The War in Ukraine: What History Can Teach Us About Modern-Day Russian-Ukrainian Relations

Encyclopedia Britannica's ImageQuest™

For nearly three months, Russia and Ukraine have been fighting a bitter war, the end of which seems nowhere in sight. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have perished and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled their homes. For many people, Ukraine’s president, Alexander Zelensky, has become a political hero and Vladimir Putin has secured his role as the villain of our current era. In only a few months, our geopolitical order has dramatically altered. In turbulent times such as these, many of us ask, “How did this happen?” In order to answer (or at least partially answer) this question, we must look into the past and understand the complex history of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Russia’s and Ukraine’s history have been intertwined for centuries. Both modern-day Russians and Ukrainians are descendants of the Kievan Rus people who were based in Kiev in the Middle Ages. In the late eighteenth century, the Russian Empire officially took over Ukraine. By 1793, Catherine the Great had conquered Ukrainian territory. It was not until the Russian Revolution began in 1917 that Ukraine fought for its independence. Despite the nation’s efforts to gain autonomy, the Soviet Union maintained control of Ukraine. In 1932, the USSR, then under Stalin’s control, began seizing crops from Ukrainians (“The long history of Russia’s efforts to subjugate Ukraine”). This resulted in what is currently known as the Holodomor, a famine from which approximately four million Ukrainians starved to death. Russia continued to maintain control of Ukraine for six decades after the famine, and Ukraine did not become an independent nation until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved (‘Russia-Ukraine Relations: A timeline”).

For centuries, Russia has aimed to keep Ukraine under its control, and Russian leaders have a long history of oppressing Ukrainian citizens. In his decision to invade Ukraine, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin did not break tradition but instead followed the path of his predecessors. Putin, like Catherine the Great and Joseph Stalin, wanted to assure that Ukraine would ally with Russia at all costs. He believes that Ukraine “is an inherent part of our own history, culture, [and] spiritual space,” and he refers to Ukraine as Russia’s “little brother.” While the two nations’ histories often overlap, Putin fails to realize that Ukraine, as historian Anne Applebaum stated, “was a separate entity from the beginning [ . . . ] It always had its own language. It always had its own status inside the USSR.” (“The long history of Russia’s efforts to subjugate Ukraine”). 

In fear of losing influence over Ukraine, Putin annexed Crimea not even twenty-five years after Ukraine gained its independence. After Ukrainian citizens overthrew the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February of 2014, it established a new government which aligned itself more closely with the European Union. In response, Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in Eastern Ukraine which extends into the Black Sea. Although western democracies do not formally recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea, Russia maintains control of this region to this day. (“A history of the tension between Ukraine and Russia”). 

In his invasion of Ukraine this past February, Putin has upheld a Russian policy of aggression and hostility towards Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine was once a part of Russia and shares many of its customs and values, just as the United States shares common values with its mother country, Great Britain. Yet, like the United States, it is still an independent nation with the right to self-determination. In the twenty-first century, Putin still adheres to the Soviet Union’s twentieth century policies. He does not have the courage to break away from the path of his predecessors and grant Ukraine the right to establish itself as an independent nation. The present-day war in Ukraine reveals how one chapter of history never truly closes, but instead bleeds into the present. Sadly, the war in Ukraine is the continuation of Russia’s centuries-long subjugation of a neighboring sovereign state.