Russia-Ukraine crisis: 9 milestone moments in history that explain today’s invasion
Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the orders of Russian president Vladimir Putin. To make sense of the current conflict we must understand the history of the relationship between the two inextricably linked countries, which dates to at least the 9th century
Why is Ukraine being invaded, and what might Russia want from its neighbouring country? Here, Professor Serhy Yekelchyk, an expert in Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian relations, explains nine milestone moments in the history of Ukraine and Russia…
Russia and Ukraine have been embroiled in conflict for the past eight years – in 2014, Russia took advantage of political turmoil in the neighbouring country to seize and establish military control over Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula. An ensuing war – between Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed rebels and Russian troops in Ukraine’s two eastern regions collectively known as the Donbas – never formally ended, and to date an estimated 14,000 people have been killed and an estimated 1.5 million displaced.
A full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is currently underway, following a huge build-up of troops along the Ukrainian border. Russia’s president Putin denied planning an invasion during that troop build-up. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a tense 13-day standoff between the US and the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, which historian Mark White described as the most dangerous confrontation in human history.
In January, Russian officials issued an ultimatum to the west demanding written guarantees against Nato’s further eastern expansion. President Putin wants Ukraine and other former Soviet states to be banned from ever becoming members of the organisation.
With Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, Putin has started what could be the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War, says the EU.
Here, to put today’s Russia-Ukraine crisis into context, historian Serhy Yekelchyk charts nine milestone moments in the history of the relationship between the two countries…
9th century: Kyivan Rus
At some point in the late 9th century, a group of Norsemen calling themselves Rus (pronounced “Roos”) established control over the East Slavic communities in what is now Northwest Russia, then moved down the Dnieper River to make the city of Kyiv, in what is now Ukraine, their capital. Historians call this large medieval state Kyivan Rus.
The Norse elite soon assimilated into the local Slavic population, which began to refer to itself as the people of Rus, or Rusyns. The heart of the Rus state was present-day central Ukraine; Moscow was established in the 12th century in what was then a far-flung northeastern frontier. In 988, Grand Prince Volodimer (‘Volodymyr’ in Ukranian, ‘Vladimir’ in Russian), who died in 1015, accepted Christianity from Byzantium. Few Rusyns read or spoke the literary language of the church and state, Old Church Slavonic. Instead, they spoke a host of East Slavic dialects from which the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian languages would eventually develop.
In the mid-13th century, the loose federation of Rus principalities was easily conquered by the Mongol empire, but Russia and Ukraine still contest the glorious legacy of medieval Rus.
A brief history of Ukraine
Where is Ukraine?Ukraine is located in eastern Europe between Russia and the EU/Nato member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Ukraine also has a borders with Belarus in the north and Moldova to the south. Crucially, Ukraine shares a border with Russia.
Is Ukraine part of Russia?Ukraine and Russia are two independent countries, which emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But as a former Soviet republic, Ukraine has deep social, cultural, and economic ties with Russia.
What language is spoken in Ukraine?Ukrainian is the only state language of independent Ukraine. Nevertheless, until recently most urban centres and industrial areas were predominantly Russophone, except for the solidly Ukrainian-speaking westernmost regions. This began changing in the 2000s, with new generations going through the Ukrainian school system. Russian aggression and the subsequent introduction of Ukrainian language legislation have accelerated the switch to Ukrainian in all spheres of life.
Does Russia occupy Ukraine?The overwhelming majority of the world considers Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 an unlawful occupation. Russia’s seizure of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that a European state annexed the territory of another. Although the Russian government denies it, Russian “volunteers” and regular troops are also present in the two self-proclaimed pro-Russian “people’s republics” in the Donbas region near the Russian border.
1654: Treaty of Pereiaslav (aka the Pereyaslav Agreement)
Exploiting the late 14th-century decline of Mongol power, the Grand Principality of Moscow and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the latter eventually uniting with Poland) divided the former Rus lands. A new social group of Ukrainian Cossacks developed on the southern frontier of Poland, guarding it against Crimean Tatar raids. The Ukrainian Cossacks were a large group of free people, many of them runaway peasant serfs, who guarded the southern steppe border of Poland against Turkish and Tatar raids.
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The concept of ‘Ukraine’ already existed, but locals continued calling themselves ‘Rusyns’, while referring to the future Russians as ‘Muscovites’. By the early 17th century, the Orthodox Christian population of the Ukrainian lands had become antagonised by Catholic Poland’s religious policies and the spread of serfdom – a form of slavery in which peasants were bound to the land and sold with it. A 1648 Cossack rebellion led by Hetman (military leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky (c1595–1657) became a mass social and religious war against Polish rule, resulting in the creation of the Hetmanate, a Cossack polity nominally autonomous under the Polish king but independent in fact.
Searching for allies against Poland, Khmelnytsky accepted the “protection” of the Orthodox Russian tsar in the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav. The exact meaning of “protection” continues to be debated today, but subsequent Russian policies effected the absorption of the Cossack lands, especially after Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s (c1639–1709) failed attempt in 1709 to break with Moscow.
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Russia-Ukraine war: events in context
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- “Russia has always refused to let Ukraine go”: Keith Lowe on the long roots of today’s crisis
- Nato, Russia, and the history of the post-WW2 tensions
- “The language, tactics, and even the weapons of the Russia-Ukraine war hark back to the 1940s,” writes Peter Caddick-Adams
- What is a Molotov cocktail?
- “We missed a precious window”: why did America and Russia squander an opportunity for peace in the 1990s?
- Podcast: Ukraine – the WW2 roots of today's conflict
- Stalin’s famine: a brief history of the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine
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1876: The Ems Act
In 1764, Catherine II (1729–96) abolished the Hetmanate to erase the last remnants of Ukrainian autonomy, and the Russian army destroyed the Cossack stronghold on the Dnieper. Cossack officers could make claims to noble status – the empire agreed to accept them as equal to Russian nobles as long as they could provide the relevant paperwork – but Ukrainian peasants eventually became enserfed.
During the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, Catherine acquired a large stretch of Ukrainian lands that Poland had retained after 1654. As the institutional legacy of the Hetmanate was being dismantled, new interest in Ukrainian history and folklore developed among intellectuals under the influence of pan-European Romanticism. During the 1840s, Ukraine’s national bard, Taras Shevchenko (1814–61), published his first poems in Ukrainian and subsequently co-founded a secret political society that discussed a free Slavic federation and the abolition of serfdom.
The Ukrainian national revival was also underway in the westernmost Rus lands, which passed from Poland to the Austrian Empire. Worried Russian authorities responded in 1863 by banning the publication of educational literature written in the Ukrainian language. In 1876, Tsar Alexander II (1818–81), while holidaying at the bathing resort of Bad Ems in Germany, signed the Ems Act, which banned all publishing in the Ukrainian language. The empire continued to promote assimilation to Russian culture by rewarding those “loyal” Ukrainians it considered to constitute the ‘Little Russian tribe’ of the greater Russian people, while simultaneously discriminating against politicised Ukrainians in the form of lost jobs, arrest, and exile.. Ukrainian patriots now began using ‘Ukrainians’ as an ethnic designation to signify their distinctness from Russians.
1918: Ukrainian independence
With the collapse of the Russian monarchy in 1917 under the strain of war and political discord, patriotic Ukrainians established their coordinating body, the Central Rada (Council), which soon developed into a revolutionary parliament. The Russian Provisional Government granted Ukraine autonomy under the name of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), but the Bolsheviks subsequently refused to recognise it and invaded Ukraine in order to include it in the Soviet state.
The UNR declared full independence in January 1918 and signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers in Brest before the Bolsheviks did the same. The German authorities installed a Ukrainian monarch under the historic title of hetman, but the UNR returned to power after the end of the First World War and proclaimed unification with the Ukrainian lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The UNR could not survive the titanic clash between the Russian Reds and Whites during the Russian civil war (1917–22), as neither power recognised Ukrainian sovereignty, but the precedent of Ukrainian independence forced the Bolsheviks to create a Soviet Ukrainian Republic which in 1922 became a founding member of the Soviet Union.
However, in the early 1930s Stalin returned to the unfinished task of crushing the Ukrainian political nation, which developed during the Revolution. Some 4 million Ukrainian peasants perished in the state-engineered famine of 1932–33, which in Ukraine is known as the Holodomor (“murder through starvation”) and considered a genocide – an interpretation increasingly accepted worldwide, but which Russia rejects. Stalin also destroyed the Ukrainian cultural elite and began promoting the tsarist notion of Ukrainians as the Russians’ “younger brother.”
Listen: Historical author Helen Rappaport explains why the last Russian tsar and his family met a violent end in 1918 and considers whether Britain could have saved the Romanovs from their fate
1945: The enlarged Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
Following up on his agreement with Hitler on the division of East-Central Europe between them, Stalin invaded Poland in September 1939 and incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR the Ukrainian lands that Poland had kept after its brief war with the Bolsheviks in 1919, a stalemate which ended Lenin’s dream of the Red cavalry bringing the revolution to Europe. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt allowed Stalin to keep these territories. The Soviets also pressured Czechoslovakia into giving up its “Rusyn” lands.
The resulting enlarged Ukrainian SSR came to incorporate nearly all the territories with an ethnic Ukrainian majority under its energetic party boss Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). Khrushchev thereby achieved a longstanding aim of Ukrainian patriots to create a united Ukraine, but pursued a course of cultural assimilation into Russia rather than promoting Ukrainian autonomy. Stubborn armed resistance to Soviet rule by Ukrainian nationalists in the formerly Polish territories continued into the 1950s.
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1954: The transfer of the Crimean Peninsula
Although attached by land only to Ukraine, Crimea (Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula) became an autonomous republic within Russia in 1921, partly because of the peninsula’s strategic significance. Neither Russians nor Ukrainians constituted a majority there, and in the 1920s the Soviets cultivated the culture of the Crimean Tatars, who had lived on the peninsula since the 13th century and whose Crimean Khanate the Russian Empire conquered in 1783, to impress the Western colonies and newly independent states in Asia with their seemingly benevolent policies.
When the Red Army retook Crimea from Nazi Germany in 1944, however, Stalin ordered a forced deportation of the Tatars, which many historians consider genocidal. As a result of this deportation, ethnic Russians became a numerical majority virtually overnight. The war had left the peninsula’s economy and cities in ruins. To mark the 300 years since Pereiaslav, Khrushchev organised the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR, which was to rebuild it and supply it with fresh water through a major channel to be constructed. He also hoped to gratify the Ukrainian bureaucrats comprising his power base and, perhaps, to add a culturally Russian counterweight to the recently incorporated nationalistic western regions.
Listen: Keith Lowe explains the ways in which today’s conflict between Russia and Ukraine can be traced back to the Second World War and decisions made in the years that followed
1991: The collapse of the Soviet Union
When Mikhail Gorbachev’s (1931–) loosening of ideological controls resulted in the mass rejection of Soviet communism, Ukrainian and Russian democratic activists worked together to usher in the new politics, such as freedom of speech and free elections. Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s (1931–2007) administration did not try to preserve the Soviet federation but, rather, sought an independent Russia. This made Yeltsin a natural ally of President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine (1934–), but only as long as both rejected the Soviet legacy.
The Ukrainian referendum in December 1991 spelled the end of the union, and Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus initiated its formal dissolution. However, with economic reforms stalling in the early 1990s, Yeltsin and other Russian figures increasingly appealed to domestic nationalists nostalgic for the Soviet empire by criticising Ukrainian cultural policies and questioning the transfer of Crimea.
In 1997, a comprehensive treaty between Russia and Ukraine affirmed the integrity of the Ukrainian borders – something that Russia and the Western nuclear powers also guaranteed in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, when Ukraine agreed to surrender its Soviet-made nuclear arsenal. This treaty expired on 31 March 2019.
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What is Nato?The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) was created on the signing by 12 founder members of the document known as the Washington Treaty on 4 April 1949. These members included the UK, Canada and the US, although Nato was meant to encourage wider collective action.
The 14 articles of the treaty define the alliance’s essential purpose: to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.
Read more about the history of Nato here
2014: The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas
When a popular revolution in Ukraine removed the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and brought to power pro-Western democratic forces – an act approved by the parliament and confirmed by snap presidential elections – the Russian authorities took advantage of the turmoil to establish military control over Crimea. They calculated that the local Russian majority would support the peninsula’s incorporation into Russia, attracted by higher salaries and better career options without the need to study Ukrainian. But the sham referendum on joining Russia produced implausible results, and the world community, aside from a few pro-Russian outliers like North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, decisively condemned the annexation.
Facing punitive western sanctions, Russian authorities in Crimea began to repress local Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists. Having ensured its control over Crimea, Russia also fomented rebellions in other southeastern Ukrainian provinces, where the dominant regional parties have long cultivated pro-Russian attitudes. But this strategy only worked in the Donbas, a depressed industrial region with a Russian-speaking majority. When Ukrainian troops tried to re-establish control, President Putin’s administration covertly sent regular army units to support the pro-Russian separatists and Russian “volunteers.”
The active phase of the war lasted until the fall of 2015, with renewed escalation in 2017 and early 2020, resulting in an estimated human cost of 14,000 killed and an estimated 1.5 million displaced.
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Ukraine’s position in the world
Is Ukraine a US ally?Since the mid-1990s Ukraine has been an important strategic partner of the US outside of the Nato framework, this status having been formalised in the US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership (2008; a new one was signed in 2021). The current charter affirms the American commitment to enhancing Ukraine’s security in “countering Russian aggression”, but the specific measures listed in it focus on US assistance in reforming the Ukrainian army and data-sharing. No existing treaties require the US to defend Ukraine in case of war.
Are there US and British troops stationed in Ukraine?Several hundred US, Canadian, British, and other European military instructors are training Ukrainian army personnel, primarily in defensive and de-mining techniques at the Yavoriv training field near the Polish border – the opposite end of the country from the conflict zone.
Would US or British troops become involved in military action if a war broke out?Almost certainly not, because nobody wants to give Russia a pretext for hostilities against the west. Even during the Cold War, the opposing nuclear powers were careful not to fight each other directly, but always through proxies, such as pro-communist Vietnamese. There is also no need for western troops’ involvement because Ukraine has a relatively large and battle-hardened army. The whole reason for selecting the Yavoriv Training Field as the base of the US, British, and other western instructors was its proximity to the Polish border, which is only 20km away. It is expected that the western instructors would be evacuated to Poland in case of war, although they might come back once the front line stabilised.
Is Ukraine going to join Nato?The aim of joining Nato is now enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution, and its armed forces are gradually transitioning to Nato standards, but in 2008, the last time that Nato members discussed the idea of Ukraine’s accession, Germany and France blocked it so as not to provoke Russia. This may change with President Putin’s current gamble.
2021: The build-up of Russian troops and an ultimatum to the West
The war in the Donbas never formally ended; low-intensity fire is a daily reality, and casualties are reported every week. Western intermediaries helped to de-escalate military action in 2015 by holding summits in the ‘Normandy Format’ (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine). The Minsk Protocol of 2015, signed during the summit in the Belarusian capital, charted a path to a peaceful resolution, but it remains blocked because certain steps are unacceptable either to Ukraine (a proposal to allow local elections to take place in the two “people’s republics” despite the presence of Russian troops there without having established Ukraine’s control over its border with Russia) or to Russia (acknowledging the presence of its troops and withdrawing them).
Late in 2021, Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies released information about a massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border and the preparation of infrastructure for a possible invasion. Russian officials insisted that these preparations were merely military exercises, but they also issued an ultimatum to the west demanding written guarantees against Nato’s further eastern expansion; restrictions on the types of weapons placed in Nato member countries who have joined the alliance since 1997; and a halt to any Nato military cooperation with other post-Soviet states (notably, Ukraine and Georgia). Meanwhile, the Russian media stoked fears about an imminent Nato attack on Russia and/or Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas.
Serhy Yekelchyk is professor of history and Germanic & Slavic studies at the University of Victoria. He is an expert in Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian relations and the author of Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know (OUP, 2020)
This article was first published in January 2022 and has since been updated