Russia's attitude toward Ukraine is encoded in the country's name —
literally, Ukraine means "at the edge" or "borderland." Most of
modern-day Ukraine came under the control of the Russian czars in
the 1700s after being part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Except for some territories' short-lived declarations of
independence in the chaotic years following the Bolshevik Revolution
in 1917, Ukraine remained under Moscow's control until the 1991
collapse of the Soviet Union.
More than two decades on, Russia's influence remains in the fact
that surveys have shown about a third of Ukraine's citizens speak
Russian exclusively or mainly in their family life — when Mykola
Azarov became prime minister in 2010, one of his first promises was
to work hard to learn Ukrainian.
Ukraine has been central to many key developments in Russian
culture. Kievan Rus — a loose federation of Slavic tribes centered
in Kiev — was the regional power in the ninth to 12th centuries,
when Moscow was a mere settlement. Its ruler, Prince Vladimir,
brought Christianity to the region, laying the foundation for the
Russian Orthodox Church, now the largest Orthodox denomination. Some
of the most prominent names in Russian literature have their roots
in Ukraine, including Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov.
FEAR OF WESTERN EXPANSION
President Vladimir Putin saw Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution as a
Western plot to expand into Russia's historic turf. Putin has also
criticized the proposed political association and free trade deal
between the EU and Ukraine as yet another attempt to encroach on
what Russia sees as its traditional sphere of influence. He has
accused the EU of "pressure and blackmail" of Ukraine.
As Kiev intensified talks with the EU in recent months, Russia
restricted imports of Ukrainian goods, such as steel and chocolates,
which Azarov claims have reduced this year's exports by $6.5
billion. Russia has also warned it would slap higher taxes on all
Ukrainian exports if the country joins the EU.
If Ukraine signs the EU deal despite Russia's stumbling blocks, it
would represent a big blow to Putin.
MAJOR CONDUIT FOR GAS SUPPLIES TO THE WEST
Ukraine serves as the main conduit for Russia's natural gas exports
to Europe, and the pricing disputes between the two countries have
led to shutdowns in many parts of the continent.
Russia has lobbied for years to acquire a controlling stake in
Ukraine's pipeline network, but Kiev has continuously rebuffed such
overtures. Moscow has also sought to reduce its dependence on
Ukraine's transit capacity by building an alternate gas pipeline
under the Baltic Sea and is also planning another one under the
Black Sea. But Ukraine still accounts for the bulk of export
[to top of second column]
CLOSE INDUSTRIAL TIES
When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it was home to some of
its leading industrial plants specializing in metals, cars,
shipbuilding, aviation and missiles, among other products. Some of
these plants have been badly crippled by an economic meltdown that
followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but many have
managed to stay afloat.
Russia has continued to depend on Ukrainian manufacturers for
aircraft and rocket engines, turbines, pumps and numerous industrial
components and manufacturing tools. In particular, some of the
Soviet-built intercontinental ballistic missiles that still form the
core of Russia's strategic nuclear forces were manufactured in
Ukraine and require spares and maintenance that can only be provided
by Ukrainian factories. Russian-built combat helicopters also
continue to rely on Ukrainian-built engines.
As part of its efforts to prevent Ukraine from signing the deal with
the EU, the Kremlin has argued that the agreement would force Russia
to phase out industrial cooperation — a move that could weigh
heavily on Ukraine's industrial base.
KEY NAVY BASE
Ukraine hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimean port
of Sevastopol. While the Black Sea Fleet is relatively small
compared to other Russian navy forces, its ships have played an
important role in Russia's efforts to project its power worldwide.
Some of them recently sailed to Syria's shores.
The Black Sea Fleet, which has been involved in a number of historic
battles over the centuries, also serves as an important symbol of
Russian national pride.
In 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal with Russia
extending its lease on the base until 2042. Russia has been slow to
build an alternate base on its own Black Sea coast, so a Ukraine
reversal could in theory leave the Russian navy stranded.
Press; JIM HEINTZ and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV]
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