The historical context for the current conflict dates back at least to the tenth century. Kyiv (Rus. Kiev) was the site of the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs when Grand Prince Volodymyr Sviatoslavych accepted Christianity on behalf of the people of Rus’. Kyiv was at that time the principality that ruled over Rus’ — a polity covering the territory of much of present-day Ukraine, parts of present-day Belarus, and parts of present-day western Russia. Kyiv is seen as the mother of all Eastern Slavic cities and the birthplace of Eastern Slavic statehood and Christian Orthodoxy. Over the period of Mongol domination of Rus' (roughly thirteenth through fifteenth centuries), its western part and eastern parts diverged culturally, linguistically, and politically.
Fourteenth through Nineteenth Centuries
By the time the Mongol domination of the region was over, the western part of Rus’, including Kyiv, had become joined to Western European powers, and in the ensuing centuries it would both continue to develop its distinct (Ukrainian) language and culture, and also become part of the Lithuanian state, and later the Polish state. In the east there was a struggle for dominance among new ascendant principalities, among them Moscow, which ultimately prevailed over what had been the eastern part of Rus’. Muscovy, later Russia, became a massive imperial power over the next several centuries, and different parts of Ukraine were incorporated under the Russian state beginning in the late seventeenth century. For some time the part of Ukraine under the Russian Empire maintained a certain autonomy as a Cossack Hetmanate (the hetman was the elected ruler of this Ukrainian state), but this would be lost under Catherine II. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries movements to assert Ukrainian cultural and/or political autonomy, and to promote the use and teaching of the Ukrainian language, were repressed by Russian Imperial administrations.
When the Russian Empire broke apart following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, this was seen as a window of opportunity for Ukrainian independence, but after five years of military conflicts between the Bolsheviks and competing Ukrainian factions representing competing visions of Ukrainian statehood, Ukraine became one of the nominally independent Soivet republics that were in fact centrally ruled from Moscow. In the ramp-up to WWII Moscow did terrible violence to Ukrainian agrarian society by imposing a brutal rapid collectivization plan and forcibly requisitioning almost all agricultural production for consumption in Russian cities and for international trade to support the USSR’s breakneck industrialization program. The result was the 1932-33 Holodomor famine in Ukraine that killed around four million people. In general, for the rest of the post-war Soviet era, Ukraine was effectively treated by Moscow as a peripheral territory of Russia, as it had been under many of the Tsars.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine became a modern sovereign state. In 2005 Putin called the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” Since then he has pursued a project to reassert Russian influence over the territories of the former Soviet Union, while many Ukrainians have sought movement towards Western Europe, including economic integration with the EU and pursuit of a Western European model of statehood. Putin’s Russia has addressed anxieties about Ukraine drifting away from Moscow’s influence and towards the West by trying to maintain Kremlin-friendly regimes in Ukraine, largely in the person of Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-loyalist Ukrainian politician. The announcement of preliminary election returns that named Yanukovych as the new president of Ukraine in 2005 occasioned what is known as the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. Investigations by international observers determined there had been electoral manipulation and, after a secondary vote, Yanukovych’s opponent Victor Yushchenko was named president. At the end of 2013 President Yanukovych (he did finally get a presidential term) halted progress towards an agreement between Ukraine and the EU, and this sparked the massive and ultimately irrepressible Euromaidan protests that drove Yanukovych out of the country (he fled to Russia). In response to this, Russia annexed the Crimea (Ukrainian territory) and, that same year, groups in two areas in Eastern Ukraine declared those areas were separating from the country to form their own republics, the so-called self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, widely recognized as de-facto Russian protectorates. Throughout the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the intervening eight years the Kremlin’s messaging has consistently focused on the trope of the Ukrainian nationalist-extremist in a paradigm where those asserting a Ukrainian ethnic and political identity independent of Russia are a) an extremist minority and b) puppets of Western political forces. The latter part of this period included the attempt of another modern state on the western part of the former territory of Rus’ — Belarus — to get out from under a Kremlin-loyalist dictator (Aleksandr Lukashenko) in a massive wave of protest that was brutally repressed in 2020.
And now, in February 2022, beginning with a pretext of liberating ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine (including in the self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk), the Russian armed forces have waged undeclared war on Ukraine as a whole, as part of a mission to, in Putin’s own words, “liberate Ukraine from the forces that have seized and held onto power in Kiev.”