Tensions between Ukraine and Russia are nothing new. Four events from the last 300 years highlight instances of Russian aggression and Ukrainian resistance.
Russification and annexation
One of the first modern instances of a Russian attempt to seize Ukraine occurred in 1793. The portion of what is now Ukraine east of the Dnieper River was signed into Russian control with the 1686 Treaty of Perpetual Peace, following the Russo-Polish war of 1654-67. Over a century later, during the rule of Catherine the Great of Russia, western Ukraine was annexed by the Russian empire. Thus began the “Russification” of Ukraine, a movement that “banned the use and study of the Ukrainian language,” and “pressured [Ukrainains] to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith,” according to National Geographic. This attempt to consume Ukraine beginning in the Russian-speaking East and continuing across the Dnieper to the more independent West is echoed today.
By 1922, Ukraine had been fully absorbed into the Soviet Union. But a decade later, dictator Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine to both punish Ukrainians for their independence and to purge the region of subsistence farmers and replace them with state-run collective farms. The process began with the arrests of “tens of thousands of Ukrainian teachers and intellectuals” and the removal of Ukrainian books from schools and libraries, according to “How Joseph Stalin Starved Millions in the Ukrainian Famine.”
After removing Ukrainians who were both educated and likely to question his authority, Soviet officials drove peasants off their farms and made plans to deport 50,000 families to Siberia. When Ukraine’s 1932 grain harvest missed its target by 60%, Stalin had their remaining food confiscated. As more grain was taken to fill quotas during the ensuing year-long famine, the floors of peasants’ homes were dug up to search for hidden stores, and peasants were arrested or brutally murdered if they were suspected of hoarding food. By the summer of 1933, only a third of each household remained on some collective farms, whether from fleeing the countryside in search of food, being arrested or killed by Stalin’s crop collectors, or dying from starvation. In the fall, Stalin began to ease the collections and repopulate Ukraine with Russians and other Soviet citizens.
The famine is known as the “Holodomor,” a compound of the Ukrainian “holod” – hunger – and “mor” – plague, and is estimated to have killed 3.9 million – 13% of the population.
Russian poison and the Orange Revolution
On July 16, 1990, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) voted to declare independence from the dissolving Soviet Union. In the years that followed, Leonid Kuchma, the second president of independent Ukraine, helped to “transition Ukraine from a Soviet republic to a capitalist society, privatizing businesses and working to improve international economic opportunities,” according to an article by npr.org. Instead of running for a third term in the 2004 presidential election, Kuchma endorsed Russian-backed candidate Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was pitted against “popular pro-democracy opposition leader” Viktor Yushchenko, running on a platform of anticorruption and anticronyism.
In September of 2004 – only a month before the election – Yushchenko fell mysteriously ill after a dinner with the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, Ihor Smeshko. He was later confirmed to have been poisoned with dioxin, a chemical found in Agent Orange that left his face disfigured. According to Radio Free Europe, tests on the dioxins found in Yushchenko’s blood showed that they could only have been manufactured in the United States, Great Britain, or Russia.
Yanukovych was declared the winner in the November runoff election, but Yushchenko’s supporters charged fraud. Almost two weeks of mass protests followed, dubbed the “Orange Revolution” because of the protestors wearing orange, the color of Yushchenko’s campaign. After a third vote, Yushchenko won the election.
Russian puppets and the Maidan revolution
Despite the Orange Revolution of 2004, Yanukovych won the presidential election of 2010, defeating Yuschenko’s prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Mere days before signing Ukraine into a late-2013 free trade agreement with the European Union, Yanukovych announced that he would refuse to sign it under pressure from Russia. Following the announcement, massive protests swept Ukraine, the largest since the Orange Revolution – dubbed the “Maidan Revolution,” after the protesters calling for Yanukovych’s resignation began to occupy Kyiv’s government buildings and Independence Square, known as the Maidan. According to npr.org, by late February, “violence between police and protesters [had left] more than 100 dead in the single bloodiest week in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.” Fearing an impeachment vote and the charge of mass-murdering the Maidan protesters, Yanukovych fled, seeking refuge in Russia. He was replaced by Oleksandr Turchynov as acting president.
After declaring the change in government an “illegal coup,” Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared at various facilities in the Crimean peninsula. Putin at first denied any connection to these “little green men,” but by March of 2014, Russian troops had seized the peninsula. The Crimean parliament voted to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia, marking “the only time that a European nation has used military force to seize the territory of another since World War II.” With 40,000 Russian troops still occupying eastern Ukraine, violence broke out in the Donbas region, which is ongoing. In the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, government buildings were besieged by “Russian-supported separatist forces,” who asserted themselves as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic – declaring the regions independent from Ukraine.
In September of 2014, representatives from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany came together to sign the first Minsk agreement – a cease-fire. However, the agreement was soon broken, and the violence in the Donbas region resumed. It has now been determined that Yanukovych was “serving Russian interests” during his presidency, according to The New York Times.
The new iron curtain
Today, Russian aggression against Ukraine – and attempts to seize it as part of Russia – echo the attacks of the past, but now more violently and irreversibly. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy describes the “missile blasts, fighting, and the rumble of aircraft” as “the sound of a new iron curtain, which has come down and is closing Russia off from the civilized world. Our national task,” he says, “is to make sure this curtain does not fall across our land.”