Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shone a spotlight on the relationship between the two nations. Precisely why there is a dispute over the sovereignty or otherwise of Ukraine is a complex question rooted in the region’s history.
In the medieval era, Kyiv served as the capital of the medieval Kyivan Rus state, which encompassed portions of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Ukraine emerged as a defined region, with its own distinct ethnic identity, from the 17th to 19th centuries, but remained linked to the Russian Empire during that time, and later to the USSR.
During the Soviet era, Ukraine faced horrors both deliberately created and accidentally caused, including the Holodomor under Joseph Stalin’s regime and successive invasions during World War Two. Ukraine emerged from the collapse of the USSR having to carve out its own future in Europe.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine was one of the signatories of the document disbanding the USSR, which meant that it was, at least on the surface, being recognised as an independent state.
In the same year, a referendum and election were held. The referendum question was “Do you support the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine?” 84.18% (31,891,742 people) took part, voting 92.3% (28,804,071) Yes. In the election, six candidates ran, all backing the ‘Yes’ campaign, and Leonid Kravchuk was elected the first President of Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became the third-largest holder of nuclear weapons. Although it possessed the warheads and the capacity to make more, the software that controlled them was under Russian control.
Russia and western states agreed to recognise and respect Ukraine’s independent, sovereign status in return for handing most of its nuclear capacity over to Russia. In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances provided for the destruction of the remaining warheads.
Unrest in Ukraine
In 2004, the Orange Revolution took place amid protests about a corrupt presidential election. Protests in Kyiv and general strikes across the country eventually saw the election result overturned and Viktor Yushchenko was replaced by Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kyiv Appellate Court gave a decision on 13 January 2010 that posthumously convicted Stalin, Kaganovich, Molotov, and Ukrainian leaders Kosier and Chubar, as well as others, of genocide against Ukrainians during the Holodomor of the 1930s. This decision served to reinforce a sense of Ukrainian identity and distance the country from Russia.
2014 saw a great deal of unrest in Ukraine. The Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution, erupted as a result of President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a document that would create a political association and free trade agreement with the EU. 130 people were killed, including 18 police officers, and the revolution led to early presidential elections.
In the same year, a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine, which Russia is suspected of sponsoring and which has been termed as an invasion, saw fighting begin in the Donbass region. The move served to solidify the sense of Ukrainian national identity and independence from Moscow.
Also in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine since 1954. The reasons for this are complex. Crimea remains militarily and strategically important with ports on the Black Sea. It is also a place regarded with fondness dating back to the Soviet era, when it was a holiday destination. As of 2022, Russia remains in control of Crimea but that control is not recognised by the international community.
The escalation of the Ukraine crisis
The unrest that began in Ukraine in 2014 endured until the Russian invasion in 2022. It was exacerbated in 2019 by a change to the Constitution of Ukraine that enshrined closer links with both NATO and the EU. This step confirmed Russian fears about the influence of the US and western European states on its borders, increasing tensions in the region.
On 1 July 2021, the law was changed in Ukraine to allow the sale of farmland for the first time in 20 years. The original ban had been in place to prevent the same sort of takeover by an oligarchy that Russia had seen in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Ukraine, and Ukrainians, it presented a huge opportunity to fill a gap in global food supply chains caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the time of the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the largest exporter of sunflower oil in the world, the 4th largest shipper of corn and it supplied grain to countries around the world, from Morocco to Bangladesh and Indonesia. Its corn yields in 2022 were ⅓ lower than the US, and ¼ below EU levels, so there was room for improvement that could see Ukraine’s economy boom.
Wealthy Gulf states at the time were showing particular interest in supplies of food from Ukraine. All of this meant that the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union saw its stock rise sharply, bringing with it unwelcome consequences.
The Russian invasion
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, beginning in February 2022, shocked the world and created a humanitarian crisis as civilians became increasingly caught up in the conflict by Russian shelling. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is complex and rooted in an often shared history.
Russia had long viewed Ukraine as a Russian province rather than a sovereign state. To counterbalance this perceived attack on its independence, Ukraine sought closer ties with the west, both with NATO and the EU, which Russia interpreted as a threat to its own security.
Beyond a shared heritage – a sentimental connection to the Rus states that once centred on Kyiv – Russia saw Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and western states and as a country with an economy that appeared set to flourish further. In short, Ukraine was of historic, as well as economic and strategic, significance to Russia, which precipitated an invasion under Vladimir Putin.
For the earlier chapters in the story of Ukraine and Russia, read about the period from Medieval Rus to the First Tsars and then the Imperial Era to the USSR.