to later include international entities? The lack of protection from global allies that Ukraine is experiencing is one of the many circumstances that make them susceptible to external pressures on democracy. However, if Russia hopes to enforce their metaphorical empire there is always a risk that they may take this fight to the rest of the world; where Russians reside in all countries, therefore everyone should be concerned by the threat of Russia to the stability of democracy.