On one side of the border between Russia and Ukraine, more than 100,000 of Moscow’s troops have gathered. On the south side, thousands of Ukrainian citizens are receiving military training to fend off what Western intelligence says is a possible Russian attack.
It is one of the world’s most tense borders – where no border existed just over 30 years ago. Ukraine and Russia were part of a vast Soviet Union, whose dissolution in 1991 has shaped the two countries’ relations since then.
For many observers in Ukraine and the West, it is a history defined by the Kremlin’s desire to retain influence in what it calls its “near abroad.” For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it has been colored by NATO’s enlargement east, which he says is a security threat to Russia.
Below are some key events that led to the rift between the two countries.
1991: Ukraine votes to leave USSR
Ukraine’s experience of the Soviet Union (USSR) was marked by the holodomorwhen Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s policies led to a mass famine in the early 1930s that Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy said killed about 4 million in two years.
Kiev declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. On December 1 that year, Ukrainians participated in a referendum on the issue, with more than 90 percent voting for independence.
Home to much of the USSR’s agricultural production, defense industries and army, the withdrawal of the second populated republic was crucial for the bloc. “Ukraine has liberated the rest of the Soviet republics that are still dependent on Moscow,” Plokhy wrote in The Gates of Europe. It “spelled the end of the Soviet Union”.
In the early days of December 1991, Russia was still part of the USSR, but its president, Boris Yeltsin, was convinced that its future lay outside the bloc, which was still led by its rival, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. A day after Ukraine’s referendum, Yeltsin’s Russia recognized Ukraine as an independent state.
Of crucial importance is that Moscow has recognized Ukraine’s borders as including Crimea, the multi-ethnic, multilingual Black Sea Peninsula, which was transferred from Russia to Soviet Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in an effort to capture Kiev’s to win loyalty.
“For Yeltsin, it was truly a politically remarkable step,” said Vladislav Zubok, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics.
Yeltsin believed moving fast would hasten both the downfall of the bloc and Gorbachev’s resignation. It did both within weeks.
However, the issue of Crimea, which had symbolic significance for Russians and Ukrainians, could not be stopped, as Yeltsin had hoped. A dispute broke out almost immediately over the future of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.
1994: Ukraine renounces nuclear weapons
When the Soviet Union fell apart, many of its nuclear weapons spread across newly independent states. Kiev held the majority of the Soviet arsenal outside Russia, including 1,900 strategic nuclear weapons designed to strike the United States.
“When Ukraine became independent. . . not only was it born as a nuclear power, it was born as the third largest nuclear power in the world, ”said Mary Elise Sarotte of Johns Hopkins University, author of Not an incha history of NATO enlargement in Europe.
Diplomatic pressure led to 1994 Budapest Memorandumin which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and sent the warheads to Russia for destruction.
In return, the US, Britain and Russia promised to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force against [its] territorial integrity or political independence ”. Moscow violated this promise when it annexed Crimea.
2004: The Orange Revolution
In the fall of 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest against an election result they believed was fraudulent to favor a Moscow-backed candidate.
The pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, whose campaign colors were orange, emerged as the forerunner with a platform to suppress the oligarchic economic system that had taken hold in the preceding decade, when state assets were privatized.
But despite opinion polls showing his victory, the Electoral Commission gave the presidency to Viktor Yanukovych, former governor of the Donetsk region and Putin’s preferred candidate.
A winter of protests in Kiev’s central square led to a repeat of the vote and the victory of Yushchenko, who was poisoned and permanently disfigured during the campaign.
The Kremlin said the “Orange Revolution” was part of a conspiracy by foreign intelligence services – and a dress rehearsal for regime change in Russia itself. Ukrainians began to look west.
2008: Ukraine prays for NATO membership
In 2008, while Ukraine’s new leaders were working to turn the country west, Yushchenko sought NATO. Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine, a major step towards joining the alliance. The US supported the idea.
But by that time, after Poland joined NATO in 1999, and the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Romania in 2004, Putin saw the transatlantic alliance’s expansion as a smokescreen for efforts to contain Russia. He threatened to point nuclear weapons at Ukraine should it continue, describing the young democracy as “not even a country” and part of Russia.
As a result, several NATO members resisted Washington’s pressure to grant NATO MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia. Instead, a promise was pinned down at a summit in Bucharest in April. “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO,” the alliance said in a statement.
By August, Russia was at war with Georgia. During the four-day invasion, Moscow seized two breakaway areas to promote the kind of conflict that would make it difficult for the country to join NATO.
In 2010 in Kiev, Yanukovych – a former prime minister – became president. He fast drop Ukraine’s NATO bid, in a major concession to Moscow.
2013-14: Euromaidan protests
Despite their government’s close ties with Moscow, many Ukrainians continued to see their future within Europe.
When the opportunity arose in 2013 to join the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program – which was set up to bring Ukraine closer to the EU, among others – it found wide popular support in the country’s west, a poll found showed. But many in the east preferred a customs union with Russia. Moscow promoted this union at the time, and watched with concern as Ukraine prepared to ink agreements with the EU.
Yanukovych backed out of the EU arrangement at the last minute in favor of a backdoor agreement with Putin. The U-turn unleashed the Euromaidan movement that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to Kiev’s central square.
The movement, which became known as the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, overthrew Yanukovych, who fled to Russia on February 21, 2014.
Less than a week later, armed men in green uniforms without badges, the Crimean parliament seized Crimea from Ukraine, cut off its access to Ukrainian media and, in the midst of an intense propaganda campaign, held a referendum on the peninsula’s reunification with Russia.
It was held in March and reportedly garnered support from 97 percent of voters. No overseas observers were present and the vote was not recognized internationally.
That same spring, Russian-backed separatists began demanding independence in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, leading to a war that has killed some 14,000 people so far.
2021: Donbas negotiations collapse
Large-scale fighting subsided, but the region was caught in a stalemate, with two self-proclaimed and Russia-backed separatist republics established around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Two agreements, mediated by Germany and France via a set of talks known as the Normandy format, were signed in 2014 and 2015 in Belarus’s capital Minsk. They tried to lay the foundation for peace, but there was little progress. Russia officially denies that it is one of the sides in the conflict and agrees to participate only as a mediator.
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky as President of Ukraine in 2019 was followed by several prisoner exchanges, but relations between Moscow and Kiev have soured further since then.
In the spring of 2021, Russia moved more than 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. The Norman talks, designed to implement the so-called Minsk Accords, were severely undermined in November when Russia’s Foreign Ministry published its private diplomatic correspondence with Germany and France.
That same month, the US and its allies began warning that Russia may be planning another invasion. Moscow has issued a set of security proposals in the form of two treaties, including a request that Ukraine never join NATO and the alliance reverse its presence of former Warsaw Pact states.
Putin and US President Joe Biden spoke it twice by telephone before the new year in an effort to resolve the crisis, and a series of meetings was held in January between Russian diplomats and their counterparts in the US, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The conflict remains unresolved.
Additional post by Georgina McCartney in London