War and peace. The tangled and bloody history of Ukraine and Russia is longer than Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece and there's no final chapter. Few historians know more about the distant and modern origins of the current war, and prospects for peace, than award-winning author and Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy. His new book, The Gates of Europe, deconstructs more than 2,000 years of history and how it came to this.
In ancient and modern times would you say that the battle for Ukraine - and Russia - has been for identity as well as territory?
First there were claims of territory. But Russia believes that Kyiv is where Russian Christianity and statehood started. That is what (President Vladimir) Putin said after the annexation of Crimea. In terms of identity, everything is focused on (the eastern Slavic state of) Kyivan Rus. To illustrate how serious this is, the skull of Yaroslav the Wise, one of Kyiv's leading princes, disappeared from St. Sophia Cathedral in 1943-44. The idea was that he was (part of) the beginning of Ukrainian history, and the clergy didn't want the skull to be left to invading Soviet troops.
Ukraine and Russia evolved after many invasions from east and west. Are they still struggling with where their interests lie?
Putin embraced the idea of a Eurasian union. Like the old Soviet Union, this one is incomplete without Ukraine. It's the second-largest country in terms of population and territory. The foundation of the current crisis is that Putin was trying to build an economic, political and military bloc around the Eurasian union that would compete with the European Union to the west and China to the east.
Ukraine clearly isn't interested in the Eurasian project. It has found itself between Eurasia and the EU. That's where the metaphor The Gates of Europe comes from. That is something in contemporary politics that works well with the history of Ukraine for a millennium and a half. It is at the crossroads of east and west.
But Russia sees it as "little Russia," dating back to Peter the Great.
The key was the Battle of Poltava in 1709, when Peter emerged as a victor. He defeated Charles XII of Sweden, who was considered invincible. It was good for Russia as a European power, but a total disaster for the Cossack Hetmanate (which united Ukraine under Ivan Mazepa, who sided with Sweden.) What followed was the decline of the hetmanate and incorporation into the Russian empire in economic, political and cultural terms.
After the Russian empire, Ukraine had to contend with a takeover by the Red Army and the Soviet Union. Did that kill Ukrainian nationalism?
A number of Ukrainian governments declared independence, starting in January 1918. They lost the war. But the Bolsheviks realized that they had to offer something to Ukraine in terms of cultural policies. One feature was the formal recognition of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. They also gave it the right to leave the union - which caught up with them in 1991 (when Ukraine declared independence.)
In the early 1930s the catastrophic Stalin-imposed famine known as the Holodomor killed millions of Ukrainians. Does it play a role today?
At Harvard we have a digital atlas of Ukraine and we compare areas most affected by the Holodomor with the commemoration of its victims. Before now there was coexistence of monuments to Lenin and monuments to victims of the Holodomor in villages or small towns.
Now we see that the areas where monuments to Lenin were demolished are those most affected by the famine, which hit central Ukraine hardest. It's a very important element of the Maidan Revolution. We talk about Europe, about Russia and about corruption. But it also came about because of an attempt to get away from the Soviet past.
When Russia annexed Crimea, Putin called its transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 a historic mistake. Is there some truth to that?
The reason for the transfer wasn't ethnic politics but geography. It's a peninsula not an island, and the mainland was Ukraine. In the mind of (Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev it made sense to have Crimea and Ukraine as one economic bloc. Water, electricity and transport come from Ukraine.
Now, with all the conflict over Crimea and eastern Ukraine there is a big problem with electricity. One third of the Dnieper (river) water is going to Crimea for irrigation. For Khrushchev, moving Crimea to Ukraine was a way to solve the economic problem. Without geographical links it was a logistical nightmare for Russia.
Russia and its supporters say that Putin only got involved in Ukraine because of a U.S. and European plot to expand NATO, exploit Ukraine's resources and absorb it into Europe.
Nobody in the world capitals, including in the U.S. wanted any trouble in dealings with Moscow. It is the people of Ukraine who should be blamed, or credited, depending on the point of view, for what had happened. First they wanted an EU agreement and then refused to accept the (former president Viktor Yanukovych) government's violence as a legitimate way of conducting a dialogue with society. Moscow decided to use the crises for a land grab. The West was put on the spot and had to react. It finally started to do something only after MH17 (the Malaysian airliner that was shot down in July 2014.)
With all the weight of history, and the current conflict over the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, is there any chance of peace?
In this economic and political climate I don't see Russia trying to escalate the conflict and grab more territory. But I don't see any solution in eastern Ukraine along the lines drawn by the (2015) Minsk agreement. Minsk suggests that it should be reintegrated into Ukraine, but elections should take place before Russian troops leave the area and before Ukraine reclaims control of the border. That would mean it would be an enclave in Ukraine, having a say over what Ukraine does, but controlled by Russia.
I don't see Minsk succeeding. Probably a "frozen conflict" scenario is the likeliest for the Donbas. But prediction is always difficult - and it's a thankless task to try.
By Olivia Ward, The Star