Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear that he considers Ukraine’s place to be under Russia’s thumb. That was its position from the days of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the 18th century through the nations’ shared history in the Soviet Union. In recent years, successive Ukrainian governments have forged closer ties with the European Union and NATO, then sidled back toward Russia, and edged away again. With war, Putin means to settle the direction of Ukraine’s future by force.
They share a long common past, dating back more than a millennium to the establishment of the first Slavic state, Kyivan Rus, in parts of what are today Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The territory of contemporary Ukraine became part of the Russian empire in the late 1700s after periods of rule under the Mongols or Tatars, the Poles and Lithuanians. In 1918, a year after Russia’s communist revolution, Ukraine declared independence, but in 1921, the Red Army conquered most of it and Ukraine became a republic within the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian sense of a national identity was sharpened in the 1930s when Soviet policies punishing farmers in the republic who resisted mandates to collectivize produced the man-made famine known as the Holodomor, which killed an estimated 7 million people there. Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s preferred notion -- widely derided outside of Russia -- is that Ukraine is not a legitimate country and that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.