The Complicated History of Ukraine and Russia
The current conflict between the two nations is the most recent chapter in the long history of the two nations.
On February 24, 2022, Russian troops occupied territory in Ukraine and began to attack the country on multiple fronts. The invasion follows the 2014 annexation of the region of Crimea by Russia. While Russian President Vladimir Putin planned on a swift victory and the capitulation of the Ukrainian people, the Russian forces have faced fierce resistance from the Ukrainian people.
The two nations share a long and complicated history that goes back to the founding of the ancient city of Kyiv, the capital of the country of Ukraine. Both nations share a common heritage to the first Slavic state known as the Kyivan Rus. In the 20th Century, the two nations were the powerhouses of the Soviet Union.
So how did the two nations go from united by their common heritage to bitter enemies?
A Shared Origin Story
Both Russia and Ukraine trace their origins to the early rules of Kyiv. The city of Kyiv was founded around 482 CE. At this time, the region was populated by scattered tribes and settlements of Slavic people. By the 10th Century, the Pagan population had converted to the Eastern Orthodox church and was allied with the Byzantine Empire.
The Golden Horde ruled the region for several centuries and caused divisions. The Eastern Slavic people were divided into three distinct regions: Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The Russians began to refer to the other two regions as "Little Russias," and so began their view of superiority to their neighbors. This unity of the Slavic people continued until the conquests of the Mongols in the 13th Century.
In the 14th Century, the Duchy of Muscovy rose to power and began an independence movement against the Mongols. By 1480 they had kicked the Mongols out and started the period of Tsarist Russia.
The Russian Empire
Following the removal of the Mongol invaders, the Ducky of Muscovy began unifying the northern Slavic territories. Russia grew to become the dominant force in the region and expanded over vast territories north of Eurasia. Muscovy, or Moscow, became the center of this new Russian Empire.
Meanwhile, Ukraine came under the dominance of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. However, the Cossack population refused to adopt the Polish customs and lifestyle. The Cossacks are an ethnic group from the Eastern European steppe, also known for their skill and ferocity in battle. The Cossacks often clashed with the Polish government and caused dissent in the region.
The Cossack population eventually had enough Polish dominance and rebelled beginning in 1648. The Khmelnytsky Uprising lasted until 1657 when the Ukrainian people sought the aid of their neighbors in Russia. The uprising was also marked by attacks on the region's Roman Catholic and Jewish populations, which caused the Cossacks to gain a reputation that had long-lasting effects on the relationship with their people in the region.
In the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, the union of Russia and Ukraine was officially formalized. The gradual absorption of Ukraine into the Russian Empire was completed with the 18th-century Partition of Poland. The Cossacks were regulated to the southern region of Kuman.
While united under their shared Slavic roots, the Russian Empire was plagued by a small group of Ukrainian separatists until World War I. In response, the empire began a "russification" of Ukraine and Belarus. Starting in 1804, the Ukrainian language was banned from schools. In 1876 there was a further ban on the publication and importation of Ukrainian language books, public performances, speeches, and Ukrainian language lyrics to musical scores.
The Rise of the Soviet Union
The February Revolution in 1917 saw the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the rise of the Russian Soviet Republic. Several former Russian territories saw an opportunity to gain independence, and Ukraine was no different. Following increased military aggression, Ukraine broke off from Russia. On January 22, 1918, Ukraine declared its independence from the Russian Republic.
Both Ukraine and Russia signed the treaties of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers on March 3, 1918. This allowed Russia to exit World War I and ended hostilities between the two countries. The Ukrainian People's Republic lasted from 1918 to 1922.
At the end of World War I, Ukraine and Russia were plunged into the Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1919 to 1923. A part of this conflict was the Unkraninan War for Independence which lasted from 1919 to 1921, with Ukrainians fighting on both sides of the conflict. While Ukraine became an independent state, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922.
With the end of the Russian Empire, the Ukrainian language and culture suppression also ended. The Soviet Union encouraged the embrace of the cultural history of each of the Soviet Republics within the superpower.
A dark period of Ukrainian history occurred between 1932 and 1933. This period became known as the Holodomor or the "extermination by hunger." A manufactured famine killed an estimated 7.5 million people in Ukraine during this period. The mass starvation is one of the worst peacetime catastrophes in history.
The famine spread to other Soviet Republics as well, and scholars debate the root cause of the famine. Natural factors such as droughts and economic problems due to the shift of private property to collectivization played a part in this disaster. There are also questions in intent to harm the Ukrainian people or if it was just a poorly planned policy. In a 2010 investigation, the Kyivan Court found Soviet leaders guilty of genocide against the Ukrainian people.
Even with this painful period, Ukraine and Russia remained the dominant members of the Soviet Union. They would remain united until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Dismantling of the Soviet Union
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union was a period of disarmament and the shuffling of the deck between the former Soviet Republics. Ukraine found itself possessed the third-largest nuclear arsenal globally, though it could not put the weapons to use. In 1993, Ukraine voluntarily destroyed 3,000 of its nuclear weapons. In 1994 they destroyed the rest of their nuclear arsenal and transferred the remaining warheads to Russia in 1996.
Disputes over the Crimean Peninsula became a sticking point between Ukraine and Russia. Russia declared the gifting of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as illegitimate and laid claim to the region. The Black Sea Fleet was stationed at the port of Sevastopol in the Ukrainian territory. In 1997 the two nations agreed on a division of the fleet and Russian rights to operate their navy in the area.
Ukraine suffered some economic troubles with production and imports in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, their rich resources, including metals and natural gas, have increased economic growth. The rights to these resources also caused tension between Ukraine and Russia.
Growing Tensions in the 21st Century
Relations between the two nations began to further sour as Ukraine sought closer ties with the European Union and NATO. While historically, loyalties of people in Ukraine are split, with those in the West seeking closer ties to Europe while those in the East longing for the glory days of the Soviet Union, the 2004 Orange Revolution saw a desire for closer relations with Europe throughout the country.
In 2014 Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. This action can be seen as a reaction to the removal of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February of that year. This event was followed by separatist uprisings in the Donbas region, which led to the creation of the People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. These two states are backed by Russia and are currently occupied by Russian forces.
The current conflict has grown from Vladimir Putin's fear of Ukraine's growing relations with Europe and the United States. Putin wants "security guarantees" that Ukraine will never join NATO. Whether these demands will be accepted remains to be seen.
The history of Ukraine and Russia remains unfinished. Once united by a shared history and culture, the two nations now face each other in a bitter war. While Russia has a superior army size, they underestimated the fighting spirit of the men and women of Ukraine. As countries worldwide establish sanctions and protests against Russian aggression, it remains to be seen how this chapter of history will end.