The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented us with the most horrific images of the destruction of humanity that has shaken the entire international community. The tension between Russia and Ukraine escalated after Russia posted its military soldiers near the Ukrainian Border on 10th November 2021. Speculations started growing earlier this year that Russia could attack Ukraine anytime. On the unfateful day of 24th February 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine by unleashing airstrikes on its cities and military bases and infiltrating the Ukrainian border with the army and tanks. Since that day, Ukraine has cut all diplomatic ties with Russia.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, in an attempt to justify his actions, says,
“Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians & Orthodox Christians… Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin & his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia—by separating, severing what is historically Russian land.”
Do these words shared by Putin hold any veracity? Was Ukraine never independent and always under Russian control? And most importantly, is his justification acceptable?
This article lays emphasis on the historical relations between Russia and Ukraine and aims to give its readers better context and perspective about the ongoing war between the two nations.
Russia-Ukraine Relations History
Russia and Ukraine’s ties go as far back as the first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, founded by the Vikings “Rus” in the 9th century. This kingdom converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988, which laid the foundation for the modern Russian church. As the empire gradually fell in the 13th century, Ukraine started being dominated by Catholic Poland and Lithuania and was a part of the empire for centuries. But the religious friction between the Catholics of Poland and Orthodox of Ukraine led to a revolt led by Ukrainian Cossacks that freed Ukraine from the clutches of Poland. By the 18th Century, Imperial Russia was able to take control of most of Ukraine.
“For almost 400 years, from the 13th to the 17th centuries, they were not in the same political structure and lived under different religious influences,” says Frank Sysyn, historian & director of the Toronto office of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. Thus, Putin’s claim that Russia and Ukraine have been one entity since “time immemorial” stands false.
Russia-Ukraine Relations Post WWI
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine started formally during World War I when the former Russian Empire was experiencing political reforms. The Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed after the end of the First World War, ultimately freeing Ukraine. But soon, its sovereignty came under threat after Poland invaded Ukraine. Their relationship went through massive changes post the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the consequent conquering of Ukraine in 1919.
The Bolsheviks made sure to undermine the nationalistic sentiments of the Ukrainians. They destroyed their museums and even shot the people who spoke Ukrainian. This led to a Guerrilla resistance launched by Ukraine that resulted in Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin agreeing to create a Ukrainian entity in 1922 under the Soviet Union. This meant that Ukraine had jurisdiction over its domestic affairs while foreign policy, defense, and commerce were under the Soviet Union’s control.
Russia and Ukraine Under Soviet Rule
Ukraine, under Soviet rule, suffered from extreme economic crisis and hunger. To make matters worse, Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin orchestrated mass executions and killed as many as 10 million Ukrainians who refused to be a part of the collective farms. The language and culture of Ukraine were repressed, and they were pressured to conform to the Russian way of life.
Mass migrations also occurred during that time as Stalin would send a lot of Russians to the eastern side of Ukraine that was rich in coal and iron-ore (presently known as the Donbas Region). This explains the deep-rooted sense of fraternity among east Ukrainians towards Russia.
Many Ukrainians even supported Nazi Germany during WWII as they hoped they could liberate Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians fought alongside Hilter, and Ukraine became the most affected region during the war. Many Jews were also killed in Ukraine by both the Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators. As a consequence, Stalin deported thousands of Ukrainians to Serbian prison camps and killed, accusing them of supporting the Nazis. This also explains why Kremlin presently uses a Nazi connection to justify their attack and accuses Ukraine of being run by ‘neo-nazis.’
Russia-Ukraine Relations Post 1991
Independence of Ukraine
Following the disintegration of the USSR, Ukraine, in August 1991, declared its independence after being a Soviet republic for 70 years. 90% of the Ukrainians supported the decision in the referendum that took place on 1st December 1991. Russia also recognized Ukraine’s independence after the referendum.
Dispute Over Crimea
Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine seemed more or less cordial. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia even recognized Crimea as part of Ukraine, which was once transferred from Russia to Ukraine by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 as a gift to build strong relationships with the country. But this grand gesture could not remain for long, and a dispute over Crimea eventually broke out. Ultimately, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Protest Over Elections
Ukraine has always considered itself to be a sovereign nation. Needless to say, its people have always objected to Russia’s interference in their internal matters. In 2004, hundreds of Ukrainian citizens took to the street to protest against a Presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, that they believed was backed by Moscow and had rigged the elections to ensure his win. It was famously known as “The Orange Revolution.”
When Ukraine Decided to Be a Part of NATO
In 2008, Ukraine’s leader, Yushchenko, put forward the idea of joining NATO through the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), which the USA also supported. But Russia viewed this alliance simply as a way for the West to contain Russia, especially when Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania had already joined NATO. Putin even threatened Ukraine to point its nuclear weapons at them and went as far as saying that Ukraine is “not even a country.”
Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine
Many people in the western part of Ukraine believe that their future lies with Europe, but many Ukrainians, especially those living in the east, still want to maintain strong ties with Russia. So when the opportunity came in 2013 to join the European Union’s East Partnership Programme, Russia became vigilant of Ukraine-EU ties. Soon, Russia’s interference sparked another major protest in Ukraine when it was speculated that Yanukovych backed out from the deal at the eleventh hour because of a backdoor deal offered by Russia. This Euromaidan Movement famously came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, and it ultimately toppled Yanukovych, who was then forced to flee to Russia.
Issue of the Donbas Region
Donetsk and Luhansk (collectively known as the Donbas region), the “industrial powerhouse” of the country, is located in the east of Ukraine and is mostly dominated by the Russian-speaking population. The conflict in this region dates back to 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. This region became independent from Ukraine after its people voted for their independence in the referendum in an overwhelming majority. The region is presently divided into separate territories—Ukrainian-controlled areas and the Russian-backed separatist groups.
Russia and Ukraine’s complex relationship dates back thousands of years. Though Russia and Ukraine have become separate states, many Ukrainians and Russians do not consider themselves as different entities who share different histories and cultures. Russians even consider Ukraine to be Russia’s ‘little brother.’ Out of the 45 million population of Ukraine, 7.5 million people are ethnic Russians and near 25% of the Ukrainian population considers Russian to be its mother tongue.
“Everybody knows that Ukrainians are Russians, except for the Galicians (the Ukrainian-speaking population of Ukraine),” said Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov.
This can help us explain Putin’s viewpoint on why he considers Ukraine to be a part of Russia. He even questions the disintegration of Ukraine from Russia and simply dismisses the sovereignty of the country as the ‘error conducted by previous leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Nikita Khrushchev.’
Needless to say, Putin expects Ukraine to exert friendly relations with Russia. But, on the contrary, he believes that Ukraine, rather than maintaining cordial relations, is actually hostile to Russia and is aggressively nationalist and fascist. To add fuel to the fire, Ukraine’s growing proximity towards NATO not only poses a massive threat to Russia’s security but is considered as a betrayal towards their own.
The actions by Putin are a way to exude Russia’s dominance over the region and a desperate attempt to save Ukraine from inclining towards NATO and the West in general. It is too early to speculate how geopolitics will change because of this incident, but such a crisis will inevitably lead to serious implications in the global post-Cold War security order.
Written by: Aashna