There are both geopolitical and historical reasons behind Moscow’s endless pressure on Kiev, which was the birthplace of the first Russian state in the 9th Century.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longtime leader, once described the collapse of the Soviet Union, the predecessor state of Moscow, as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century".
“As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory,” the Russian president said in 2005, when Ukraine’s anti-Russian pro-EU Orange Revolution was raging across the country.
Putin was not happy about the new reality of former Soviet republics like Ukraine parting their ways from Moscow. But he was equally perturbed that millions of Russian-speaking people were left behind, stuck in countries like Ukraine, Lithuania and Kazakhstan under non-Russian states.
Putin and his predecessors were still keen on tightening their control over the Russian autonomous regions populated by non-Russian ethnic groups, from Chechnya to Tatarstan and others. They even waged brutal wars to crush separatist movements like the one led by Chechens two decades ago.
In 2008, Russia even attacked Georgia, a former Soviet republic, which became an independent state three decades ago. Moscow openly backed South Ossetians and Abkhazians, who rebelled against Tbilisi’s central authority. Since then, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have remained separatist-controlled regions with Russian assistance.
Putin pursues a similar policy to Moscow’s Georgia conduct, backing anti-Kiev Russian separatists when it comes to Ukraine. But most recently, Putin has signalled another invasion, deploying tens of thousands of troops across the Russia-Ukraine border.
But why does Ukraine matter so much to Russia? Here is a breakdown.
Kiev: the birthplace of Russia
Ukraine’s move toward the Western bloc in the name of having a democratic state has made the Russian establishment feel betrayed because Kiev’s national identity and history is much more linked to Russia than Turkic states in Central Asia and Baltic states in eastern Europe, which were also part of the Soviets.
Moscow’s ruling establishment feels so emotional because the first Russian state called Kievan Rus was established in Kiev 12 centuries ago. Even the name of Russia originated in the name of this loose confederation of Eastern Slavic, Baltic and Finnic nations.
Rurik, the founding leader of the Kievan Rus dynasty, has been considered one of the godfathers of the Russian state. Interestingly, Rurik did not have Slavic origins, he had Viking blood in his veins.
Following Rurik, his successors embraced Orthodox Christianity under Byzantine influence, partly because Orthodox Slavs had largely populated their territories. As a result, Slavism and Orthodox Christianity have become the two dominant elements of the Russian identity.
In time, the Russian capital moved first to Saint Petersburg and later to Moscow, but the emotional presence of Kiev in the Russian heart has not changed much. Putin has continued to call Ukraine “Little Russia”, quoting a former Russian general, Anton Denikin.
"He says that no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us; they have always been the business of Russia itself," the Russian president said in 2009, referring to ties between Ukraine and Russia.
In July, Putin wrote an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he argued that both nations are "one people", giving a long historical account of it.
Heavy Russian population in Ukraine
Beyond the Russian emotions of Kiev, there is also a population fact, which matters a lot to Moscow. At least one-third of the Ukrainian population, mostly living in the eastern part of the country close to the Russian border, speaks Russian and feels Russian. On the other hand, Ukrainians living in the Western and northern parts of the country also widely speak Russian.
In 2013, simmering tensions between Kiev and its Russian-origin population exploded in eastern Ukraine. Since then, Moscow has backed Russian separatists, who established their own autonomous state called Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014 in eastern Ukraine.
But that was not all. In 2014, Putin’s Russia also annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a strategic region in the Black Sea, from Ukraine after a controversial referendum.
Ukraine could do nothing to stop the invasion, as the opposition from the US and its Western allies remained confined to mere protests. Most recently, Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops across its border with Ukraine, signalling another invasion could be on the way.
“I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kyiv (Kiev) simply does not need Donbas,” Putin wrote in his July article, referring to eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian opposition hurts
Moscow’s balancing act toward Ukraine had been to monitor the political developments until the 2005 Orange Revolution, which toppled a pro-Russian president and government. Since then, tensions have continued to escalate between Ukraine and Russia.
Despite Putin’s displeasure of the fact that many Russians should live under other successor states to the Soviets after the collapse of the communist state, he has not made it a big issue with them as long as they don’t go against Moscow’s political objectives like Ukraine has done since 2005.
But unlike Central Asian states, who usually follow Russia-friendly politics, Ukraine has increasingly become a pro-West state, angering Moscow. Russia feels threatened by movements like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia’s Rose Revolution, fearing that those pro-democracy demands could spread to other parts of the Russian Federation.
Russia has already lost Baltic states to the EU after the Soviet fall and its influence has also significantly decreased across the Balkans, where Moscow was once the leading power. As a result, Moscow feels that it can’t concede Ukraine to the West.
Feeling encircled by the West and pro-democracy movements from Ukraine to Georgia, Russia under Putin has countered with aggressive policymaking wherever it felt under pressure. Among others, Ukraine has a special importance due to its geography located between Eastern Europe and Russia.
Russia does not like to have too many EU-member neighbours with NATO sympathies along its western border. Lithuania and Estonia, the two Baltic states neighbouring Russia, already joined the union much to the dismay of the Russian establishment.
If Ukraine also joins the EU as pro-Russia Belarus continues to struggle with pro-democracy protests, Russia’s Western front will appear weaker and insecure in the eyes of Putin and his allies.
As a result, it appears to be that Russians even consider invading Ukraine to prevent further risks toward its national and global security interests.