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Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era

This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy. The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series—U.S.–Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship—seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.

Taras Shevchenko Memorial in Washington, DC | Wikimedia
Taras Shevchenko Memorial in Washington, DC | Wikimedia

After breaking away from the Soviet Union, Ukraine had to assert its national identity as separate and strong enough to sustain a new nation. Between Russian frustration at Ukrainian independence, an uncertain post-Cold War era, and skepticism of potential allies, Ukrainian leaders had a plethora of concerns to factor into their new foreign policy strategy. To be successful as an independent nation, Ukrainians needed to affirm their collective historical, cultural, and national identities—both on the ground and in their policy.

Early on, Ukrainian citizens and leaders used their nationalism to entrench their new nation into the fabric of an evolving geopolitical landscape. As a U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine in this early period, Ambassador William Green Miller had to maneuver Ukrainian nationalism and its implications for policy on relations between the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia. In this “Moment,” we see how Ukrainian society and leaders came into their own after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how the United States supported Ukrainian territorial integrity throughout this process.

Drafted by Aubrey Molitor.

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William Green Miller’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on February 10, 2003.

Read William Green Miller’s full oral history HERE.
Check out our other moments on Ukraine HERE.

Read the other moments in the series:
U.S.–Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s
Russia–Ukraine Tensions
Beginning a U.S. – Ukraine Relationships

Excerpts:

“It was inconceivable that there could be a Russia without Ukraine and Crimea and southern Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky and so many of my relatives, used to spend summers.”

           
National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy | Wikimedia
National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy | Wikimedia

Russian Culture in Ukraine
MILLER: …So the way Ukraine was perceived by many, including myself, was as part of Russia. As one of my very good Russian friends once said about the newly independent Ukraine, “It was inconceivable that there could be a Russia without Ukraine and Crimea and southern Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky and so many of my relatives used to spend summers. This was a part of Russian life. Pushkin went there, and Chekhov, all of our great Russians were part Ukrainian. It was inconceivable that Ukraine and Russia should be separated.”

Q: Well, was there a movement in the United States? Going back, often émigrés have a different thrust. There are statues in Washington, D.C. of …

MILLER: Taras Shevchenko,

Q: I used to kind of look at it and wonder, “What the hell is all this?” There are statues to Ukrainian heroes, and obviously there was a Ukrainian separatist movement getting good support, probably from the CIA or somebody like that.

MILLER: It was part of the Captive Nations anti communist, anti Soviet Union movement. It was headed here in Washington by Professor Lev Dobriansky. Paula, the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, is his daughter.

Q: Was this an American movement more than a Ukrainian movement, would you say?

MILLER: No, I think it was an émigré movement. The émigrés from the captive nations were often led by intellectuals, they believed very fiercely that their ethnic groups had been persecuted and that they had been forced out of their homeland. They always wanted to return one day. The Ukrainian émigrés who were most active in the Captive Nations Movement were from western Ukraine, but not entirely. It was an intellectual movement.

They had influence in Congress, certainly in the context of the Cold War, it was a useful policy instrument, and it was used as such. I don’t think it was ever seen as an alternative to the Soviet Union. While it was always a hope, I don’t think anyone in the policy world foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some parts of our government used the émigré movements as a way of undermining the Soviet Union. Attempts were made, as you know, in the ’20s and ’30s that were dismal failures, and there were rollback operations in 1950 which were also disastrous failures. I personally learned a lot about Ukrainian history from the individual experiences of the émigré groups here, after I was nominated.

“Ukrainian universities have to teach their students how to encompass this new world and link the new world with the old world and with the history of Ukraine back to its founding and even into prehistory.”

Bolstering a “Ukrainian” Society
MILLER: Yes, it is post-Soviet throughout the former Soviet Union, definitely, because up until the independence, the formal independence, December 25th, 1991, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the end of the Soviet Union, the social infrastructure systems worked, more or less. They worked best in Ukraine, compared to other parts of the Soviet Union, for a number of reasons: Ukraine had more resources, it was always a favored republic, and special attention was given because of its critical, strategic importance, within the Soviet Union. A sizeable proportion of the Soviet leadership was Ukrainian reflective of Ukraine’s importance within the Politburo and the Central Committee. Ukraine’s importance was seen in the amount of effort that was made to repair the damage of the second World War, which was greatest in Ukraine, more than any other part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine lost more lives than any other republic, on the fronts in Ukraine. I was very aware of the post-Soviet political and philosophical change taking place. You could witness it in the former institute of philosophy which taught Marxist, Leninist, Soviet philosophy. In Kiev, the Institute of Philosophy is still the main place where bright students go to study philosophy, but they are now confronted with the reality of the end of the Soviet Union and the necessity to deal with the emergence of a new economic system, the requirement of building intellectual structures and structures for daily life, and practical morality….

New universities, like Kyiv-Mohyla, are looking at those profound problems that confront the new Ukraine. Ukrainian universities have to teach their students how to encompass this new world and link the new world with the old world and with the history of Ukraine back to its founding and even into prehistory, and a develop a convincing coherent world view. It happens that the first two presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma and most of the leaders of Ukraine, up to now, were in the Soviet nomenclatura, and they were dealing, even as leaders of a new Ukraine, as independent Ukrainians, with a world still shaped by the Soviet system, understood with a Soviet mentality, governed still by Soviet hierarchical values. It is only now, as a result of the past presidential election and in this next election, where you’ll have leaders capable of going beyond that. Yuschenko is very similar to Nicola Saakashvili in Georgia. They’re good friends, as it turns out. They share Ukrainian education in Kiev and revolutions.

I’m putting a lot of stress on these issues of values because it isn’t the normal way of looking at Ukraine. I think it’s necessary to understand this part of it, that it’s an unremovable part of the brain. The struggle over values explains a lot of what has taken place and is taking place, and it might explain some of the mysteries that confront us when we look at a country with many failed expectations like Ukraine.

“…it was a constructive coup, really, with the Soviet 43rd Rocket Army commander taking the oath as an Ukrainian.”

           
General Mikhtiuk of the Newly Formed Ukrainian Army  | Wikimedia
General Mikhtiuk of the Newly Formed Ukrainian Army | Wikimedia

Asserting a Ukrainian Army
MILLER: However, at the beginning of independence, the missile silo fields, the deployment made by the 43rd Rocket Army, were under the control of Russian commanders, even though the Ukrainians asserted their right, very quickly. We did not know, but it was the case, as I found out, that the Ukrainization of the 43rd Rocket Army was one of their first priorities, and this process of takeover went very rapidly to take over control. The 43rd Rocket Army was commanded by a general named Mikhtiuk who was an ethnic Ukrainian, became a Ukrainian general in the newly formed army. He became the commander of the 43rd Rocket Army of Ukraine, …

Even though the officers in the chain of command of the 43rd Rocket Army in the silos believed that they were under Moscow control, and indeed sets of codes and orders for the use of these weapons did come out of Moscow, nonetheless the Ukrainians were able to short-circuit cut off Moscow control. They were able to cut off Moscow links, since they designed them in the first place and had constructed the communications links. The Ukrainian 43rd Rocket army took them over….

The Ukrainians had moved so decisively, first to surround, to ring all of the missile silos with their own troops. They guarded every silo with Ukrainians who had sworn allegiance to the new Ukraine, and were serving under Ukrainian generals; speaking in the Ukrainian’s language; it was a constructive coup, really, with the Soviet 43rd Rocket Army commander taking the oath as an Ukrainian; so the apparatus, the line of military command, from top to bottom became Ukrainian.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Background
William & Mary, Goethe Institute, Oxford, Harvard
Joined Foreign Service 1959
Iran, Vice Consul and Political Officer 1959–1965
State Department Executive Secretariat 1966–1967
Resignation 1967
Post Resignation activities:
Chief of Staff, Senate Select Committee 1972–1976
Senatorial Intelligence Oversight Committee 1976–1981
American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations 1986–1992
Ambassador to Ukraine 1993–1998