From Lenin to Putin: Key turning points in Russian-Ukrainian history 1922-2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin blames decisions Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin made a century ago for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of control over Ukraine.
Before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin attempted to justify his country’s position by citing what he has called the two nations’ “historical unity.”
Ronald Suny is a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan. Suny has studied the complex dynamics in the region for decades and recently published an article for The Conversation, looking at Putin's claims. Suny spoke to Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about key turning points in Russian-Ukrainian relations over the past 100 years.
Ukraine was folded into the Soviet Union when the Union was founded in 1922. Suny says decisions by Lenin at that time have been a source of frustration for Putin.
"After the revolution in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power in October of that year. The Bolsheviks were Lenin's party. And through a long civil war that ran right up until 1921, Ukraine was one of the central battlefields. There was German intervention there. There were anarchists, socialists, nationalists," Suny says.
"By the end of that civil war, Ukraine was more or less integrated into the Soviet Union. In the constitution of that early Soviet Union, Ukraine and the other Union republics were given the right to secede without any preconditions. And Putin thinks of that as a time bomb, and he literally calls it an explosive mine, under the structure of the [Soviet Union] that eventually destroyed it."
Effects of World War II
Putin has also argued that Russia needed to start its current invasion of Ukraine to stop the spread of modern Nazism in the region. Suny says the rise of the Nazis before and during World War II had major effects on Ukraine during the rule of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
"At the beginning of the war, many Ukrainians greeted the Nazis because they had suffered so much under Stalinism, particularly in the early 1930s during the collectivization of peasant farms," Suny says. "They suffered a death famine in which an estimated five to seven million people died."
But Suny says Ukrainians' optimism about change was quickly crushed.
"They'd hoped the Germans would recognize their sovereignty, their independence. But the Germans had no intention to allow this kind of Ukrainian nationalist regime to exist. They carried out pogroms. They murdered Jews at Babi Yar [in Kyiv] and elsewhere. And it was so cruel that many Ukrainians then turned back to earlier loyalties to the Soviet Union," Suny says.
"More Ukrainians fought in the [Soviet] Red Army than resisted against them. Eventually, Ukraine was liberated by the Soviet Army, and Stalin then brought parts of Poland into the Soviet Union, and gave those parts also to Ukraine."
The Soviet Union ended in 1991. Boris Yeltsin became Russia's first post-Soviet president. Ukraine became an independent nation at that time.
"In the decade of the 1990s, we can call this the Yeltsin years, Russia recognized the independence and the sovereignty of 15 different republics that had been part of the Soviet Union," Suny says. "There was some discontent with the fact that a heavily Russian and Russian-speaking province, Crimea, was part of Ukraine because whatever the boundaries had been of the Soviet republics now became officially recognized by the world as the legal boundaries of these independent states."
Suny says that moment had some Russians looking back at decisions by another former Soviet ruler.
"In 1954, the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, gave as a gift to Ukraine, this province of Crimea, which had been part of Russia. But when Putin [invaded and annexed Crimea] in 2014, he was a kind of hero who had reunited Crimea with the motherland."
"In the constitution of that early Soviet Union, Ukraine and the other Union republics were given the right to secede. And Putin thinks of that as a time bomb ... under the structure of the [Soviet Union] that eventually destroyed it."University of Michigan Professor Ronald Suny
Other contested regions
The Donbas region sits along Ukraine's eastern border, and on February 22, Vladimir Putin said he recognized separatists' claims to the whole Donbas region. Moscow has backed those separatists.
"Historically, Donbas was very important because this was the mining and manufacturing, iron and steel-industry area of the Soviet Union. And it was an area to which many Russians immigrated into during that industrialization campaign. Now the majority of people in that area, it seems, were Ukrainian. Most of them peasants. In the cities, because of this industrialization, many Russians came. So, it was a complex area," Suny says.
"But in 2014 after the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine very rapidly - with backing from the United States - leaned toward the West. Rebels in that area revolted because they were fearful of diversification of the Ukrainian nationalists that were now on the ascendancy. That's when Putin then launched his soldiers into that region and a war began that's now lasted all these years between the separatists in Donbas and Ukrainians on the other side."
"Into the arms of the West"
In his article for The Conversation, Suny notes that Putin's initial goal seemed to be forcing Ukraine and the West to recognize Russian security interests and provide guarantees that NATO wouldn't expand toward Russia in Ukraine. Suny also writes, "Ironically, his recent actions have driven Ukrainians more tightly into the arms of the West."
But how much will that Western support matter if Ukraine falls and Russia is able to take control?
"Putin has really thrown all the cards up in the air. How they'll land, we can hardly tell. What seems to be happening is that the Ukrainians, in their resistance, and with their new hero, President Zelensky, are in fact now more united and more hostile to Russia," Suny says.
"It would be very difficult for Vladimir Putin to conquer, occupy, and subdue Ukraine."
Further reading: “A historian corrects misunderstandings about Ukrainian and Russian history” by Ronald Suny for The Conversation
Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.