Understanding Ukraine: The Historical Context of Contemporary Events

Jeff Berger —

Ukraine is largely an unknown country to most Americans, one that they never travel to. Most Americans couldn’t even place Ukraine on a map or identify the countries that border it. And yet, Ukraine is suddenly at the center of the political conflict between the United States and Russia. The United States first began applying sanctions against Russia in 2014, but few can remember the reason.


History of Ukraine

To understand the present day situation in Ukraine, we need to understand its history and the historical interactions of Ukraine with its neighbors.

The Slavs who eventually became known as Ukrainians first entered the region early in the 6th century. Later the Vikings conquered the territory and introduced Christianity from the Byzantium Empire. A country known as Kieyan Rus’ (or Kyivan Rus’) was created that extended from the Baltic Sea to the forest steppes of eastern Europe. Historical memories of Kievan Rus’ play a role in justifying the existence of a prior Ukrainian nation, although documentation of its existence as a formal nation are a bit sketchy.


The city of Kiev (or Kyiv) was the largest city in Keiyan Rus’. In the 13th century the Golden Horde conquered all of the steppe lands of Asia that extends from Mongolia in the east to the lands north of the Black Sea all the way to the mouth of the Danube River. During this time the Mongol hordes attacked Moscow a couple of times, but they never showed any interest in the forested lands in northern Ukraine.

In the 15th century the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth conquered much of the former territory known as Kievan Rus’, with the Poles controlling the southern portion. The steppe land and the Crimean peninsula north of the Black Sea was part of the Crimean Khanate, whose people were known as Taters, and which eventually became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Taters were nomadic people, and yet the Ukrainian steppes contain some of the best farmland in Europe—which is to say that the land was highly underutilized.

The Ukrainians felt oppressed by the Poles. They had different cultures that included different religions, languages and alphabets. Whereas the Ukrainians practiced the Greek Orthodox religion, the Poles practiced Roman Catholicism. The Cossacks emerged as a fighting force, initially to fight against Tatars who were interested in capturing Ukrainians and selling them as slaves to the Ottomans. Eventually, the Cossacks began to demand that the Polish Kingdom treat them as equals with the Polish nobility, and eventually they won a degree of autonomy in a territory that was called the Hetmanate centered around the city of Kiev. In the 1650s the Russians managed to wrest control of the Hetmenate away from the Poles. And yet, during all of this time the Crimean Khanate remained part of the Ottoman Empire.

By the end of the 18th century the Romanovs of Russia and the Habsburgs of Austria had conquered most of the former Polish Commonwealth. Poland ceased to exist as a country. This is where it is useful to understand the names of the regions in western Ukraine.

Volhynia is the region of northwest Ukraine and it was part of the Russian Empire. Going from east to west from Russia, the southern regions were called Bratslav and Podolia—which were part of the Russian Empire—and Galicia, which was part of the Habsburg Empire. Galicia extended all the way to Krakow in the west.

The Ukrainian portions within the Russian Empire were referred to as Little Russia, which reflected a degree of affection at the same time that it relegated the Ukrainians to a diminutive status. A high degree of assimilation included the introduction of Cossack culture into Russia. The Russians and Ukrainians shared a relationship to the Greek Orthodox Church, but the Ukrainians didn’t necessarily abide by the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. At various times the Tsar tried to suppress the existence of a unique Ukrainian culture. Such suppression included the banning of publications using the Ukrainian language. Such cultural suppression did not exist in Galicia. Thus, the Habsburgs enabled the Ukrainian culture to survive, but at the same time the Ukrainians became more assimilated in Russia than in the Habsburg Empire. Eventually a strong nationalist movement developed in Galicia that the Russians wouldn’t tolerate. On the other hand, many of the Galician Ukrainians adjusted to Catholicism, creating their own hybrid version of Christianity. That is why today we find a mixture of Christian religions in Ukraine that does not exist in Russia. The Galicians became further embittered by the Austrians after the 1848 revolution, because the Habsburgs granted more autonomy to the Hungarians (and created the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and to the Poles, but not the Ukrainians. Naturally the Ukrainians were no less embittered by the Poles who were their former oppressors.


Beginning in the late 18th century the Russians began a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire and eventually took control of all of the lands north and east of the Black Sea. These areas were dubbed New Russia. Around the time of the French Revolution the city of Odessa was established on the Black Sea between Crimea and Bessarabia. Eventually many Ukrainians migrated to Odessa, but so did Russians and Jews and many other ethnicities.

In 1856 the Russians lost the Crimean War to the British and French, but losing the war had little effect other than to convince the Russians of their own industrial weakness. Subsequently they began rapid industrial development of Ukraine and a rapid increase in urban populations, not unlike what the U.S. was also experiencing. To help develop the country, Russia welcomed foreigners from Europe into Ukraine. Parts of southern Ukraine became like a melting pot, including many Germans. However, many Russians also migrated to New Russia, especially in eastern Ukraine, which is why much of the population in eastern Ukraine consider themselves to be Russian. This is also true in the Dneister River Valley, on the border of Ukraine and Moldova, -which goes by the name Transnistria. In Crimea, Russians and Taters lived side by side, and there never were many Ukrainians.

During the last several decades of the Russian Empire, the Tsar spent summer vacations in Crimea. Crimea has some beautiful mountains overlooking the Black Sea. While not known for industry or agriculture, Crimea holds a lot of sentimental value to Russia as a beautiful vacation spot. It also contains a good strategic naval base on the Black Sea, although Russia has other ports along the Black Sea near the Sea of Azov, as well as in the north Caucasus. However, in dry years the Crimean peninsula does not have a lot of fresh water. To solve that problem the Soviets built a canal from Ukraine’s Dnieper River to Crimea.  (Today Ukraine controls that canal, but not the Crimean peninsula.)


During the 20th century, the U.S. and Russia would develop in dramatically different ways, but during the 19th century they were quite similar. While the U.S. fulfilled its Manifest Destiny in North America at the expense of Native Americans and Mexico, Russia fulfilled its Manifest Destiny in Asia and eastern Europe at the expense of a variety of different populations. Both countries used their newly captured frontiers to embark on an industrial revolution and rapid urban population growth, and in the 1860s both countries emancipated their slaves and serfs.

The lands in Europe that the Russian Empire occupied outside of Russia itself were given the name Pale of Settlement. Jews were only permitted to live in the Pale of Settlement and they were greatly persecuted. The Ukrainians committed some of the worst pogroms. The celebrated story of Fiddler on the Roof took place in Ukraine.

The city of Odessa (not far from Transnistria) contained an especially large number of Jews, but Odessa was a cosmopolitan city. Leon Trotsky was from Odessa. Prior to the Crimean War and the creation of the Suez Canal, Odessa was a booming center of commerce for trade between Europe and Asia and Jewish merchants had prospered. Through Odessa, Ukrainian wheat helped to feed Europe. However, as the Suez Canal and other factors began to hurt the Odessan economy, hatred of Jews increased.

When World War 1 erupted, nationalist movements emerged all over the globe and the Ukrainians were part of that movement. As the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917, the Ukrainians—led by the Galicians—fought to achieve independence, but the Ukrainian nationalists were defeated by the Bolsheviks. Soon the Republic of Ukraine was established within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, while the countries of Poland and Romania were also established. Much of western Galicia is today known as Slovakia.

During the interwar years Stalin sometimes encouraged the existence of a unique Ukrainian culture, but at other times he suppressed it. As with other parts of the USSR, the peasants suffered the most. Millions of Ukrainians starved or were sent to the gulags.

The next major changes to the border of Ukraine occurred in 1939 as a result of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact between Stalin and Hitler. Eastern Poland became part of the Ukraine SSR in October, including the city of Lvov, never to be returned to Poland. (After the war, Poland was compensated by being given Silesia which had been part of Germany.) The countryside surrounding Lvov was populated by Ukrainians, but the city was populated by Poles. Stalin deported all of the Poles from the Ukraine SSR to German controlled territory. Similar border adjustments occurred in the southwest of Ukraine. But then Germany invaded Ukraine in June 1941, which they occupied until evacuating it in April 1944. During the war, the Romanians were German allies and they were given control of southwestern Ukraine, including the city of Odessa, Moldova and Bessarabia. The Romanians were as brutal as the Nazis. The holocaust largely emptied Ukraine of most of its Jews. However, many were able to flee into Russia and places like Kazakhstan.

When the United Nations was created in 1945, Ukraine (and Belarus) were given their own seats. After Stalin died in 1953 and lasting until 1982, two Ukrainians served as Soviet Premier—Nakita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. This shows the strong influence that Ukrainians had in the USSR. (Incidentally, Stalin himself was not originally Russian, but rather he was born in the country of Georgia, as was Mikhael Gorbachev.) In 1956 Khrushchev made Crimea part of Ukraine—a decision which would have significant ramifications after the fall of the USSR. In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear plant, only 50 miles north of Kiev, near the border of Belarus, had a meltdown. Much of the territory around Chernobyl is uninhabitable today.

In 1991 when the Soviet Union began to dissolve, the Baltic countries were the first to leave. However, the decision of the Ukrainian people to secede from the USSR was the final death knell. The Russians were afraid that without the Ukrainians to support them, the Muslim minorities would leave the Russians with insufficient power. Still, these same Muslim minorities continue to exist within today’s Russian federation.

As part of the negotiations during the breakup, the Russians were allowed to keep their Baltic Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula and Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear stockpile.

The Orange Revolution

Leonid Kuchma

Leonid Kravchuk served as the first President of Ukraine until 1994. Then came Leonid Kuchma. The transition from the old Soviet economic system (which could hardly be called “communism”) to a new economic system was similar in Ukraine and Russia. Both countries fell victim to the corruption of oligarchs. Kuchma was largely a puppet of the Russians, and when Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin in 2000, the effects of Putin began to be felt in Ukraine.

Viktor Yushchenko


In 2004 Ukraine held an election for a new President. The unpopular Kuchma stepped aside and there were two major candidates competing with each other—Viktor Yushchenko and Victor Yanukovych. Yuschchenko was the reform candidate while Yanukovych was the boss of the Russian Party of Regions in eastern Ukraine. During the election campaign Yushchenko was poisoned and there was evidence that Kuchma was responsible. Thanks to Austrian doctors in Vienna, Yushchenko survived. The election was stolen from Yushchenko, but the people of Kiev demonstrated in the streets and were able to force a new election. These events became known as the Orange Revolution, named after the color symbol of Yushchenko’s campaign.

The results of the second election matched the exit polls from the first election with a strong Yushchenko victory. However, as part of an agreement to stage a second election, the constitution was modified to weaken the power of the presidency. The victory proved to be a Pyrrhic one. Still weakened physically from being poisoned, Yushchenko was also weakened politically. Efforts to join NATO and the European Union stalled and so did the economy.

Viktor Yanukovych

In 2010 Yanukovych was elected to replace Yushchenko and he proved to be a lot worse than Yushchenko. Yanukovych made some phony efforts to join the European Union, but his demands to the EU were unreasonable, as if his intent was to sabotage the negotiations. Yanukovych was a Putin puppet and he transferred up to $70 billion into foreign bank accounts, threatening the financial stability of the state. He rewrote the Constitution to give himself more power and he jailed his political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko, the popular former Prime Minister, on charges of corruption. But Yanukovych had no real interest in joining the EU and even if the EU had accepted Ukraine, Ukraine would have been like a Trojan horse. Donald Trump’s campaign advisor Paul Manafort was Yushchenko’s paid advisor during the negotiations.

The Maidan Uprising

During 2013 Putin pressured Yanukovych to join Putin’s Russian-led Eurasian customs union—that was a political union of post-Soviet states. Yanukovych had made a concession to Putin by prolonging the Russian lease of the Sevastopol navy base by 25 years, but Yanukovych was not eager to join Putin’s economic union. Putin responded with a trade war on Ukraine.

In November protestors began to gather on the streets of Kiev. They were demanding that Ukraine become part of the nations of Europe. But on November 21, Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement with the EU. On November 30, riot police brutally attacked the students camping out on the Maidan Square. The next day, more than half million Kievans were beaten by the police. What had begun as a demand to join Europe turned into a revolution which brought together diverse political forces from both the left and the right. Many of the right-wing forces were conservative nationalists who came to Kiev from western Ukraine. Putin would call them fascists, but they share many of the same values as social conservatives in the United States and Russia.

Student protest in Ukraine

There were more bloody clashes in January. The violence reached its peak on February 18. As the police grew increasingly uncomfortable attacking their own citizens, groups of Russian thugs began to replace them. But, on February 21, Yanukovych fled to Moscow. Yanukovych was more interested in preserving his loot than in preserving his power. A new government was formed and Putin called this Maidan Uprising a coup d’etat. A new government was formed and the Constitution was restored back to what it was in 2004. In May Petro Poroshenko was elected as the new President.

Putin didn’t wait long to react to the Maidan Uprising. On February 26 a band of Russian thugs took control of the Crimean parliament. Those thugs were likely the same thugs who had been fighting protesters in Kiev the week before. Under their protection, Russian intelligence services installed a pro-Russian party, which had obtained only 4 percent of the vote in the previous parliamentary elections, as the new prime minister of Crimea. Soon Russian military forces descended upon Crimea. All communication with the rest of Ukraine was severed. A mock election was held in March to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukraine was helpless to do anything about it.

Russia wanted Ukraine to become part of the Russian federation, but alternatively it proposed that the city regions of Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mylolaiv, Kherson, and Odessa oblasts form a Russian polity. This would have allowed Russian overland access to Crimea and the Russian-controlled Transnistria region of Moldova. However, only 15 percent of the population in the proposed polity supported such a New Russia unified with Russia. But in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, 30% supported unification with Russia. That spring Russia began to intervene in the Donbass by sending paramilitary units and military supplies. By May they had taken control of the cities. However, unlike in Crimea, the government in Kiev fought back in the Donbass. By the end of January 2017, the war in the Donbass had claimed close to 10,000 lives; more than 22,000 people had been wounded, and close to 2.5 million people had fled their homes. About 4 million people find themselves trapped in a war that appears to have no end.


On July 17, 2014,. a Russian militia group shot down a Malaysian civilian airline with a missile, probably by mistake. 298 people were on board, including victims from Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia and Britain. That incident was the last straw that provoked the US to apply sanctions against Russia. That incident may also have had a profound effect on Putin, forcing him to re-evaluate his Russian strategy. After all, what does Russia hope to achieve in eastern Ukraine? Would it be better to let the situation fester, as it has for the past 3 years, or would it be better for Russia to annex it? Is eastern Ukraine just a stepping stone to capturing Odessa, which could be a stepping stone to annexing Transnistria? Do the political advantages outweigh the negatives of such aggression?

It was once thought that Ukraine needed eastern Ukraine because that was its industrial heartland, while western Ukraine was poorer. However, eastern Ukraine is now just a rust belt, similar to places like West Virginia. It has also been destroyed by three years of war and counting, with a population that is likely to remain hostile to Kiev. It is no longer clear that Kiev needs eastern Ukraine. In any case, eastern Ukraine was never part Kyivan Rus’ or the Hetmenate.

Clearly Ukraine faces enormous problems. However, the government in Kiev touts its strengths. Ukraine possesses 33 percent of the world’s rich black soil and it is the world’s second largest exporter of grain. Ukraine’s literacy rate is 99.7%. It is perhaps the fourth best educated country in the world.


Serhii Plokhy concludes with these thoughts: “Russian aggression sought to divide Ukrainians along linguistic, regional and ethnic lines. While that tactic succeeded in some places, most of Ukrainian society united around the idea of a multilingual and multicultural nation joined in administrative and political terms. That idea, born of lessons drawn from Ukraine’s difficult and often tragic history of internal divisions, rests on a tradition of coexistence of different languages, cultures, and religions over the centuries.” Plokhy could have been writing about the United States.

How far should the United States go if Russia should ever decide to become more aggressive? I can only state my opinion. Ukraine is a very multi-faceted society. I certainly have no interest in supporting socially conservative movements or another anti-Semitic society. However, there are a large number of good Ukrainians who genuinely dislike Russia and want to become part of the family of European nations. I would love to support Ukraine. But at the present time the European Union is barely able to hold itself together and NATO is too weak to stretch itself into a region where Russia is so strong. Sad to say, Ukraine is pretty much on its own and it will continue to be so in the near future. Nevertheless, the sanctions together with low oil prices are having a profound effect on Russia. Putin certainly has nothing attractive to offer Ukraine at the moment and a hostile Ukraine doesn’t seem to have much value to Putin. But Putin and his Russian citizens have aspirations to restore Russia as a superpower capable of rivaling the United States for influence around the world.


Charles King, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (W.W. Norton, 2011).

Serhii Plokhii, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Basic Books, 2015).

Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means For the West (Yale University Press, 2014).

Andrew Wilson, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (Yale University Press, 2006).

Saphire, a collie, eating out Jeffrey Berger's hand
Jeffrey Berger and Saphire

Jeff Berger – Tech writer, public speaker, and engineer. He earned Masters degrees in statistics and operations research from the University of California, Berkeley, and was employed by IBM for more than 30 years. He developed an interest in history and economics during the 1990’s and now wonders if he might have chosen the wrong career.



3 thoughts on “Understanding Ukraine: The Historical Context of Contemporary Events

  1. Thanks, Jeff. This whole saga largely represents the enduring holds that tribalism, in the many forms you examine here, has on human civilization. The energies of people caught up in the confines of their particular tribe inevitably are blunted & incapable of rising to higher levels of mutual collaborations, widespread self-development, & evolving cooperative developments among differently-rooted peoples. Whether one approaches all this from a perspective of Kabbalistic Sefirah, Eastern chakras, Western durable values, or just plain hopes for humanity to rise to nobler standards of relationships, this history is a sad mess!

    One has to wonder about America’s current tendencies toward self-identified “nationalistic” groups, & ongoing consequences of such here-&-now tribalisms . . .


  2. Here is a comment entered on Facebook from Emmanuel Okoronta. Emmanuel lives in Abuja, Nigeria. He is a graduate of UW-Whitewater.

    When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 AD, it reminded me of Dr. Daniel Dipiazza’s assertion in the his American Foreign policy class in the 80s, UW- Whitewater…as we explored the roots of ‘containment policy’…that the Ottoman Empire, France and England defeated Russia during the Crimean War of 1853 as a way of ‘Containing’ them from any further expansion Westward -by depriving them the use of the ‘warm water ports’ there… over one and half centuries later, Russia has achieved that goal…now what else?


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