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New fight, old issues [Commentary]

The Ukrainians are always fighting — so says my mother. And she should know, having grown up in a Ukrainian immigrant family in New Jersey. The stories are endless and somewhat entertaining, if often disheartening. Like one story about how my grandmother and great aunt argued about who was the younger sibling, each claiming the title and each refusing to let the facts get in the way. But all of these family stories reflect the great unrest taking place in Ukraine today. The roots of these troubles didn't just sprout last year, or 10 years ago, or even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The troubles today are manifestations of much older historical dynamics. And they have no neat, clean, fix-all solution.

Take the basic differences between western Ukraine and the eastern and southern parts of the country. My family history is representative of those differences. My grandmother was born near the Dnieper River, in an area that had for centuries been dominated by Russia and was formally a part of the Russian Empire. She was born into a Soviet Union also dominated by Russia and Russians. She was Orthodox and learned to speak both Ukrainian and Russian. In contrast, my grandfather was born in what is today western Ukraine, in an area that had been historically dominated by the Polish and Austrian empires. The area changed hands several times in the 20th Century — it was part of the reconstituted Polish state and occupied by Germans and Soviets — before being annexed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, now the independent state of Ukraine. He was Catholic and learned to speak Polish in addition to Ukrainian.

Like my grandparents, modern Ukraine has been forced together in what is in many ways a precarious marriage of necessity and convenience. Ukrainians of all backgrounds have banded together to ensure sovereignty and prevent domination by outside powers. Similarly, my grandparents met and married while performing forced labor in Germany during World War II, and sticking together gave them the means to escape the Soviet bloc to Western Europe after the war and thence to America. But modern Ukraine may be moving toward a divorce that is driven by a basic incompatibility, a separation made even more likely by outside interventions.

For example, Ukrainian borders have more to do with political machinations than with historical or demographic boundaries. The marriage of all Ukrainian lands (an ambiguous historical concept) in a single nation state is questionable from a variety of perspectives. Take Crimea, a culturally diverse region that was conquered by Russia in 1783 and had been dominated for centuries by Muslim Tatars. The ethnic makeup of Crimea has changed continuously, including through forced deportations such as Stalin's banishment of the Tatars to Central Asia after World War II. Crimea, which had been a Russian province, was transferred to Ukraine only in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, reportedly as a gift.

Similarly complex stories could be told for other regions of Ukraine. Moreover, the Ukrainian state and its institutions have been perpetually weak, ever since the country was separated from the Soviet (Russian) apparatus that gave it form. Ukraine's past, just like the current Russian intervention, is complicated and troubling.

So what are we left with? A country with social fissures, a state and economy that are weak and hobbled by the recent civil unrest, and a population that increasingly sees itself as separate peoples. In the meantime, Russia sees the country as an integral component of its sphere of influence, and even as a part of Russia itself. Meanwhile, the EU and the West more generally see Ukraine as a new frontier to add to their fold, for economic and strategic reasons. Ukraine is the eternal borderland (its very name comes from an Indo-European root meaning an "edge"), a geographic reality (perhaps a curse) that makes its geostrategic position unstable at best.

In short, we are left with a mess. We must acknowledge that Ukraine, like so many countries in the world, will have to be substantially reformed, or it will be dismantled into other entities which may or may not be more viable than the original. And it increasingly looks like that whatever the outcome, Ukraine will be dominated by one or several foreign powers — a familiar pattern.

The Ukrainians are always fighting among themselves. Let's hope their squabbles don't bring their own house down on their heads.

Evan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. His email is

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