The Russia & Ukraine War: Explained by 9 Historical Events

Under the directives of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian soldiers have launched a major military operation against Ukraine. The Ukrainian government claims that tanks and personnel have flooded into the country at strategic places along its eastern, southern, and northern borders and that explosions have been heard throughout the country. However, the question remains as to why Ukraine is being invaded and what Russia might desire from its southern neighbour. It is necessary to comprehend the history of the relationship between these two irrevocably linked countries, which extends back at least to the 9th century, to make sense of the current problem. In this article, Professor Shery Yelchin, a specialist in Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian relations, discusses nine watershed periods in the country’s history.

The Russia & Ukraine War Crisis Explained by 9 Historical Events
The Russia & Ukraine War Crisis: Explained by 9 Historical Events

What is the location of Ukraine?

Russia and the EU/NATO member nations of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are all neighbours in eastern Europe. Ukraine is located between them. Ukraine shares land borders with Belarus to the north and Moldova to the south, as well as with Russia. The fact that Ukraine shares a border with Russia is significant.

Is Ukraine a part of the Russian Federation?

In 1991, the Soviet Union was dismantled, and two sovereign republics emerged: Ukraine and the Russian Federation. On the other hand, Ukraine is a former Soviet country with strong social, cultural, and economic ties to Russia.

What is the official language of Ukraine?

Ukrainian has been the country’s sole official language since its independence. Nonetheless, until recently, the majority of metropolitan centres and industrial areas were dominated by Russophobes, except the westernmost districts, which were dominated by Ukrainians. This began to change in the 2000s, as new generations of Ukrainian students entered the country’s educational system. Due to Russia’s assault and the subsequent implementation of Ukrainian language laws, the transition from Russian to Ukrainian has been expedited across the board.

Is Russia attempting to occupy Ukraine?

The overwhelming majority of the world believes Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to be an illegal occupation of the territory. The annexation of Crimea by Russia marked the first time since the Second World War that a European state had annexed the territory of another European state. Russian “volunteers” and regular forces are deployed in the two self-proclaimed pro-Russian “people’s republics” in the Donbas region near the Russian border, despite official denials by the Russian government.

Nine historical events are as follows:

1: 9th century: Kievan Rus

At some point in the late 9th century, a group of Norsemen calling themselves Rus (pronounced “Roos”) established control over the East Slavic communities in what is now Northwest Russia, then moved down the Dnieper River to make the city of Kyiv, in what is now Ukraine, their capital. Historians call this large mediaeval state Kievan Rus.

The Norse elite soon assimilated into the local Slavic population, which began to refer to itself as the people of Rus, or Rusyns. The heart of the Rus state was present-day central Ukraine; Moscow was established in the 12th century on what was then a far-flung northeastern frontier. In 988, Grand Prince Volodimer (‘Volodymyr’ in Ukrainian, ‘Vladimir’ in Russian), who died in 1015, accepted Christianity from Byzantium. Few Rusyns read or spoke the literary language of the church and state, Old Church Slavonic. Rather, they spoke a wide range of East Slavic dialects, which would later be used to make Ukraine, Belarusian, and Russian languages.

2: 1654: Treaty of Pereiaslav (aka the Pereyaslav Agreement)

The Grand Principality of Moscow and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the latter of which eventually became part of Poland) divided the former Rus lands in the late 14th century, taking advantage of the decline of Mongol power at the time. A new social group of Ukrainian Cossacks developed on the southern border of Poland, where they were tasked with protecting the country from Crimean Tatar raids. They were a large group of free people, many of them peasant serfs who had run away. They protected Poland’s southern steppe border from Turkish and Tatar raids in the early 1800s.

Even though the concept of “Ukraine” had already been established, locals continued to refer to themselves as “Rusyns,” while referring to the future Russians as “Muscovites.” As early as the 17th century, the Orthodox Christian population of the Ukrainian lands had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Catholic Poland’s religious policies as well as the spread of serfdom, a form of slavery in which peasants were bound to their land and sold alongside it. Bohdan Khmelnitsky (c1595–1657), a Cossack rebel leader, led a mass social and religious revolt against Polish rule in 1648 that resulted in the establishment of the Hetmanate (Cossack state), which was nominally autonomous under the Polish king but in practice independent of the Polish state.

With Poland on his mind, Khmelnytskyi accepted the “protection” of the Orthodox Russian tsar in the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav, which marked the beginning of his search for allies. Even though the exact meaning of “protection” is still up for debate today, after Hetman Ivan Mazeppa (c1639–1709) tried to break away from Moscow in 1709, the Cossack lands were taken over by the Russians.

3: 1876: The Ems Act

As part of her campaign to eliminate the last vestiges of Ukrainian autonomy, Catherine II (1729–96) abolished the Hetmanate in 1764, and the Russian army destroyed the Cossack stronghold on the Dnieper in 1765. The Ukrainian peasants were eventually enslaved, even though Cossack officers could claim noble status—the empire agreed to accept them as equals to Russian nobles as long as they could provide the necessary documentation—but Cossack officers were not allowed to do so.

As a result of the partitions of Poland that occurred in the late 18th century, Catherine was able to acquire a large portion of the Ukrainian territory that Poland had retained after 1654. As the Hetmanate’s institutional legacy was being dismantled, a new interest in Ukrainian history and folklore arose among intellectuals under the influence of pan-European Romanticism, who were influenced by Hetmanate. Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national bard, wrote his first poems in Ukrainian in the 1840s. He went on to co-found a secret political group that talked about the creation of a free Slavic federation and the abolition of serfdom.

The Ukrainian national revival was also taking place in the westernmost Rus lands, which had passed from Poland to the Austrian Empire. In 1863, the Russian government responded by prohibiting the publication of educational literature written in the Ukrainian language. The ban was lifted in 1864. Tsar Alexander II (1818–81) signed the Ems Act in 1876 while on vacation in the German bathing resort of Bad Ems. The Ems Act prohibited all publication of material in the Ukrainian language. Despite this, the empire continued to promote assimilation to Russian culture by rewarding those “loyal” Ukrainians it considered to be members of the greater Russian people’s “Little Russian tribe,” while simultaneously discriminating against politicized Ukrainians through job loss, arrest, and exile. Ukrainian patriots have now begun to refer to themselves as “Ukrainians” as an ethnic designation to distinguish themselves from Russians.

4: 1918: Ukrainian independence

As a result of the collapse of the Russian monarchy in 1917, which quickly developed into a revolutionary parliament as a result of the strains of war and political discord, the Patriotic Ukrainians established their coordinating body, the Central Rada (Council), in 1917. Under the name of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), the Russian Provisional Government gave Ukraine some independence. The Bolsheviks didn’t like that, so they invaded the country and took it over as part of the Soviet Union.

In January 1918, the United Nations Republic of Romania declared full independence and signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers in Brest, before the Bolsheviks did the same. Following World War I, the Germans put in place a Ukrainian monarch with the historic title of hetman. After the war, the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) took over and said that they wanted to unite with the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) was unable to survive the titanic clash between the Russian Reds and Whites during the Russian Civil War (1917–22), as neither power recognized Ukrainian sovereignty. Despite that, the Bolsheviks had to set up the Soviet Ukrainian Republic because of the precedent of Ukrainian independence. The Soviet Ukrainian Republic joined the Soviet Union the next year.

Although Stalin had abandoned the task of crushing the Ukrainian political nation that had developed during the Revolution in the early 1930s, he returned to it in the early 1930s. It is estimated that approximately 4 million Ukrainian peasants died in the state-engineered famine of 1932–33, which is known in Ukraine as the Holodomor (“murder through starvation”) and is widely regarded as genocide—an interpretation that is increasingly accepted around the world but which Russia continues to reject. The Ukrainian cultural elite was also wiped out by Stalin. He then spread the idea that Ukrainians were the Russians’ “younger brother” to a wider audience.

5: In 1945, the enlarged Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

Following up on his agreement with Hitler on the division of East-Central Europe between them, Stalin invaded Poland in September 1939 and incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR the Ukrainian lands that Poland had retained after its brief war with the Bolsheviks in 1919, resulting in a stalemate that put an end to Lenin’s dream of the Red Cavalry bringing revolution to Europe. In the aftermath of this stalemate, Stalin declared a state of emergency in the Ukrainian SSR, which included At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to allow Stalin to retain control of these areas. The Soviet Union also tried to get Czechoslovakia to give up its “Rusyn” land to the Soviet Union.

Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), the party’s energetic leader, oversaw the expansion of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which eventually included nearly all of the territories with an ethnic Ukrainian majority. The creation of a united Ukraine was a long-standing goal of Ukrainian patriots, and Khrushchev achieved this goal while also continuing the process of cultural assimilation into Russia rather than promoting Ukrainian autonomy. Ukrainian nationalists in the areas that were once part of Poland kept up armed resistance to Soviet rule well into the 1950s.

6: 1954: The transfer of the Crimean Peninsula

In 1921, Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula, which is only physically connected to Russia by land, became an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, in part as a result of the peninsula’s strategic importance for the Russian Federation. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union cultivated the culture of Crimean Tatars, who had lived on the peninsula since the 13th century and whose Crimean Khanate was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783, to impress the Western colonies and newly independent states in Asia with their apparent benevolent policies.

The Tatars were forcibly deported by Stalin after the Red Army recaptured Crimea from Nazi Germany in 1944, a move that was widely condemned as genocidal by many historians at the time. Almost overnight, as a result of this deportation, ethnic Russians rose to become the numerical majority in the country. The economy and cities of the peninsula had been devastated by the war. To commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Pereiaslav, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev organized the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR, which was to rebuild the region and supply it with fresh water through a major channel that was to be built. His goal was to make the Ukrainian bureaucrats who made up his power base happy, as well as to add a culturally Russian counterweight to the newly incorporated nationalistic western parts of the country.

7: 1991: The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Ukrainian and Russian democratic activists worked together to usher in the new politics, which included freedom of expression and free elections, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s (1931–) loosening of ideological controls, which resulted in a widespread rejection of Soviet communism. The administration of Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007) was not concerned with preserving the Soviet Union, but rather with achieving independence for the country. As a result, Yeltsin was a natural friend of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (1934–), but only as long as both leaders didn’t like the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian referendum in December 1991 signalled the end of the union, and Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus jointly initiated the union’s formal dissolution in February 1992. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that economic reforms did not work out. Yeltsin and other Russian leaders began to target nationalists who were nostalgic for the Soviet empire by criticizing Ukrainian cultural policies and raising doubts about the transfer of Crimea.

After signing a comprehensive treaty in 1997, Russia and Ukraine reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining the integrity of Ukraine’s borders—something that Russia and the other Western nuclear powers had previously guaranteed in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 when Ukraine agreed to surrender its Soviet-made nuclear weapons arsenal. This treaty comes to an end on March 31, 2019.

8: 2014: The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas

A popular revolution in Ukraine ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and installed pro-Western democratic forces in power, an act that was approved by the parliament and confirmed by snap presidential elections. The Russian authorities took advantage of the unrest to establish military control over the Crimean peninsula. They predicted that the local Russian majority would support the peninsula’s incorporation into Russia, attracted by higher salaries and better career opportunities without the need to learn Ukrainian. They were correct in their prediction. Because of this, the fake referendum on joining Russia didn’t work, and the world, except for pro-Russian countries like Syria and North Korea, overwhelmingly opposed the move.

As a result of punitive Western sanctions, Russian authorities in Crimea began to repress local Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists in response to the sanctions. Russian-backed insurrections in other southeastern Ukrainian provinces followed the establishment of its control over Crimea. The dominant regional parties in these provinces have long cultivated pro-Russian attitudes. However, this strategy was only successful in the Donbas, a depressed industrial region with a majority of Russian speakers. President Putin’s administration sent regular army units to help pro-Russian separatists and Russian “volunteers” when Ukrainian troops tried to regain control.

A lot of people were killed and forced to flee their homes during the active phase of the war, which lasted from the fall of 2015 to the beginning of 2020, the UN says.

9: 2021 – Russian troop buildup and an ultimatum to the West:

The war in the Donbas has never been officially declared over; low-intensity fire is a daily occurrence, and new casualties are reported every week. By convening summits in the “Normandy Format” in 2015, Western intermediaries contributed to the de-escalation of military action in Syria (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine). While the 2015 Minsk Protocol charted a path to a peaceful resolution during the summit in the Belarusian capital, it remains stalled because certain steps are unacceptable either to Ukraine (a proposal to allow local elections in the two “people’s republics” despite the presence of Russian troops there without having established Ukraine’s control over its border with Russia) or to Russia (a proposal to allow local elections in the two “people’s republics” despite the presence of Russian troops there without having acknowledged Ukraine’s (acknowledging the presence of its troops and withdraw them).

Late in 2021, information from Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies revealed a massive buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, as well as the preparation of infrastructure for a possible invasion. Despite Russian officials’ insistence that these preparations were merely military drills, the country issued an ultimatum to the west, demanding written guarantees against NATO’s further eastern expansion; restrictions on the types of weapons that can be placed in NATO member countries that have joined the alliance since 1997; and an end to all NATO military collaboration with former Soviet republics (notably, Ukraine and Georgia). The Russian media, on the other hand, has raised fears that NATO will attack Russia or that Ukraine will attack the Donbas.

The Bottom Line:

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