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A look at history helps to understand the war in Ukraine

For centuries, Ukraine and the Black Sea region have been a crossroads of empires, voyagers, diseases, wars and revolutions. Ukraine, as it has been in the past, is once again at the center a great struggle between superpowers.

(CN) — Ukrainians are at the heart of Russian history: They are the famed Cossacks and the noblest of Eastern Slavic families. Nikolai Gogol, author of “Dead Souls,” and Sergei Prokofiev, the pioneering modern classical composer, were Ukrainians.

Ukrainians were top rulers of the Soviet state: Leonid Brezhnev was Ukrainian and also the Soviet leader at the height of the Cold War between 1964 and 1982. He hailed from Kamianske, a city in central Ukraine on the Dnieper River. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was half-Ukrainian and the great anarchist of the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno, was Ukrainian. He ended his life in exile in Berlin – another outcast from the Bolshevik lands.

And yet, for as much as they've been at the center of Russian history, Ukrainians resent that history.

To Ukrainians, Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of their country is the most awful proof for why they hate their place in Russia's imperial history: A history that even saw Muscovy take the name of their old land, always known as "Rus," and steal it for themselves. Rus became Russia. The term Ukraine took root and began to spread in the 19th and 20th centuries.

To understand the war in Ukraine, a good and necessary starting point is a look at the centuries-old relationship between Ukraine and Russia.

It's in Kyiv where the holiest place in all of Russia stands: the great Medieval-era Saint Sophia Cathedral built under the reign of the most revered lord of Kievan Rus, Vladimir the Great.

From out of the steppes of Ukraine, the Cossacks helped turn Moscow into a great European power. The grit and fighting spirit now seen among so many Ukrainians on the front-lines of the war against Putin's army can be traced back to the country's Cossack past.

The Cossacks were a tough people who mastered the art of horseback fighting. Theirs was a multi-ethnic, semi-nomadic, anarchic and democratic society that emerged in the late Medieval period; in a loose semi-democratic military federation, they ran affairs on the Ukrainian plains for centuries.

They were early followers of the East Slavic Christian Orthodox faith and withstood assaults from both the Russian and Turkish empires, each vying for control of the Black Sea.

Over the course of Moscow's imperial expansion, the Cossacks entered into alliances with the tsars of Moscow and provided crucial military strength: They fought on the side of the Kremlin in the Great Northern War, the Seven Years' War, the Crimean War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Caucasus War and in the many Russo-Persian Wars and Russo-Turkish Wars.

They became the backbone – the police and frontier force – of the Russian Empire.

Then in the late 1700s they fought for Russian Empress Catherine II and it was thanks to their military prowess that Moscow was able to push back the Ottomans from Crimea and Ukraine for good.

Catherine the Great, following the mold of tsars before her, was forever indebted to the Cossacks and garnished them with favors, wealth and noble titles. In the Kremlin, they acknowledged the role of the Cossacks in turning a sprawling but land-locked Russia into a legitimate European power.

But in Ukraine, Catherine's legacy is mixed and a source of deep division. Catherine sent the Russian General Peter Tekeli to disband the Zaporozhian Sich, a semi-autonomous and republican-style government in southern Ukraine run by Cossack chiefs. Russian forces surrounded the Sich in May 1775, forced its surrender and razed what buildings they had to the ground. With the sacking of the Sich, Catherine renamed southern and eastern Ukraine "Novorossiya," or New Russia. Famously, Catherine's former lover, military leader and nobleman Grigory Potemkin, brought the queen by river boat to see her new possessions, an episode best remembered as Catherine's "Potemkin village" trip.

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The destruction of the Sich became a well-spring of Ukrainian resentment against the tsars and in time an important narrative about why Ukraine needed to become independent again from Russia. During the spread of Ukrainian nationalism in the 19th century, references to the sacking of the Sich were a rallying call. Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's national poet, accused Catherine of being the ruler who "ultimately killed" Ukraine.

“Bohdan Khmelnytsky's entry to Kyiv” by Mykola Ivasyuk, a late 19th century painting depicting a commander of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. (Wikipedia Commons via Courthouse News)

Russia's expansion on the Black Sea was prosperous for Moscow and Kyiv as the Russian behemoth built up Ukraine's warm-water ports, constructed a navy and gained access to the booming world trade in the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet, the story of Ukrainians is such a tragic one. The main chorus in its national anthem says it all: "Ukraine has not yet perished!"

The lands surrounding the Black Sea have for centuries been a crossroads of empires, voyagers, diseases, wars and revolutions. It was on the eastern shores of the Black Sea where Marco Polo launched his great overland voyage to Cathay. The Bubonic plague arrived in Europe via Crimea.

Adolf Hitler invaded Ukraine – and killed millions in an act of indescribable genocide – in his desperate, power-thirsty quest to possess the Black Sea, Ukraine's fertile wheat fields and the untold riches farther East. Napoleon Bonaparte had made a similar mistake more than 200 years before, though he invaded Russia with an eye to joining forces with Ukraine's fervently anti-tsarist population, still fuming over the destruction of the Sich.

During the Russian Revolution, an independent Ukrainian republic briefly survived before it was crushed by the Bolsheviks. To allay the seething anger raging across so many regions of the now-decapitated Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks created new "Soviet republics" roughly corresponding to regional, ethnic and geographic boundaries. Thus, the borders of Ukraine were formalized. Ukraine, then, for the first time became a semi-state within the Soviet universe.

The Soviet years saw Ukraine transformed from a once wild and unspoiled steppe into an industrial heartland. Under Stalin's Soviet rule, Ukraine became the communist world's industrial engine and also an environmental wasteland with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster topping them all.

Huge volumes of Soviet might went into sculpting Ukraine into a powerhouse among the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Many of the Soviet's biggest dams, highways, government complexes, factories, mines, oil refineries, chemical plants, ships and space rocket facilities popped up in Ukraine.

The Communists' need to win the global war of ideology led to one of Ukraine's worst tragedies, the Holomodor.

In the drive to quickly industrialize and modernize, Stalin oversaw mass starvation across the Soviet Union. The famine of the early 1930s hit Ukraine particularly hard. Today, Ukrainians argue it was an act of genocide, but historians are divided over that definition.

In the annals of time, Ukrainians can seem like history's stepchildren: Victims of war, deprivation, lost history.

They are, truly, a people suffering on the borderlands.

The word “Ukraine” first appeared in 1187 A.D. upon the death of Volodymyr Hlibovych, a great ruler of the Principality of Pereyaslavl in the southeastern extreme of what was then one of the richest kingdoms of the Dark Ages, the Kievan Rus dynasty.

The birth of Kievan Rus – so central to Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian history – came in tandem with other great kingdoms molded into shape by Vikings, better known as Normans or Norsemen in Europe.

In the incessant warring following the fall of the Roman Empire, Norman warriors became some of Europe's most able and trusted fighters and rulers; in the short span of a century, they founded flourishing kingdoms in France, England, southern Italy and also in Kyiv.

Their aim was simple enough: They cherished the idea of reconstituting a simulacrum of the peace and prosperity enjoyed under the Roman Empire, the times of wine and honey before the Dark Ages.

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In the case of Kyiv, Norsemen solidified their footing there in the 9th century, traveling on large wooden river boats, conquering as they went farther south. On the banks of the Dnipro River, they founded what is now Kyiv, the jewel of early East Slavic history.

Pereyaslavl, the principality overseen by Hlibovych, was at the edge between Kievan Rus and vast unconquered lands farther to the east, known as “the Wild Fields.”

When Slavic scribes and monks – under the direction of the rulers in Kyiv – began compiling the story of their kingdom in the late 1300s, they wrote a line about Hlibovych's death.

It said in ancient Slavic:

ѡ нем же Оукраина много постона

“Oukraina groaned for him.”

It was the first time the word appeared in history. From that point on, Oukraina came to mean “the borderlands” or also as "the country."

The name stuck.

Ukraine, though, was not to be. Ukrainians remained stateless until 1991 when they obtained their independence as a republic with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

Yet, since gaining independence, the story of Ukraine reads like a hard-boiled political crime thriller. The past 30 years has seen the country go from bad to worse with the loss of 10 million people, a flat economic curve and endemic corruption.

And now it's being destroyed by another war.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks amid the rubble of a building heavily damaged by Russian bombardments near a frontline in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Monday, April 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The war over Ukraine may be seen as the country's newest chapter in a long history of ending up in the cross-hairs of empires fighting over the Black Sea and the great plains and mountains beyond – the Wild Fields, the Caucasus, Central Asia.

After nearly eight months of fighting the Russians to a stalemate, Ukraine has withstood the savage attack from its neighbor to the north and it is quickly regaining its fighting spirit – the Cossack courage of lore.

But its struggle to hold onto its independence is coming at great costs. The wounds from this fratricidal fight will last generations.

By invading Ukraine, Putin has stirred up a hornet's nest of history with roots in Russia's oldest and biggest imperial weaknesses: Its lust for Kiev, the magical city of ancient Russia, and its obsession about the need to keep its borderlands stable to prevent an unexpected invasion from foreigners.

A constant fear inside the Kremlin is for troubles somewhere in the far-off borderlands to unravel the Russian lands, the world's largest sovereign territory spanning 11 time zones.

In understanding this war, it seems wise therefore to see history also through the eyes of the land-locked and fear-ridden Muscovy principalities – the northern tier of the old Kievan Rus.

Russia, like Ukraine, has been a victim of countless invasions from all sides, the north, the south, the west and the east: Mongols, Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, French, Germans have all invaded. In the eyes of many Russians, it's now the turn of the Americans.

In the ruins of the Soviet mega-state, Russia has been left with no national purpose and the leadership in the Kremlin has seemed rudderless and greedy. Perhaps sensing the rot, Putin has tried to change Russia's purpose by consolidating its vast territories under an authoritarian doctrine ground in traditionalism, religiosity and an ambition to keep the mythic Russian Eurasian empire intact.

In another way, Putin is reviving an old myth of Russian history: That Moscow's role is to become the “Third Rome.”

A woman looks at residential buildings damaged by a bomb in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, March 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Ukraine is now the central theater of what many scholars call a “New Cold War” and struggle over Central Asia – a resumption of the “Great Game” where Britain sought to contain the rising might of Russia by attacking it at key junctions. Back then, Britain needed to protect its Indian possessions and delighted antagonizing the Russians and sabotaging their efforts at building a Eurasian empire.

In this Cold War 2.0, Moscow is seeking renewal of its national pride and spirit by rising up again from the dismal ruins of the lost cause of communism and the Soviet Union.

Tactically, Moscow can seem like it is losing on all fronts.

The war's become a slog. Russian athletes are banned from world sports. Its economy is reeling from the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a nation. Russian speakers are scorned the world over – out in the cold.

Under such circumstances, Russia may be left with its compulsion to carry out its mad national historical obsession to protect its center – Moscow – by consolidating its troublesome borderlands.

Then there is Washington. Maybe it is under a compulsion of its own making as it carries on putting into practice geopolitics' oldest paradigm – Sir Halford John Mackinder's “Heartland Theory.”

On a cold January night in London in 1904, Mackinder presented his groundbreaking paper entitled, “The Geographical Pivot of History.” The audience at the Royal Geographical Society was stunned once again by the intellectual acumen of Mackinder, who is today considered the father of geopolitics.

In his speech, Mackinder said the future of the world, and therefore of the British Empire, lay in the vast, resource-rich expanses of the “Heartland,” a boundless and wild territory that he saw extending from Europe to China.

For Britain's naval-based empire, such a future was a scary prospect. His solution to Britain's quandary – the fact that it was a sea empire fated to never become a land empire – was to take control of the Heartland's “pivot region,” which he posited was Eastern Europe.

Mackinder's “Heartland theory” went on to become a basis of strategic global thinking among British and later American strategists.

Fast forward to 2022: The struggle over control of Mackinder's so-called “Heartland” and over Moscow's need to reclaim Kiev has crossed swords in Ukraine, where Europe's worst war since World War II is raging without an end in sight.

History then seems to want to repeat itself: And as has happened so many times before, Ukrainians are paying the price for being born in a land crossed by empires.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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