A Spoiled Brotherhood: A Historical Look into Russia’s and Ukraine’s Relationship
Blake Mauro, Contributing Writer
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has roots which existed before February 24, 2022, before the invasion of 2014, before the USSR collapsed in 1991, and even before the founding of the Soviet State in 1922. The two nations have been intertwined since the 9th century, the age of the Vikings.
These Vikings, known as the Kievan Rus, dominated the region of Eastern Europe centuries ago and eventually settled there, adopting the language and culture of the people they conquered, and created individual city-states. Their empire stretched from the black sea to modern St. Petersburg and beyond. United under the capital city of Kyiv, the Rus culture and its economy thrived for hundreds of years. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively about Russia and Ukraine, identifies the two nations' long history, stating, "in the late Middle Ages, there was a civilization called Kievan Rus, based in Kyiv. Both Russia and Ukraine trace their origins back to that state."
The Rus dominated Eastern Europe for centuries following their settlement until the reign of the Mongolian empire in the 13th century. The cities of the south were conquered first, refused to submit, and were hence demolished. Witnessing this, the cities of the north surrendered and kept their culture and cities from ruin. This detachment was the initial separation of culture between the northern Rus and southern Rus, a rift that still stands today.
For the first 20 years of Ukraine’s newly found independence following the collapse of the USSR, Russia kept a very close eye on developments in Ukraine and seldom interfered in the new nation. Ukraine’s sizable Russian-language population guaranteed or ensured that the country would not stray too far from the Russian sphere of influence.
Ever since the nation’s founding, Ukraine has strived to become a democratic state despite Russia's influence and wishes. Like any other transitioning country attempting to transform its government from an authoritarian state into one which holds democratic values, Ukraine’s road to democracy has proven quite troublesome.
The first battle for democracy came in the elections of 2004. In these elections, regime-controlled media claimed victory for the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych, handpicked by the corrupt sitting president, although credible exit polls showed Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate, had won. Outraged by this infringement on their democracy, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets of their capital in protest for 17 days. Now known as the Orange Revolution, the protests of 2004 tell the story of a people united, not by one leader or party, but by one idea: to defend their vote and the future of their country. The Orange revolution was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm in the West, who considered it a reawakening of democracy; it was met with skepticism and apprehension in Moscow, who feared an encroachment on Russian space. In the US, policymakers celebrated that freedom was on the rise. In Moscow, there was a concern that the color revolutions were the work of the western secret services and that Russia was next.
Not even a decade later, the Ukrainian democracy was tested again. In November of 2013, Ukraine was set to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement between the two entities would have more cohesively integrated their political and economic ties. The growing relationship between the West and Ukraine did not sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result, Ukrainian President Yanukovych submitted to intense pressure from Moscow and halted the amendment. Mirroring the Orange Revolution, protests ensued and plagued Ukraine’s capital city for months following Yanukovych's decision. The demonstration quickly turned violent, leaving members injured and, in a few cases, dead on both sides of the battle for western endorsement. After the most bloodstained week in Ukraine's post-soviet history concluded in February 2014, the Ukrainian government voted to restore the constitution of 2004, causing a significant reduction to the president's power and reallocating that power back to the people. Although a win for democracy, the Maidan protests of 2014 set the stage for the annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion that would ensue in March of the same year.
On March 6, 2014, the Crimean government voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation under their newly elected leader, Sergey Aksyonov, the head of the Russian Unity Party. Russia celebrated the movement while it was broadly denounced in the West. Meanwhile, Yatsenyuk affirmed Kyiv’s position that Crimea was an integral part of Ukraine. A little more than two weeks later, on March 21, Russian President Putin signed a law officially merging Crimea into Russia.
Clearly, Ukrainian motions to join Western Organizations such as the European Union and, more recently, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have had a low success rate due to Ukraine’s internal battles for a more progressive democratic state and the looming threat of their immensely powerful neighbor Russia. Although the United States openly supports Ukraine in its desire to improve relations with the West and with Western institutions such as NATO and the EU, until the country proves itself a true fair democracy and evades the influence of Russian power, the state will not be permitted admission to such influential organizations.
With the history of Russian and Ukrainian relations now discussed, the foundation of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is set.