Russia and Ukraine Conflict: Historical Context

Matthew MacLachlan

9 Mar 2015

While the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues it is worth reflecting on what lies behind Russia’s position. A recent BBC[1] article looked into Russia’s case for its actions and explored some of the historical factors at play.  After the huge PR success of the Sochi Winter Olympics, has Putin risked Russia’s reputation through its actions in Ukraine?

Ukraine: Past and Present

Ukraine had no separate identity under the Russian Empire and it was only under the Bolsheviks that a Soviet Ukrainian republic gained a separate identity.  Crimea remained part of Russia until the 1954 when Krushchev “gifted” it to Ukraine to ease administration.  Ukraine became independent at the end of 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

So What Are the Main Issues Behind This Current Conflict?


In the Soviet period education had been in Russian, millions of Russians had moved to Ukraine to replace the war losses of the 20th century and it was near impossible to find work without fluency in Russian.  In 1991 Ukrainian was adopted as the official language and many Russian speakers, who were unable to speak Ukrainian, suddenly found themselves unable to hold political rank, work in education or hold a senior role in state enterprises.

In western Ukraine, traditionally the more nationalist half and the “bread basket of the Soviet Union”, these language reforms were welcomed as strengthening the new national identity and highlighting independence from Russia.  Eastern Ukraine however, with its mines, heavy industry and military complexes was less pleased.  Independence brought the economic crisis of the 1990s and unemployment rose dramatically.  Those in the east were disproportionately affected and felt persecuted by their lack of language skills – children were being educated in such a way that they had no common language with their grandparents.  In the 2000s this policy was relaxed and Russian was adopted as a semi-official language in certain regions.  However, one of the first actions of the 2014 interim government was to repeal the 2012 law granting Russian ‘regional language’  status.  The language that was supposed to unite the country has emphasised the divisions.


Western Ukraine is an agricultural economy; eastern Ukraine has mineral resources and industry.  Businesses in eastern Ukraine need Russian markets for their production and rely on parts from Russian suppliers.  Western Ukraine urgently needs agricultural reform and is envious of the EU agricultural subsidies received by its neighbours, such as Poland.  The EU is a natural market for the low-tech produce of western Ukraine, but Ukraine is hit hard by current trade tariffs.

With the recent annexation of Crimea, some commentators now argue that Russia has a cheaper and more direct route for its gas pipelines to its key market – the EU.  Bypassing Ukraine reduces the cost of exporting natural gas by billions of roubles and enhances security.  In the past, Russia suspected Kiev of illegally tapping the pipelines.

The Ukrainian economy is in a desperate state and cannot afford this indecision and instability.  Russia has offered significant aid – and in return, expects to exert some diplomatic influence on policy.

Military Influence

Kiev wants closer links with NATO, and wants to retain a world-class navy.  Ever since Peter the Great, Russia has pursued a policy of being a strong naval power with access to warm water ports.  Through the Crimean bases, Russia can dominate the Black Sea and have easy access to the Mediterranean Sea.  Russia has the budgets to maintain a modern navy, and has aspirations to be a World Power – that Black Sea Fleet is key to its military ambitions.

It is also worth remembering that since Napoleon reached Moscow in 1812 nearly every European land conflict has been fought on Russian territory.  Japan, China, Germany, Britain, and France have all invaded Russia. To reduce this risk, Russia has actively sought to create a buffer of dependent states to protect its borders and absorb invading armies.

This might seem an outdated policy in the modern era of cyber attacks and ballistic missiles but it is an important element of the Russian psyche.  Russia is founded on the principle that it must rely on itself for defence and even close neighbours are potential threats.

Russia Sidelined by the West

There is another dimension to the military issue.  Russia feels let down by the West.  Despite principle objections, Russia did not intervene in Iraq or Afghanistan, both countries where she traditionally held influence.  Nor did Russia complain when the US set up a military base in Uzbekistan, a long-term Russian ally.  And during the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict the USA did not attempt private discussion with Moscow before condemning Russia very loudly and very publicly.

Russia’s objections were overruled in Kosovo, Libya, Syria, and Egypt.  Russia feels that the US has excluded and side-lined her, deliberately trying to keep her weak.  Russia has been given no room for manoeuvre, no face-saving way out, and has received only public criticism.  Moreover, Russia maintains that prior to the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Germany it was given assurances that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO.

Wounded Bear

Regardless of the realities, rather than the perceptions, of these issues, the West has found itself travelling towards a political and diplomatic Cold War 2.0.  Russia recognises that the West has no option but to watch and throw sound-bite grenades.  That devil-may-care attitude is not good for the West or for Russia, and is certainly not good for Ukraine.  But it is increasingly clear that a wounded bear is a dangerous bear.  Dismissing Russia is a mistake we cannot afford to make.




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