A brief history of Russian-Ukrainian relations and war

Volunteer in orange vest gives a box of food donation to fleeing refugees from Ukraine.

It’s been 1 year since the tyrannical President Putin of Russia rolled tanks over the Ukrainian border from Belarus and began his latest escalation in a war that has been ongoing since his 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine. The Russian dictator has unleashed widespread devastation and terror, displacing 5.3 million Ukrainians internally, forcing more than 8 million to flee their homeland[1], killing more than 8,000 civilians (including innocent children, women, and men), unnecessarily wounding over 13,000 more[2], and kidnapping at least 6,000 Ukrainian children.

There has been much misinformation and disinformation surrounding the invasion and the motives behind Putin’s decision. On the heartbreaking first-year anniversary of the start of this latest aggression against Ukraine, UCTE is taking the opportunity to explain the conflict to those who might not be well-versed in Eurasian history, politics, or conflict.

First, it is important to understand the distinction between misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation: “false or inaccurate information. Examples include rumors, insults, and pranks.”[3] According to the American Psychological Association, “misinformation is false or inaccurate information–getting the facts wrong.”[4]

Disinformation: “deliberate and includes malicious content such as hoaxes, spear phishing, and propaganda. It spreads fear and suspicion among the population.”[5] The APA contrasts misinformation with disinformation, which “is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead–intentionally misstating facts.”[6]

Authoritarian regimes–in power in countries such as China, Iran, and Russia–deliberately use disinformation, often in the form of propaganda, to spread fear and suspicion to further their own authoritarian interests. Russia has long been a master of widespread propaganda and disinformation and has ramped up its international spread of disinformation in recent years because of to the technological advances afforded to it by the advent of the internet.

Leading up to the most recent invasion of Ukraine, on 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin’s regime spread a false rationale for war, supported by various disinformation campaigns. Externally, the Russian regime accused NATO of expansionism into Ukraine and claimed to be defending itself from an imminent NATO invasion. Internally, the Russian dictator claimed to be proceeding with a supposed denazification of Ukraine. Neither of these rationales justify the crimes against humanity, torture, terrorism, and brutal death that Putin has rained down on his much smaller neighbour (both by geographic area and population). “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes the biggest threat to peace and security in Europe since the end of the Cold War,”[7] and the biggest land conflict since the end of the Second World War. But this is not the first time Russia has invaded Ukraine. In fact, Russia has a long history of invading and occupying its neighbours. The reign of Catherine the Great saw most of Ukraine fall to the Russian Empire and by 1793, the rest fell to Russia in the Second Partition of Poland.[8] Under the reign of Nicholas I, after the November Uprising of 1830, the tsarist Russian regime instituted Russification policies on the Right Bank of Ukraine. Ukrainians tried to break free from Russia after the February 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg, fighting the Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917 to 1921, which resulted in the Makhnovshchina, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was quickly absorbed into the Soviet Union. Less than a decade later, under Second World War Soviet occupation, the Holodomor (Stalin’s intentional famine of 1930-33) left millions of Ukrainians dead.

Ukraine finally gained its independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many desiring closer relations with the West, the population began the Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Maidan Revolution or the Ukrainian Revolution), leading the Ukrainian parliament to oust pro-Russian strongman president Viktor Yanukovych on 22 February 2014. In response, on 25 February 2014, Russia rolled armored personnel carriers into the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, invading under the guise of “protecting Russian interests in the city.” It marked the beginning of Russia’s 21st century military aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine has remained steadfast and strong throughout Russia’s near decade of occupying the Crimean Peninsula. Patriots continued to fight Russia and defend Ukraine in the War in Donbas and have never stopped in their quest to reclaim Crimea.

Nearly 8 years later, on February 24th, 2022, Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine under the guise of denazification and supported by baseless claims that NATO was planning an invasion of Russia. Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine has left millions of displaced, dead, and wounded Ukrainian children, women, and men. It is impossible to find justification of any kind to support the actions taken by Russian forces and Wagner Group mercenaries, sending conscripts and prisoners off to the front lines as cannon fodder. These fighters are being put through a human meat grinder that has so far killed or wounded more than 200,000 of their comrades. Wounded, amputated, and disfigured fighters are being bandaged up and sent back to the front lines under threat of execution if they resist or refuse.

But the Ukrainian people have stood strong. They have banded together and are facing the Russian threat head-on. Solidarity among Ukrainians from all walks of life has become a hallmark of the resistance to the oppressor. Labour unions have also stepped up to support Ukrainians in this time of war. An International Labour Organization report on the crisis explained that

with 90 per cent of construction workers out of work in Ukraine, the Construction and Building Materials Industry Workers’ Union (PROFBUD) has found new ways to help its members and the rest of the population survive the hostilities.

Since the onset of the Russian aggression, PROFBUD mobilised to support its members and Ukrainian workers: it launched new services including humanitarian assistance and provided shelter and medical support for internally displaced persons (IDPs), providing 505,000 bednights in trade union facilities since the beginning of March [2022]. It has also given financial assistance to unionised workers, 30,000 of them having not received a salary since the end of February [2022].[9]

The American Federation of Labour & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) noted that

Since the onset of the conflict, union members from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) and the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) have mobilized in large numbers, remain united behind their elected government’s efforts to manage the war and continue to make valiant sacrifices to defend the nation. However, in return, Ukraine’s government is now moving to break the unions’ power and take away crucial workers’ rights that are central to upholding its democracy.[10]

Despite the efforts and sacrifices made by unionized labour, the Ukrainian parliament passed Law 5371 on August 17, 2022, removing “rights for workers at small and medium-sized companies.”[11] The law will remain effective as long as the country is under martial law. Instead of labour code protections, employees at firms of up to 250 “will now be covered by contracts they negotiate [themselves] as individuals with their bosses.”[12] Law 5371 is a rare misstep by a government under attack, defending the Ukrainian democracy upon which its own legitimacy rests. While defending Ukrainian democracy, Parliament must defend collective bargaining rights, a hallmark of a functioning democracy, or else they aid in the Russification of the Ukrainian economy.

Russia has also committed war crimes against Ukrainian children and non-combatants. According to the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) and a February 14, 2023 report from the Conflict Observatory, “Russia’s federal government has systematically relocated [(kidnapped)] at least 6,000 children from Ukraine to a network of re-education and adoption facilities in Russia-occupied Crimea and mainland Russia.”[13] The HRL found that “the majority of camps have engaged in pro-Russia re-education efforts and some camps have provided military training to children or suspended the children’s return to their parents in Ukraine.”[14] Russia has a history of using child soldiers at home and abroad–including a recent push to indoctrinate and prepare its own children for war[15]–leading to expectations that it will deploy kidnapped Ukrainian children as child soldiers against their own homeland. Other children have been raped and tortured by invading forces. A UN-mandated report published in October 2022 found that the victims range in age from 4 to over 80 years old, even detailing that “in northern Ukraine’s Chernihiv region, a soldier in Russia’s 80th tank regiment in March [2022] repeatedly sexually abused a girl and threatened to kill [her] family members, according to a Chernihiv district court ruling.”

The international community and the world of organized labour must stand with our Ukrainian sisters, brothers, and friends. War must never be used to justify the quashing of human and workers’ rights. UCTE stands in solidarity with all who stand for the freedom of Ukraine and against the evil raining down on its people from the Russian terrorist state. Russia must be held accountable for its heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since the February 2022, Canada has welcomed over 132,000 Ukrainian nationals[16] fleeing Putin’s terrorist campaign, but we can do more.

Slava Ukraini.


[1] https://www.unrefugees.org/emergencies/ukraine/#

[2] https://www.rferl.org/a/un-ukraine-invasion-russia-civilian-death-toll-8000/32281374.html#:~:text=Local%20residents%20carry%20the%20body,people%20killed%20and%2013%2C287%20wounded.

[3] https://www.unhcr.org/innovation/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Factsheet-4.pdf

[4] https://www.apa.org/topics/journalism-facts/misinformation-disinformation

[5] https://www.unhcr.org/innovation/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Factsheet-4.pdf

[6] https://www.apa.org/topics/journalism-facts/misinformation-disinformation

[7] https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-war-ukraine-identity-history-and-conflict

[8] https://archive.org/details/ukrainehistory00subt_0

[9] https://www.ilo.org/budapest/whats-new/WCMS_851361/lang–en/index.htm

[10] https://aflcio.org/2022/12/22/supporting-workers-rights-critical-ukraines-future

[11] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraine-labour-law-wrecks-workers-rights/

[12] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraine-labour-law-wrecks-workers-rights/

[13] https://hub.conflictobservatory.org/portal/apps/sites/#/home/pages/children-camps-1

[14] https://hub.conflictobservatory.org/portal/apps/sites/#/home/pages/children-camps-1

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/23/how-putin-is-preparing-children-to-die-for-the-motherland

[16] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/ukraine-refugee-mental-health-dance-1.6691108

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