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, Ukraine didn’t exist as a formal, sovereign nation. Instead, Kyiv served as the capital of the Kyivan Rus state, which encompassed portions of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. As such, the city has a hold over the collective imaginations of those beyond modern Ukraine, in part contributing to the 2022 invasion.
In the early modern era, the Rus peoples of what we now know as Ukraine allied themselves with the Grand Princes of Moscow and later, the first Russian tsars. Eventually, this link to Russia would lead Ukraine into crisis during the 20th century as World War Two and the rise of the USSR had a devastating impact on Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
During the 19th century, a Ukrainian identity began to emerge more fully, closely linked to the region’s Cossack heritage. By this stage, Russians considered Ukrainians, as well as Belarussians, as ethnically Russian, but referred to both groups as ‘Little Russians’. In 1804, the growing separatist movement in Ukraine led the Russian Empire to ban the teaching of the Ukrainian language in schools in an effort to eradicate this growing feeling.
From October 1853 to February 1856, the region was rocked by the Crimean War. The Russian Empire fought a coalition of the Ottoman Empire, France and the United Kingdom. The conflict saw the battles of Alma and Balaclava, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Florence Nightingale’s experiences that led to a professionalisation of nursing, before being resolved by the Siege of Sevastopol, a critically important naval base on the Black Sea.
The Russian Empire lost, and the Treaty of Paris, signed on 30 March 1856, saw Russia forbidden from basing naval forces in the Black Sea. The embarrassment felt by the Russian Empire led to internal reforms and modernisation in an effort not to be left behind by other European powers.
Ukraine remained unsettled too, and in 1876 the ban on teaching the Ukrainian language put in place in 1804 was extended to prohibit publication or importation of books, performances of plays and the delivery of lectures in the Ukrainian language.
In 1917, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Ukraine was briefly an independent nation, but was soon to become part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR, which would be a dominant force in world politics for most of the rest of the 20th century, was about to be born.
In 1922, Russia and Ukraine were two of the signatories to the founding document of the USSR. With its wide, sweeping, fertile plains, Ukraine would become known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, providing grain and food that made it an invaluable part of the USSR. That fact only made what happened next all the more shocking.
The Holodomor was a state-sponsored famine created by Joseph Stalin’s government in Ukraine as an act of genocide. Crops were seized and sold to overseas markets to fund Stalin’s economic and industrial plans. Animals, including pets, were removed. Soviet soldiers ensured whatever remained was kept from the population, resulting in the deliberate starvation and deaths of up to 4 million Ukrainians.
During World War Two, Germany invaded Ukraine, moving across the border on 22 June 1941 and completing their takeover by November. 4 million Ukrainians were evacuated east. The Nazis encouraged collaboration by appearing to back an independent Ukrainian state, only to renege on that promise once in control. Between 1941 and 1944, around 1.5 million Jews living in Ukraine were killed by Nazi forces.
After the USSR was victorious at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, the counteroffensive moved across Ukraine, retaking Kyiv in November that year. The fight for western Ukraine was hard and bloody until Nazi Germany was driven out altogether by the end of October 1944.
Ukraine lost between 5 and 7 million lives during World War Two. A famine in 1946-1947 claimed around a million more lives, and pre-war levels of food production would not be restored until the 1960s.
In 1954, the USSR transferred control of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine. There was perhaps a feeling that, with the USSR strong, it made little difference which Soviet state administered which territory, but the move stored up problems for a future in which the Soviet Union no longer existed.
On 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place in Ukraine. During a test procedure on reactor number 4, a power decrease made the reactor unstable. The core went into meltdown, the subsequent explosion destroying the building. Chernobyl remains one of only two nuclear disasters to be rated at the highest level, alongside the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The catastrophe caused ongoing health issues for the surrounding population and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covered more than 2,500 km2.
Chernobyl has been pointed to as one of the contributing causes of the collapse of the USSR. It shook faith in the Soviet government, and Mikhail Gorbachev, last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, said it was a “turning point” that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue”.
For the other chapters in the story of Ukraine and Russia, read part one, about the period from Medieval Rus to the First Tsars, and part three, about the Post-Soviet Era.