There had never been an Ukrainian nation state until the last twenty five years. The boundaries of the old Soviet Socialist Republics were never intended to define nation states, and indeed were in part designed to guard against forming potentially dangerous cohesive units. The Ukrainians are a nation and f they wish are certainly entitled to a state, but that its borders must be those defined, and changed several times, by the Soviet Union for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is not axiomatic.
It is not true that there is a general desire for secession for Ukraine on the linguistic and broadly West East split. It is true that key political attitudes do correlate closely to the linguistic split, with Russian speakers identifying with the ousted government, and favouring closer ties with Russian over closer ties with the West, while Ukrainian speakers overwhelmingly favour EU integration. But that does not translate into a general desire by the Russian speakers to secede from a Ukraine that goes the other way. The key to this is that two thirds of Russian speaking Ukrainian nationals view themselves as ethnically Ukrainian, not Russian. Only a third of Russian speakers, a sixth of the general population, regard themselves as ethnically Russian. It does appear to be true that among those who view themselves as ethnically Russian, there is a significant desire for union with Russia, and that there is probably a majority in some Eastern provinces for that idea, probably including Crimea. But the area involved is far smaller than the linguistically Russian area.
Ethnicity is of course a less tangible concept than linguistic identity, and has little claim to objective reality, particularly in an area with such turbulent history of population movement. But it is futile to pretend it has no part in the idea of a nation state, and is best regarded as a cultural concept of self-identification.
The historical legacy is extremely complex. Kievan Rus was essential to the construction of Russian identity, but for Russia to claim Kiev on that basis would be like France claiming Scandinavia because that is where the Normans came from. Kievan Rus was destroyed and or displaced by what historical shorthand calls the Mongal hordes, almost a millennium ago. Ukrainian history is fascinating, the major part of it having been at various times under Horde, Lithuanian, Polish, Krim Tartar, Galician, Cossack Federation, Russian and Soviet rule.
Still just within living memory, one in seven Ukrainians, including almost the entire intellectual and cultural elite, was murdered by Stalin. An appalling genocide. Like Katyn a hundred times over. That is the poisonous root of the extreme right nationalism that has rightly been identified as a dangerous element in the current revolution. Pro-western writers have largely overlooked the fascists and left wing critics have largely overlooked Stalin. His brutal massacre and ethnic cleansing of the Krim Tartar is also relevant – many were forcibly deported to Uzbekistan, and I have heard the stories direct.
Having served in the British Embassy in Poland shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I regard as blinkered those who deny that membership of the European Union would be a massive advantage to Ukraine. In 1994 there was very little difference in the standard of living in both countries – I saw it myself. The difference is now enormous, and that really means in the standard of living of ordinary working people. Poland’s relationship with, and eventual membership of, the European Union has undoubtedly been a key factor. Those who wish Ukraine instead to be linked to the raw commodity export economy of Putin’s Russia are no true friends of the working people. Ukraine’s accidental boundaries include, of course, the great formerly Polish city of Lvov.
Ukraine is an accidental state and its future will be much brighter if it is a willing union. It needs not just Presidential and Parliamentary elections, but also a federal constitution and a referendum on whether any of its provinces would prefer to join Russia. That can give an agreed way forward to which Russia might also subscribe, and defuse the current crisis. It would suit the long term interest of both the Ukraine and the West. I fear however that the politicians will be too macho to see it.