A brief history of Russia and Ukraine

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meN July 2021 Vladimir Putin published an essay with arguments that he would use again to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He went through 1,000 years to argue that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, bitterly divided by “external forces” with an “anti-Russian” agenda. Mr. Putin’s war is supposed to fix that. There is truth in his claim that Ukraine and Russia are close allies, as the following maps show. What is ridiculous is to say that the separation of two countries is the result of some external conspiracy, which was imposed on the Ukrainians against their wishes.

For Mr. Putin the source of Russian-Ukrainian identity is Kyivan Rus, a confederation of princes that lasted from the late 9th to the middle of the 13th century (see map 1). Its center was Kyiv, now the capital of Ukraine. Its rulers were the Rus Vikings, Vikings who gradually established leadership of the region and joined local Slavic tribes. (“Rus” is the origin of the word “Russia”) When it comes to political and cultural traditions, Kyivan Rus is actually the cradle of Russia and Ukraine, as well as the country known as Belarus. now. It was a reformed European civilization with roots in the Byzantine empire and its Orthodox Christian religion.

In the middle of the 11th century, however, Kyivan Rus began to separate into semi-independent principalities (see map 2). These included Galicia-Volhynia, which covered parts of present-day Ukraine and Belarus, Novgorod in present-day northwestern Russia, and Vladimir-Suzdal, in western Russia. In 1240 the Mongol empire invaded Kyiv, finally destroying what was left of Kyivan Rus as a single entity.

When the Mongol empire and its successors began to decline in the 143rd century, rival polities arose to fill the void. In the eastern part of the region eventually gathered power in Moscow, leading to the creation of the Principality of Muscovy. To the west, what became the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania merged in 1569 to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

In 1648 the Cossacks, settlers on the steppe who joined together into disciplined military units, led a rebellion against the commonwealth. This led to the creation of their own state, the Hetmanate (see map 3). Many Ukrainians look back to the Hetmanate as the source of their identity as an independent state. Indeed, the original name of the Cossack lands was “Ukraine”, a Slavic word meaning “border”.

The early Cossack warriors practiced a limited form of democracy, which is different from the autocratic system of Muscovy. That Hetmanate that came into being as an act against neighboring powers is more than a history that suits Ukrainians today. In the 19th century, people’s memory of the state of the Cossacks helped to promote the birth of a recognizable form of Ukrainian cultural nationalism.

But the Cossack state had a hard time. In 1654, under threat from the Poles as well as the Ottomans to the south, the Cossack leaders pledged allegiance to the tsar of Muscovy. A few decades later an intellectual in Kyiv wrote what is believed to be one of the oldest texts explaining the foundation of the “Slavo-Rossian” nation. They hoped to make the tsar protect them, not only because of their common history and Orthodox faith, but also in the name of ethno-national unity.

By the end of the 17th century, the territory of the Hetmanate was divided into two: Muscovy took control of the eastern bank of the Dnieper river, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took the western part. In 1708 Ivan Mazepa, a Cossack leader, led a failed rebellion against Tsar Peter the Great. (Russia considers Mazepa a traitor; in Ukraine he is a hero.) Peter went on to become Russia’s first emperor in 1721.

At the end of the 18th century the Russian empire broke up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with the help of Austria and Prussia. The Russians also seized land from what is now southern Ukraine from the Ottomans. This included Crimea, which was annexed to Russia by Catherine the Great in 1783. She was in charge of the last frontier of the Cossack Hetmanate.

On the eve of the first world war, the Russian empire stretched from the Sea of ​​Japan to the Baltic (see map 4).

In 1917, weakened by the war, Russia experienced two revolutions. The first destroyed the Romanov dynasty. The second was the seizure of power by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks. After the first revolution officials in Kyiv established the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR), a state in union with Russia. After the second, the UPR declare independence. Finally Lenin took the UPR by force. But the strength of the Ukrainian national identity forced him to create a Ukrainian socialist republic, and to allow him to use the Ukrainian language. In 1922 Ukraine became one of the four founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – or the Soviet Union.

The territory of ​​Ukraine expanded during the Soviet era. Under the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, signed in 1939, the two countries carved up eastern Europe. In the fighting that followed, what had been parts of Poland settled by Ukrainians were added to Soviet Ukraine. In 1954 the Soviet Union transferred the administration of Crimea from Soviet Russia to Ukraine.

But Ukraine also suffered greatly. In the 1930s Josef Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization of agriculture led to the so-called famine in Ukraine Holodomor, which killed millions of people. In the middle of the 20th century, Ukraine found itself part of what Yale historian Timothy Snyder called the “bloodlands”: an area where Hitler and Stalin, though enemies, gave each other room for crimes. against the local people. Cooperation between some Ukrainian nationalists and the Nazis during the war has been brought up by Mr Putin as evidence for his claim that today’s Ukraine is run by fascists. In 1986, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The damage, and the subsequent cover-up, increased Ukrainian anger towards the Kremlin.

In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, set out to reform the Soviet Union through openness and reform—glasnost and perestroika. But the people of Eastern Europe, who were controlled by the Soviets through the framework of the Warsaw Pact, took the opportunity to demand their freedom. In 1991 the Soviet Union itself collapsed, giving independence to its 15 regional republics (see map 6). Mr Putin has called it the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.

Ukraine suddenly became home to the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. In 1994 they agreed to reform in exchange for security guarantees from America, Britain and the Russian Federation. (Ukraine used this agreement, known as the Budapest memorandum, to ask America and Britain for support on the eve of an attack on Russia in 2022.)

In 2004-05 the “Orange Revolution” marked the democratic aspirations of Ukraine. Thousands protested against a tight presidential election that saw a pro-Russian candidate win. Ukraine’s democratic unraveling was even more visible during the “Maidan uprising” of 2013-14. This was in response to Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, who was a friend of Russia, refusing to sign an association agreement (a comprehensive free trade agreement) with the European Union. Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets; Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia. The new government of Ukraine signed the agreement, much to Mr Putin’s dismay.

His response to the Maidan marked Russia’s first military incursion into independent Ukraine. In 2014 the Kremlin annexed Crimea illegally and sent troops into the Donbas, a predominantly Russian region in eastern Ukraine (see map 7). Russian separatist agents – led by Russian intelligence officers – declared a “people’s republic” in Donetsk and Luhansk. By December 2021, just before a full-scale Russian offensive in February 2022, the conflict had killed more than 14,000 people. The war continues.

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