There is nothing new about the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainians have been trying to disentangle themselves from Russia for more than a century, but it has always refused to let go.


At the beginning of the 20th century, today’s Ukraine was split between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. The Russian part was officially known in Moscow as “Little Russia”, and was subjected to a series of repressive measures to keep it that way. When Ukrainians began agitating for greater autonomy in 1906, Tsar Nicholas II reacted by arresting Ukrainian activists.

In the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Ukrainian nationalists tried again: they announced their independence, and raised an army to try to protect it. In the civil, ethnic and class wars that followed, the new Ukrainian army lost out on both sides. In the west, they lost to the Poles, who annexed large parts of the regions of Volhynia and Galicia. In the east, they lost to the Bolsheviks, who forced the bulk of Ukraine to join the Soviet Union. On paper, Ukraine was now an autonomous republic, but it was still controlled centrally from Moscow. In the 1930s, it was subjected to both Stalinist terror and the Holodomor, a man-made famine that resulted in millions of deaths.

Ukraine’s next opportunity to break away from Russia came during the Second World War. After the German invasion in 1941, some Ukrainian nationalist groups allied themselves with the Nazis in the mistaken hope that it might help them achieve independence. Some of these groups actively assisted with the Holocaust, before turning their attention to ethnically cleansing the Polish minorities in the western borderlands. As a consequence, the Soviets were able to paint all Ukrainian partisans as fascists, regardless of their true politics. Partisans continued to resist Soviet domination for the next decade.

When the dust finally settled in the mid-1950s, much had changed. Stalin had moved the borders, forcing Poland to give up a large amount of its territory to Ukraine, but this was not so much of a gift to Ukraine as a land-grab for the Soviet Union as a whole. To dispel some of the ethnic tensions, a massive population exchange had taken place between Poland and Ukraine – but, again, this was not for Ukraine’s benefit, but simply a way to impose Soviet control. In the years that followed, Russian speakers were encouraged to migrate to Ukraine to promote greater integration into the Soviet project. It is these Russian-speaking minorities that are at the heart of today’s crisis.

Ukraine did not manage to win independence until the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Once again, a moment of chaos provided the opportunity. In August 1991, while the Soviets were distracted by an attempted military coup and their own impending collapse, Ukraine unilaterally announced its independence. This was quickly ratified in a popular referendum three months later.

Russian-Ukrainian relations have never been the same since. Russian nationalists, including president Vladimir Putin, have always felt betrayed by Ukraine, which they still regard as “Little Russia”. Putin has often claimed that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, and accused Ukrainian leaders of being little more than foreign puppets.

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Just as Ukraine capitalised on Russian turmoil in the 1990s, Putin has also tried to capitalise on Ukrainian turmoil. In 2014, when pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych was ousted during protests about the government’s decision to suspend signing an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the EU, Putin reacted by marching into Crimea and annexing it. Russia also stoked anti-Ukrainian sentiment in two of Ukraine’s easternmost provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, and provided military support to Russian separatists there. Fighting has continued in these regions ever since.

The current crisis is much worse than that of 2014. Despite Putin’s pretence that his full-scale military assault on Ukraine is merely a “peace-keeping mission” designed to protect Russian-speaking minorities in Luhansk and Donetsk from Ukrainian “aggression”, the reality is very different: it is part of a long-term plan to restore Russian control over territory it lost after the end of the Cold War.

What is happening in Ukraine today sets a dangerous precedent. The Baltic States were also once a part of Greater Russia, whose populations also include large Russian minorities. If the same kind of aggression is reproduced against these countries – which, unlike Ukraine, are members of Nato – the implications for the whole of Europe could be utterly devastating.


Keith Lowe is a writer and historian whose books include Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (St Martin’s Press, 2012)