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Ukraine’s path: From ‘cradle of the Russian nation’ to Soviet Republic to current conflict

For the two countries with a conjoined history, things went downhill after 1991, on the issue of NATO, EU and the conflicting demands of nationalists & ethnic Russian separatists

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New Delhi: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered general mobilisation — an act of assembling and organising national resources, including defence forces — late Thursday in the wake of a massive Russian military operation within his country’s borders.

Footage of a Ukrainian military plane being shot down over the capital city of Kyiv recently emerged on social media, as fighting in the region continued. 

On 21 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — as independent entities, and proceeded to authorise a special military operation “to protect” the people in the Donbas region, which includes the two separatist-held areas.

Putin’s actions have prompted severe financial sanctions and other additional measures from the European Union and countries including the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and Japan. 

ThePrint explains how the crisis began, Ukraine’s past — from its mediaeval roots, intertwined with Russia’s, that have earned it the appellation of “cradle of the Russian nation” to its time as a Soviet Socialist Republic — and where things stand now.

Also read: What is Putin’s intention behind Ukraine invasion

History of Ukraine in pre-Soviet era

Located in eastern Europe, Ukraine is geographically the second-largest country in the continent after Russia, with a population of 4.41 crore people — comparable to that of the Indian state of Odisha. 

The capital, Kyiv, is located on the Dnieper River, which flows from north to south through central Ukraine. Centuries back, however, Kyiv served as the centre of the first East Slavic state, Kyivan Rus, which existed from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, under the rule of the Rurik dynasty. 

This was the birthplace of both Ukraine and Russia as state entities.

In the centuries that followed, portions of Ukraine were ruled by successive powers, including Poland-Lithuania — a federation of the two countries that was one of the largest European states from the 16th century to the 18th.  

Much of Eastern Ukraine was controlled by Tsarist Russia from the 17th century, and the remainder was annexed in the 18th century, much of it under Catherine the Great.

Following a turbulent, conflict-ridden time after the end of the First World War, Ukraine was absorbed into the newly formed USSR in 1922.

From Soviet republic to independent state

Ukraine remained part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, and was formally known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. 

In July 1990, the republic’s parliament issued a declaration of state sovereignty that gave precedence to Ukraine’s laws over those of the USSR.

As part of the referendum on the future of the Soviet Union (held across the USSR), on 17 March 1991, nearly 90 per cent of voters supported the preservation of the USSR. 

However, Ukraine’s parliament went on to officially declare independence on 24 August 1991. 

After this, another referendum was held in December 1991. This time, the earlier results were turned on their head — roughly 90 per cent of voters cast ballots supporting an independent Ukraine, thus formalising August’s declaration.

The reasons for the difference between the two referendums, according to a 1991 report by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, included the “accelerating disintegration of the USSR and central Soviet institutions, the spread of Ukrainian national feeling far beyond western regions,” as well as other factors.

Crimea, which was part of Ukraine at the time and is home to a majority of ethnic Russians, registered the lowest support for independence. 

Fifty-four per cent of voters in the area were in favour of independence, versus a whopping 95 per cent in western Ukraine and the Kyiv region.

This is indicative of the regional divides that continue to exist among Ukrainian citizens, with some in favour of a nation-state with a strong independent spirit, while others lean towards greater integration with the Russian Federation. 

Ukraine and the NATO factor

Among the former Soviet republics, industrially advanced Ukraine had one of the largest populations and a thriving economy. 

It had also inherited a large basket of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1994, however, it decided to fully de-nuclearise under a set of agreements known as the Budapest Memorandum. This offered the country security assurances from the US, the UK, and Russia. Other regional players such as Belarus and Kazakhstan followed suit.

“Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons signalled its desire to be seen as a member in good standing of the international community, rather than an outlier,” pointed out experts Lee Feinstein and Mariana Budjeryn in a recent article for The Conversation.

Russia was also party to this agreement, in which it vowed to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

With the 2004 expansion of the European Union, Ukraine found itself in overlapping spheres of influence between the EU and the Russian Federation.

Ukraine is not a member of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) alliance — a long-standing fear of Putin’s. 

However, it has over the years deepened its cooperation with the alliance by first joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace in February 1994, and later signing a “distinctive partnership” with NATO leaders in Milan in July 1997.

More recently, in September 2020, current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy, which provides for the development of the distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of membership in the bloc.

Also read: Chernobyl site shows increased gamma radiation levels after Russian siege

Yanukovych and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea 

Since independence in 1991, politics in Ukraine has oscillated between “pro-Russian” sentiments in eastern Ukraine and “pro-European” sentiments in western Ukraine. 

This is reflected in the oscillating alignments of the presidents Ukrainians have elected over the years, with some heads of state having been closer to Russia, while others have looked west towards the rest of Europe.

The invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014 can be traced to the actions of one man in particular: then President Viktor Yanukovych.

In November 2013 Yanukovych, who was pro-Russian, withdrew from a deal for greater integration with the European Union, prompting mass protests in Ukraine. This paved the way for what was known as the “Revolution of Dignity”, during which Russia backed Yanukovych while the US and Europe supported the protesters. 

By February 2014, protesters overthrew Yanukovych and an interim government, led by economist and politician Oleksandr Turchynov, was installed. 

The interim government eventually signed a trade agreement with the EU, much to Moscow’s displeasure.

Poor implementation of Minsk peace accords

Two months later, Russia invaded Ukraine and proceeded to annex Crimea. A referendum held during the invasion, which has been widely disputed, claimed that over 95 per cent of  Crimeans favoured integration with Russia.

Meanwhile, around the same time in 2014, ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions started a bitter armed conflict with Ukrainian government forces.

Fighting had escalated to a point where rebels allegedly shot down a Malaysia Airlines plane flying over the region in July 2014, killing almost 300 people.

Between September 2014 and February 2015, two peace accords between the Russia-backed separatists and the government, known as the Minsk agreements, were signed in an attempt to quell the violence. 

The first Minsk accord, essentially a ceasefire, didn’t hold for very long, paving the way for a more comprehensive second agreement. 

However, the Minsk II accord, which envisaged “special status” for the so-called independent states of Luhansk and Donetsk, has not been properly implemented in the last eight years.

With Russian forces now nearing Kyiv, there are fears Russia will overthrow the Ukrainian leadership altogether and hold a chaotic referendum, just as it did in Crimea, to occupy more of its neighbour’s territory.

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

Also read: China’s drawing lessons from Russia-Ukraine. It also believes in ‘sphere of influence’ theory


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