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Understanding the Roots of the Russian War in Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that he considers Ukraine’s place to be under Russia’s thumb. This was its position from the time of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the 18th century to the common history of nations in the Soviet Union. In recent years, successive Ukrainian governments have forged closer ties with the European Union and NATO, then retreated to Russia and away again. With the war, Putin intends to regulate by force the orientation of the future of Ukraine.

1. What is the history between the two countries?

They share a long common past, dating back more than a millennium to the creation of the first Slavic state, Kyivan Rus, in parts of what is now Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The territory of contemporary Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire in the late 1700s after periods of rule under the Mongols or Tatars, Poles and Lithuanians. In 1918, a year after the Russian communist revolution, Ukraine declared its independence, but in 1921 the Red Army conquered most of it and Ukraine became a republic within the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s sense of a national identity was sharpened in the 1930s when Soviet policies punishing the republic’s farmers who resisted collectivization mandates produced the man-made famine known as Holodomor, which killed about 7 million people. Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s favorite notion – widely derided outside of Russia – is that Ukraine is not a legitimate country and that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

2. What is the relationship between the two peoples?

Almost everyone in Ukraine understands and can speak Russian. Ethnic Russians are the largest minority group there, accounting for 17% of the population at the last census in 2001. The percentage is higher on the Crimean peninsula and parts of the east. Some Ukrainian citizens retain sympathy for the Kremlin, although the invasion has eroded their ranks. Even before the war, a sizable majority in the nation of 41 million supported EU integration.

3. What led to the war?

Tensions have dominated relations between Moscow and Kyiv since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, a bloodless revolt that overthrew the fraudulent election of Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych as president. Yanukovych was nevertheless elected in 2010, but when he decided, under pressure from the Kremlin, to renege on a trade pact with the EU, mass protests erupted and he was ousted in February 2014.” responded with what was, until his total invasion of Ukraine, the most significant land grab in post-war Europe: the capture and annexation of Crimea. Russia then backed pro-Moscow separatist groups in Ukraine who proclaimed two independent republics in the eastern Donbass region along the Russian border, sparking a conflict with the Ukrainian military which had claimed an estimated 14,000 lives before the eruption of the wider war.

4. How did Putin justify the total invasion?

Putin and his allies accused the Ukrainian government of “genocide” against ethnic Russians and ethnic Russian speakers in the Donbass, a baseless allegation entirely denied by Ukraine as well as by the United States and the states of the EU. Days before the invasion, Putin recognized the separatists’ so-called republics, sabotaging the Minsk Accords, peace agreements brokered by Germany and France that sought to end the violence through a political settlement. He said one of the goals of the invasion was the “demilitarization” of Ukraine. That would make him unable to join NATO, including expansion into countries that were once within Russia’s sphere of influence, which Putin sees as an encroachment on his interests. He said another goal was the “denazification” of Ukraine.

5. Why did Putin summon the Nazis?

It’s partly a way of playing into the hallowed memory of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Beyond that, Russia has complained for years about political ultra-nationalism in Ukraine. Granted, there is such tension in Ukraine, and the Azov Regiment, a volunteer militia merged with the National Guard, still wears the medieval Wolfsangel insignia made infamous by Nazi German SS units. But Russia, whose complaint is tied to a history of Ukrainian nationalists collaborating with Germany during World War II in an effort to break free from the Soviet Union and create an independent state, overstates its significance. The Ukrainian government is headed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish origin. Many of his relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

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