In the intricate tapestry of international relations, few threads are as deeply intertwined and consequential as the history between Russia and Ukraine. Spanning centuries, their relationship has oscillated between cooperation and conflict, shaped by historical legacies, cultural ties, and shifting geopolitical ambitions. From the days of the Kievan Rus’ to the complex modern era, the two nations have shared more than just borders; they’ve shared economies, resources, and aspirations. This article delves into the historical trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine relationship, tracing its evolution through various epochs and highlighting the interplay of economic interests, political manoeuvring, and cultural bonds. As we traverse this intricate historical landscape, we also examine how the ongoing war in Ukraine serves as both a manifestation and a catalyst of Russia’s strategic objectives, offering insight into the motivations that drive the current conflict and shape the broader geopolitical dynamics of the region.
A Time Travel of Thousand Years into Russia-Ukraine Relationship
The histories of these two nations are interwoven with a rich tapestry that stretches back to the 9th century. During this epoch, they were both integral parts of the Kievan Rus’, a medieval state that nurtured the roots of both Russian and Ukrainian cultures. However, the 13th century marked a significant turning point when the Kievan Rus’ succumbed to the Mongol invasion, leading to a parting of ways. Despite this divergence, their destinies remained closely linked.
Ukraine’s alignment with Russia in 1654 was forged amidst complex socio-political circumstances. It was a response to the yearning of Ukrainians for greater independence, a desire to extricate themselves from the dominance of Poland. Toward the end of the 16th century, the Cossacks, a group of valiant fighters, sought aid from the Russian Tsar in their struggle against Polish rulers. In the early 17th century, Ukrainian elites expressed their aspiration to become a part of Russia.
The year 1648 marked a pivotal moment when a resolute leader named Bogdan Khmelnitsky led a significant rebellion against the Ukrainian aristocracy, once again turning to the Russian Tsar for support. Although they achieved victory in some battles and secured a treaty that granted them a measure of autonomy, the year 1651 brought hardships, culminating in a significant defeat.
In 1653, they once again appealed to Russia for assistance and expressed their desire to be absorbed into the Russian fold. Finally, in 1654, a momentous meeting sealed their decision to unite with Russia. Negotiations with the Russian Tsar yielded agreement, signifying a landmark occasion when the Left-Bank of Ukraine, situated along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, was reabsorbed into Russia—an enduring chapter in their shared history.
The epoch wherein Ukraine was incorporated into the embrace of the Soviet Union, spanning from 1922 to 1991, bore witness to profound transformations and formidable tribulations. In the crucible of this era, Ukraine grappled with an array of political, social, and economic upheavals, among them the coercive collectivization of agriculture and the harrowing spectre of the Holodomor famine in the 1930s. The figure of Vladimir Lenin, the paramount Soviet leader, exerted an indelible influence upon the canvas of early 20th-century Ukraine, propelled by a confluence of ideological convictions and strategic imperatives.
Throughout the crucible of World War II, Ukraine emerged as a significant theatre of conflict, bearing witness to both pivotal battles and grievous atrocities. In 1941, the relentless march of Nazi Germany saw the country fall under its dominion, setting the stage for ferocious confrontations between Axis and Allied forces. Ukrainians, though initially regarding the Nazis as potential liberators from the yoke of Soviet rule, were soon confronted with the stark brutality and violence of the German occupation, with minority groups subjected to heinous acts of extermination.
In the post-war aftermath, the spectre of Soviet annexation brought forth a fresh set of challenges, with those who had valiantly fought against the Nazis now becoming targets of persecution. The indelible legacy of World War II casts a long shadow upon Ukraine’s collective psyche, marked by a sombre interplay of suffering and regrettable choices.
During the era of Khrushchev, policies geared towards fostering economic growth ushered in an improved standard of living for the populace, all the while keeping the Ukrainian collective psyche under the aegis of a semblance of peace. The 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was motivated by ambitions to fortify Soviet ties, enhance geopolitical positioning, and stimulate economic prosperity.
Under the aegis of Gorbachev, Ukraine underwent a profound transformation thanks to sweeping reforms such as perestroika and glasnost. These reforms paved the way for discussions surrounding Ukraine’s national identity and language rights within the larger framework of the collective capitalist world. Narratives of economic strife and escalating inflation weighed heavily on the ordinary citizens, concurrently giving rise to debates regarding nuclear disarmament.
Exploiting the vulnerabilities borne from the post-World War II collective psyche of Ukrainians, the capitalist West ushered in a new political class, staunch advocates of autonomy and national self-determination. This, in turn, led to the genesis of movements championing Western-style democracy and far-reaching reforms.
Upon its emancipation from the Soviet Union in the annus mirabilis of 1991, Ukraine embarked upon a tumultuous journey marked by political instability and the pernicious specter of corruption. The noble aspirations of fostering inclusive governance and nurturing independent institutions foundered amidst the turbulent seas of post-Soviet reality.
In the early throes of this newfound independence, the crucible of the 1994 presidential elections bore witness to a watershed moment, where the ballot was deemed free and fair. This epoch saw the nascent growth of political parties and the emergence of independent institutions. However, the echoes of discord reverberated through the nation, as evidenced by the 2004 Orange Revolution, laying bare the chasms within the nation and the constraints of its political processes.
The Herculean task of transitioning away from the economic shackles of Soviet dependency presented yet another formidable obstacle. Integration with the capitalist West birthed the twin spectres of hyperinflation and rampant unemployment, which plagued the nation’s economy. In response, Ukraine was compelled to undertake the painful path of price liberalization and privatization. This pragmatic shift, while briefly affording a veneer of stability and growth, exacted a heavy toll by eroding domestic production capacity.
The era of Viktor Yanukovych’s government, recognising the peril of aligning with Western economic policies, sought to steer Ukraine closer to Russia. This geopolitical manoeuvre was met with resistance, as Western-engineered forces orchestrated a colour revolution in late 2013, enlisting pro-Western elements within Ukraine. The ensuing protests, renowned as the Euromaidan, culminated in Yanukovych’s ouster and set the stage for the protracted conflict that would come to be known as the war in Ukraine.
Subsequent to these events, Russia embarked upon the reunification of Crimea, an enterprise that commenced with the surreptitious arrival of the enigmatic “little green men,” who assumed control of pivotal installations. A subsequent referendum, swaying towards affiliation with Russia, unfolded amidst global condemnation and punitive sanctions. Ukraine’s military endeavour to reclaim Crimea ended in futility, casting a long shadow of estrangement and animosity between Ukraine and Russia.
This reunification served as the crucible that ignited the simmering tensions, culminating in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russian-backed separatists unilaterally proclaimed their independence, further exacerbating the fraught situation. Despite the intermittent advent of ceasefires and peace accords, the conflagration in the Donbass persisted, punctuated by sporadic eruptions of violence.
In the era of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, Ukraine found itself ensnared in both economic upheaval and the relentless Donbass conflict. His tenure was characterised by a zealous commitment to anti-corruption initiatives and a pro-European foreign policy orientation. However, these noble pursuits unfolded against a backdrop of political turbulence and a waning popularity.
Nevertheless, his presidency bore fruit in the form of notable accomplishments, including the securing of a free trade agreement with the European Union and the negotiation of several ceasefires. The denouement of Poroshenko’s term ushered in the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as his successor, marking a turning point in Ukrainian politics.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a luminary of the Ukrainian entertainment sphere, distinguished himself through his comedic performances and cinematic contributions, earning renown not only within Ukraine but across the expanse of former Soviet Union nations. However, in a surprising turn of events in 2018, Zelensky veered into the realm of politics, announcing his candidacy for the Ukrainian presidency. His audacious bid hinged upon his portrayal of a fictional president in the television series “Servant of the People.”
In a remarkable political ascent, Zelensky, despite his dearth of prior political experience, managed to galvanize widespread support. This surge in popularity culminated in his resounding victory in the presidential election of April 2019, wherein he garnered an impressive mandate with over 70% of the vote. His ascendancy, perceived by Western powers as a harbinger of a seismic geopolitical shift towards the West and a repudiation of Ukraine’s established political order, signified a renewed emphasis on the cherished ideals of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and a fervent desire for closer ties with the Western world.
However, the promises of the Minsk agreement, inked in 2015 to address the protracted conflict in Eastern Ukraine, began to unravel during Zelensky’s presidency. Violations of the agreement’s provisions, a breakdown of trust between the involved parties, and the encroaching spectre of a broader geopolitical proxy war between Russia and the West on Ukrainian soil cast a shadow of uncertainty over the region.
Russia’s Security Concerns
From time immemorial, the Russian establishment has regarded Ukraine as an integral component of its sphere of political liberty, nurturing a profound vested interest in fostering enduring political, economic, and cultural bonds with its neighbouring nation. However, the spectre of Ukraine’s potential alignment with NATO, a military alliance historically at odds with Russia, casts a looming shadow over this time-honoured affiliation. Such a development might be perceived as a military incursion into Russia’s age-old domain of national security, thereby imperilling the longstanding historical connection between the two.
The eastward expansion of NATO following the conclusion of the Cold War has long been a source of profound sensitivity for Russia. It was evident from the outset that NATO’s intentions included encircling and constraining Russia’s regional influence. Should Ukraine align itself with NATO, it would entail the installation of Western military capabilities and infrastructure in closer proximity to Russia’s borders, a development fraught with critical security implications. Those well-versed in security affairs would readily discern that a NATO presence in Ukraine could serve as a platform for intelligence gathering, military operations, and the potential escalation of conflicts involving Russia. Thus, Russia’s strategic imperative is to preserve its influence over Ukraine, forming part of its broader strategy to safeguard its security interests within the region.
Ukraine occupies a pivotal role as a conduit for Russian energy exports to Europe, and it encompasses the strategically significant Crimean Peninsula, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Surrendering influence over Ukraine to Western powers through NATO membership could imperil Russia’s strategic positioning and potentially curtail its access to vital resources and maritime trade routes. In response, Russia has undertaken a special military operation within Ukraine, employing a blend of military force, strategic manoeuvring, and geopolitical calculations to forestall Ukraine’s integration into NATO.
Furthermore, the enduring conflict and resultant uncertainty stemming from Russia’s actions have rendered Ukraine a less appealing prospect for NATO membership. Even within some NATO member states, there may exist reservations about admitting a nation embroiled in an active military conflict replete with territorial disputes. The instability engendered by the ongoing conflict has also diverted resources away from the essential reforms and preparations required for NATO accession.
The Russian military has employed a range of methods to target Ukraine’s military infrastructure, deploying airstrikes, artillery barrages, and missiles with relentless precision. These calculated assaults have exacted a substantial toll upon Ukraine’s armed forces, significantly compromising their ability to safeguard the nation. The debilitating effect on Ukraine’s military not only imperils its sovereignty but also complicates its aspiration to join NATO. Membership in the alliance necessitates a certain threshold of military capability, an attainment that becomes increasingly elusive as Ukraine’s military strength wanes.
Russia’s imperatives include the demand that Ukraine assume a neutral foreign policy stance, entailing an avowal to eschew participation in military alliances or the hosting of foreign troops on its sovereign soil. Moreover, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region can be construed as integral components of a broader Russian strategy, one aimed at reasserting its influence within the evolving landscape of a multipolar world. Concurrently, this serves as a means to thwart Ukraine’s ambitions of NATO membership.
From a security and strategic vantage point, the Ukrainian conflict underscores Russia’s military capacity to project power along its borders. This newfound assertiveness gives pause to nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom, prompting a more cautious approach when confronting Russia’s interests in diverse regions like the Middle East, Africa, and the Arctic. Furthermore, the episode delivers a clear and unequivocal message: when faced with Russia’s threat of military intervention, nations may opt for de-escalation rather than risking a protracted confrontation.
Counteracting Western Sanctions
Since the inception of the political crisis in Ukraine, orchestrated in accordance with NATO’s designs, the Western powers initiated measures to sequester Russia from the economic systems governed by the West. This compelled Russia to embark on a quest for alternative strategies to mitigate the ensuing repercussions.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, perceived as a strategic gambit by Russia, serves as a poignant manifestation of its enduring significance on the global stage. By positioning itself as a central protagonist in the unfolding drama, Russia seeks to underscore its pivotal role, not only within regional power dynamics but also within the broader panorama of international politics. In so doing, it reaffirms its presence and ambitions, even as it grapples with increasing isolation from the diplomatic echelons of the Western world.
Furthermore, the war has garnered substantial support from a significant segment of the Russian populace, their fervor stoked by a profound sense of historical and national pride. For many Russians, the vision of their country’s greatness harks back to the zenith of the Soviet Union, an era when it wielded formidable influence and occupied a preeminent place upon the global stage. The yearning to restore Russia’s former glory is intricately interwoven with a nostalgia for the superpower status it once held. Additionally, President Vladimir Putin has adroitly harnessed the war as a means to consolidate his domestic authority. By portraying himself as a resolute leader, unflinchingly willing to employ force in defense of Russia’s interests, Putin has successfully bolstered his popularity.
The conflagration in Ukraine has not only disrupted preexisting energy interests but has also created opportunities for Russian enterprises to exploit the prevailing chaos. In territories under the sway of Russian armed forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, reports abound of economic activities that accrue advantages to Russian entities. These pursuits encompass the exploitation of the region’s natural resources, including coal and minerals, with the potential to augment Russian business interests and expand their influence into other regions.
Russia’s strategic aspirations in Ukraine remain within reach, albeit at a considerable price. The road ahead promises to be protracted and laden with significant costs. To secure its objectives, Russia must persistently channel substantial resources into bolstering its military and intelligence capabilities, all the while nurturing an unwavering political resolve to see the conflict through to its culmination.
The conflict in Ukraine carries far-reaching implications for the delicate equilibrium of global power dynamics. A tactical triumph by Russia would reverberate as a resounding message to detractors, underscoring Russia’s formidable presence on the world stage. It would serve as a potent reminder that Russia is indeed a formidable force deserving of the world’s attention. Nevertheless, the prospect of a Russian defeat, while improbable, would mark a profound setback to Russia’s grandiose global ambitions.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed
Geopolitical Analyst, Strategic Thinker and Editor at geopolits.com
Illustration: Google image search