Historical Origins of the Russia-Ukraine War

On the twenty-fourth day of February in the year 2022, the global community watched in dismay as the formidable forces of Russia’s military apparatus invaded the sovereign state of Ukraine. This calamitous strife has exacted a grievous toll on countless lives in Ukraine and Russia, compelled multitudes of Ukrainians to abandon their homeland, and ignited global trepidation regarding the potential inception of a third world war. This incursion represents but the latest episode in the enduring and tumultuous Russia-Ukraine War, a saga deeply rooted in the intricate history of both Russia and Ukraine.

Drawing upon information published by the United Nations, the Russia-Ukraine War has culminated in the passing of tens of thousands, the displacement of millions, and economic detriment exceeding $100 billion wrought upon the beleaguered nation of Ukraine. In response to Russia’s belligerent encroachment, the international sphere has expressed vehement censure. For a deeper comprehension of the fragile state of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it is crucial to possess a comprehensive understanding of the complex historical context that has led to this war.

OTHER POSTS on russiaN and Ukrainian history:

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of Russian invasion of Ukraine

KIEVAN RUS: Origins of Russia and Ukraine

The modern nations of Russia and Ukraine both boast extensive historical narratives that extend back through time, with their origins linked to the Kievan Rus around the 9th century A.D. The Kievan Rus emerged as a notable medieval realm in the areas currently recognized as Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The Kievan Rus began in Kiev (or Kyiv) and expanded its influence to the south, reaching the Black Sea, and to the north, approaching contemporary Finland. The Rurik Dynasty, founded by Rurik, a distinguished Viking warrior and aristocrat, presided over this state.

Kievan Rus
Vikings led by Rurik arriving in the land that would become the Kievan Rus

During its most prosperous era, the Kievan Rus functioned as a cultural and economic focal point in Eastern Europe, characterized by a thriving commerce, lively urban centers, and remarkable architectural feats. Kiev, the heart of the Kievan Rus, was a vital nucleus for Christianity and played an indispensable part in propagating the faith across the surrounding regions.

The Kievan Rus persevered for a span of over three centuries, until it was ultimately undermined by internal turmoil and external incursions. In the wake of the Kievan Rus’s decline, the area was partitioned into smaller territories and subjected to the control of diverse foreign forces, including the Mongols.

Appreciating the multifaceted histories of Russia and Ukraine – histories which both started in the Kievan Rus – is crucial for making sense of the ongoing strife between these two countries. From the epoch of the Kievan Rus to contemporary times, the region’s past has been influenced by invasions, contests for power, and cultural interactions.

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of Kievan Rus

Mongol Rule in Russia

The Mongol incursion into Kievan Rus signaled a pivotal moment in the histories of both Russia and Ukraine. Spanning from Asia to Eastern Europe, the Mongol Empire, governed by Genghis Khan and his heirs, constituted one of the largest dominions the world has ever seen. In 1237, a devastating assault on Kievan Rus was initiated by the Mongols, resulting in the pillaging and devastation of numerous settlements throughout the region. By 1240, the Mongols had asserted control over vast territories, now part of modern-day Russia and Ukraine, marking the end of the Kievan Rus era.

Under Mongol rule, local Russian principalities were forced to pay tribute to the local Mongol authorities. At that time in history, a Russian principality was a form of political entity ruled by a Russian prince but dominated by the Mongols.

The Mongol Empire lasted for around two centuries before losing power. As the Mongol Empire weakened, a number of Russian principalities challenged Mongol rule. The potent center of resistance to Mongol rule was the Grand Principality of Moscow. In 1480, the Grand Principality of Moscow refused to pay tribute to its Mongol overlords, thereby bringing an end to Mongol rule in Russia.

The Grand Principality of Moscow ultimately rose to prominence within the area by consolidating various adjacent principalities and extending its realm via military victories. During this phase in Russian chronicles, referred to as the Muscovite era, a powerful, centralized state emerged with Moscow as its focal point. The Mongol incursion left a profound and enduring impact on the region’s economic, cultural, and political evolution, etching a perpetual mark on its historical narrative.

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of Mongol rule in Russia

Basis for the Modern State of Russia & the Russian Empire

The ascent of the Grand Principality of Moscow would substantially shape Russian history for centuries to come. Guided by Ivan III, also known as Ivan the Great, the Grand Principality embarked on an ambitious extension of its territory toward the north and east. This expansion relied on a strategy of consolidating power by subjugating smaller principalities and demanding their loyalty to Moscow. By the end of the 15th century, the Grand Principality of Moscow had emerged as a regional power, setting the stage for both the Russian Empire and modern-day Russia.

However, the area north of the Black Sea – the area that is now Ukraine – eluded Moscow’s control. This region, once part of the Kievan Rus, would eventually adopt the name Ukraine. Throughout the following centuries, present-day Ukraine’s territory witnessed conflicts involving various powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia. Consequently, the region metamorphosed into a patchwork of assorted cultures and ethnic groups, possessing a complex history that has fueled the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the twenty-first century.

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of the Grand Principality of Moscow

During the time of the Russian Empire (1721 to 1917), Russia expanded not only towards Asia but also towards the southwest of Russia, where Ukraine is located today. The acquisition of these lands was mainly carried out by two powerful tsars, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Access to the Black Sea was highly valuable as it provided Russia with a strategic transportation route to the Mediterranean Sea. Later, this same area above the Black Sea was highly valuable for its vast oil and grain reserves, but Peter the Great and Catherine the Great wanted the area for the warm-water ports along the Black Sea. The empire’s desire for expansion and control led to the annexation of the land that is today Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the leader of modern-day Russia, would later claim use Russian Empire’s control of the Ukrainian as justification for the 2022 invasion.

However, at the time of annexation, the concept of Ukraine as a separate nation was still developing. In old Russian, “ukraina” means borderland, referring to the frontier between Russia and other territories. The territory that Peter the Great and Catherine the Great annexed was known as Little Russia. Over time, the idea of a separate Ukrainian identity and nation grew, leading to tensions between Little Russia and the rest of the Russian Empire. The annexation of these lands laid the foundation for the emergence of the Russia-Ukraine War, which is still ongoing today.

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of Russian expansion to the west

Ukrainian Soviet Republic

As World War I came to a close in 1917, Ukraine declared independence from Russia and established its own government. In 1922, the country was annexed into the Soviet Union, ending its brief period of independence. Ukraine became one of the Soviet Union’s republics, referred to as the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.

Throughout the Soviet era, there were Ukrainian independence movements. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, was so determined to suppress these movements that he resorted to ruthless methods. Numerous Ukrainians deemed rebellious were executed or deported to labor centers. In addition, Stalin implemented policies that directly targeted the Ukraine, such as the forced collectivization of agriculture, which resulted in the catastrophic Great Famine of 1933-1934. Stalin’s decision to export grain from Ukraine, abandoning its own people to starve, exacerbated this famine. According to UNESCO, an estimated six million Ukrainians perished as a consequence of this famine, making it among the deadliest man-made catastrophes in history of the world.

Despite the oppression and devastation the Ukrainian people endured under Soviet rule, independence movements continued to expand. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine attained independence as a sovereign nation. In its pursuit of stability and prosperity, however, the nation has continued to confront obstacles, such as political corruption and ongoing disputes with Russia.

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of USSR

Independent Nation of Ukraine

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine gained independence and became a sovereign nation. However, there were impediments during the country’s shift to autonomy. The Ukrainian economy had been heavily reliant on the Soviet system and endured a challenging restructuring process. In spite of all this, Ukraine has made substantial progress over the past three decades, establishing a market-oriented economy and entering the World Trade Organization in 2008.

Today, Ukraine has become known as the breadbasket of Europe due to its production of a significant portion of the continent’s cereals. The country’s fertile soil and favorable climate have made it a crucial farming producer, with wheat, maize, and barley among the most important crops. In addition, Ukraine is home to substantial oil reserves, both on land as well as in the Black Sea. The region’s political circumstances have been heavily influenced by the country’s strategic location as a transit route for Russian oil and gas exports to Europe.

However, the economic relationship between Russia and Ukraine never became harmonious over time. The two nations have a long history of political tensions and economic disputes, and Russia – with its own massive oil reserves – has been accused of using its energy supplies as a political leverage tool. These tensions culminated in the ongoing conflict in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, igniting a horrifying war that continues to this day.

NATO

Right before the U.S.S.R. fell, West Germany (influenced by the United States) and East Germany (influenced by the U.S.S.R.) was reunited. During the reunification process, the U.S. promised the U.S.S.R. that NATO (the Cold War military alliance to protect western Europe from the U.S.S.R.) would not expand “not one inch eastward” from its then-current borders. However, in the late 1990s all the way to the early 2000s, more and more countries east of Germany have joined NATO. Russia has felt threatened by this expansion, and has warned against Ukraine joining NATO for many years.

Ukraine is right between Europe and Russia, and its location has put it at the center of geopolitical tensions. Within Ukraine, many Ukrainians in the center and west want to join NATO and be closer to Europe, while many ethnic Russians in the east want to have closer ties to Russia. This divide has been a source of tension within Ukraine, and has been exploited by Russia to exert influence in the region. The situation has been further complicated by the United States’ and NATO’s previous broken promises regarding expansion, and Russia’s perception of being surrounded and threatened by NATO.

Russia-Ukraine War: Map of NATO

Thanks for reading Lessons in Humanities!
Subscribe for free to receive new posts and teaching resources.


Beginning of Russia-Ukraine War

In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych’s election as president of Ukraine set off a chain of events that would have profound implications for the country’s future. Yanukovych turned away from opportunities to bring Ukraine closer to Europe, instead seeking closer relations with Russia, much to the dismay of many Ukrainians. In response, they took to the streets in protest, eventually leading to Yanukovych’s ousting. However, this move did not sit well with pro-Russian Ukrainians in the eastern region of Ukraine known as Donbas region, leading to counterprotests and Russian involvement.

The situation escalated when Russia annexed Crimea – just like the Russian Empire annexed Crimea more than two hundred years earlier – and invaded the Donbas region, leading to a conflict that lasted for eight long years.

Finally, in 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite Putin’s hopes for a quick victory, Ukraine, under the leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky, held out and prevented Russia from taking the capital, extending the war.

Vladimir Putin cited his opposition to Ukraine joining NATO as the main reason for the invasion. However, many saw this invasion as an attempt to expand Russia’s territory and influence in the region. Historians have argued he is trying to re-create the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. The war has caused death, displacement, and destruction. The world watches and waits for a resolution to this conflict that has already cost so much.

Ukraine map

The Future

The present conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been festering for a long time. The death, destruction, and international anxiety it has caused is immeasurable. To understand conflicts like the Ukraine-Russia War, it is important to look at the history between the two countries. Despite the enormous human toll, a peaceful future remains possible.

Jed Holtzman Signature
Russia-Ukraine War Teaching Activity