Ukraine’s history and its centuries-long road to independence

In explaining why he launched the invasion, President Putin falsely claimed that Ukraine was always a part of Russia, while he also made bogus assertions about pro-Russian Ukrainians being under threat. To help sort fact from fiction, and gain a better understanding of how we got to this point, the NewsHour's Ali Rogin looks at the history of Ukraine and its people's political independence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In explaining why he launched this invasion, President Putin falsely claimed that Ukraine was always a part of Russia.

    And, just as he did the first time he invaded Ukraine, Putin made bogus assertions about pro-Russian Ukrainians being under threat.

    To help sort fact from fiction and gain a better understanding of how we got to this point, the "NewsHour"'s Ali Rogin looks at the history of Ukraine and of its people's political independence.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In 1991, at the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared independence after nearly 70 years under Moscow's control.

    And when Russian President Vladimir Putin took power a decade later, he began trying to get it back. Ukraine, he says, is part of Russia's family.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    We will believe that Ukraine is not only our closest neighbor, but is indeed our brotherly republic.

  • Ali Rogin:

    At a NATO summit in 2008, he reportedly told then-President George W. Bush that Ukraine was not even a country. And he repeated those claims last week before launching the invasion.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood. Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.

  • Ali Rogin:

    That claim ignores the centuries of history through which modern Ukraine took shape.

    It was first home to the Kyivan Rus people, who were Scandinavians traders and Russia's namesake. Over time, it was absorbed by Poland and Lithuania, and then the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. A post-World War I treaty briefly recognized its independence, long enough to spark Ukrainian nationalist movements.

    The Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic was born in 1922. Under Soviet rule, Ukrainian identity was under constant threat. In 1932, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deliberately imposed famine there, killing at least three million Ukrainians in a single year.

    Indeed, by World War II, some Ukrainians welcomed Nazi occupation as a way to challenge Soviet control. But the Nazis slaughtered more than 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews. Millions more non-Jewish Ukrainians were also killed or put to hard labor.

    By 1954, the country that exists today was part of the USSR. The final piece was Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russia to Ukraine. But even after Ukraine declared independence in 1991, pro-Russian political elements remained, which Putin exploited.

    In Ukraine's 2004 presidential elections, he supported the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych ran against Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western opposition politician.

  • Viktor Yushchenko, Former Ukrainian President (through translator):

    It would be a great mistake if Ukraine misses a train bound for Europe.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Yanukovych won, but international monitors said the election fell short of its standard. Yushchenko supporters took to the streets. They sparked the Orange Revolution, so-called for the campaign's colors, holding protests and storming Parliament.

    The Ukrainian Supreme Court deemed the results invalid, and Yushchenko won the next election. During the election, Yushchenko became ill and his face became disfigured. It was found to be dioxin poisoning. His supporters blamed the pro-Russian government.

    Vasil, Resident of Kyiv: Who's responsible? The Ukrainian authorities are, who have been doing everything not to let Yushchenko win.

  • Ali Rogin:

    He did win, though, and continued pushing West.

  • Viktor Yushchenko (through translator):

    The political goal is the final integration to the European Union and NATO. The main question is not in the direction of movement, but in the speed of it.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But, in Eastern Ukraine, support for Russia remained strong. In 2010, Yanukovych ran again and won.

  • Viktor Yushchenko (through translator):

    My task is to make sure that Russia-Ukraine relations take a radical turn in the right direction.

  • Ali Rogin:

    One of those radical turns came in 2013. Yanukovych stopped trade talks with the E.U., instead pursuing a similar agreement with Russia.

    That night, crowds gathered in Kyiv's Maidan, or Independence, Square, which continued to grow into a sprawling camp.

  • Yura, Protestor (through translator):

    We are ready for war, but we're hoping for the best. The government should be afraid of the people, not the people afraid of the government.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But the head of the Russian government vilified the Ukrainian people.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    In my view, this is an attempt by the opposition to shake the current and, I want to emphasize, legitimate authorities in the country.

  • Ali Rogin:

    As 2014 began, authorities grew more violent. In late February, Ukrainian security forces shot and killed dozens. Then, the opposition and government reached a truce, and Yanukovych fled, reappearing a few days later in Russia.

  • Viktor Yanukovych (through translator):

    I intend to keep fighting for the future of Ukraine against those who are using fear and terror to seize the country.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But the one trying to seize Ukraine was Putin. He sent unidentified armed men to occupy airports in Crimea, which Putin has long said was stolen from Russia.

    Putin denied sending in troops, but said he would if asked, setting up a pretext, just as he did for this invasion.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    What can be a reason to use the armed forces? This is, of course, the last resort, simply the last resort. If we see that lawlessness starting in eastern regions too, if people ask us for help, we reserve the right to use all options at our disposal to protect those citizens.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Those so-called requests for help soon followed. On March 6, the Crimean Parliament voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

    Days later, a public referendum rife with alleged fraud passed with 95.5 percent of the vote. That July, the U.S., E.U., Canada, and other allies imposed sanctions on Russia. More unidentified vehicles arrived in Crimea escorted by Russian police cars, and Russian troops took over more buildings.

    As it is today, the Putin regime said it was helping Crimeans defend themselves, with little evidence they needed defending.

    Dmitry Peskov, Spokesman for Vladimir Putin (through translator): Will Russia be able to remain indifferent to the situation when, in neighboring Ukraine, Russians are facing a deadly threat? The answer is simple. No, Russia cannot remain indifferent, and it will not remain indifferent.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Two months later, Ukraine elected its next president, pro-European businessman Petro Poroshenko.

  • Petro Poroshenko, Former Ukrainian President (through translator):

    We should do everything possible to bring European values to Ukraine.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But the events in Crimea had inspired pro-Russian separatists in two other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass.

  • Ludmila, Pro-Russian Activist (through translator):

    We want to have an independent republic of Donetsk. We want to be independent from Ukraine.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The political protests took on a military dimension.

    Russian-backed separatists began an insurgency against the Ukrainian military. There were diplomatic attempts to reach a cease-fire, but those never held. The fighting continued into 2019, when Poroshenko lost reelection to TV star and neophyte politician Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who'd once played an accidentally elected president of Ukraine.

    He campaigned on domestic issues, but also wanted to restore peace to the Donbass.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy (through translator):

    : Most likely, if I meet Mr. Vladimir Putin, I will tell him the following: Well, you finally gave us back our territories. How much money are you ready to give as compensation for the fact that you took our territories and that you assisted people who participated in escalation in Crimea, Donbass and assisted them on the awful, cruel and disgusting path?

  • Ali Rogin:

    Three years later, Putin is forcing the Ukrainian people further down that cruel path, while Zelenskyy fights to lead them out.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

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