Ukraine-Russia Territorial Disputes

Ukraine-Russia Territorial Disputes

For centuries, Ukraine has lived under the control and in the shadow of great powers. One of these great powers is Russia. Only three decades ago, Ukraine gained its independence from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. But although Ukraine is no longer under Russian rule, Russia still sees it as a country in their sphere of influence. It also sees part of Ukraine’s territory as land that should be under Russian sovereignty. Thus, since 2014, Russia has engaged in a hostile takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the eastern part of the country. Russia has already annexed Crimea, and its attempt to control of Eastern Ukraine is ongoing.

About Ukraine

Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe. Russia borders Ukraine to the east and northeast. Belarus is on Ukraine’s northern border. The three states of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic border Ukraine to the west. To the south of Ukraine are Romania, Moldova, and the Black Sea.

The history of Ukraine begins in the 9th century, with the founding of the first major Eastern Slavonic state, Kievan Rus. Kievan Rus lasted approximately two centuries, and was once Eastern Europe’s principle political and cultural center. For the next nine centuries, what is now Ukraine would be dominated by foreign powers, including the Russian Empire, which took possession over most of the country by the late 18th century. In fact, Ukraine did not have its first crack at independence until 1918, following the collapse of Imperial Russia. This independence, however, was short lived. In 1921, the communist Red Army conquered most of Ukraine and proclaimed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which subsequently became part of the Soviet Union.

Soviet rule over Ukraine was often brutal. In 1932, for example, millions of Ukrainians died in a man-made famine as Soviet leader Josef Stalin sought to collectivize land. This genocide is known as the Holomodor. Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, and brought back under Soviet control in 1944. The Soviet Union would rule Ukraine until its collapse in 1991, when Ukraine and the 14 other republics of the USSR all became separate states. Since independence, Ukraine has endured political turmoil. The country has been torn between the influence of the West and Russian influence. The leadership in the country has rotated between pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians.

Ukraine’s politics is strongly influenced by the country’s cultural and religious divide. Western Ukraine, the part that lies to the west of the Dnieper River is predominantly Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking, while the part of Ukraine east of the river, plus the Crimean Peninsula, is most Russian-speaking and adheres to East Orthodox Christianity. Ukraine also contains a significant population of Tartars, a Turkic people who mostly live in Crimea. The country’s population is approximately 43 million. 

Ukraine’s Territorial Disputes With Russia

The Crimean Peninsula

Ukraine has two ongoing territorial disputes with Russia. The first involves the Crimean Peninsula. In 1783, the Russian Empire absorbed the Crimea into its territory. Shortly thereafter, they built the city of Sevastopol, which became the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. After the Crimean War (1853-1856), however, the victorious British and French forced Russia to dismantle this naval base, though the Russians rebuilt the city in 1870. It was rebuilt again following its devastation at the hands of the Nazis in WWII. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev switched control of the Crimean Peninsula from the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Thus, when Ukraine became independent, it retained control of Crimea. The Crimean city of Sevastopol, however, remained the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. This annexation was not recognized by most of the international community, especially the West, which subsequently imposed sanctions on Russia to pressure the country to return the peninsula back to Ukrainian sovereignty. Russia legitimized its annexation of Crimea based in part on the argument that it was wrongfully taken away from its control by Khrushchev during Soviet times. But in fact, Russia has always coveted the Crimean Peninsula because of its access to the Black Sea, which has historically given the Russians leverage in both the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. More generally, Russia has always coveted warm water ports from which it could expand its influence.

In addition to Russia’s strategic reasons for annexing the Crimea, there is also an ethno-nationalist aspect to the Crimean dispute. Although Crimea is in Ukraine, most of its people are Russian-speaking. A fact not lost on Russian nationalists, who support Russia’s takeover of the Crimea based on its present Russian majority. This Russian majority, however, was created because many people who used to live on the peninsula were forcibly relocated by the aforementioned Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In 1944, Stalin forcibly relocated much of Crimea’s Tartar population to Central Asia. He also deported populations of Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks from the peninsula. Thus, Ukrainians argue that Russia does not have the right to annex Crimea because it has a Russian majority since that majority was created by force rather than natural migration.

Eastern Ukraine

Not long after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, it began attempting to take over Eastern Ukraine. In April 2014, about a month after Russia had formally annexed the Crimea, pro-Russian forces began occupying buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities, such as Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, demanding a referendum on independence. The Ukrainian government responded by sending troops into the eastern part of the country to quell the uprising. Since 2014, pro-Russian forces, with the aid of the Russian military itself, have been fighting the Ukrainian government in the east of the country. Today, they control a sizeable part of Eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.

These pro-Russian separatists believe that since most of Eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking, it should be independent, or part of Russia. In fact, they call Eastern Ukraine “Nova Rossiya”, which translates as New Russia. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has also said that Russia has a historical claim to the aforementioned region of Donbas. As is the case with Crimea, however, Ukrainians contend that Eastern Ukraine’s current demographics came as a result of crimes committed against them in the past. Much of Eastern Ukraine’s population, for instance, was killed off during the Holomodor genocide. The Sovietization policies of Josef Stalin in the 1930s also targeted non-Russian ethnic groups in the region, of which the Ukrainians were the most numerous.


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