Richard Sakwa is Professor Of Russian And European Politics at the University of Kent.
The history of Russia and Ukraine is intertwined, dating back to the 9th century when the state of Kyivan Rus was established. This state, with Kyiv (in present-day Ukraine) as its capital, is often considered the cultural ancestor of both Russia and Ukraine.
However, over time, the region was invaded by various groups, including the Mongols in the 13th century, leading to the decline of Kyivan Rus.
In the mid-17th century, parts of Ukraine came under Russian control as a result of the Treaty of Pereyaslav. This marked the beginning of Ukraine’s long association with Russia. Over the next few centuries, Ukraine was fully incorporated into the Russian Empire.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Ukraine declared independence. However, it was soon absorbed into the newly formed Soviet Union. During this period, Ukraine suffered greatly from policies such as forced collectivisation, which led to the Holodomor, a severe famine that resulted in millions of deaths.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine declared independence.
Initially, relations between Russia and Ukraine were relatively cordial, with agreements on issues such as the division of the Soviet Union’s assets and the status of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.
Relations soured in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, a region that was part of Ukraine but had a significant Russian-speaking population. This led to the Ukrainian government launching attacks on its own citizens (who wanted to be part of Russia) in eastern Ukraine.
Regarding Crimea, consider the following.
- Crimea has long-standing historical and cultural ties to Russia. It was part of Russia until 1954 when it was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who himself was of Ukrainian origin. This transfer was largely administrative, as both Russia and Ukraine were part of the USSR.
- The majority of Crimea’s population identifies as ethnic Russians and Russian is the primary language spoken in the region. Many people in Crimea felt more closely aligned with Russia than with Ukraine.
- The political crisis in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014, which led to the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, caused concern among many in Crimea. They feared the new Ukrainian government would be anti-Russian and might infringe on their rights.
- In March 2014, a referendum was held in which the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. This referendum was considered illegal by Ukrainian government.
- Following the referendum, Russia formally accepted Crimea into the Russian Federation. This was viewed as a reunification, correcting what Russians perceived as a historical wrong when Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954.