Under the Kremlin’s Watchful Eye: can Ukraine follow Estonia’s break from Russia?


In September 1939, Estonia and the USSR signed a Mutual Assistance Pact based on:

Recognition of the independence of state and non-interference in internal affairs of either party; recognising that the peace treaty of February 2nd 1920 and the treaty of non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of conflicts (dated May 4th, 1932) continue to constitute firm basis of their mutual relations and obligations. (FO 371/23689)

The Pact would not ‘in any way infringe sovereign powers of the [the] contracting parties’.

By June 1940, Soviet troops had invaded Estonia. Using a clause in the Mutual Assistance Pact – which allowed for Soviet aerodromes and naval bases in Estonian territory – as a pretext for a military blockade of the independent state, Stalin easily made one of several successful territorial acquisitions at the beginning of WWII.

Although German forces ousted their Soviet foe from Estonia in 1941, embarking on their own three-year occupation, by the end of the war the Estonia Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) had been reestablished. It would remain in place until 1991.

The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification
The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification

Estonia had been independent during the inter-war years, boasting a population with Germanic, Nordic and Russian influences. Ukraine, meanwhile, having declared a short-lived People’s Republic in 1917, was by 1921 a state within the Soviet Union.

Having also been occupied by both Soviet and German troops during WWII, Ukraine was in a similarly-weak position to Estonia when it was re-incorporated into the Soviet sphere in 1944.

Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII
Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII

Whereas Estonia had cultural, linguistic and geographical ties with Baltic Europe and Scandinavia, Ukraine had for several centuries been subjected to strong Russian influence. This influence, as this year’s protests attest to, has been hard to shake off.

The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-European interim government in Kiev has led to accusations from the Kremlin of an ‘armed mutiny’ backed by the West. Commentators fear a split between Ukraine’s pro-European and pro-Russian segments of the population that could lead to a fracturing of the state.

In February 1958, Estonian exiles in London celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of their state, which they refused to accept was a legitimate component of the Soviet Union. One point was made particularly clear:

The Republic of Estonia was invaded by the USSR in June 1940…To this day the Estonian people are kept in bondage by the Soviets and prevented from exercising their basic rights as an independent and sovereign nation. (FO 371/134617)

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has turned abruptly away from its troubled Russian past, joining both the EU and NATO and making itself a popular business and tourist location for Westerners.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has retained a degree of the Russian ‘bondage’ that the Estonians bemoaned in 1958.

With an economy heavily dependent on Russian patronage and energy imports, a large demographic minority of ethnic Russians and extensive land borders with Russian territory, it will take more than the ousting of a Kremlin stooge for Ukraine’s sovereign integrity to finally be resurrected.

National Archive Sources

FO 371/23689 – ‘Soviet Relations with Baltic States’ (1939)

FO 371/134617 – ‘Non-Recognition by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of Annexation to Soviet Union’ (1958)

Other Sources

For more information of Estonia-Soviet Relations see: Davies N, Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011)

Ukraine’s Russian Divide: Kiev protests persist in the cold as Klitschko waits in the wings

Western diplomats are voicing concern as anti-government protests on the streets of Kiev continue. Protesters are angered by the decision of Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, to delay the signing of an association pact which would bring Ukraine closer politically to the EU.

APTOPIX Ukraine Protest

Much publicity has been given to the street agitators who, braving sub-zero temperatures, have attacked government property and symbols of Russian influence (including destroying a statue of Lenin).

However, whilst the majority of Kiev’s residents appear to favour closer relations with Europe, the country as a whole is more divided. A recent poll suggested that although 46% of the population wanted the EU association pact signed, a substantial 36% favoured an opposing agreement with Russia, a country with which Ukraine already has very close relations.

Ever since the 17th century, when Ukraine broke away from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the country’s fortunes have been inextricably bound with those of Russia. Long part of the Russian Empire, and subsequently a Soviet republic, Ukraine has an ambivalent relationship towards Russia and this is reflected in popular opinion. Some see the Russians as historical protectors and benevolent patrons; others view them as an imperialistic and bullying overlord content on using Ukraine for its own ends.

At no time has this divide been more starkly realised than during WWII when the Wehrmacht rumbled into Ukraine. At the time, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the most important areas of Stalin’s empire. Agricultural and industrial output in the republic were high and, along with armament manufacture, comprised a crucial economic sector of the Soviet Union.

When the Nazi forces invaded, a sizable contingent of Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, forming a collaborating partner within the Soviet Union. Years of harsh Stalinist collectivization and unfair distribution of resources, combined with a desire for genuine independence, left some Ukrainians grateful of the German advance. Some of the worst atrocities against Red Army forces were committed by Ukrainians inaugurated into the Waffen SS.

Ukraine's awkward wartime legacy is revived by nationalists dressing in Galician SS uniform - a division made up predominantly of Ukrainians
Ukraine’s awkward wartime legacy is revived by nationalists dressing in Galician SS uniform – a division made up predominantly of Ukrainians

Even after it became clear that the Nazis had no intention of increasing Ukrainian autonomy, collaboration continued, showing the resentment harboured towards the Russians by part of society.

Simultaneously, thousands of other Ukrainians joined the Soviet forces in undertaking a heroic resistance campaign against the Nazi invaders. Sensing the true power designs of Hitler’s troops, and showing a loyalty towards their Russian benefactors, many ordinary Ukrainians fought a bloody defensive war. Many others simply fought for survival without allegiance to either side.

The divide in Ukrainian sentiment towards the Russians continued post-WWII. The republic became an increasingly important economic area for the Soviet Union and large swathes of Ukraine became heavily industrialised. Whilst these areas received considerable Russian investment, the proceeds of industrial output often benefited only a small minority with ties to the Kremlin.

The December 1991 referendum confirming Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union received a remarkable 90% approval rate, the most unanimous gesture of Ukrainian solidarity shown for some time. This was perhaps, however, more a sign of the decline of the Soviet Union rather than a signal of Ukrainian homogeneity.

Independence has brought contrasting fortunes for the Ukrainian people, whilst Russian influence has never entirely disappeared. Some of the older generation remember the days of communism with a glamourised fondness, whilst younger urbanites tend towards closer integration with the capitalist European states to the west.

These contrasts were again brought to light by the 2004 Orange Revolution when supporters of Yanukovych went head-to-head with protesters who favoured Viktor Yushchenko, himself dedicated to increasing EU integration, during a bitterly-fought presidential election.

The Orange Revolution stains Kiev's Independence Square
The Orange Revolution stains Kiev’s Independence Square

With Vitali Klitschko, the renowned boxer, the latest to challenge the pro-Russian government, it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin camp can be won over. For Vladimir Putin, the delaying of Ukraine’s signing of the association pact was a major coup and testament to Russia’s continuing influence over its former republic. Putin himself will be hoping to preserve the Ukrainian buffer zone between Russia and the West that has existed for centuries.

Klitschko does not have to win over the protesters on Kiev’s streets but the rest of the country needs convincing. He must prove that Ukraine can survive without Russia, without its gas imports, technological/industrial support and military contracts.

In a country with such divided sentiment, the giant boxer undoubtedly still has his toughest fight to come.