How To Define The Historical Relationship Between Russia And Ukraine?

Vladimir Putin’s regime began the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 in the hope of a surrender within hours. Fifteen days later, the conflict and its aggressiveness are still more alive than ever. If it weren’t for the color, many images that reach us could be those of the conflicts of the last century. What characterizes a 21st century war? What is Putin looking for? What is the end goal? What has been the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine? Kyiv or Kyiv? Ruth Ferrero Turrión, an expert on Eastern Europe, professor of Political Science at the Complutense University of Madrid and researcher attached to the Complutense Institute of International Studies (ICEI), addresses these questions in this interview.

What characterizes a 21st century war?

The brutality of the war is comparable to what we experienced in World War II and in the Balkans. The instruments remain the same as then: military deployment, diplomacy and propaganda, to which sanctions are added. Where the difference is marked is in the introduction of new devices and technologies that make war happen in real time.


Now, the sanctions application system is much more sophisticated and comprehensive than the one we had years ago; intensive work is done on issues related to cybersecurity; and propaganda now reaches large populations much more easily.

We are witnesses of a war live and direct

We already thought thirty years ago, in the Balkan War, that we had been very informed, but really on this occasion, with mobile phones, cameras and coverage of individuals beyond the press, we are seeing a total staging and theatricalization from the harshness of war.

We must pay attention because what we are observing now is the spectacularization of the war, which can make us lose some sensitivity about what is happening in Ukraine. An excess of images spread over time can desensitize public opinion, which can end up getting used to them.

How to define the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine?

Ukraine’s relations with Russia have never been without tension. Russia has operated as an imperial power in the region subjugating peripheral nationalities. The construction of the Russian nation is carried out on the absorption of the rest of the communities, including the Ukrainians.

They are two nations linked by history and politics. There are episodes that must be highlighted and that build the collective memory that has to do with the origin of the Russian nation in Kievan Rus (9th century), whose center was Kiev. Hence the Russian proverb: St. Petersburg is the head, Kiev is the mother, and Moscow is the heart.

In the 20th century, relations between the two were conditioned by two events that have marked the Ukrainian collective memory, the famines caused by Stalinism in Ukraine or the German invasion in World War II. These events shape a Ukrainian national identity, regardless of statehood, which makes Russia look with suspicion from certain sectors.

How does your relationship change after the implosion of the USSR?

Since the independence process in 1990, attempts have been made to build in Ukraine, a multinational, multiethnic and multilingual country, an inclusive republican and civic national identity.

It tries to advance in a national identity that incorporates diversity. However, this began to change at the dawn of the Color Revolutions, when the democratic regeneration movement was identified as purely Ukrainian, as opposed to Russian. It is from then on that a Ukrainian identity that drifts towards more essentialist positions is reinforced.

This trend is reinforced again in the Maidan revolution (2014). After the fall of Yanukovych, the linguistic rights of minorities, especially those of the Russian minority, began to be curtailed.

How does the conflict affect this multinationality?

The invasion of a sovereign territory is to cross the red line that leads to promoting the defense of the state sovereignty of all the groups that resided in the Ukrainian territory.

Beyond dividing, it unifies and raises the defense of the territory regardless of the community to which they belong because they are all being attacked by a foreign power. The defense of sovereignty manages to unite wills. Even among Russophone communities there is no doubt about the need to defend the territory.

Should we say Kiev, in Russian, or Kyiv, in Ukrainian? To what extent is language so decisive?

Ukraine is a multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious country. We are observing in the media an insistence on the use of the nomenclature in the Ukrainian language (Kyiv). This denotes a widespread ignorance of the characteristics of Ukrainian citizenship.

Ukraine is a multilingual country, of course Ukrainian is spoken, but the lingua franca is still Russian, and, depending on the regions of the country, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian or Tatar is spoken. It is a mistake to ignore the multinational diversity of the Ukrainian territory and establish an equivalence between citizenship and language.

In addition, this type of action can encourage greater Russophobia against the Russian minority that may be residing on Ukrainian territory. It must be named in both ways so that the idea that it is a multi-ethnic state survives.

Why this fixation of Putin with Ukraine and not with other countries of the former USSR?

For Russia, having control of Belarus and Ukraine is fundamental at the geopolitical level. These are the two great plains through which the greatest threats to Russia have always come. In Belarus it already has a faithful ally and it wanted to achieve something similar in Ukraine.

The original plan was to force a power vacuum in Kiev/Kyiv that would be covered by someone close to the Kremlin. It has not been achieved. This has meant that the war is dragging on longer than Moscow anticipated.

The permanence of the Russian troops in the territory and their increasing brutality cause animosity against the aggressor to grow among the population, which, in the medium term, makes it much more difficult for Russia to control the territory.

What is Putin really looking for?

First of all, to re-establish the European security architecture, which he believes harms the Russian Federation’s own security.

This is the great framework on which the aggression is articulated, but from there we can break down other issues that appear in their speeches and that help us understand what the motivations may be. Behind all essentialist-type discourses there are strategic and concrete objectives.

The control of Ukraine is seen by part of the Russian military and security strategy as essential to feel safe. Therefore, they ask that Ukraine be neutral. Since Ukraine has not committed to such neutrality, we invaded it.

What other objectives join this one?

Access to the Black Sea, not just Crimea, to have a corridor that allows you to control that access. Also nuclear weapons. Ukraine was the state that produced nuclear missiles in Soviet times. In 1994 with the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine undertook to return nuclear weapons in exchange for the Russian commitment to respect Ukraine’s borders.

But Ukraine today still has the infrastructure and knowledge to be able to catch up quickly. And this greatly worries Moscow. Ukraine’s lack of neutrality is considered a danger to Russian security by the Kremlin.

Will it be a lasting war?

Putin was counting on the Kiev government to fall within hours of the attack, and yet he has stood his ground. This forces him to be more aggressive on different fronts, with all that this entails. The more aggressive the attack, the more animosity it will pick up from Ukrainians of any ethnicity. We see an increase in Russophobia throughout the territory. In the medium/long term it will be very difficult for Moscow to be able to have a vassal state in that position.

China’s role in the conflict

China is keeping a fairly low profile. The international community hopes that he will exercise mediation power in the conflict and that he will try to convince Putin that aggression is useless and that it will not achieve its objectives. We’ll have to see, it’s too early to do analysis.

This interview carried out by the researcher María Milan has been published in The Conversation with the collaboration of the Research Results Transfer Office (OTRI) of the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).

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