Why Russia and Ukraine are so closely linked

Today’s crisis over Ukraine, with echoes of the Cold War, has its deep roots in history that stretches back over 1,000 years and continues to produce aftershocks of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

As difficult as it may be to grasp Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal in massing troops near Ukraine, history has long linked Ukraine and Russia and explains why some Russians – and a minority of Ukrainians – believe that the former Soviet republic should never join the Western army. alliance or the European Union.

“Our kinship has been passed down from generation to generation,” Putin wrote in an essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, last July. “Because we are one people.

Geography matters: the two nations share a 2,295 kilometer border. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe by area, after Russia.

In the 9th century, Kievan Rus was the largest state in Europe, occupying lands that today make up large parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Kiev, the capital of modern Ukraine, became the most important city of the principality, which laid the foundations of the national identity of Ukrainians and Russians.

Russia controlled the majority of the remnants of Kievan Rus for almost three centuries – throughout the Russian Empire (1721-1917) and the Soviet Union (1922-1991).

Echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis between the Soviet Union and the United States

Ukraine was one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, which was a highly centralized state made up mostly of land that once belonged to the Russian Empire.

After World War II and during the Cold War, Ukraine, as a Soviet republic, was part of the Warsaw Pact, which was the Soviet bloc’s response to the West’s collective defense entity, the Organization of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO expanded its presence across the region formerly east of the Iron Curtain.

Over the past two decades, NATO has added 14 European countries to its membership, which now number 30. The new members include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

NATO has ballistic missiles in several European countries, including Poland and Romania.

“The United States stands with missiles at our doorstep”, Putin noted in December. “How would the Americans react if missiles were placed on the border with Canada or Mexico?

Putin’s words recalled what was arguably the most dangerous chapter in relations between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.

The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962 when the United States deployed missiles in Italy and Turkey, and the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba, near the United States. To defuse the crisis, the leaders of the two nuclear powers agreed to withdraw their missiles.

Russia says the US promised NATO would not expand eastward.

More recently, Russia claimed that the United States promised in the early 1990s that NATO would not expand to Eastern Europe.

“You promised us in the 1990s that NATO would not move an inch to the East. You shamelessly deceived us”, Putin noted in December.

Washington denies ever making such a promise.

Although NATO has never offered Ukraine membership, it has not excluded it and is unwilling to accept Putin’s request to do so.

The EU has similarly expanded and now includes a number of countries aligned with the Soviet Union, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

“One fact is crystal clear: Russia has been robbed, indeed,” Putin said. wrote in his July essay, emphasizing his view that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia should have maintained control over at least some of the nation states now aligned with the West.

‘Sphere of Influence’ for Security

To impose its will, Russia sent troops to two former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. Since 2008, his forces have controlled 20% of Georgia, and in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine.

Since 2014, Moscow has backed pro-Russian separatists who now largely control the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

“Under Putin’s leadership, Russia appears to be trying to restore a sphere of influence in the territories of historic Russia,” said Maria Popova, an associate professor in the department of political science at McGill University in Canada.

But she dismissed the idea that Russia today has a claim to Ukraine based on history.

“Most neighboring countries in the world have historical ties and were at one time part of the same state or polity,” Popova said, “but aggression is not tolerated on the basis of those old ties. “.

Russia and Ukraine share religious, cultural and linguistic ties.

Beyond geography, Russia and Ukraine have religious, cultural and linguistic ties. In Kievan Rus, Old Russian was the main language spoken and it evolved into modern Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian.

During the Russian Empire and under the Soviet Union, Moscow sought to suppress the use of Ukrainian. The language was banned in schools and Ukrainian books were burned in the streets.

Today, about 14% of Ukrainians, mainly in the east of the country, consider Russian their mother tongue, and most are bilingual. Many Russian speakers live in the east, near Russia, many in areas now controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Shared religious beliefs also emerged from the Kievan Rus era. In the 10th century, the ruler Saint Vladimir proclaimed Orthodox Christianity the state religion, leading to the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“The spiritual choice made by Saint Vladimir”, Putin wrote last July, “still largely determines our affinity today”.

In 2016, Moscow erected a nearly 60-foot-tall statue of Saint Vladimir, who Russia and Ukraine claim as the founder of their state, just across from the Kremlin.

Until 2019, Ukrainian Orthodox churches operated under the religious authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. But the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has since split from the Russian Orthodox Church and gained independence.

“This is another indication that Russia has alienated the traditionally pro-Russian populations in Ukraine from Russia to the point that they have created their own separate church, when in fact the religion is the same,” Popova said. .

Putin would disagree. “For many people in Ukraine, the anti-Russian project is simply unacceptable,” Putin said in his test last July.

(For more News Decoder stories from Ukraine, click here.)

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