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Russia and Ukraine go back a very long, complicated, and bloody way. At one time, Ukraine was Russia. Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state, was established by the Varangians in the ninth century. It attained considerable power during the Middle Ages but broke apart in the twelfth century. The territory and its inhabitants have been fought over ever since. At the end of the eighteenth century, Ukraine was partitioned, with a small slice going to Austria/Hungary and the rest to the Russian Empire.

The second decade of the twentieth century was as chaotic for Ukraine as it was for the rest of Europe. Civil war raged from 1917 to 1921, with a host of factions vying for control of the government of the newly proclaimed Ukrainian Republic. That sovereign state proved to be short-lived.

Even as Ukraine was asserting its independence in 1918 with its capital in Kiev, Russia was setting up a rival republic with Kharkov as its capital. The fighting and killing rolled on. By 1922, the Russians had overpowered the outmanned Ukrainian army and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the founding republics of the nascent Soviet Union.

However, conflict between Russia and Ukraine continued, and under Stalin's rule the Ukrainian people were tormented mercilessly. The most terrible episode was the Holodomor of 1932-1933, a contrived catastrophe that translates as "extermination by hunger." Many claim that Stalin engineered the mass starvation to force Ukrainian farmers into collectivization.

While there is some debate as to how the Holodomor came about, there is no doubt about it being a massive human disaster. Soldiers confiscated grain from farmers; a famine followed, which Russia did nothing to alleviate. Deaths from starvation were at least 2.5 million and perhaps as many as 7 million. Some survived only through cannibalism.

The country's misery continued during World War II, when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army tried to reestablish independence. It fought both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But for many Ukrainians the memory of the Holodomor was all too fresh, and a significant number, driven by fear and hatred of Russia, collaborated with the Nazis. Echoes of Nazism can still be heard from some Ukrainian political parties today.

World War II was an unmitigated horror for Ukraine. In 1941, it was occupied by Germany, and millions of Ukrainians were taken to Germany as forced laborers or prisoners of war. Others were used as cannon fodder to distract and busy the Soviet Army, for the tactical advantage of the Germans. One of every six Ukrainians died in the conflict. The country remained under Nazi rule until 1944, when it was recaptured by the USSR.

In 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev oversaw the transfer of the Crimea, then Russian territory, to Ukraine. Ostensibly, it was done in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the country's unification with Russia. But it was also the case that Ukraine was Khrushchev's favorite republic. He'd been born in a border town and after World War II had spent much time trying to help rebuild the country.

Additionally, Khrushchev had set out to delegitimize the cult of Stalin, and handing over Crimea was a way of demonstrating regret over his predecessor's atrocities and hence of publicly highlighting them.

What Putin Wants in Ukraine

Since the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has again been caught in the middle, with some forces pulling it toward the European Union (EU) and others toward Russia. The country is no prize. Nonetheless, Putin's Russia is very interested. The interests are:

• Ukraine should accommodate the movement of natural gas produced in Russia to buyers in Europe.

• The Russian Navy should be secure in the use of the port at Sebastopol (on the Crimean Peninsula, in the Black Sea).

• The government in Moscow should be seen as the protector of all Russian people, of whom 8 million, about 18 percent of Ukraine's population, live in the eastern part of the country.

• Ukraine should serve as a buffer that keeps NATO at a distance.

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