Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shone a spotlight on the relationship between the two nations. At the time of the invasion, Ukraine had been an independent, sovereign nation for more than 30 years, recognised by the international community, including Russia. Yet some of Russia’s powerholders, it seems, felt a sense of ownership of Ukraine.
Precisely why there is a dispute over the sovereignty or otherwise of Ukraine is a complex question rooted in the region’s history. It is a story more than a thousand years in the making.
For much of this story, Ukraine did not exist, at least not as an independent, sovereign state, so the name ‘Ukraine’ will be used here just to help identify the region around Kyiv that was so central to the story. The Crimea is an important part of the story too, and its history forms a part of the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine.
The emergence of the Kyivan Rus state
Today, Kyiv is the capital city of Ukraine. A millennium ago, it was the heart of what is known as the Kyivan Rus state. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Norse traders sailed the river routes from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Predominantly Swedish in origin, they found their way to the Byzantine Empire and even attacked Persia from the Caspian Sea in the 10th century.
Around Novgorod, and what is now Kyiv, as well as other places on the rivers, these traders began to settle. They were referred to as the Rus, which seems to have its origins in the word for men who row, since they were so closely associated with the river and their ships. Merging with Slavic, Baltic and Finnic Tribes, they became known as the Kyivan Rus.
The importance of Kyiv
The Rus tribes are the ancestors of those who still bear their name today, the Russian and Belarussian people, as well as those of Ukraine. Kyiv was referred to by the 12th century as the ‘mother of Rus cities’, effectively denoting it as the capital of the Kyivan Rus state. The rulers of the region were styled Grand Princes of Kyiv.
This association of Kyiv with the early heritage of the Rus as the root of the Russian people means the city has a hold over the collective imaginations of those beyond modern Ukraine. It was important to the birth of Russia, but now lies beyond its borders. This thousand-year-old connection is the beginning of an explanation of the modern tensions. People, it seems, are willing to fight over places that exert a pull on them.
The Mongol invasion
In 1223, the irresistible expansion of the Mongol Horde reached the Kyivan Rus state. On 31 May, the Battle of the Kalka River was fought, resulting in a decisive Mongol victory. Although the horde left the region after the battle, the damage had been done, and they would return in 1237 to complete the conquering of Kyivan Rus.
This began the break up of Kyivan Rus, though they had always fought between themselves, and left the region under the dominion of the Golden Horde, in some places for centuries. It was during this period that the Grand Duchy of Moscow began to rise, eventually becoming the heart of what is now Russia and providing a new focal point for the Rus people.
As the control of the Golden Horde slipped, Ukraine was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for a time. This pull, often both east and west, has long defined Ukraine.
The pull of Russia
Cossacks, who are mostly closely linked with Kyiv and Ukraine, began to resist the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and rebelled in favour of joining Russia. Under the Grand Princes of Moscow, since 1371, Russia had been slowly forming from disparate states. The process was completed in the 1520s under Vasily III. A Russian state appealed to the Rus peoples of Ukraine and exerted a pull on their allegiance.
In 1654, the Cossacks signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav with Tsar Alexis, the second tsar of the Romanov dynasty. This saw the Cossacks break with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and formally offer their allegiance to the Russian tsar. The USSR would later style this as an act that reunified Ukraine with Russia, bringing all Rus people together under a tsar.
Crimea, which had been a khanate, had been part of the Ottoman Empire. Following war between the Ottoman and Russian empires, Crimea was briefly independent before being annexed by Russia on the orders of Catherine the Great in 1783, a move that was not resisted by the Tartars of the Crimea, and which was recognised formally by the Ottoman Empire.
For the next chapters in the story of Ukraine and Russia, read about the Imperial Era to the USSR, followed by the Post-Soviet Era.