The relationship between Ukraine and Russia has historically been complex and intertwined, with the two countries having deep historical and cultural connections. The disputes between the two have become a centre of attention after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine (Donbas region) in 2014. Today, approximately 130,000 Russian troops are stationed within striking distance of Ukraine’s borders, and some political experts say that the security of European countries is seriously compromised. So what are the reasons for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and what does president Putin want to achieve with his actions?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the relationships between the Soviet states have gone through multiple ups and downs. In 1991, the second most populous former Soviet republic, Ukraine, became independent along with the rest of the states. The move was long-awaited for many Ukrainians, as it finally brought the freedom that the nation so deeply desired. Nevertheless, the fight for independence was not over then. To understand the reasons for Putin’s interest in Ukraine we must turn to history.
The history of this interconnection started from the Kyivan Rus in the 10th century where multiple several tribes gathered together under the Byzantine church and Kyiv was declared to be the capital of Rus, the ancient predecessor of current Ukraine and Russia. After the fall of Kyivan Rus, Ukraine was also a part of the Russian Empire, where the Ukrainian language and culture were persecuted, while the Ukrainian language was also banned from schools, and books and performances in that language were prohibited from publishing.
Following the Russian revolution in 1917, communists came to power, and the Soviet Union was established, with both countries becoming a part of it. As a part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s culture, language, and traditions were once again persecuted, while the Russian language and culture were aggressively forced on the Soviet republics. During the time when Stalin, then Soviet Union leader, was in power, the Ukrainian nation has experienced the Holodomor (Hunger-extermination), which many argue was created by Stalin on purpose to prevent the Ukrainians from starting the uprising against those in power, as many people in the villages where Holodomor was created were supporting the pro-Ukrainian people’s parties.
After the collapse of the Union, Ukraine has finally become independent, yet still had close ties to Russia. In 2014 the Revolution of Dignity happened, and many Ukrainians gathered on the streets of Kyiv to demand the resignation of a pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych. The uprisings started because the signing of the EU Association Agreement has been postponed in order to pursue greater commercial ties with Russia, while the majority of Ukrainians were more interested in pursuing the relationships with the EU (European Union) instead. After the bloody uprisings during which around 1000 peaceful protesters were killed, Yanukovych run out of the country and is believed to still be hiding in Russia today.
Since then, in 2014 Russia occupied the region of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, where the war goes on nowadays. The annexation of Crimea has kept Putin’s ratings relatively high, as many Russians believed that this part of Ukraine has historically belonged to Russia.
So if Ukraine has clearly expressed its desire to have closer ties with the EU and the West, rather than Russia, why is Putin still so obsessed with it?
The official Russian position on this matter states that the country is protecting its borders against NATO’s military powers, which if Ukraine becomes a part of this alliance, will be located right next to the Russian border: “Let’s imagine Ukraine is a NATO member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not.” (Vladimir Putin, BBC, 2022).
Russia has long opposed Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (the military alliance of the Western countries) and the EU, while its main demand today is for the West to guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO. Nevertheless, multiple ex-Soviet Union states (e.g. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) and countries which were under the influence of the Soviet Union (e.g. Czech Republic, Poland) became members of NATO back in 2004 and 1999 respectively. Even if Russia was to fully invade Ukraine, its borders would still be surrounded by NATO bases because Ukraine has a direct border with Poland and Romania.
Many believe, that Putin’s interest in Ukraine has some personal rather than political reasons for it. Historically, Ukraine has always been closely connected to Russia, with many Ukrainians speaking the Russian language and being interested in Russian culture and politics. However, after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Revolution of Dignity in 2014, it became clear that Ukraine no longer wants to be under the influence of its neighbour, who has been invading, attacking, starving to death, and trying to kill the language and culture of Ukraine for hundreds of years. As a response to that, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the East of Ukraine, although Putin still denies Russian involvement in the military operation in Donbas.
For Putin, as well as many other Russian rulers in the past, Ukraine does not only have the strategic importance – he either truly believes that Ukraine is supposed to be a part of Russia like it used to be during the times of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union, or he simply can not forgive Ukrainians for “betraying” his country and deciding to have closer ties with the West. Last year he called Ukrainians and Russians “one nation” and has previously mentioned that Ukraine is not a sovereign country, as well as accused the current democratically elected Ukrainian leaders of running an “anti-Russian project”. Putin wants to prove to Ukrainians that despite the Revolution of Dignity, their clear intention to be a part of NATO and the EU, and no desire to have anything to do with Russia whatsoever, he is still able to control Ukraine and force his own agenda on the sovereign, free nation.
Russian state media ruled by Putin’s propaganda is another proof of the fact that his actions towards Ukraine are not just about NATO – he is obsessed with the idea of uniting Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus under one “Russian World” as in the Tsarist era and is clearly still living in the state of a Cold War with the US. According to Russian propagandistic state TV channels, the USA and EU remain their biggest enemies, while Ukraine is apparently too nationalistic and fascist to realise the connection they have with Russia and the necessity of becoming one united country once again. The fact that Russian media continues to spread lies and misinformation about the situation in Ukraine and in the world, as well as call the whole of the West their enemy which is supposedly going to attack Russian borders, creates a false narrative in people’s minds and helps Putin to ensure that even if he is not a president of the country at some point, the brain-washed population will still choose someone with the same agenda. This kind of an obsession with uniting the nations which speak the same language and have similar cultures is truly disturbing and reminds me of a similar situation happening in 1930s Germany.
It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, the Russian president still feels that not only can he invade and attack its direct neighbour, dictate whether Ukraine can or can not join the NATO, but also continue to push his own agenda on a country that has been fully independent since 1991. “Like it or not, my beauty, you have to put up with it”, was his comment to the Ukrainian leader on this issue.
It is yet unclear how the current conflict is going to escalate, however, Russia remains a possible threat to the Ukrainian and European borders until now. It is therefore extremely important for the European and US leaders to prevent the situation from escalating and support Ukraine in defending its territory and independence.