The first “Russian” state was Kievan Rus, created by conquering Vikings. In the 13th Century the Mongols showed up and put a stop to that. “Independent” Russia came to mean a small territory around Moscow. Over the following centuries, Ukraine became a contested ground between empires: the “Golden Horde” of the Mongols, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the rising Austrian Empire, and an expanding Romanov Russia. By the end of the 18th Century, the Austrians held Galicia, while the rest of the Ukraine belonged to Russia.
As was the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 19th Century, local nationalism began to burn. Tsarist Russia repressed this just as it did every other form of non-Russian nationalism. Still, Ukrainian nationalism survived. When the First World War wrecked the Austrian and Russian Empires, Ukraine declared its independence (1917).
Tragedy followed for Ukrainians: the territory and its people were savaged by Poles with an expansive definition of “historical” Poland; and by “Whites,” “Reds,” and a variety of crazy people like the Anarchist anti-semite Nestor Makhno during the Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War. Then Ukraine fell under the hammer during Josef Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. About 3.5 million Ukrainians were starved to death during this “Harvest of Sorrow.”
During the drive for industrialization that followed close on the heels of the “terror famine,” Stalin moved in millions of Russians to eastern Ukraine. Their descendants still form a large part of the population of Ukraine. Then the Second World War brought both massive suffering and deep divisions, as Ukrainians fought on both side.
In 1954, possibly trying to make amends to the Ukraine for the whole unfortunate “terror famine” thing, the Soviet Union transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. This remained something of a sore spot for the ethnic Russians of Crimea.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine held a referendum on independence. Overall, 90 percent of those who voted supported independence. However, voter participation varied a good deal throughout Ukraine. The Russians weren’t happy with this secession, but there wasn’t much they could do about it because Russia itself was in massive turmoil.
The post-independence history of Ukraine has not been a happy one. Corruption is endemic. Mismanagement is widespread. Bureaucracy is pervasive and stifling. Investment in productive capacity fell far short of needs. Where banks did lend, they often made bad loans. Business law and an incompetent (or corrupt) judiciary make property insecure. Investors don’t want to risk their capital. By 2014, Ukrainians were among Europe’s poorest people.
In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych won election as president amidst charges of massive fraud and interference by the Soviet Union. An “Orange Revolution” turned him out of office. His “Orange” successors then mismanaged things on a grand scale. Eventually, in 2010, Yanukovych managed to win election as president without charges of massive fraud. In late 2013 he suddenly rejected a long-prepared economic agreement with the European Union. This act sparked a new round of demonstrations that ended with Yanukovych chased from office once again (February 2014).
After that, things got even worse. By 2015, the conflict with Russia cut Ukrainian-Russian trade by half. Inflation and unemployment both rose. Foreign-exchanges reserves at the central bank sank to their lowest point in a decade. Experts estimated that the country would need $40 billion in financial assistance over the next four years. In early February 2015, the International Monetary Fund granted Ukraine a $17.5 billion credit.
It was against this background that the Obama administration, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund began pressuring Ukraine to root out corruption and address a host of other problems.
 “In Russia’s shadow,” The Week, 14 March 2014, p. 11.
 Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986); Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on the Ukraine (2017).
 David M. Herszenhorn, “Economic Woes Will Test Kiev, Even if Truce Holds,” NYT, 14 February 2015