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CURIOUS CHILDREN: Why did Russia invade Ukraine?

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Why did Russia invade Ukraine? – Artie W., 9, Astoria, New York


Ukraine and Russia are two border countries in Eastern Europe. On February 24, 2022, Russia sent its army to Ukraine and began attempting to take over the country by force.

This invasion surprised many people, as it was the first major war in Europe in decades. But Russia and Ukraine have had a rocky relationship for centuries. To understand what is happening now, you have to delve into 1,300 years of history.

Both countries trace their beginnings to the same medieval kingdom, called Kyivan Rus. It was founded in the 800s by a group of Vikings, the Varangians, who came from Northern Europe to rule over the local population. Kyivan Rus spanned what is now Russia and Ukraine, and its inhabitants, the Slavs, are the ancestors of today’s Russians and Ukrainians. Its capital was the city of Kiev – the same Kiev which today is the capital of Ukraine. Moscow, the capital of today’s Russia, was also part of Kyivan Rus.

Kyivan Rus was conquered by Mongol armies from Asia in 1240 and divided. Kyiv became part of a new Commonwealth that spanned present-day Poland and Ukraine. Moscow became a local capital of the Mongol Empire. Moscow and Kiev were at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, but with different cultures depending on their geography.

Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union

In the 1500s, the descendants of the Kyivan Rus princes in Moscow formed their own empire, Imperial Russia. In 1654 it included Kiev and its Ukrainian peoples as well as other lands and peoples of Europe and Asia.

In Imperial Russia, some considered Ukrainians to be brothers of Russians because they shared a culture dating back to medieval times. But Ukrainians said that while the two groups practiced the same religion and shared a certain history, Ukrainian culture – like its food, language, art and music – was different. It was shaped by contact with different peoples and a different history from that of Russia.

A revolution in February 1917 forced the Russian leader, Tsar Nicholas II, from the throne. Another revolution that same year created a new empire called the Soviet Union.

Some Ukrainians did not want to join the new Soviet empire. They tried to form their own country. But the Soviets defeated their movement and instead created the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – one of the many republics that made up the union. At first, this allowed Ukrainians to retain their culture and run their local government. But when the Soviets began to fear that the Ukrainians wanted independence, they took power away from them.

A free Ukraine

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine and Russia, which were both part of the Soviet Union, became independent countries.

Fast forward to 2013. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych wanted Ukraine to be loyal to Russia. He therefore decided not to sign a trade agreement to bring Ukraine closer to Europe. The Ukrainians protested, ousted Yanukovych from office and elected a government favorable to Europe rather than Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that despite these protests, most Ukrainians want ties with Russia. He also feared that Ukraine would join a military alliance with the United States and Europe that would pose a threat to Russia.

In 2014, Russia took control of an area in southern Ukraine called Crimea. He also sent soldiers and weapons to eastern Ukraine, claiming to help people who wanted to be part of Russia. In the eight years that followed, around 14,000 people died and 1 million people fled to escape the fighting.

The current war

In February 2022, Putin again asserted that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. He sees Ukrainians and Russians as sister nations and says that because Russia is the older brother, it should be in charge.

Most Ukrainians disagree. They were inspired by the words of their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He told Putin that Ukrainians want peace, but if they need it, they will defend their country’s independence.

Putin has invaded, and this time his plan is to take over the whole country. The Ukrainians are now fighting the Russian army, trying to defeat what they say is an occupation.

In Russia, the people had no say in whether to invade. Many protest against this. Many families have both Russian and Ukrainian members. For this reason, many people on both sides of the border do not want to go to war.

The United States and much of Europe are on the side of the Ukrainians. They believe that Ukraine should be able to decide its future.


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Kathryn David, Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and East European Studies, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.CURI