Ukraine's fraught relationship with Russia: a brief history

Russia and Ukraine are bound together by history and geography, but Putin sees danger in that symbiosis

Photo montage of Kruschev, Putin, Stalin and Volodymyr the Great
Along with their common origin in 9th century Kyiv, Russia has controlled much or all of Ukraine for the past 350 years
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

The history of what we now think of as Russia started in Kyiv more than 1,000 years ago when Viking warrior-merchants came down from the north and founded Kyivan Rus, the first East Slavic state, in the 9th century. But that common origin doesn't mean Russia and Ukraine are one big happy family.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the long tradition of czars and Soviet potentates, claims Ukraine as part of his Russkiy Mir, or Russian world. Putin successfully engineered the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and parts of its eastern edge in 2014, but when he tried to stake his unilateral claim to Kyiv and greater Ukraine in 2022, he embroiled Russia in a bloody quagmire. 

Modern Ukraine has been independent since 1991. In the 1,200 years since the founding of Kyivan Rus, parts of the country have been ruled by the Mongol Golden Horde, the Kingdom of Poland, the grand duchy of Lithuania, Italian city-states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, Nazi Germany and various other conquerors. But weaved throughout that history is Ukraine's complicated, lopsided relationship with Russia. 

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How is Ukraine's history intertwined with Russia's?

Kyivan Rus reached its zenith with the rule of Prince Volodymyr the Great and his son Yaroslav the Wise in the 10th and 11th centuries. Volodymyr embraced Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988, establishing the religious tradition still dominant in Ukraine and Russia. 

Kyivan Rus fell to Mongol invaders in the 13th century, and Poland took control of much of what is now western and northern Ukraine in the 14th century. The center of Rus power migrated to the small trading post called Moscow. 

Ukrainian Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky made a stab at creating an independent Ukraine in the mid-17th century. But in a bid to push Poland out of Ukraine, he signed the Pereyaslav Agreement with the Russian czar Alexis in 1654, pledging to place an autonomous Ukraine under Russian rule in exchange for Russian military assistance. Instead, Russia and Poland made peace and, 12 years later, divided Ukraine along the Dnipro River.

Since the 1650s, Ukraine's history has been characterized by periods of independence and socio-cultural efflorescence mixed with eras of Russian (and/or Polish) domination and forcible integration into its empire or sphere of influence. 

Why does Russia lay claim to Ukraine?

Along with their common origin in 9th century Kyiv, Russia has controlled much or all of Ukraine for the past 350 years. Russia values the fertile plains and rich, dark soil that has made Ukraine the "breadbasket of Europe," and Moscow considers the country — and other former Soviet satellites — an important protective buffer between Russia and the West. 

By the late 1700s, Imperial Russia had absorbed most of western Ukraine from Poland and taken the Crimean Peninsula from the Tatars. The czars in St. Petersburg controlled what they called "Little Russia" until the Russian Empire crumbled in 1917 and Ukraine declared independence. That first independent state did not last long. Poland invaded from the West, and Red (Bolshevik) and White (anti-Bolshevik) Russian forces fought Ukrainian troops and each other. When the Red Army emerged victorious in 1921, the eastern two-thirds of the battered and impoverished Ukraine became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. 

"Russia without Ukraine is a country," said Daniel Drezner, an international politics professor at Tufts University. "Russia with Ukraine is an empire."

Except for a brief and terrible period of Nazi German occupation, the Soviet Union controlled Ukraine, using various degrees of repression and brutality, until the USSR collapsed in 1991. But even after Russia agreed to respect Ukraine's post-Soviet borders in 1994's Budapest Memorandum, it never fully gave up designs on its smaller neighbor. Putin certainly hasn't.

Putin annexed Crimea — which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had abruptly, somewhat mysteriously given Ukraine in 1954, ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of the Pereyaslav Agreement — in 2014, then launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

What's Putin's argument?

Putin initially justified his invasion as a limited operation to "de-Nazify" Ukraine and protect the large number of ethnic Russians and Russophones in the eastern Donbas region. But in a Nov. 28, 2023, speech sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church, he claimed that the "Russian nation" comprises a "triune people" of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, echoing historically skewed assertions he made in his pre-invasion "Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" essay in July 2021.

In that essay, Putin claimed that Russians and Ukrainians "are one people" and an independent Ukraine is "entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era, and was to a large extent created at the expense of historical Russian lands."

The first Russian history textbook was written and published in Kyiv in the 1670s, and historically, Russians and Ukrainians do "have a lot in common," including "the structure of society, the level of education, the level of urbanization and other things," thanks to hundreds of years of Russian rule, historian Serhii Plokhy told Harvard's Ukrainian Research Institute in 2017. But even Soviet leader Joseph Stalin — who killed millions of Ukrainians in his engineered 1923-33 famine, the Holodomor — "never questioned per se the right of the Ukrainian nation to exist. When Putin pushes the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, he doesn't mean that Russians are Ukrainians. The underlying argument is that Ukrainians are really Russians."

How has Russia exerted control over Ukraine?

In periods of greater autonomy, Ukrainians started speaking, writing, teaching and publishing in Ukrainian, created civic organizations and, especially in Polish-influenced western Ukraine, practiced Rome-aligned Greek Catholicism. After such periods of cultural blossom — in the first half of the 1800s, for example, and the 1920s — Russian authorities would typically crack down, curtailing or even banning the use of the Ukrainian language, forcing the Uniate Catholics to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, purging local officials, killing or exiling intellectuals, poets and dissidents, and using other levels to pacify or Russify the population.

The Soviet Union confiscated farmland and collectivized agriculture in Ukraine — it was peasant opposition to collectivization that prompted Stalin's brutal starvation campaign — and transferred Russians into eastern Ukraine and, after deporting hundreds of thousands of Tatars to Siberia, the Crimean Peninsula. Soviet leaders also exercised control over Ukraine by handpicking its leaders. After the fall of the USSR, Russia maintained leverage through the sale of subsidized oil and natural gas supplies and backing pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians. 

When did Ukraine become its own country?

Until the 20th century, "the goal of Ukrainian activists was autonomy, not independence," Plokhy said. Then, "in the 20th century, we had five attempts to declare an independent Ukrainian state. The fifth succeeded in 1991." In a referendum held in December 1991, more than 92% of Ukrainians voted for independence, including a slight majority in Russo-centric Crimea. To gauge how Ukraine felt about Russia at the time, Ukraine's second democratically elected president, Leonid Kuchma, published a book called "Ukraine Is Not Russia." That's probably unique to Ukraine, Plokhy added. "You can't imagine President [Emmanuel] Macron writing 'France Is Not Germany' or anything like that."

In 1996, Ukraine adopted a new democratic constitution and introduced its own currency, the hryvnya. Nevertheless, Russia persisted. When Moscow-leaning candidate Viktor Yanukovych won what was widely viewed as a rigged presidential election in 2004, mass protests broke out. This Orange Revolution led to a court-mandated revote that was won by pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. 

Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010 and decided in 2013 to scrap plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union that was strongly opposed by Moscow. That sudden halting of further integration with Europe sparked street protests and the eventual occupation of Kyiv's Maidan (Independence) Square. After security forces killed dozens of protesters in January and February 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia instead of risking a looming impeachment vote. The next month, Russia annexed Crimea, and the month after that, heavily armed pro-Russian forces with Russian weapons and no insignia on their uniforms started attacking government buildings in eastern Ukraine. Putin launched his full-scale invasion eight years later.

In some important ways, Putin's violent efforts to subsume Ukraine into "Big Russia" have backfired, cementing Ukraine's sense of independent national identity aligned with Europe.

Ukraine is kind of an "outlier" in post-Soviet states in that it has "maintained its democratic institutions" and rejected authoritarianism, Plokhy told the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. "It's paying a price for that, but the society is quite committed to keep going as a democratic country." 

Russia and Ukraine are bound together by history and geography — but Putin sees danger in that symbiosis, convinced that "the emergence of a genuinely independent, democratic and Western-leaning Ukraine would eventually pose an existential threat to Russia itself," Peter Dickinson wrote at the Atlantic Council's UkraineAlert Service. "If Stalin feared that Ukrainian nationalism could bring down the Soviet regime," journalist Anne Applebaum elaborated in a 2017 lecture at Canada's Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, "Putin fears that Ukraine's example could bring down his own regime, a modern autocratic kleptocracy."

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