On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine. Nobody expected that in the 21st century, two sovereign nations on the European continent would break out into all-out war.
The conflict, which has been going on for little more than a month, has killed thousands of troops on both sides and thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well. Refugees flood nations westward as millions are misplaced and flee their land.
This caught everybody in the world off-guard. As sanctions are placed on Russia and Ukraine is ravaged by war, oil prices have gone up, and nickel prices are driven higher and higher, we can only watch as the conflict unfolds.
To fully understand the conflict, we must look at the complex geopolitical history of both nations and understand what led up to this point in history.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky wearing military clothing in Kiev. (H. Naftali Feb 27, 2022) https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=478945690579905&set=pb.100053934333302.-2207520000..&type=3
Ukraine and Russia as One Nation
Interestingly, Russia and Ukraine used to come from a single medieval kingdom. It was called Kyivan Rus and it spanned modern-day Ukraine and the modern-day European side of Russia. Kyivan Rus’ capital was in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital today.
In the 800s, a group of Vikings known as the Varangians came from the north to rule the people known as the Slavs in the south and southeastern regions. The Slavs were the ancestors of both the Russians and the Ukrainians, so at one point, they really were the same people. They shared the same language, culture, and history, but at some point, that would change.
In 1240, Kyivan Rus was conquered by Mongol troops, and their empire soon fell into disarray. After the Mongol invasion, Kyiv became part of a commonwealth of nations, including Poland. Moscow, on the other hand, became the capital of local Mongol forces in the area.
This is when, historically and geographically, these two nations split apart.
Little, B. (2019, Dec 4). When viking kings and queens ruled medieval russia. History https://www.history.com/news/vikings-in-russia-kiev-rus-varangians-prince-oleg
Britannica. Retrieved 4/10/22 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rus
Pre-Soviet Ukraine and Imperial Russia
Kyivan Rus descendants sought to recreate their empire, and in the 1500s, they did just that. It then evolved into the Russian Empire.
Ukrainians say that although their early history and culture were shared with the Russians, after their separation, they developed their own art, language, religion, culture, and even food. They also created their own history as a result of being separated from the Russians for a few hundred years.
It wasn’t until the late 1650s when Kyiv and its Ukrainian people were assimilated into the Russian Empire, along with neighboring nations from Europe and Asia. Russia gained Ukraine from Poland after the Russo-Polish war of 1654–1657.
The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was signed by both parties after the war. It stated that the Russians were to take the eastern part of the Dnieper River in Ukraine. According to the treaty, they were to pay 146,000 rubles for it. Considering that the eastern part of Ukraine was under Russian influence longer than the west, it is not surprising to see so many pro-Russian extremist groups and rebels in that part of modern-day Ukraine.
After the partition of Poland from 1772 to 1795, as well as the Russian conquest of the Crimean Khanate, Habsburg Austria and Imperial Russia divided their spoils. By this time, Imperial Russia had total control over the entirety of Ukraine. Imperial Russia would have control over these territories for the next century.
That is, until something happened.
Britannica. Retrieved 4/10/22 https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/Ukraine-under-direct-imperial-Russian-rule
Haynes, Margaret (2017). Tsarist and Communist Russia 1855-1964. Oxford: University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780198421443.
Ukraine in the Soviet Union
A revolution that took place in 1917 under the leadership of a certain Vladimir Lenin, a well-known communist leader, saw the end of the Imperial Russian monarchy. Radical Bolsheviks murdered Czar Nicholas and the rest of his family in cold blood. From the ashes of the fallen empire rose a new communist “empire”. The Soviet Union was a collective of the nations previously under the Russian Empire, and yes, that included Ukraine.
Most Ukrainians didn’t really want to join the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Russian Empire, Ukrainian officials set up a provisional government. After a while, the Soviets invaded and assimilated Ukraine into their collective of nations from Asia and Europe, which, apparently, was a socialist republic.
At first, the Ukrainians were allowed to keep their culture and run their very own local government, but after some time, the Soviets became suspicious of them and just took both away from them and controlled Ukraine directly from Moscow.
In 1932, Ukraine faced one of its largest catastrophes in the shape of a giant famine that killed 3.9 million people. This was because of the late Soviet premier Joseph Stalin’s campaign against rich and middle-class farmers and the insane agricultural policies imposed upon the people of the Soviet Union. Five million died throughout the Soviet Union, and Ukraine got the worst of it. So much for socialism, then.
The famine was so devastating, in fact, that the Ukrainians called it “Holodomor”. Holod means “hunger” and mor means “extermination”. Some historians consider this word to be the origin of the term “Holocaust”.
When the Second World War came along, the USSR had massive casualties. There were 18 million civilian deaths, and 8.6 million combatants perished. 6.8 million Ukrainians, both civilian and combatant, died during this conflict.
As the war raged on, Joseph Stalin implemented a scorched earth policy, which led to Ukraine’s being devastated. An estimated 28,000 villages were razed to the ground, as well as 714 towns and cities. The capital, Kyiv, was devastated, with 85% of it being completely destroyed. As a result, 19 million Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes, and the USSR’s industrial sector was wiped out.
When Stalin passed away in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, promised more liberal reforms and to “de-stalinize” the USSR, which is a testament to Stalin’s brutality. But, as with promises made by most politicians, nothing of the sort happened.
Following in the footsteps of Khrushchev, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev also promised the same things when he took power in 1964. That meant he did very little to nothing about it. The next two leaders were pretty much the same, but all that changed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
When Gorbachev took over in 1985, it was clear that he was different from his predecessors. He was very liberal, considering he was a Soviet leader. He also utilized more democratic means of governance, unlike the more dominant authoritarian leaders before him. He would become the last leader of the USSR.
In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in Pripyat, Ukraine. People in the area had to move because of this. It also made people distrust and resent the Soviet Union.
During the last year of the Soviet Union, which was in 1991, it wasn’t looking too unified. In August, Ukraine declared its independence and renamed itself from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Ukraine. At the end of 1991, 80% of all Ukrainians would vote for independence from their Soviet overlords.
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag would fly one final time above the Kremlin. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as its leader, and it marked the end of an era, a fallen empire, and a free Ukraine.
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A Free and Independent Ukraine
When Ukraine finally gained independence, it got off to a rough start. I mean, you would usually expect that from any newly independent nation.
When Leonid Kravchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, declared independence from Moscow in 1991, he was elected the first president of Ukraine.
In 2004, pro-Russia candidate Victor Yanukovich won the presidential elections in Ukraine. However, after allegations of vote-rigging, it caused a riot among the Ukrainian people, which later became known as the Orange Revolution. The government was then pressured to recount and re-analyze the votes. After a rerun of the elections, former prime minister and western sympathizer Viktor Yushchenko was elected president. Yushchenko promised his people that they would have stronger ties to NATO and the European Union, and fewer ties with Russia.
After a second attempt in 2010, Yanukovich finally seized power as the newly-elected president of Ukraine. In 2013, he suspended all peace talks with the leaders of the European Union and NATO. He also regained Moscow’s trust by strengthening political and economic ties with Russia. The people weren’t happy. In 2014, protests turned violent, as dozens were killed in Kyiv.
In February of the same year, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to oust Yanukovich, who then ran away. A few days later, armed men took control of the Parliament in the region of Crimea. Russia then annexed Crimea after a March 16 referendum showed massive support in Crimea for joining the Russian Federation. Separatist groups in the Donbas region of Ukraine declared their independence in April.
With his pro-western agenda, businessman Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections in May. Fast-forward to 2019, Poroshenko is defeated in the elections by former actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, popular for his TV show Servant Of The People, which depicts him as a history teacher elected president by people tired of regular politicians.
Zelensky promises to tackle corruption and end the conflict with the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. In January 2021, President Zelensky asks US President Joe Biden if they could join NATO, to which Biden and NATO reply, “yes, one day.”
A series of events throughout 2021 led to Russia’s amassing troops on the border of Ukraine in August of 2021. In December, Russian and US diplomats failed to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, seemingly making it worse than it was. It then led to the day Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
(Feb 22, 2022). PBS. A historical timeline of post-independence Ukraine https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/a-historical-timeline-of-post-independence-ukraine
Ragozin, L. (Mar 16, 2019). Annexation of Crimea: A masterclass in political manipulation. AlJazeera https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/3/16/annexation-of-crimea-a-masterclass-in-political-manipulation
With the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the world is watching as this possibly catastrophic event unfolds. Each day, both sides experience losses and gains.
Ukraine has recently launched a successful counteroffensive that forced the Russians to retreat from the northern regions and focus all their efforts on the south and eastern sides. As Ukrainian forces try to break through, Russian troops hold cities under siege or even capture them and form defensive perimeters around them.
Ukraine receives funding and weapons from its Western allies. Meanwhile, Russia is bled dry with sanction after sanction placed on them. Russian oligarchs flee the country, while millions of Ukrainian refugees escape west to their nation’s allies.
The world is hoping for the conflict to end without any major consequences, but for now, all we can do is watch.