Looking into the history behind Russia’s aggression against Ukraine

April 15, 2022

More than a month since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the military aggression continues to devastate the country, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the nation. Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to invade Ukraine? What’s the history of Russia-Ukraine relations? What led Putin to refer to Nazis in his attempt to legitimize the attack? We caught up with Associate Professor Taro Tsurumi who studies Russian Jewish history and nationalism from a historical sociology perspective to learn about the background of the invasion. Tsurumi has also been teaching courses on Russia-Ukraine relations at the College of Arts and Sciences.

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―― What’s the history of Russia-Ukraine relations?

Aside from the period of the Kievan Rus (an East Slavic state of the 9th-13th centuries, considered the common roots of Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians), whose scope is not entirely clear, Russia-Ukraine relations stretch back to the time of the Russian Empire (1721-1917).

Most of present-day Ukraine had previously been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but in the 17th century, the Russian Empire took control of the eastern part. During the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, Russian Empress Catherine the Great annexed the central part and Austria’s Habsburg monarchy added the western part of today’s Ukraine to its empire. As part of its territorial expansion to the south, Russia also grabbed Crimea from the Ottoman Empire. In the Russian-occupied territories, industries such as steel flourished in the eastern area, due to the government-led effort to push industrialization.

Today, the key industry in Ukraine’s western region is agriculture, while the eastern part is industrial. A common impression of Europe is that the further west you go, the richer the countries. But in the case of Ukraine, the eastern part of the country is the moneymaker and also has strong ties with Russia.

In terms of language, many people in eastern Ukraine speak Russian and have always had an affinity with Russia. Also, Ukraine as a whole was never hostile toward Russia until Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014. Although the figure varies somewhat among surveys, before 2014, the percentage of Ukrainians who supported joining NATO was around 30%.

Relations with Russia have been crucial in terms of the economy as well. Since Ukraine’s independence, Russia had always been the No.1 import and export partner until the late 2010s. Russia also has poured a fair amount of capital into the country. Ukraine’s gross domestic product per capita is roughly one-third of Russia’s, meaning that Ukraine doesn’t have a reason to be hostile toward Russia.

On the other hand, regarding Ukrainians’ identity, more people started to consider themselves citizens of Ukraine as an entity, after it gained independence in 1991. Under Soviet rule, blood ties were the foundation of their ethnic identity. And because of that the Russians in Ukraine, who account for around 20% of the Ukrainian population, did not necessarily consider themselves as Ukrainian. This, however, changed after Ukraine’s independence, because one’s birth country became an important element determining their identity, especially among the younger generation.

Surveys in the 1990s also show that even Russian Ukrainian residents in the eastern region identified themselves as Ukrainian, which was similar to the western region. Some studies have also shown that since 2014, an increasing number of Ukrainians of Russian descent have stronger Ukrainian identity. The social reality is quite far from Putin’s understanding that Russians and Ukrainians constitute the same nation, emphasizing their common ancestry in Kievan Rus.

Map of Ukraine and neighboring countries
Map of Ukraine and neighboring countries
Map of Ukraine
Map of Ukraine

Annexation of Crimea determined Ukraine’s pro-EU path

―― What’s the background behind Ukraine’s shift to the European Union?

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine had both a pro-Russian and pro-EU government. In the 2004 presidential election, the pro-EU candidate was elected, helped by a mass protest known as the Orange Revolution. Following the election, Russia put pressure on Ukraine by halting natural gas supplies and applying other coercive measures. As a result, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency in the next election. Because of such zigzagging, Moscow always had been watchful of Ukraine’s every move as there always was a possibility of it becoming closer to the EU.

A memorial in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti honors people who died in the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Associate Professor Taro Tsurumi visited the Ukrainian capital’s central square in 2017.© 2022 Taro Tsurumi

As matters turned out, Yanukovych was ousted from the presidency in the 2013-14 political upheaval known as the Euromaidan Revolution, and Ukraine shifted toward the EU. Then Russia, feeling threatened, intervened and annexed Crimea by force, which damaged the bilateral ties to the extent that they could no longer be mended. Since then, the percentage of Ukrainians who support their country joining NATO has gradually increased. The EU could be economically appealing to Ukraine, but what ultimately made Ukrainians become more pro-EU is the way Russia is and the manner in which it conducts itself.

Even in the presidential elections, which used to be a one-on-one race between a pro-Russia and pro-EU candidate, since 2014, being pro-EU became a prerequisite to enter the race. In this regard, the 2019 presidential election was the first contest where domestic problems became the major campaign issue. Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the election backed by people who hoped he would tackle domestic issues such as corruption.


Experience of the Chechen wars and a “strong Russia”

―― Why did Putin decide to invade Ukraine?

The straight answer would be to have Ukraine on Russia’s side. I believe there were also reasons such as Putin’s fear of NATO’s eastern expansion or his desire to revive the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire. But the important thing is he also misjudged, believing these were possible.

Blue trams and a yellow bus carry passengers on a street in the port city of Odesa located along the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. This photo was taken in 2013. 
© 2022 Taro Tsurumi

What was on Putin’s mind, perhaps, was the Chechen wars. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, which was set to be incorporated into the Russian Federation, declared its sovereignty in 1991. This led to the first Chechen war that began in 1994. Although Russia failed to take control of Chechnya in the first war, in the second war, after Putin became commander in 1999, the Russian army vanquished Chechnya by force. This led Chechnya to make a 180-degree shift, and today, pro-Putin Ramzan Kadyrov is the leader of the country. I think Putin believed he could do a similar thing in Ukraine by using force.

Although Chechnya's resistance was fierce, as they were Muslims and did not get along with Russia, I suspect Putin seriously thought Ukrainians would welcome Russia.

Chechnya is still one of the poorest republics in the Russian Federation today, with a population of about 1 million. Ukraine’s population and territorial land, however, is roughly 40 times as large as Chechnya. Given that it took about 10 years to settle the second conflict with Chechnya, it is implausible that Russia could take control over Ukraine within a few days. You could say Putin’s assessment was overly optimistic.

―― What’s the reason behind support for Putin’s “strong Russia”?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia suffered from a battered economy during the 1990s and it desperately needed support from the West. But the support, in hindsight, was a failure, dragging on to this day in various ways. In a nutshell, the failure was due to the West's attempt to transform the Russian economy, based on the assumption that things would work out by privatizing everything and letting market forces run its course. But the Russians who used to follow orders from the top at state-run enterprises had no idea how to navigate the market. In reality, it was as if they were thrown into a torrent and drowned. It was during this period that Russian oligarchs took advantage of the chaos and rose to power. Russia also saw a rise in crime and corruption.

After Putin took office in 2000, energy prices skyrocketed by chance and Russia came out of its decade of misery. Putin took advantage of the economic turnaround and presented a vision to rebuild Russia under the “strong state.” The vision that the strong state would restore order in society was quite convincing for Russians who went through the decade of suffering.

As for the second Chechen conflict, Russia’s victory was also important in terms of regaining its pride damaged by the first war where they faced Chechnya’s fierce resistance. It can be said such a hardline stance was well received by Russian people.

In terms of relations with the West, the end of the Cold War initiated by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was, for Russians, supposed to be brought to a close on equal terms with the West after the Soviet Union made concessions. But the West understood this as its victory, which led to a perception gap between the two sides. Since German unification, there was growing discontent in Russia, and that was partly responsible for the attempted coup against Gorbachev. This trend accelerated during the Putin era, when Russia no longer needed Western support, and the strong Russia stance was embraced by its citizens in terms of confronting the West as well.

―― Why did Putin use the expression “Nazi” as a way to justify the invasion?

For Putin, the memory of World War II is at the very core of Russia’s identity and to bring the country together. It bears the significance of Soviet troops defeating Nazi Germany, thus saving not only the Soviet Union, but also the world. The Soviet Union and Russia are multiethnic nations, and the memory of their united efforts against the Nazis has important meaning in uniting Russia.

Calling Zelenskyy a Nazi or a neo-Nazi is an attempt to create the image that he is an enemy they must confront for the sake of Russia and the world. In other words, Putin is saying: Most Ukrainians are good people who want to get along with Russia, but a few dangerous elements are misleading them and need to be exterminated. Given that Zelenskyy is Jewish and his ancestors were victims of the Holocaust, it is ludicrous to say he is a Nazi. But when referring to the Nazis in the Soviet-Russian context, the killing of Jews is not foremost in their minds. The most important context is that German totalitarianism and militarism pushed the world into turmoil and suffering. I believe Putin doesn’t care much whether Zelenskyy is Jewish or not.

―― What is the impact of Russia’s aggression on the international community?

We’ve already seen Germany shift gears to beef up its military. Although it depends on how the aggression unfolds from here on, I believe we will see such strengthening of militaries to a certain extent.

On the other hand, I believe the action of each member of the international community will be important. For example, we need to let Putin and those who support him understand that the international community won’t tolerate this kind of aggression. For the time being though, economic sanctions are the only means to deal with this. But that would have impact not only on Russia’s next move, but also on future decisions of other powers. It will depend on whether we can convince others nothing good will come if they do similar things and they will suffer enormous economic consequences.

Also, the paranoia that has been cultivated in Russia over the past 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union has had an effect, meaning that it’s also crucial in terms of security to resolve such perception gaps, not only in Russia, but also in other parts of the world.



Tsurumi-sensei photo

Taro Tsurumi
Associate Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Completed doctoral program in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at Department of Advanced Social and International Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. Then engaged in research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) and New York University (as an overseas research fellow also with JSPS). In current position since 2016. Published books include Russia Zionism no Sozoryoku (“The Imagination of Russian Zionism”) (University of Tokyo Press, 2012) that won the 12th Japan Sociological Society award, and Israel no Kigen (“The Origins of Israel”) (Kodansha Ltd., 2020). Edited volumes include Publishing in Tsarist Russia (ed. with Yukiko Tatsumi; Bloomsbury, 2020) and From Europe’s East to the Middle East (eds. with Kenneth B. Moss and Benjamin Nathans; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).


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