Ukraine and Russia: how closeness turned into war

How did the relatively amicable relations of Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s dissolve into today's brutal conflict?
yeltsin putin ukraine
Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin, 2004. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
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On May 10, 2022, Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine died, just a week after the death of the first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich. Both men were in their late 80s. Together with Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, they had signed the Belavezha Accords, the agreement that effectively put an end to the Soviet Union, an event that Vladimir Putin later described as the ‘demise of historical Russia.’ In February 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine in a savage war, executing local residents en masse, raping and stealing, and heavily damaging several major cities through shelling, including Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Mariupol. The ostensible reasons for the invasion include the ‘de-Nazification’ and de-militarisation of Ukraine, as well as broader fears of NATO expansion, and the Russian president’s apparent refusal to recognise Ukraine as an independent state. Following the failure to capture Kyiv in the first days after the February 24 invasion, Putin’s priority shifted eastward to the Donbas in support of two breakaway regions that call themselves the Donetsk and Luhansk National Republics (DNR and LNR).

What are the origins of Russian-Ukrainian antagonism? How is one to explain an attack by a global military power on a smaller neighbour with which it shares so much historically and culturally, and even in several areas linguistically? 

In 1991 at Belavezha, Yeltsin was more concerned about removing his rival Gorbachev than with the concept of an independent Ukraine. Likely he did not think too far ahead about the ramifications of forming a temporary alliance with his two Slavic neighbours, neither of which seemed particularly well prepared for independence since they lacked constitutions, currencies, and even formalised borders. 

Following the disintegration of the USSR, there were some urgent questions to resolve. One was the status of the Black Sea Fleet, which was now located exclusively within the territory of independent Ukraine. A second was the status of Crimea, where a strong pro-Russia movement was developing, and which had become part of Ukraine partly by accident, in that the 1954 agreement by which Russia presented it to Ukraine as a gift had never anticipated that the recipient would leave the Soviet Union. A third was nuclear weapons: aside from Russia, Soviet nuclear weapons were located in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. After independence, Kazakhstan and Belarus promptly allowed their weapons to be transported to Russia for dismantling. Ukraine demurred, regarding the weapons as vital to its security needs. The impasse continued for the next two years before Ukraine finally agreed to give up its weapons in return for security guarantees of its borders and independence from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom in the Budapest Memorandum.

The first issue to become prominent was the status of Crimea, when its president Yuriy Meshkov, the co-founder of the Republican Movement of Crimea (RDK), announced his intention in 1994 to integrate with Russia. Though he had several supporters in Russia, including the Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov and the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky, he failed to secure the backing of President Yeltsin. In 1995, Ukraine, now under its second president, Leonid Kuchma, responded by scrapping the Crimean Constitution, abolishing the office of Crimean president, and deporting Meshkov to Moscow.

Two years later, Russia and Ukraine signed an important Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership, which provided the Russian side with 81.7 per cent of the Black Sea Fleet and allowed it to lease two large bays at the main port of Sevastopol for the next twenty years, with an option to renew for five years. Russia agreed to respect the current borders of Ukraine and refrain from any interference in Ukrainian state affairs. In April 2010, a further treaty was signed in Kharkiv that extended the lease until 2042, in return for Russia providing Ukraine with natural gas at discount prices. By that time, however, relations between the two states had begun to deteriorate.

Boris Yeltsin stepped down as Russian president at the end of 1999, having appointed his fifth prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his designated successor. The 1990s had been years of turmoil for most Russians following the imposition of shock therapy, which impoverished an estimated 60 per cent of the population. Yeltsin had been incapacitated with heart problems. In 1998, a financial crisis resulted in the collapse of many banks. A disastrous intervention into Chechnya ended with the defeat of the Russian army. Putin seemed to be the answer for most Russians. He began his period as prime minister by renewing the war in Chechnya and securing a victory through ferocious bombing and more sophisticated military tactics. The victory boosted his campaign for the presidency in March 2000. The economy revived with the rise of oil and gas prices, but the new president took the credit. 

Regarding the former Soviet republics, Putin’s policy was to integrate them in Russian-led entities, such as the Collective Security Treaty of the CIS, formed in 1992 and consisting of Russia, Belarus, and the states of Central Asia other than Turkmenistan. By 2002, it was renamed as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Notably, Ukraine took little part in the CIS and declined to join the CSTO. In 2004, after Kuchma ended his second term, it elected as president Viktor Yushchenko, head of the Our Ukraine party rather than Putin’s designate Viktor Yanukovych, the former governor of Donetsk. The second round of the election had to be rerun following some obvious voting fabrications in the Donbas region that had initially put Yanukovych ahead. Mass protests followed in Kyiv that were termed the ‘Orange Revolution’ after the orange scarves worn by Yushchenko’s supporters. 

Yushchenko’s presidency, which was marked by bitter political in-fighting, alienated Russia. During his term in office, two nationalist figures were elevated to the status of ‘heroes of Ukraine’: Roman Shukhevych, leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) that had fought against Soviet forces in the period 1944-50 in western Ukraine; and Stepan Bandera, leader of the most militant branch of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) from 1940 onward. Yushchenko promised to recognise UPA members — regarded as traitors in Russia — as veterans of the Great Patriotic War. The main activity of the OUN was in the 1930s and directed against the Polish government. But in 1941, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, they were accompanied by two Ukrainian units, Roland and Nachtigal, formed by agreement between Bandera and the German Abwehr. On 30 June 1941, the OUN-B briefly declared Ukrainian independence in Lviv, but the Germans refused to accept it. They arrested OUN leaders and imprisoned Bandera in Sachsenhausen for the remainder of the war. 

The UPA was officially founded in October 1942, but active from the following spring. It targeted Poles in Volhynia and killed between 60,000 and 100,000 in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Once the Soviets returned, Shukhevych led UPA in a bitter guerrilla war against Soviet rule in western Ukraine until his death in a skirmish in 1950.

In 2010, Yanukovych gained a measure of revenge when he defeated Yushchenko — though his main opponent was the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — and became president. His period in office was one of unabated corruption, lawlessness, and the esconcement of the president’s Donetsk allies in the Cabinet of Ministers. In 2011, he had Tymoshenko arrested on trumped-up charges. Matters came to a head in late 2013 when Yanukovych decided to follow Putin’s advice and opted not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. He accepted a large loan of $15 billion from Russia and a promise of cheaper gas prices instead. Demonstrators gathered in the Maidan, the central square in Kyiv, and remained there, in massive numbers at times, until 21 February in what were called Euro-Maidan protests — and later the ‘Revolution of Dignity.’

The uprising ultimately removed Yanukovych from power. It turned violent in the last days with armed clashes between demonstrators and the Berkut police forces. Snipers, whose identity has never been definitively determined, shot about 100 people in the square. An attempt at a mediated agreement brokered by the Foreign Ministers of France and Germany that would have allowed Yanukovych to remain in power until a December 2014 election were brushed aside by the protesters. In the aftermath, Putin declared that neo-Nazis had taken power in Ukraine. He requested permission from the Russian Duma to use military force to intervene, and in late March, using the forces of the Black Sea Fleet and mercenaries, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, violating the Budapest Memorandum and the postwar European order. In eastern Ukraine, mercenaries and local pro-Russian forces attempted to take over regional governments, succeeding only in Donetsk and Luhansk, where breakaway regimes were formed. 

A lengthy war ensued in which Ukraine tried and failed to recapture its lost territories. In what was termed the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ and on the orders of the interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, the Ukrainian army advanced eastward, capturing the first stronghold of the DNR forces, Slaviansk, and advancing toward the main city of Donetsk. In August 2014, however, with the assistance of Russian ‘volunteers,’ the separatists mounted a counter-attack and the Ukrainians were defeated at the Battle of Ilovaisk. Attention was paid at this time to the disorganised state of the Ukrainian Army and its ineffective leadership.

Belarus’ Aliaksandr Lukashenka stepped forward at this point and offered his services as a mediator, and an armistice meeting was held in Minsk with the participation of the French and German foreign ministers, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, and Putin. The Accords agreed on the pull-back of heavy weapons, exchanges of prisoners, changes to the Ukrainian Constitution to allow more autonomy for the breakaway regions (Donetsk and Luhansk), and to allow Ukraine to regain control of its eastern border. The leaders of the DNR and LNR also added their signatures to the document. The armistice, however, was short-lived, and according to reports from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, broken by both sides. Fighting renewed, and in February centred on the town of Debaltseve, a strategic location for communication and transport between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. With the help of Russian weapons and ‘volunteers,’ the separatists were successful, at which point Poroshenko again was anxious to end the fighting.  

A second Accord was signed in Minsk in February 2015, again with French and German mediation, along the lines of the original. Subsequently, the heavy fighting ended, with neither side satisfied with the outcome. Spasmodic clashes continued, with frequent casualties. By 2022, in addition to some 2.3 million internally displaced persons, the war resulted in about 14,000 deaths. Among them were 283 passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, show down by a Buk missile fired from separatist-held territory under the command of Colonel Igor Girkin, the ‘Minister of Defence’ of the DNR.

By spring and summer 2014, the Russian leadership began to embrace the notion of Russkiy Mir (Russian World).  This concept originated in the mid-1990s in Russia and was introduced into state policy by Putin in 2001 and involved recapturing territories of the former Russian Empire dating back to the reign of Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century. Putin would eventually shelve the notion in the face of strong opposition from Ukrainian centres west of the Donbas, but it was to be revived and redeveloped eight years later. Thus, the relatively amicable relations of Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s had now come full circle. Russia had attacked Ukraine for the first time; violence had replaced negotiation and Ukraine’s westward path had crossed a ‘red line’ for the Russians — the question of NATO was not on the agenda in 2014. Under Putin, it seemed, Russia could re-emerge as a major world power, first targeting countries of the former Soviet empire. 

Notably, however, whatever the violence in Kyiv in 2014, the election had not resulted in a neo-Nazi takeover as the Russian authorities alleged. In fact, the pro-European centre parties won a majority in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Ukraine had rejected the concept of the Russian World and the leadership of Moscow and embraced Europe. In 2019, Ukrainians rejected Poroshenko’s quest to serve a second term, based on his patriotic election campaign around the slogans ‘Language, Faith, Army,’ following the introduction of a new education law making Ukrainian the language of all secondary education. He also helped to initiate the creation in late 2018 of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine independent from the Moscow Patriarch, travelling to Istanbul to receive the approval of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. 

His electorate, however, paid little attention to such symbolic moves, roundly rejecting Poroshenko in the presidential elections of 2019 in favour of a political neophyte, TV comedian Vladimir Zelensky, a 39-year old Jew from Krivyi Rih industrial region, and a Russian speaker. Ukrainians voted perhaps for economic rather than political reasons, wishing to improve living standards and end corruption. Russia also seemed to herald Zelensky, who had promised to bring an end to the festering war and began with the exchanging of some prisoners. He also appeared on paper as a weaker leader, one who needed guidance, and with support in Parliament from his Servant of the People Party, which consisted mostly of inexperienced new MPs. Zelensky, however, proved a disappointment to the Russian leaders. He modified his name to the Ukrainian variant Volodymyr. He supported the pro-European direction of his predecessor and clamped down sharply on the pro-Russian media and websites operating in Ukraine. He even put the father of Putin’s goddaughter, Viktor Medvedchuk, under house arrest in May 2021. 

For Putin, Ukraine was breaking away from Russia. Zelensky made no secret of his wish for more arms from United States and to join the NATO alliance. Thus, once again, the old 2014 canard of removing neo-Nazis in Ukraine became a feature of Russian propaganda, along with renewed complaints about the expansion of NATO eastward, and Putin made his fateful decision to resolve the Ukrainian problem by intervening directly. 

David R. Marples

David R. Marples is Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, Classics, and Religion and a Research Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of sixteen single-authored and five-edited books on Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

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