Russia and Ukraine: Part 1

By Nicholas Dima l November 17, 2008

The Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 opened the possibility of a new direction in Moscow’s geopolitical attitude toward the former Soviet space and especially toward Ukraine. Following the collapse of the USSR, the Russians could not swallow their wounded pride and could not forget their former empire. For years after the 1991 dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Moscow continued to view the newly independent republics as its exclusive sphere of influence and called it the “Near Abroad.”   Moscow adopted similar, yet differentiated, policies in the large area that surrounds the new Russian Federation. With regard to the newly independent republics that now separate Russia from Europe, Moscow grudgingly allowed the three Baltic republics to gain their independence. At the same time, Moscow managed to secure the allegiance of Belarus and to transform Moldova into a puppet state. Ukraine, however, Russia’s true link and bridge to Europe, remained a big question mark.

Had Russia given up its territorial ambitions, it would have relinquished any old claims and would have established friendly relations with all the newly independent countries that replaced the Soviet Union. But it is obvious that Russia did not renounce its imperial goals. For example, in the new Eastern European geopolitical configuration, Moscow sees Moldova as a stepping stone toward the Balkans, and more importantly, as a safe outpost behind Ukraine. For Russia, Ukraine is the real Gordian knot. In fact, it is hardly possible for Russia to see itself as a superpower, or even as a regional power, without Ukraine. Will Moscow forgo in the foreseeable future its claim over this important European country?

Ukraine, the Cornerstone of Eastern Europe

As one of the largest and most important countries of Europe, Ukraine has the misfortune to exist in the shadow of a colossal bear that in the past had embraced to death all its neighbors. The two east Slavic nations, Russia and Ukraine, are related from an ethnic and linguistic point of view and for centuries have evolved in close association. These facts make a complete separation very difficult. With the passage of time, numerous Russians have settled in Ukraine, while countless Ukrainians settled in Russia, the two peoples becoming virtually indistinguishable from each other. There are also millions of mixed marriages and numerous Ukrainians have adopted Russian as their native language. For its part, Moscow tried hard to minimize any differences between Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians. In the past, Moscow used to refer to the Byelorussians by their proper name, “White Russians,” but it referred to the Ukrainians as the “Small Russians.” The reality is that throughout most of their history, the Russians looked down on the Ukrainians, mistreated them and grossly neglected their aspirations. Consequently, when the Soviet Union broke apart in December 1991, most Ukrainians rejected any new close association with Moscow. However, Ukraine is politically unstable, its population is very much ethnically mixed, and its territory was artificially assembled by Moscow.

Historically, much of today’s Ukraine descends from the “Kievan Rus,” a city-state that flourished one thousand years ago. In time, the state fell to internal conflicts and was successively subdued by the Islamic Tatars, by Russians and by Poles. As a result of those foreign invasions, to this day modern Ukraine reveals various influences. The Tatars, who settled chiefly in southern Ukraine and particularly in the Crimean peninsula where many of them still live, are of Asian origin and belong to the Muslim religion. The Tatars were later strengthened by the Ottoman Turks, also Muslims, who dominated for centuries the Black Sea and the southern area of Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine, located near Russia, became highly russified, a process facilitated by the Christian Orthodox religion shared by most Russians and Ukrainians. Western Ukraine, formerly under the Poles and part of it latterly under the Austrians, became Catholic and highly westernized. Of all the foreign occupiers, the Tatars and the Turks were indirectly the most consequential for the present state. Trying to defend themselves against the Turks, in 1654 the Ukrainians appealed to Moscow for help and united their land with Russia. In practical terms, that led to the annexation of their country by Moscow.
The Twentieth Century was very turbulent for the Ukrainians. As junior partners to Russia, the only Ukrainians who could prosper under the tsars were those who served Moscow’s interests and assimilated with the Russians. Small wonder, after the Bolshevik revolution Ukraine seized the opportunity and in 1918 proclaimed its short-lived independence. Four years later it was occupied again by the Red Army and was transformed into a Soviet Republic. The Sovietization was followed by seventy years of incredible suffering. Most Ukrainians, who were generally peasants, opposed the Soviet regime and particularly the collectivization of their land. As a consequence, the Soviet Union under Stalin engineered a murderous famine that claimed the lives of millions. That horror was so vivid among the Ukrainians that when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War many of them sided with their new occupiers. This event led to a new Soviet revenge in the late 1940’s when more millions were starved. After Stalin’s death the situation returned to a modicum of normalcy, but any manifestations of Ukrainian patriotism were harshly suppressed. When finally the USSR imploded, Ukraine was among the first to proclaim its independence. Ever since, Ukraine’s relations with Moscow have been difficult, revealing a deep mutual distrust. Nevertheless, Russia under Boris Yeltsin recognized Ukraine and Europe greeted the newly independent country.

Today’s Ukraine

Since its independence in August of 1991, Ukraine is one of the most populous and most endowed European countries. By size alone, 233,000 square miles, Ukraine is actually the largest country in Europe, but it is still dwarfed by the enormous size of neighboring Russia. Yet, Ukraine is a large, rich and important country in its own right.

Largest European countries


  Sq. Miles

Pop. Millions

Arable Land

Per capita GDP

Ukraine 233,000 46,9 58 % $ 6,300
France 212,209 60,6 33 % $ 28,700
Germany 137,847 82,4 33 % $ 28,700
U. K.  94,526 60,4 26 % $ 29,600

Source: The World Almanac and book of Facts 2006. New York, 2007

Ukraine used to be called the bread basket of Europe and under the Soviet years it did feed a large part of the population of the USSR. Although some of its soil fertility has been depleted by years of Soviet abuse, with 58 percent of its land as arable, Ukraine remains one of Europe’s richest agricultural countries. Ukraine is also endowed with other important natural resources such as coal, iron ore and other metals, salt, sulfur, as well as oil and natural gas. Based on these resources and on its proximity to Russia, the former Soviet regime built a rather strong industry in Ukraine that included metallurgy, heavy industry, machine building, military equipment, aircraft industry, chemicals and others. However, a good part of these big industrial complexes were built in the east, where the ethnic Russians are predominant.  Also on the negative side, the forced industrialization of Ukraine led to grave cases of air and water pollution, to several mine disasters and to the well-publicized Chernobyl nuclear accident. This unique accident caused by faulty Soviet designs and inadequate maintenance led to great loss of human lives and its effects were felt from Finland to Romania.

Despite its natural resources, Ukraine’s economy is not considered developed by Western standards. Its GDP, for example, was only 300 billion dollars in 2004. By comparison, the GDP of Germany was $2.4 trillion, $1.8 trillion in the United Kingdom and $1.7 trillion in France. That translates into a per capita GDP of more than four times bigger in Western Europe than in the Ukraine. Even in Russia the per capita GDP was considerably higher than in Ukraine, but that did not make the Ukrainians want to join Russia. On the contrary, after its newly acquired independence Kiev wanted to distance itself as much as possible from its former master and expressed its strong desire to join Europe and NATO.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.