Why is Ukraine Important to Russia?

Russia focuses mainly on Ukraine due to a complex web of historical, cultural, and strategic factors that have shaped their relationship for centuries. The shared roots of Kyivan Rus and modern geopolitical struggles cement Ukraine’s unique place in Russia’s worldview and foreign policy. This former Soviet republic, often called the “Breadbasket of Europe,” means more to Russia than a neighboring state. It serves as a crucial buffer zone and vital economic partner, forming a cornerstone of Russian identity. Understanding Ukraine’s importance to Russia shows critical insights into current uncertainties and explains why the Kremlin views its Western neighbor as essential to its interests. As we explore this topic, we’ll uncover the key reasons behind Russia’s continued efforts to maintain influence over Ukraine and examine how this relationship continues to shape global politics today.

Historical Relations and Cultural Connections

The Relationship between Russia and Ukraine is in-depth, incorporating centuries of shared history, culture, and traditions. This demanding relationship forms the foundation of Russia’s perception of Ukraine’s importance and continues influencing their relations today.

Kievan Rus is the Support of the East Slavic Civilization

Russian-Ukrainian relations begin with Kyivan Rus, a medieval East Slavic state that developed from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Centered in Kyiv (Kiev), this empire laid the groundwork for the cultural and political development of modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Kyivan Rus, the first eastern Slavic state, emerged through the actions of Viking ruler Oleg of Novgorod. Around 879, Oleg established control over Novgorod. He then expanded his power, seizing Smolensk and Kyiv in 882. Oleg chose Kyiv as the capital of his new realm, establishing Kyivan Rus as a dominant force in the region. This move began a state that would shape Eastern European history for centuries. (Source: Kievan Rus | Britannica).

Under the rule of Vladimir the Great (980-1015) and Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054), Kievan Rus achieved its peak. These leaders developed diplomatic relations with European authorities, codified laws, and patronized the arts and education. The kingdom’s influence extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, making an expansive trade and cultural business network. The adoption of Orthodox Christianity in 988 AD marks a watershed moment in East Slavic history. Prince Vladimir’s decision to accept Byzantine Christianity reshaped the artistic landscape of Kyivan Rus. This move introduced Cyrillic script, Byzantine art and architecture, and Orthodox religious practices that continue to influence Russian and Ukrainian civilization today.

Considerable Russians view Kyivan Rus as the foundation of their civilization and national identity. They often refer to Kyiv as the “Mother of Russian cities,” highlighting its role as the motherland of their cultural heritage. This historical narrative fuels Russia’s shared future with Ukraine and underpins claims of a typical East Slavic identity.

Shared Language and Literature

The linguistic links between Russia and Ukraine form another crucial dimension of their cultural connection. Russian and Ukrainian belong to the East Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. They share many cognates, similar grammatical structures, and a standard alphabet derived from Cyrillic script. The relationship between these languages has been complicated and often politically charged throughout history. During the Russian Empire and Soviet eras, policies usually favored the Russian language, leading to its widespread use in Ukraine. The Soviet policy of Russification aimed to create a unified Soviet identity, with Russian as the lingua franca of the USSR.

As a result, most Ukrainians became bilingual and fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. Even after Ukraine’s freedom on August 24th, 1991, Russia stayed widely spoken, especially in eastern and southern regions. This linguistic overlap facilitates communication and cultural exchange between the two countries but also serves as a point of statement in national identity and sovereignty discussions.

Geopolitical Significance

Besides its historical and cultural connections, Ukraine retains immense geopolitical importance for Russia. Its strategic location and resources make it a key player in Russia’s foreign policy and safety.

Buffer Zone and NATO Expansion

Ukraine’s geographical position between Russia and the West is an essential buffer zone. Russia has long viewed NATO elaboration as a threat to its protection and global influence. The possibility of Ukraine joining NATO is seen by many in Moscow as a red line that cannot be crossed. Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion originate from a desire to maintain a global influence in its close neighbor– the former Soviet republics. A pro-Western Ukraine aligned with NATO would significantly reduce this buffer zone and bring Western military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.

Access to the Black Sea

Ukraine’s southern coast provides essential access to the Black Sea, crucial for Russia’s naval strategy and economic interests. The port city of Sevastopol in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, has been home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet for centuries. Control over Crimea and influence in Ukraine allow Russia to project power in the Black Sea region and beyond into the Mediterranean. This naval presence is essential for Russia’s ability to protect its southern side and maintain its status as a global maritime power.

Economic Interests and Energy Resources

Ukraine’s economic opportunity and natural resources contribute significantly to its importance in Russian strategic consideration.

  • Agricultural Powerhouse: Often referred to as the “Breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine has some of the most productive farming land in the world. Its expansive plains and rich black soil make it a significant wheat, corn, and sunflower oil producer. For Russia, maintaining influence over Ukrainian agriculture can improve its food security and global market position.
  • Industrial Capabilities: Ukraine inherited a substantial part of the Soviet Union’s industrial base, particularly in the eastern regions. Many industries, including aerospace, defense, and heavy machinery, have historically been closely integrated with Russian supply chains and markets.
  • Energy Transit and Resources: Ukraine’s role as a transit country for Russian natural gas exports to Europe is crucial. Despite efforts to diversify routes, much Russian gas still flows through Ukrainian pipelines to reach European markets. This transit route gives Ukraine leverage in its relations with Russia and the European Union.

Furthermore, Ukraine has untapped energy resources, including shale gas deposits and offshore oil and gas resources in the Black Sea. Developing these resources could reduce Ukraine’s support for Russia and position it as a competitor in European energy demands.

Military and Defense Considerations

Russia is significantly interested in Ukraine’s military infrastructure and defense initiatives, mainly from the Soviet era.

  • Defense Industry Cooperation: Many Ukrainian defense companies have historically had close relations with Russian supporters. The country’s aerospace and missile industries, in particular, have capacities that complement Russia’s defense sector. Maintaining power over these industries is a way for Russia to keep its technological edge and prevent these capabilities from falling into Western hands.
  • Strategic Depth: From a military viewpoint, Ukraine provides Russia with strategic depth. The vast Ukrainian plains have historically served as invasion routes into Russian territory. Control or influence over Ukraine allows Russia to move its defensive boundary further west, providing a protector against potential threats.

Identity Politics and the Russian World Concept

The concept of a shared identity between Russians and Ukrainians plays a significant role in Russia’s view of Ukraine’s importance.

  • The “Russian World” Ideology: The concept of the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) has gained importance in recent years. This ideology highlights East Slavic peoples’ cultural and spiritual unity, particularly Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. It indicates that these nations share a common civilizational space that exceeds current political borders. For supporters of this view, Ukraine is an integral part of this “Russian World,” and its alignment with the West is seen as a threat to this shared identity and cultural sphere.
  • Language and Minority Rights: The rank of the Russian language and the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine have been contentious issues. Russia has often positioned itself as a protector of these minorities, using language rights as a justification for intervention in Ukrainian affairs.

Psychological and Symbolic Importance

Above tangible strategic interests, Ukraine holds a unique psychological and symbolic importance for Russia and its leadership.

  • Legacy of the Soviet Union: Russian President Vladimir Putin often represents the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the “greatest geopolitical cataclysm of the 20th century.” Ukraine, the second-largest former Soviet republic, symbolizes this loss of empire and global status for many Russians. Regaining influence over Ukraine can be seen as a way to restore some of Russia’s former greatness and reverse what is perceived as a historical injustice.
  • Kyiv as the “Mother of Russian Cities”: Kyiv holds a special place in Russian historical narratives as the “mother of Russian cities.” Its symbolic importance as the birthplace of East Slavic Orthodox civilization cannot be overstated. For some, the idea of Kyiv aligning with the West is equivalent to rejecting this shared heritage.

Challenges to Russian Influence in Ukraine

Despite Russia’s historical, cultural, and strategic interests in Ukraine, several factors have challenged its influence in recent years.

Ukraine's Western Aspirations

Since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine has increasingly oriented itself towards the West, seeking closer relations with the European Union and NATO. This change represents a significant challenge to Russia’s vision of Ukraine within its global influence.

  • Changing Demographics and National Identity: Younger generations of Ukrainians, especially those born after freedom in 1991, often have a stronger sense of distinct Ukrainian national identity. This demographic change poses a long-term challenge to the idea of a shared Russian-Ukrainian identity.
  • International Support for Ukraine: The international community supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which complicates Russia’s efforts to exert influence over its neighbor.

The Complex Web of Russian-Ukrainian Relations

Russia considers Ukraine necessary for various historical, cultural, geopolitical, economic, and psychological reasons. Ukraine’s strategic location, resources, and shared heritage are fundamental to Russia’s vision of its global position and security considerations. However, the relationship between the two countries continues to evolve in complex ways. Ukraine’s efforts to develop closer relations with the West and establish a separate national identity clash with Russia’s historical view of the country as part of its global influence.

As the crisis develops, understanding the deep-rooted reasons behind Russia’s interest in Ukraine remains crucial. This knowledge helps us comprehend the current geopolitical landscape and both countries’ challenges. Russia’s actions and Ukraine’s responses continue to shape regional dynamics, influencing global politics and security arrangements.

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