Ukraine-Russia relations

Explaining the two countries’ intertwined histories, the armed conflicts in Crimea and the Donbas region, and disputes over gas supplies.

Explainer
Published 24 November 2021 Updated 13 October 2022 7 minute READ

Updated on 24 March 2022

Ukraine-Russia relations

When Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991, it emerged from 70 years of totalitarianism, having suffered civil war in the Bolshevik revolution, famine in the 1930s, the brutal Nazi occupation, the holocaust of the Second World War, and political purges and stagnation in more recent decades.

The Soviet Union was a Russian-dominated political construct with the Ukrainian communist party little more than a puppet of the central authority in Moscow. Ukrainian culture and language were considered secondary to Russian which was the language of science, politics, administration, and the urban centres. Its political and cultural elites were either wiped out or syphoned off to Moscow to serve the Soviet administration.

As with many other Soviet republics, Ukraine was effectively colonized by Moscow, a relationship carried over from the pre-revolutionary era of Tsarist imperial Russia. Its wealth and population were exploited for the benefit of the ruling Russian class.

Due to this turbulent history, Ukraine was a traumatized nation at its independence with no statecraft tradition of its own on which to build a new, independent state. And its energy, trade, and cultural ties with Russia remained strong despite the collapse of the political union.

The story of contemporary Ukraine is largely the story of its attempts to define a new future for itself in Europe and Russia’s attempts to obstruct this new direction.

A short history of Ukraine and Russia

Ukraine suffered disproportionately under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The dictator’s war on land ownership affected mostly Ukrainian-speaking peasants and his forced collectivization of agriculture led to a famine which killed 7–10 million people in the early 1930s.

During the Second World War, Ukraine was overrun by Nazi forces and subjected to a horrific holocaust. Around 8 million Ukrainians are believed to have lost their lives during the war, with around 1–2 million Ukrainian Jews executed by Nazi death squads.

After the war Ukraine had a kind of boosted status in the Soviet Union, being a founding member of the United Nations with a nominal form of independence within the union. And Leonid Brezhnev, a Ukrainian, served as president of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982.

But the reality bore no relation to the constitution – Ukraine was directly ruled by the communist party in Moscow. Ukraine became a centre for the Soviet arms industry and a location for much of the nuclear arsenal. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster created public outrage among Ukrainians at the secretive, deceitful, and inhumane handling of the incident.

However, there was always a strong dissident movement. Ukraine played a key role in pushing for the implementation of human rights and freedom as outlined in the Helsinki Accords of 1976, which subsequently contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985, hoped to renegotiate a new treaty to redefine the Soviet Union. But his efforts were frustrated by Ukraine’s protestors and emerging national-democratic opposition who pushed for more autonomy post-Chernobyl.

The protestors were emboldened by Gorbachev’s own reforms. Perestroika (‘reconstruction’ - his attempt to reform the Soviet Communist Party) and glasnost (the related ‘openness’ policy reforms) were meant to reinvigorate the country after years of stagnation – but served mainly to hasten the collapse and break-up of the supranational state.

In August 1991 a coup attempt was launched against Gorbachev by Russian leaders of the KGB and armed forces who opposed perestroika, with Gorbachev held prisoner in Crimea. He was released after the coup failed but weakened by the failure of his reforms, and prominent Russian leader Boris Yeltsin began assuming power in Moscow. With Russian politics in such turmoil, there was nothing to prevent Ukrainian independence.

When did Ukraine leave the Soviet Union?

Ukraine declared independence on 23rd August 1991. In early December the Ukrainian declaration was ratified by a referendum with a 90 per cent ‘yes’ vote. Leonid Kravchuk was elected as its first president. The same month Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence.

Initially there was euphoria in Ukraine. The transition to independence had been peaceful, with both the communists and democrats agreeing to break away, largely due to the predicted economic potential of the country.

America was taken aback by Ukraine’s firm position on independence. But it had to remain closely engaged due to Ukraine’s large Soviet nuclear arsenal. The 1994 Budapest memorandum agreed to decommission the weapons, with security assurances provided by the US, Russia, UK and France that were meant to guarantee Ukrainian territorial integrity.

However, Ukraine suffered in the 1990s as its Soviet-style planned economy collapsed. There was widespread economic suffering, with shortages, blackouts, inflation, and spiking emigration. Equally, the country remained plagued by corruption and cronyism.

From 2004 to 2007 economic prosperity increased considerably, coinciding with a desire for greater democracy and human rights.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict explained

The origins of the current conflict lie in Russia’s long-standing aspiration to control its periphery, which was embodied by Vladimir Putin after his ascent to power in 2000. Part of his ambition was to hold Ukraine tight to Russia economically and politically. Initially his strategy was soft coercion, but it became more assertive and aggressive over time.

The origins of the current conflict lie in Russia’s long-standing aspiration to control its periphery.

It was the Orange Revolution of 2004 that made Putin reconsider his tactics. His favoured candidate for the Ukrainian presidency, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by the ballot after being implicated in rigging the election results.

Victor Yushchenko, a pro-western opposition candidate, came to power in his place. Yushchenko was poisoned during electoral race but survived to serve as Ukraine’s president from 2005–2010. Russia was widely blamed for the poisoning.

However, Russia maintained a grip on key sectors. Ukraine’s exports were still primarily to Russia, top security positions were held by individuals with Russian passports, and it was completely dependent on Russian gas: Ukraine had signed a very unfavourable gas deal in 2008, which committed it to being the largest buyer of Russian gas, at a higher than market price.

The media and cultural space was dominated by Russia-produced cultural product. State policy in  support for Ukrainian language and culture was suboptimal.

Additionally, before 2018 Ukraine had no independent Orthodox church. The Russian Orthodox church had total jurisdiction over the canonical territory in Ukraine, with almost as many parishes in Ukraine as in Russia.

Meanwhile the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet continued to be based in Crimea, with a 2010 deal ensuring it would remain there for decades to come. Neutrality was embedded in Ukraine’s constitution, at Russia’s insistence, preventing Ukraine from joining NATO.

All Ukrainian presidents had to respond to a growing public demand for closer integration with the European Union.

However, all Ukrainian presidents (including Yanukovych) had to respond to a growing public demand for closer integration with the European Union (EU).

The EU offered far better economic benefits and respect for human rights than continuing ties to Russia.

Wishing to prevent a democratic Ukraine becoming part of the EU market, Russia upped its hostile rhetoric against the EU as well as NATO.

The annexation of Crimea

The path to annexation began in Ukraine’s attempts to build closer political and trade relationships with the EU. Yanukovych had returned to prominence and been elected to the Ukrainian presidency in 2010. Putin pressured him to reject a new association and trade agreement with the EU, negotiated over a period of seven years.

Russia exerted intense pressure on Yanukovych through trade sanctions, banning the import of Ukrainian goods or their transit over its territory to China.

It also threatened Ukraine’s security, fomenting unrest in the east of Ukraine and Crimea.

Yanukovych agreed to postpone the EU agreement. This led to the Euromaidan protests of 2013, with the Ukrainian people taking to the streets. Putin had not anticipated a strong popular reaction to what seemed to him like a bureaucratic trade document, or how the protesters would persist with their demands.

But to Ukrainians it was understood as a pivotal moment for their country: choosing to remain tied to autocratic Russia or join rule-based Europe.

Over a hundred people were shot by police snipers in the last days of the protests in Kyiv’s central streets. Having lost all legitimacy, support of ruling elites and his own political party, Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014.

This prompted Putin’s military take-over of the strategic Crimean peninsula.

Video explainer of crimea

When did Russia invade Ukraine?

Russia first invaded Ukraine when it annexed Crimea during February and March 2014. It struck while Ukraine was vulnerable with a temporary government and unprepared military. Putin deployed 30,000 troops without insignia to seize control of the regional infrastructure then staged a referendum to legitimize the occupation. The West urged Ukraine not to react with force.

Putin then immediately moved to strike in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. By creating a new problem elsewhere, Russia distracted international attention from the Crimean takeover which had been bloodless.

Russian special forces, jointly with local militias in Donbas, declared independent ‘people’s republics’ leading to open military conflict with Ukrainian armed forces.

In addition, in the summer of 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down by a Russia-supplied surface to air missile operated by pro-Russia separatists. Almost 300 passengers and crew were killed.

Between 2014 and 2021 the conflict cost Ukraine more than $10 billion, caused 14,000 deaths, and left Donbas the most landmined area in Europe.

Putin hoped to eventually force Ukraine into concessions by waging this prolonged, low intensity conflict. Russia participated in diplomatic efforts like the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, but demanded unique powers and autonomous status for the Donbas region.

Over time key diplomatic players such as France and Germany shifted their position to support Kyiv’s interpretation of the Minsk agreement. They were united in opposing Russia’s measures, which were clearly intended to weaken Ukraine and keep it permanently under Russian domination.

Putin gradually understood that his strategy was failing. Ukraine was steadily integrating with the EU as part of its Association and Trade Agreement and refused to abide by the Russian vision of the settlement.

He ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February 2022. Russian forces attacked from Donbas, Crimea and neighbouring Belarus. Their initial objective, to swiftly install a Russian puppet government in Kyiv, failed.

Ukrainian resistance was prepared, organized and effective. President Zelenskyy, elected in 2019, received a high level of public approval for his war-time leadership. The whole nation mobilized against the invading force.

Putin’s hopes for collaboration from pro-Russian elements were exposed as fantasy. Russia’s military advances stalled. The Kremlin failed to achieve any strategic objective after one month of military campaigning.

Ukraine’s resistance inspired NATO, the EU and the US into action, launching unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and supporting Ukraine with arms, economic and humanitarian aid.

What does Russia want from Ukraine?

Russia has three main objectives, all of which have strong domestic motivations.

First, Ukraine is viewed as belonging to the Russian ‘sphere of influence’, a territory rather than an independent state. Ukraine and Belarus, as former Soviet Union states, are believed to form a single historic ‘triune’ nation with Russia. Putin started the war to destroy Ukraine’s nation-building project, aiming to restore a ‘historical Russia’ according to borders prior to 1917.

Ukraine’s attempts to break away are seen as a direct, Western-backed attack on Russia’s sovereignty.
This strong sense of entitlement drives the Kremlin to obstruct Ukraine’s integration with Euro-Atlantic structures.

Initially Russia tried to use the Donbas conflict to keep Ukraine unstable, weak, toxic for Western investments, and unfit for membership in any collective security alliance, especially NATO.

The 2022 invasion indicated a strategic shift as Russia sought to subjugate Ukraine by force, although this appears to have been an enormous miscalculation.

Putin’s second objective is to solidify his autocratic rule at home. He wants to prevent the emergence of an alternative, democratic system of government on the Russian border.

A defeated, compliant Ukraine serves as a lesson to ordinary Russians – that revolution leads to disaster. A failed Ukraine is an antidote to democratic sentiments inside Russia, where memories of the chaos following the Soviet collapse remain powerful.

Third, Putin uses Ukraine to feed a wider narrative of Russia as being a fortress under siege by the West and needing a strong commander-in-chief to protect its ‘civilization’.

In Russian media the war in Ukraine is portrayed as a ‘special operation’ in response to a Western project to undermine Russia.

How will the war in Ukraine end?

The terms that end the war will depend on battlefield outcomes and internal developments in Russia. The keys to stopping the invasion are in the Kremlin.

Currently it is unlikely that either side can completely prevail. Russia’s hopes for a swift, shock regime change in Ukraine have foundered, and its tactics have turned more brutal. Incidents of the use of banned weapons and evidence of war crimes are growing. Indiscriminate attacks and siege warfare are intended to grind Ukraine into a deal that meets Russian objectives.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is determined to resist and expel Russian forces from its territory. It believes that the war will bleed the Russian economy and weaken Putin. Neither side, therefore, felt compelled to concede after the initial fighting.

When a negotiated settlement does come, it will need the complete democratic consent of the Ukrainian people to succeed. Ukraine has already officially applied to join the EU and wants to remain sovereign to pursue any other integration and cooperation projects.

The most difficult aspect of any negotiation is security. The best security guarantee for Ukraine is a new Russia so, until this happens, any arrangements will be shaky. Ukraine is unlikely to concede to disarmament, a key Russian demand.

Whatever Putin’s true beliefs about the threat of Ukrainian NATO membership, he has used the issue as his key reason for invasion. Despite NATO’s open-door policy, some members of the alliance are blocking Ukraine’s accession. One option is to devise a new formula outside of NATO, based on the current ‘coalition of the willing’ to offer Ukrainian people a peaceful future.

Economic relations between Ukraine and Russia

Ukrainian exports to Russia collapsed after the annexation of Crimea – from $29 billion in 2011 to roughly $5 billion in 2021. Meanwhile exports to the EU almost doubled since 2012. China is now Ukraine’s number one trade partner thanks to industries such as agriculture and steel.

Bilateral economic relations between Russia and Ukraine reached a watershed in 2014 when Ukraine stopped purchasing gas from Russia.

Ukraine switched to buying it on the free European market, importing through Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, and using its domestic gas storage facilities to sustain supply during high-demand periods. Russia can therefore no longer threaten to ‘turn off the taps’ to Ukraine to exert pressure directly through energy.

More recently Ukraine has taken urgent steps to disconnect itself from the Russian electricity grid, another Soviet legacy, and to find alternative sources of diesel fuel. Since the 2022 invasion Ukraine will likely attempt to nationalize all Russian assets in the country.

Russia–Ukraine gas

Gas still transits across Ukraine from Russian fields into the EU, an agreement running until 2024. Before the 2022 invasion it was widely understood that so long as this vital energy supply ran through Ukraine, Russia was unlikely to invade and the EU was compelled to mediate often conflicting Ukraine-Russian gas relations.

Russia’s strategy was to build other pipelines around Ukraine, heaping pressure on the state and making it of less strategic importance to the EU. But the 2022 invasion has destroyed that strategy.

In response, German foreign and energy policy has undergone a seismic shift. The new government of Olaf Scholz has pledged to increase German defence spending, divest itself from Russian energy supplies and arm Ukraine. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, long seen as a major threat to Ukraine’s security, has been effectively cancelled.

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EU–Ukraine–Russia relations

Arguably Putin’s 2022 invasion may have expedited Ukraine’s integration with the EU and completely isolated Russia as a pariah state. Until February 2022 Europe was investing in Nordstream 2, increasing its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and undermining its own energy security.

Germany’s support of the pipeline, which would have made the country the major gas hub in Europe, meant its leadership was by-proxy endorsing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Until 2022 the gas supply issue therefore empowered Russia, divided the EU, and threatened Ukraine.

But the invasion has destroyed that dynamic. The EU has united in opposition to Russia, compelling it to vigorously support Ukrainian democracy, and to seek alternative energy supplies.

The EU foreign minister says the invasion signals a ‘new era’ in the EU relationship with Russia and that the EU must ‘decrease as quick as possible’ its dependency on Russian oil and gas. Phasing out Russian oil and coal will happen faster than gas, but is only a matter of time.

Russia’s relationship with the EU is likely to remain adversarial until Russia’s strategic outlook on Europe and its neighbourhood changes, while international sanctions weaken Russia and increase its dependence on China.

Ukraine is probably closer now to EU membership than it ever has been before. It has armed forces capable of defending its territory, and any dream of Ukraine as a settled part of a Russian sphere of influence appears to be dead.

Chatham House’s Ukraine Forum provides regular analysis of developments in and around Ukraine.