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A century and counting: Ukraine's ongoing fight to free itself from Russia

Ukrainians in the capital Kyiv take part in the 2004 "Orange Revolution." The demonstrators protested against what they said were Russian attempts to rig the country's presidential election. Ukrainians say Russia's invasion this year is the latest attempt by Moscow over the past century to maintain control and influence over Ukraine.
Ivan Sekretarev
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AP
Ukrainians in the capital Kyiv take part in the 2004 "Orange Revolution." The demonstrators protested against what they said were Russian attempts to rig the country's presidential election. Ukrainians say Russia's invasion this year is the latest attempt by Moscow over the past century to maintain control and influence over Ukraine.

The past century in Ukraine has been packed with monumental events — wars, famines, political upheavals. Yet there's a recurring theme that can be boiled down to a single sentence: Ukraine tries to break free from Russia, and Russia refuses to let it go.

"The Russian empire started to expand with Ukraine. In the mind of many Russians, their empire cannot exist without Ukraine. That's why they keep coming back," said Volodymyr Viatrovych, a member of Ukraine's parliament and a prominent historian.

He lives near the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which the Russians pulverized in the first days of the war. When the Russians invaded Ukraine before dawn on Feb. 24, Viatrovych says he immediately sent his wife and 6-year-old son to western Ukraine for their safety.

He then drove to Kyiv for an emergency session of parliament, which declared martial law. By 2 p.m. that day, he received a rifle so he could join the security forces defending the capital.

It was a day of high drama in a war that's still playing out. But as an historian, Viatrovych also sees the actions of President Vladimir Putin as part of a pattern of behavior by Russian leaders.

"Putin's many statements in recent years made clear he wanted to renew the Russian empire. This was a warning to me that this war was going to happen," he said.

The boundary between Ukraine and Crimea, in a photo from early February of this year. Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. On Feb. 24 of this year, Russian forces in Crimea pushed deeper into southern Ukraine and have seized additional territory in the region.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The boundary between Ukraine and Crimea, in a photo from early February of this year. Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. On Feb. 24 of this year, Russian forces in Crimea pushed deeper into southern Ukraine and have seized additional territory in the region.

A declaration of independence

Ukraine first declared independence from Russia in 1918, doing so in an elegant, whitewashed building in the center of Kyiv that still stands and now serves as the offices for the Kyiv House of Teachers.

At that time, Ukrainians were seeking to take advantage of the chaos in Russia following the collapse of the Russian monarchy a year earlier. But Vladimir Lenin and the Communists, the successors to the Russian monarchy, sent troops to Ukraine and defeated that short-lived independence.

With no real alternative, Ukraine formally became part of the Soviet Union on Dec. 30, 1922 — a century ago this month.

A reminder of that history came just two months ago, on Oct. 10. That's when a Russian missile slammed into the street outside the Kyiv House of Teachers.

The blast blew out the windows, as well as parts of the glass ceiling in the hall where independence was declared in 1918. The windows are boarded up. Shards of glass still cover the floor.

"There are, of course, parallels to a century ago," said Oleh Steshuk, the director of the House of Teachers. "This building was also damaged in the fighting back then. And now it's damaged again. But don't worry. We will rebuild everything."

Andrew Weiss, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, notes that during the Soviet era, Kremlin leaders repeatedly crushed Ukrainian protests and rebellions — which helps explain why Ukrainians are fighting so fiercely today.

"If you look at all the hardships that Ukraine experienced in the 20th century, and they're vast, this is the moment where all the wrongs of the last hundred plus years need to be redressed," he said.

A Ukrainian man stands in protest in front of gunmen in unmarked uniforms in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014. The forces were part of Russia's military, which remains in Crimea to this day.
Andrew Lubimov / AP
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AP
A Ukrainian man stands in protest in front of gunmen in unmarked uniforms in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014. The forces were part of Russia's military, which remains in Crimea to this day.

A clear desire to break from Moscow

Ukrainians thought this matter was finally resolved in December 1991, when they held a referendum on independence. Ninety-two percent voted in favor of going their own way. The Soviet Union collapsed later that month.

But when Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999, he had other plans. The Russian leader says he doesn't accept Ukraine's independence, and that it's part of Russia. He claims that only Russia can protect Ukraine from foreign invaders.

"I have said it before, but I want to say it again: Russia can be the only real guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity," Putin said earlier this month.

Putin has worked to install friendly, pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine. Ukrainians pushed back with massive street protests in 2004. And then again a decade later, leading Ukraine's president to flee to Russia in 2014.

Just days after that episode, Putin invaded Ukraine. Then came his full-scale invasion this February.

He never expected such a tough fight.

Weiss said Ukraine is now "mobilizing all of its citizens to make good on the things that people 100 years ago could only aspire to. That's a country that will have an identity that's largely founded in opposition to Russia, and in a national narrative of survival and overcoming."

Ukraine last month marked the 90th anniversary of a 1932-33 famine that the country blames on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In this photo, visitors to the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide in Kyiv look though a book with some of the names of the 4 million or more Ukrainians who died in the famine. In the background is a photo of one of the victims of that period.
Ievgen Afanasiev / NPR
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NPR
Ukraine last month marked the 90th anniversary of a 1932-33 famine that the country blames on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In this photo, visitors to the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide in Kyiv look though a book with some of the names of the 4 million or more Ukrainians who died in the famine. In the background is a photo of one of the victims of that period.

What the war means for Ukraine and Russia

For Ukraine, the stakes in this war are huge. The same is also true of Russia.

Russian Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and a staunch critic of Putin, said the Russian leader knows he can't lose this war.

Because "if he's losing a war, especially a war of his own making, he doesn't survive," he said. "The outcome may signal the end, not just of Putin's era, but the era of the empire. It's 21st century. It's time for empires to go."

Kasparov was still living in Russia 15 years ago when he entered politics and challenged Putin's hold on power. When it became clear his safety was at risk, he left Russia, and now lives in New York.

This year, his organization, the Renew Democracy Initiative, is raising money for Ukraine.

"We see it not just as a moral duty to help Ukraine to survive and win the war," he said. "But also as an opportunity to revitalize the discussion about democracy and the values of freedom. Ukrainians keep demonstrating to us that these values are worth fighting and dying for."

Many military analysts warn the war is unlikely to produce a clear resolution on the battlefield. They say it's likely to require negotiations and compromises.

That's not a popular opinion in Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and many citizens say they want all Russian troops driven out of the country.

Zelenskyy recently told Time magazine, "We are dealing with a powerful state that is pathologically unwilling to let Ukraine go."

Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine's former ambassador to the United States, said the region would be more stable if Ukraine wins the war and joins NATO. This is what Ukraine's government wants, though joining the alliance is highly unlikely in the near term.

"Being a buffer zone or gray zone is not good from a geopolitical point of view," he said. "If you are a gray zone between two security blocs, two military blocs, everybody wants to make a step. This has happened with Ukraine."

Construction workers are already rebuilding in Bucha, reroofing homes in the snow and mud of a freezing December day.

Viatrovych says Ukrainians believe this time the confrontation with Moscow will end differently.

"I believe our generation has an opportunity to put an end to this. Ukrainians are more united, more mobilized, more ready to fight than in 1918," he said.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.