As fighting rages on since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, on orders by Russian President Vladimir Putin, many are left to wonder what Russia might want from its neighboring country.
To make some sense of the current conflict, we must look at the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, which have been inextricably linked since the 9th century.
The following nine major milestones shaped the relationship between the two countries today.
9th century — Kyivan Rus
In the late 9th century, a group of Norse men who called themselves “Rus” gained control over what is now Northwest Russia, then traveled down the Dnieper River to form the city of Kyiv, now in Ukraine. The heart of the Rus state is what is now central Ukraine. The Mongol empire rapidly conquered the loose federation of Rus principalities.
1654 — Treaty of Pereiaslav
With the late 14th-century decline of Mongol power, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which later united with Poland) and the Grand Principality of Moscow divided the former Rus lands. By the early 17th century, the Ukrainian lands saw a rise in the Orthodox Christian population, antagonizing Catholic Poland’s religious rules and policies.
They rebelled against the spread of serfdom in 1648. The Cossack rebellion, led by military leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky, became a mass religious and social war against the rule of Poland.
Khmelnytsky sought allies for protection against Portland and accepted “protection” from the Russian tsar, signing the Treaty of Pereiaslav in 1654. Subsequent Russian policies brought about an absorption of Cossack lands.
1876 — The Ems Act
In 1764, Catherine II abolished the last remnants of Ukrainian autonomy. If Cossack officers could provide proof of claims to nobility the Russian empire agreed to allow them to be equal to Russian nobles. Ukrainian peasants, however, eventually were forced into serfdom.
After absorbing their lands, a new interest in Ukrainian history developed. A Ukrainian national revival took place in the westernmost Rus lands.
Tsar Alexander II signed the Ems Act in 1876, banning all publishing in the Ukrainian language. Russia punished “politicized” Ukrainians in the form of arrest or exile while rewarding the “loyal” Ukrainians considered supportive of Russia.
1918 — Ukrainian independence
Following the collapse of the Russian monarchy in 1917, patriotic Ukrainians established the Central Rada (Council), which was made into a parliament. Russia’s Provisional Government gave Ukraine autonomy, the name Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR).
However, the Bolsheviks failed to recognize its independence and invaded Ukraine to force it back into the Soviet state.
The UNR declared its independence in January 1918 and signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers. German authorities then put a Ukrainian monarch in place. However, the UNR couldn’t survive the deadly Russian civil war, with neither party recognizing a sovereign Ukraine.
In the early 1930s, Stalin returned to crush Ukraine, which had developed during the revolution. Four million Ukrainian peasants died in the Russian-engineered famine of 1932-33. The starvation of Ukrainians is known as Holodomor (“murder through starvation”) and is considered a mass genocide. Russia does not acknowledge the genocide.
1945 — The Ukrainian Socialist Republic
After Stalin made an agreement with Hitler over the division of East-Central Europe, Stalin invaded Poland in September 1939. Following the invasion, Stalin incorporated Ukrainian lands into the Ukrainian SSR.
Poland had held these lands after its brief war with the Bolsheviks in 1919. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed Stalin to keep the territories.
The enlarged Ukrainian SSR came to incorporate the territories with the Ukrainian majority under party boss Nikita Khrushchev.
The longstanding aim of Ukrainian patriots was to create a united Ukraine, but Khrushchev pursued a course of assimilation into Russian culture, disregarding Ukrainian autonomy. Armed resistance by Ukrainian nationalists to Soviet rule continued well into the 1950s.
1954 — Crimean Peninsula is transferred
Crimea, Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula, became an autonomous Russian republic in 1921, partly due to its strategic significance. Neither Ukrainians nor Russians held a majority and, in the 1920s, the Soviets overtook the culture of the Crimean Tatars, who had lived on the peninsula since the 13th century.
In 1944 the Red Army took back Crimea from Nazi Germany. Stalin forced the deportation of the Tatars, which historians regard as genocide. With the deportation, Russians became the majority virtually overnight.
1991 — Soviet Union collapses
Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev loosened ideological controls, which resulted in the overwhelming rejection of Soviet communism. Russian and Ukrainian democratic activists ushered in new politics, including free elections and freedom of speech, by working together.
The next Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and his administration sought an independent Russia apart from communism. This allowed Yeltsin and President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine to become natural allies as long as they both continued to reject the Soviet legacy.
The Ukrainian referendum of December 1991 marked the end of the union, and Ukraine, Belarus and Russia initiated their formal dissolution.
A 1997 comprehensive treaty between Ukraine and Russia affirmed the integrity of Ukraine and its border. Additionally, in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Ukraine agreed to surrender its Soviet nuclear arsenal. The treaty expired in March of 2019.
2014 — Crimea is annexed and war in Donbas
A popular revolution in Ukraine removed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and powerful Western democratic forces were brought to power. Russian authorities took advantage of the turmoil and established military control in Crimea.
Russians calculated that the local Russian majority would support the incorporation into Russia. The worldwide community decisively condemned the sham referendum and annexation.
The active phase of the war continued until the fall of 2015, followed by an escalation of fighting in 2017 and 2020. An estimated 14,000 were killed and 1.5 million displaced.
2021 — Russian troop build-up and ultimatum to the West
Late in 2021, Ukrainian and Western intelligence agencies released information about a massive build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border. While Russia insisted it was only conducting military exercises, it also issued an ultimatum to the West demanding written guarantees of no further eastern expansion.
Russia invaded Ukraine in an unprovoked attack on February 24 that continues, with no end in sight.