A Russian history expert shares his views on the turmoil in Ukraine

As a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who specializes in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, George Munro, Ph.D., has been watching the unfolding situation in Ukraine with great interest.

Late last month, violent protests in Ukraine resulted in the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. On March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin received parliamentary authorization to deploy troops to Ukraine, and pro-Russian troops have since taken control of much of the Crimean peninsula in the southeastern region of Ukraine.

Munro, who teaches in the Department of History, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, has been studying and traveling to Russia for decades. He discusses his views of the Ukrainian conflict and says he believes the United States' approach to it is misguided.

What's your take on the situation in Ukraine, as it currently stands? And how do you feel the United States and European Union are handling it?

As a historian, I appreciate the fact that current events may seem at present overwhelming, but in the long run may or may not bear long-term results, or may not bear the results people expect from them. The Ukrainian state, as it is currently composed, was brought together at various times and as a result of historical events not always mutually compatible.  

The part of Ukraine most involved in bringing about the current situation was for centuries controlled by outside powers. Poland-Lithuania ruled it for two centuries or so in a manner that caused many of the local population, who thought of themselves at the time as Cossacks, to seek respite under Muscovite protection in the middle of the 1600s.

In the 18th century, the western part of what is now Ukraine came under Hapsburg rule. In the 19th century, Ukrainian nationalism began to be fostered by such figures as Taras Shevchenko, a writer whose 200th birthday was just celebrated. Eastern Ukraine, in the form of two distinct Cossack confederations, Little Russia (including the area around Kiev) and Zaporozhia (the lower Dnieper valley), lost much of its political identity when Catherine the Great brought the Cossacks more fully under the governmental institutions she was attempting to apply to the entire Russian empire.

German occupation of the western and central parts of Ukraine and the collapse of the Russian empire during World War I gave hopes to nationalists for an independent Ukrainian state, but in the Russian civil war from 1918-20 Ukraine was retained as part of the new Soviet state.

In the 1930s, rural Ukraine suffered terribly under Joseph Stalin's collectivization policies, as did peasants in western Siberia, the middle Volga region and so-called New Russia north of the Caucasus. Stalin, by the way, was Georgian, not Russian.

German occupation in World War II gave hopes to some of the more extreme nationalists, in particular, who allied themselves with Germany against the Soviet Union, only to have hopes dashed when the allies won the war. Stalin thereupon annexed the far westernmost Ukraine into the Soviet Union, an area that had never before been ruled by Russia.

Then in 1954, to mark the 300th anniversary of what Russians call the union of left-bank Ukraine (east of the middle section of the Dnieper river) with Muscovy, Nikita Khrushchev gifted the Crimea to Ukraine. The Crimea, with a history totally distinct from that of Ukraine, was incorporated into the Russian empire in the 1780s after briefly having been quasi-independent, following its forced separation from Ottoman Turkey in a war between Turkey and Russia.

You see, the story is very complex. The United States and Western Europe must understand that Russia has deep and serious interests in Ukraine. The cultural connections felt by Russians, especially with early Kievan Rus', run far deeper than outsiders might imagine, as was pointed out recently by Henry Kissinger in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. Culturally, religiously, historically, by family ties, and in all kinds of other ways, Russians feel much more connection to the Ukraine than Germans or Poles or Austrians and certainly more than Americans.

This means that one should listen to Russia's point of view and pay serious attention to it. One should not try to squeeze Russia out. And it is certainly not wise from the start to push for sanctions against the Russians.

The Russian government's response  to events is also conditioned by the sense that its historic interests have been ignored and even trampled upon by western powers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I often try to understand events and measure political responses by way of analogy. How have other countries responded when faced with similar challenges? The Russian government believes it was given assurances at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that have not been kept. Today, when Russia is in a stronger global position than in the early 1990s, it is standing up for its interests. President Putin seems to have placed great hopes in the agreement struck just before the seizure of buildings and power in Kiev in late February.

The compromise was to hold early elections to end the presidency of Mr. Yanukovych — a considerable negotiating concession on the part of the Ukrainian president, encouraged in that direction no doubt by Russia. I take this from Mr. Putin's comments at his press conference on the Tuesday following the coup d'état. A lawyer by profession, he maintained that everything should have been done according to the laws and the constitution.  

Many ordinary Russians, who by the way have access to the same Internet sources as we, including YouTube clips, (and I include in this many Russians living abroad), are convinced that the series of events in Ukraine was brought about, even paid for in some sense, by some combination of the European Union and the United States. They ask questions such as: How can people in a very poor country afford to spend three months protesting out on a square, not working? Who is paying for members of right-wing political parties to live in hotels like the Dnipro while they demonstrate on Maidan Square? What are they living on? Who is providing them the euros and dollars said to be flooding Kiev? Who provided them with weapons? Where did the baseball bats they used come from, in a country that does not play baseball? Were demonstrators really given training at sites in Poland and Lithuania, and by whom? These and others may be legitimate questions. In the minds of many Russians, there's not that big a jump from disclosures made in Valerie Nuland's telephone conversation to other sorts of involvement.

The western powers are supporting a government that did not come to power constitutionally. The overthrow of President Yanukovych, legally elected, and whose term was shortly to come to a negotiated end, was no more constitutional than whatever steps Russia has taken since then to secure the desires of the majority of citizens of the Crimea. As Mr. Putin said, he gave President Yanukovych refuge for humanitarian reasons because he probably would have been killed if he'd stayed in Ukraine, and Mr. Putin was probably right.

In more than four decades of going back and forth to Russia, one thing I learned very early is that it is best not to wake up the bear. It doesn't waken easily, but once it is roused, it doesn't play around.

What do you think about the possible secession of Crimea? Should the United States be trying to stop that?

Crimea never was Ukrainian. It never had a Ukrainian majority population. It's an accident of history that it's in Ukraine. For us to go to bat over keeping Crimea in Ukraine seems to me misguided and not our affair. Russia on the other hand has a greater span of history in Ukraine than the U.S. has in Texas or California, two states that once belonged to another country. And I don't think most Americans think we should spend potentially billions of dollars securing our interests in Ukraine when we won't spend money to take care of other more pressing problems.

I think that many people, absent a pre-existing anti-Russian bias, might wonder whether, if the majority of the population of Crimea prefers not to be in Ukraine, we ought to be in favor of democracy in that sense. In the United States, Abraham Lincoln rallied the nation to prevent secession, but in Kosovo the United States pushed it as a solution. We didn't permit it in our country, but does that mean we should  try to stop it in any country? Would it not be better to let events follow their own logic? Is it our role in the world to “stop it”?

It is hard to imagine the Ukraine agreeing voluntarily to [letting Crimea or other regions secede], for a whole slew of reasons, not least of which is that a lot of tax revenue comes out of that region. Crimea not only has good agriculture, there are also a lot of resorts and hotels there. And there are many industrial enterprises in the eastern part of the country, all of which were built by the Soviet government. That's where the coal is, that's where the iron is, that's where the manganese is.

What do you think about Ukraine's new government?

As I said, it is not a legal government. At this point that seems not to matter because of the recognition it has been given by a number of western states. Still, I ask myself why if Ukraine was run at all well before the election of President Yanukovych, it was economically a failure prior to him. The presidents before him were corrupt. The favorite of western governments, helped into power in the Orange Revolution, Victor Yushchenko, was corrupt. Julia Timoshenko? Corrupt. There seems to be a tradition of corruption in government. Despite the hopes of many simple people, when I see that the backgrounds of many people in the new government are in banking, with all that portends in post-Soviet states, I temper my hopes. As The French say, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.” Some of our politicians are jumping quickly into things that they may not know that much about. At least one U.S. senator was seen excitedly hopping about the barricades on Maidan Square in early December. Was this really an appropriate action for a U.S. senator to take regarding the internal political affairs of another country? As in the Arab Spring, the word "democracy" appeals strongly to Americans, even when it may not mean in the local context quite what it means to us. And there remains in the United States a great deal of anti-Russian prejudice after the Cold War.

Many American politicians and commentators have been very critical of Putin's actions. What's your view?

Over the last few days, I've been increasingly thinking that two parties seem to think they are engaged in different games. For one party it is American football and for the other it is chess – totally different games.

American football is characterized by smash mouth, intimidation, beat down the other guy and force your way to the goal, with a lot of rah-rah-rah on the sidelines. Chess is played quietly, and one is always thinking several moves ahead.

Vladimir Putin thinks he's playing chess and we seem to think we're playing American football. Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man. He's absolutely sane. He is not trying to put the Soviet Union back together. He is responding to events as they develop the way a chess player does. He is defending what he believes to be Russia's national interests.  

I'm reading a lot of commentators out of Moscow. Some of them have been saying that it might actually be to Russia's  advantage for Crimea to stay in Ukraine. They cite a number of reasons why he might want Crimea to stay. But it may be that Mr. Putin's hand is being forced. If Crimea really wants to be part of Russia, then why should he block it? Some of his closest advisers think that he did not anticipate the coup, especially after the work to craft an agreement on early elections — quite a concession on Mr. Yanukovych's part as late as Feb. 20.

I don't think that Mr. Putin was initially behind this push for Crimea to be part of Russia. I think it's the people who live there themselves. And it was set off by the violence in Kiev. Not all the people living in Crimea favor uniting with Russia. The Tatars are against it – they're 15 percent of the population – and the Ukrainian minority is against it. But Russians are more than 50 percent of the population.


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George Munro, Ph.D.
George Munro, Ph.D.