Ukrainian Independence Day is celebrated every August 24th. The 2022 celebrations were more enthusiastic than in past years. The reason is that more Ukrainians (85 percent) identify themselves as Ukrainian first and all other associations take a backseat. Six months earlier it was only 64.4 percent. Currently 91 percent of Ukrainians favor joining NATO and 96 percent favor joining the EU (European Union). The war with Russia did that, as well as polls showing 92 percent of Ukrainians have a bad attitude towards Russia while only two percent have a good attitude towards Russia. The hostile attitudes towards Russia began rising after the 2004 “Orange Revolution '' that ousted a Ukrainian president who was elected because he favored more economic ties with Europe but then changed his mind because of Russian bribes. Hostility towards Russia increased sharply after Russia seized Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014. That led to Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election as president in 2019. Zelenskiy pledged to reduce corruption and increase economic cooperation with Europe.
Zelenskiy’s defiant attitude towards Russia after the 2022 invasion rallied the nation behind him and he now has the trust of nearly 90 percent of the population. Russia expected Ukrainian morale to collapse because of the invasion but Zelenskiy openly declared Ukraine would never surrender and would fight to liberate all Russian occupied territory. Zelenskiy persuaded NATO nations to supply Ukraine with more and more modern weapons that Ukraine would use to defeat and expel the Russians. The success of Ukrainian forces led to Ukrainian support for no negotiations with the Russians increasing from 77 percent in May to 84 percent in July. That means no peace deal that leaves the Russians in possession of any Ukrainian territory. Some 60 percent of Ukrainians back continuing the war until all the Russians are gone, even though this means fighting through the winter and growing shortages of food, fuel and housing because of Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.
The continued success of Ukrainian forces results in more Ukrainians believing the situation is improving for them personally and for all Ukrainians. This shift in attitudes towards Ukrainian success and against Russia has created a growing partisan movement in the occupied territory and open hostility towards Russian civilian and Ukrainian collaborators. More of these pro-Russia civilians are fleeing to Russia and Russian troops in the occupied territories find themselves under growing attack by the partisans, who are directly supported by Ukrainian special forces with clandestine supplies of weapons and air and missile attacks on targets identified by Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories. This sort of thing hasn’t been seen in Europe since World War II, when it played a major role in driving the Germans out. The Russians never expected this degree of popular resistance and are unable to deal with it.
Ukrainians are less surprised because Ukrainians have been fighting foreign domination for about 1,500 years. It was 1,500 years ago that the first “Ukrainians” appeared, if you define a nationality as a common language and cultural customs. This occurred at the same time a unified Russia appeared and was able to expand more rapidly than Ukraine so that today there are six times more Russian than Ukrainian speakers. Forcing others to adopt your language is a common tool for linguistic expansion. Ukrainians had much less ambition for imperial expansion. This means that the continued existence of the Ukrainian language and nationalism is something of an achievement, one that Russia hoped to eliminate with a successful invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
What is now known as Ukraine evolved from a number Slavic tribes speaking a common language (Ukrainian) who united after Swedish Vikings traded and raided into what is now Russia via major rivers like the Neva and Vistula, both of which allowed Viking longboats to travel deep into Russia. The earliest of these Nordic raiders were known back then as the Rus (old Norse for “rowers”) and Rus eventually became Russians. This began 1,200 years ago when the Rus captured Kiev and used it as the center of a Rus kingdom that came to include Kiev, portions of modern Belarus and Russia. This was the first Russian state, and after about a century, Swedish influence declined and was replaced by Slavic customs. The locals maintained some Nordic words and customs for centuries after that. The Kievan Rus empire was composed of many distinct Slavic tribes that all recognized the city of Kiev (to northern Slavs) or Kyiv (to the southeastern and southern Slavs) as the cultural and commercial capital of this empire that lasted about three centuries.
Russian and Ukrainians differ on the importance of the Kievan Rus empire. Russia sees it as the cultural source of Russian/Ukrainian culture which Russia came to dominate. Ukrainian see the Kievan Rus empire as the origin of modern Ukraine. Russia evolved differently after the devastating Golden Horde (Mongol) invasion in the early 1200s shattered the unity provided by the Kievan Rus. After the Mongols were gone there were separate efforts to reunify what had become two separate states - Russia and Ukraine. In the north a more successful effort was aided by the dominance of Eastern Orthodox Christianity while Ukraine always had a large number of Roman Catholics as well.
Russians concentrated on achieving access to the sea, in this case the Baltic Sea. The Ukrainians had to fight various groups of Mongols, Turks and even Italian colonies to gain access to the Black Sea. Mongol power was slowly diminished by local Russian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian princes, who ruled small principalities that sometimes fought as allies of the Mongols. By 1400 Mongol power was in decline and Ukraine and Belarus were a major component of the Polish-Lithuanian confederation, which defeated the Golden Horde as well as Germans advancing from the west. While powerful, the Polish-Lithuanian empire was surrounded by enemies and subject to frequent internal conflicts.
Ukrainian history also honors the Ukrainian Cossacks, a frontier mounted militia that first appeared in the 1500s to protect southern borders from Turkic Kazaks and Tatars. The term Cossack came from an ancient Slavic work kozak, which meant a free man or adventurer. The need for kozaks arose when Ukraine established claims on lands in the south and southeast of what is now Ukraine but then was largely controlled by small numbers of mounted Tatars and Kazars. In return for official recognition and support (of individual land claims), bands of Cossacks emerged. Initially anyone could join, including Turks, as long as they swore allegiance to Ukraine and the elected leader (hetman) of each Cossack group (“host”). Sometimes the Polish nobles tried to renege on their promise of land title, and that led to the Cossack reputation for often being rebels, and effective ones on their own land. This led to a Ukrainian hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky leading a rebellion against oppressive Polish nobles that led to brief (1649-1657) independence from Polish control.
Polish and Lithuanian power was reduced in the 1700s by wars with a unified Russian kingdom (tsardom), persistent German attacks from the west and growing Turkish power in the south. Emerging in the early 1300s, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1452, ending the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire and giving the Ottomans control over access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. That control lasted until 1922, when an international treaty established limits on Turkish control over access to the Black Sea. In Russia, access to the sea (the Baltic Sea) was achieved in 1709.
The first (in 1547) tsar of Russia, Ivan Grozny, is known in the west as Ivan the Terrible. In Russian, "Grozny" means fearsome, menacing or, to many Russians, “dreaded”. Tsar Ivan spent most of his 37 years in power leading his armies against various enemies, as well as reforming the Russian government. He was largely successful against Turkic enemies that occupied what is now much of southern Russia and Ukraine. Ivan was ruthless and went full Grozny against his Turkic foes. Then he sought to take Livonia (Latvia and Estonia) to provide landlocked Russia with access to the Baltic Sea. At first Ivan was successful, but Poland and Sweden intervened and turned Russia back into a landlocked empire until 1709 when tsar Peter the Great finally defeated the Swedes and made his new city on the Baltic, Saint Petersburg into the new Russian capital. Earlier (1686) Russia gained control of much of modern Ukraine, including Kyiv, via a treaty with Poland and Lithuania that was mainly about joint operations against the Turks. That campaign lasted until 1774 when Russia took over and the Ottomans renounced their claims to the Crimean Peninsula and a long-alliance with the Turkic Tatars. Earlier the Tatars had allied themselves with the Golden Horde and had long been a problem for Ukrainians. In some respects that is still true because the current Russian claim on Crimea traces back to their victory over the Ottomans and Tatars in 1774.
The Cossacks largely disappeared during the two world wars because they were seen as fighting for Nazis (against Russians) or the for the Tsar (against rebels in general and communists in particular). Some fought for the Russians during World War II but after that they were outlawed everywhere. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 some Cossack groups reformed, pledging to serve the new Russian government. Some of these fight against Ukrainians in the Donbas.
In the 1800s nationalism became a major movement in Europe, with ethnic components of empires and large countries demanding independence. Russia had more of these independence movements than anyone else and Ukrainians demanded autonomy within the Russian empire. During World War I (1914-18) the Russian empire began to fall apart and by the end of the first World War a civil war was underway in Russia that enabled the Ukrainians to declare independence in 1917 as the UNR (Ukrainian National Republic). Ukraine was a major battlefield for the civil war which the communists (Bolsheviks) won. Sensing that, the UNR allied itself with Poland and because of that Ukraine lost some territory as most of Ukraine became part of Soviet Russia.
During World War II many Ukrainians welcomed the invading Germans as liberators. The Germans disagreed and treated the Ukrainians as not worthy of self-rule. In response the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) formed in 1943 to fight both Germans and Soviets. After 1945 the UPA received some recognition, but little support, from the West and ruthless efforts by the Soviets eliminated the UPA by 1955. Russia did manage to convince the new UN (United Nations) that Ukraine was eligible to be a member of the UN. This gave Russia an additional vote in the UN general assembly, much to the disgust of most Ukrainians.
This violent history with Russia and the Soviet Union played a major role in Ukraine (and Belarus) insisting on independence when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Many Russians saw this Ukrainian independence as a temporary condition, something they went war over in 2022.