The battle between Ukraine and Russia has persisted for over a century. Ukraine declared its independence as Soviet Russia was formed. Soviets suppressed Ukrainian independence, forcing policies that led to grievous famine. Ukraine ultimately obtained its independence, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, much to Russia’s distaste. Russia’s battle for regional supremacy led to the current war between the nations.
The messy formation of a new nation allowed Ukraine, formerly part of Russia, to attempt its own independence movement. Ukraine declared itself the Ukraine National Republic. It was one of many attempts at self-determination among the people of Europe.
The region was the “borderland” (or “Ukraine”) between Russia and the rest of Europe. Ukraine’s ancestors, including the very independent (and tall) Cossacks, included a medieval kingdom named “Kievan Rus.” Ukraine was the original kernel of the whole Russian empire.
The Soviet Union fought Ukraine for control of the region. Ukraine was itself divided into competing groups. The Soviets won. The official name of the Soviet Union was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukraine was now one of those “republics.”
The Soviet Union started with a light touch. They respected Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian was the official language of the area. The Soviets hoped to gain their support.
This policy was short-lived, especially once Joseph Stalin became the Soviet leader. A policy of “Russification” was established, which suppressed anything deemed anti-Russian.
Stalin was a ruthless dictator, willing to destroy millions of lives to advance his policies and retain power.
Stalin launched a policy of intimidation, arrest, imprisonment, and execution of thousands of Ukrainian intellectuals, church leaders, and even communist leaders deemed too Ukrainian. Collectivization, large state-controlled farms, was ruthlessly enforced.
Holodomor: The Great Famine
Ukraine was traditionally a land of small farmers. They were not happy that the state seized their land. Soviet authorities declared opposition to collectivization treason. They shamed opponents as “kulaks” or “rich peasants,” selfish, well-off farmers.
The government also demanded impossible to meet high food quotas from the farmers. Resistance resulted in fines (including food necessary for survival) and punishment. The Soviets even took the seed that was necessary for the next harvest.
The result was a grievous famine involving millions of deaths. The Soviet policy and results are known locally as the Holodomor, Ukrainian for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor).
The Soviet government officially denied wrongdoing. Ukrainians did not forget. The famine was an important cultural memory and grievance. Communist China, during the Great Leap Forward, would later have its own ideological-based famine.
World War II Developments
During World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Ukraine. Ukrainians were divided in their loyalties, some collaborating with the occupying force. Others resisted German control, many retaining dreams of an independent Ukrainian nation.
The Soviets regained control of the area, but not before seven to eight million more Ukrainian deaths. After Stalin died, his successor transferred Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, to Ukraine. Many people in Crimea, however, retained loyalty to Russia.
Ukrainian Independence (Again)
The end of the Cold War brought the breaking apart of the Soviet Union.
The different republics broke apart and became independent nations. In 1991, Ukraine was independent once more. Ukraine and Russia in 1994 agreed to have the large Ukrainian nuclear arsenal transferred to Russia for destruction. Both nations supported a market-based economy.
Putin Gains Control
Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood. Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.
Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia in 1999. His official title might have changed since then, but he has retained firm control of the nation.
Putin served in the KGB, the Soviet secret police. His authoritarian ways continued while he was in political office. His use of assassination as a political tool is well known.
He was also a Russian nationalist and never really accepted the right of Ukraine to be independent. Putin argued Ukraine was never a state. It was historically and ideally currently part of Russia. At the very least, it should be under the Russian sphere of influence.
A Russian-backed leader won the presidency in Ukraine in 2004. A peaceful public protest (“Orange Revolution”) led to a finding the election was fraudulent. A new election occurred.
The other candidate was declared the winner. The winner (Yushchenko) became seriously ill during the election dispute. His supporters argued that Russian agents were responsible.
Ukrainian Governmental Developments
Yanukovych, the Russia/Putin choice, won in 2010. This election was deemed fair by foreign observers. Yanukovych’s term started well, including friendly relations with Western Europe.
Nonetheless, government restrictions on opposition, corruption, and the decision to withdraw from a planned trade deal with the European Union led to mass protests.
Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014. Russia cried foul, claiming millions of ethnic Russians were in danger. Leadership opposed to Russia gained power. Volodymyr Zelensky became president in 2019. President Trump’s request for a “favor” from Zelensky led to Trump’s first impeachment.
War Breaks Out
The economic and political troubles in Ukraine emboldened Russia and Russian-friendly forces.
After Yanukovych fled to Russia, Putin supported Russian separatists in Crimea. A referendum supported Crimea joining Russia. The United Nations later declared it illegal.
The events in Crimea inspired pro-Russian separatists in two other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass to secede from Ukraine.
By 2019, the death toll (U.N. estimate) was 13,000 and over one hundred thousand Ukranian refugees. Zelensky ran for president on an anti-corruption and peace platform.
Russia Invades Ukraine
In February 2022, in the largest invasion of a European state since WWII, Putin launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. He expected a quick victory.
It was not to be. Russia received worldwide condemnation. Many countries imposed economic sanctions. Meanwhile, humanitarian and military aid flowed to Ukraine. By the end of 2022, Ukraine regained much of the territories seized by Russia. The battle continues.