Monday, March 10, 2014

Ukraine's fraught relationship with Russia: A brief history

Ukraine has been part of Russia on and off for centuries. Why does Russia feel justified in interfering in its affairs?  

Hey, neighbor. 

Why is Ukraine so important to Russia?
The two neighboring countries have been intertwined for over 1,000 years of tumultuous history. Today, Ukraine is one of Russia's biggest markets for natural gas exports, a crucial transit route to the rest of Europe, and home to an estimated 7.5 million ethnic Russians — who mostly live in eastern Ukraine and the southern region of Crimea. (All told, about 25 percent of Ukraine's 46 million people claim Russian as their mother tongue.) Russia lacks natural borders like rivers and mountains along its western frontier, so "its leaders have traditionally seen the maintenance of a sphere of influence over the countries around it as source of security," said David Clark, chairman of the Russia Foundation, a think tank. That's especially true of Ukraine, which Russia regards as its little brother. "Everybody knows that Ukrainians are Russians," said Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov. "Except for the Galicians" — a reference to the Ukrainian-speaking residents of western Ukraine.

Why do Russians see Ukraine as theirs?
It's partly because both nations trace their roots back to the first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea from the 9th century to the mid-13th century. This medieval empire was founded, oddly enough, by Vikings — "Rus" is the Slavic word given to the red-haired Scandinavians — who swept down from the north in the 9th century, conquered the local Slavic tribes, and established their capital at Kiev. The kingdom converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988, laying the foundation of the modern Russian church. A French bishop sent to Ukraine reported, "This land is more unified, happier, stronger, and more civilized than France herself." But in the 13th century Kiev was devastated by Mongol invaders, and power shifted north to a small Rus trading outpost called Moscow.

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