Russia-Ukraine crisis: 9 watershed moments in history that explain Russia-Ukraine crisis


Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are rising as a result of Moscow’s massive troop buildup along the Ukrainian border and the preparation of infrastructure for an invasion. But why is Ukraine under attack, and what does Russia want from its neighbour? To make sense of the current crisis, we must first understand the history of the two inextricably linked countries, which dates back to at least the 9th century. Professor Serhy Yekelchyk, an expert in Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian relations, highlights nine watershed moments in Ukrainian history.

Russia and Ukraine have been at odds for the past eight years, with Russia seizing and establishing military control over Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula in 2014, taking advantage of political turmoil in the neighboring country. An ensuing war – between Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed rebels and Russian troops in Ukraine’s two eastern regions known as the Donbas – never formally ended, and an estimated 14,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million have been displaced.

Today, however, world leaders are most concerned about a massive buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border – possibly as many as 100,000 troops. President Putin wants Ukraine and other former Soviet republics barred from joining NATO.

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, has compared the current situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a tense 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, which historian Mark White describes as “the most dangerous confrontation in human history.”

Here, to put today’s Russia-Ukraine crisis into context

9th century: Kyivan Rus

At some point in the late 9th century, a group of Norsemen calling themselves Rus (pronounced “Roos”) established control over the East Slavic communities in what is now Northwest Russia, then moved down the Dnieper River to make the city of Kyiv, in what is now Ukraine, their capital. Historians call this large medieval state Kyivan Rus.

The Norse elite soon assimilated into the local Slavic population, which began to refer to itself as the people of Rus, or Rusyns. The heart of the Rus state was present-day central Ukraine; Moscow was established in the 12th century in what was then a far-flung northeastern frontier. In 988, Grand Prince Volodimer (‘Volodymyr’ in Ukrainian, ‘Vladimir’ in Russian), who died in 1015, accepted Christianity from Byzantium. Few Rusyns read or spoke the literary language of the church and state, Old Church Slavonic. Instead, they spoke a host of East Slavic dialects from which the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian languages would eventually develop.

In the mid-13th century, the loose federation of Rus principalities was easily conquered by the Mongol empire, but Russia and Ukraine still contest the glorious legacy of medieval Rus.

1654: Treaty of Pereiaslav (aka the Pereyaslav Agreement)

Exploiting the late 14th-century decline of Mongol power, the Grand Principality of Moscow and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the latter eventually uniting with Poland) divided the former Rus lands. A new social group of Ukrainian Cossacks developed on the southern frontier of Poland, guarding it against Crimean Tatar raids. The Ukrainian Cossacks were a large group of free people, many of them runaway peasant serfs, who guarded the southern steppe border of Poland against Turkish and Tatar raids.

The concept of ‘Ukraine’ already existed, but locals continued calling themselves ‘Rusyns’ while referring to the future Russians as ‘Muscovites’. By the early 17th century, the Orthodox Christian population of the Ukrainian lands had become antagonised by Catholic Poland’s religious policies and the spread of serfdom – a form of slavery in which peasants were bound to the land and sold with it. A 1648 Cossack rebellion led by Hetman (military leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky (c1595–1657) became a mass social and religious war against Polish rule, resulting in the creation of the Hetmanate, a Cossack polity nominally autonomous under the Polish king but independent in fact.

Searching for allies against Poland, Khmelnytsky accepted the “protection” of the Orthodox Russian tsar in the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav. The exact meaning of “protection” continues to be debated today, but subsequent Russian policies affected the absorption of the Cossack lands, especially after Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s (c1639–1709) failed attempt in 1709 to break with Moscow.

1876: The Ems Act

In 1764, Catherine II (1729–96) abolished the Hetmanate to erase the last remnants of Ukrainian autonomy, and the Russian army destroyed the Cossack stronghold on the Dnieper. Cossack officers could make claims to noble status – the empire agreed to accept them as equal to Russian nobles as long as they could provide the relevant paperwork – but Ukrainian peasants eventually became enserfed.

During the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, Catherine acquired a large stretch of Ukrainian lands that Poland had retained after 1654. As the institutional legacy of the Hetmanate was being dismantled, new interest in Ukrainian history and folklore developed among intellectuals under the influence of pan-European Romanticism. During the 1840s, Ukraine’s national bard, Taras Shevchenko (1814–61), published his first poems in Ukrainian and subsequently co-founded a secret political society that discussed a free Slavic federation and the abolition of serfdom.

The Ukrainian national revival was also underway in the westernmost Rus lands, which passed from Poland to the Austrian Empire. Worried Russian authorities responded in 1863 by banning the publication of educational literature written in the Ukrainian language. In 1876, Tsar Alexander II (1818–81), while holidaying at the bathing resort of Bad Ems in Germany, signed the Ems Act, which banned all publishing in the Ukrainian language. The empire continued to promote assimilation to Russian culture by rewarding those “loyal” Ukrainians it considered to constitute the ‘Little Russian tribe’ of the greater Russian people, while simultaneously discriminating against politicised Ukrainians in the form of lost jobs, arrest, and exile… Ukrainian patriots now began using ‘Ukrainians’ as an ethnic designation to signify their distinctness from Russians.

1918: Ukrainian independence

With the collapse of the Russian monarchy in 1917 under the strain of war and political discord, patriotic Ukrainians established their coordinating body, the Central Rada (Council), which soon developed into a revolutionary parliament. The Russian Provisional Government granted Ukraine autonomy under the name of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), but the Bolsheviks subsequently refused to recognise it and invaded Ukraine in order to include it in the Soviet state.

The UNR declared full independence in January 1918 and signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers in Brest before the Bolsheviks did the same. The German authorities installed a Ukrainian monarch under the historic title of the hetman, but the UNR returned to power after the end of the First World War and proclaimed unification with the Ukrainian lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The UNR could not survive the titanic clash between the Russian Reds and Whites during the Russian civil war (1917­–22), as neither power recognised Ukrainian sovereignty, but the precedent of Ukrainian independence forced the Bolsheviks to create the Soviet Ukrainian Republic which in 1922 became a founding member of the Soviet Union.

However, in the early 1930s, Stalin returned to the unfinished task of crushing the Ukrainian political nation, which developed during the Revolution. Some 4 million Ukrainian peasants perished in the state-engineered famine of 1932–33, which in Ukraine is known as the Holodomor (“murder through starvation”) and considered a genocide – an interpretation increasingly accepted worldwide, but which Russia rejects. Stalin also destroyed the Ukrainian cultural elite and began promoting the tsarist notion of Ukrainians as the Russians’ “younger brother.”

1945: The enlarged Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

Following up on his agreement with Hitler on the division of East-Central Europe between them, Stalin invaded Poland in September 1939 and incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR the Ukrainian lands that Poland had kept after its brief war with the Bolsheviks in 1919, a stalemate which ended Lenin’s dream of the Red cavalry bringing the revolution to Europe. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt allowed Stalin to keep these territories. The Soviets also pressured Czechoslovakia into giving up its “Rusyn” lands.

The resulting enlarged Ukrainian SSR came to incorporate nearly all the territories with an ethnic Ukrainian majority under its energetic party boss Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). Khrushchev thereby achieved a longstanding aim of Ukrainian patriots to create a united Ukraine, but pursued a course of cultural assimilation into Russia rather than promoting Ukrainian autonomy. Stubborn armed resistance to Soviet rule by Ukrainian nationalists in the formerly Polish territories continued into the 1950s.

1954: The transfer of the Crimean Peninsula

Although attached by land only to Ukraine, Crimea (Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula) became an autonomous republic within Russia in 1921, partly because of the peninsula’s strategic significance. Neither Russians nor Ukrainians constituted a majority there, and in the 1920s the Soviets cultivated the culture of the Crimean Tatars, who had lived on the peninsula since the 13th century and whose Crimean Khanate the Russian Empire conquered in 1783, to impress the Western colonies and newly independent states in Asia with their seemingly benevolent policies.

When the Red Army retook Crimea from Nazi Germany in 1944, however, Stalin ordered a forced deportation of the Tatars, which many historians consider genocidal. As a result of this deportation, ethnic Russians became a numerical majority virtually overnight. The war had left the peninsula’s economy and cities in ruins. To mark the 300 years since Pereiaslav, Khrushchev organised the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR, which was to rebuild it and supply it with fresh water through a major channel to be constructed. He also hoped to gratify the Ukrainian bureaucrats comprising his power base and, perhaps, to add a culturally Russian counterweight to the recently incorporated nationalistic western regions.

1991: The collapse of the Soviet Union

When Mikhail Gorbachev’s (1931–) loosening of ideological controls resulted in the mass rejection of Soviet communism, Ukrainian and Russian democratic activists worked together to usher in new politics, such as freedom of speech and free elections. Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s (1931–2007) administration did not try to preserve the Soviet federation but, rather, sought an independent Russia. This made Yeltsin a natural ally of President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine (1934–), but only as long as both rejected the Soviet legacy.

The Ukrainian referendum in December 1991 spelt the end of the union, and Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus initiated its formal dissolution. However, with economic reforms stalling in the early 1990s, Yeltsin and other Russian figures increasingly appealed to domestic nationalists nostalgic for the Soviet empire by criticising Ukrainian cultural policies and questioning the transfer of Crimea.

In 1997, a comprehensive treaty between Russia and Ukraine affirmed the integrity of the Ukrainian borders – something that Russia and the Western nuclear powers also guaranteed in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, when Ukraine agreed to surrender its Soviet-made nuclear arsenal. This treaty expired on 31 March 2019.

2014: The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas

When a popular revolution in Ukraine removed the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and brought to power pro-Western democratic forces – an act approved by the parliament and confirmed by snap presidential elections – the Russian authorities took advantage of the turmoil to establish military control over Crimea. They calculated that the local Russian majority would support the peninsula’s incorporation into Russia, attracted by higher salaries and better career options without the need to study Ukrainian. But the sham referendum on joining Russia produced implausible results, and the world community, aside from a few pro-Russian outliers like North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, decisively condemned the annexation.

Facing punitive western sanctions, Russian authorities in Crimea began to repress local Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists. Having ensured its control over Crimea, Russia also fomented rebellions in other southeastern Ukrainian provinces, where the dominant regional parties have long cultivated pro-Russian attitudes. But this strategy only worked in the Donbas, a depressed industrial region with a Russian-speaking majority. When Ukrainian troops tried to re-establish control, President Putin’s administration covertly sent regular army units to support the pro-Russian separatists and Russian “volunteers.”

The active phase of the war lasted until the fall of 2015, with the renewed escalation in 2017 and early 2020, resulting in an estimated human cost of 14,000 killed and an estimated 1.5 million displaced.

2021: The build-up of Russian troops and an ultimatum to the West

The war in the Donbas never formally ended; low-intensity fire is a daily reality, and casualties are reported every week. Western intermediaries helped to de-escalate military action in 2015 by holding summits in the ‘Normandy Format’ (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine). The Minsk Protocol of 2015, signed during the summit in the Belarusian capital, charted a path to a peaceful resolution, but it remains blocked because certain steps are unacceptable either to Ukraine (a proposal to allow local elections to take place in the two “people’s republics” despite the presence of Russian troops there without having established Ukraine’s control over its border with Russia) or to Russia (acknowledging the presence of its troops and withdrawing them).

Late in 2021, Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies released information about a massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border and the preparation of infrastructure for a possible invasion. While Russian officials have insisted that these preparations are merely military exercises, they have also issued an ultimatum to the west demanding written guarantees against Nato’s further eastern expansion; restrictions on the types of weapons placed in Nato member countries who have joined the alliance since 1997; and a halt to any Nato military cooperation with other post-Soviet states (notably, Ukraine and Georgia). Meanwhile, the Russian media has been stoking fears about an imminent Nato attack on Russia and/or Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas.



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