A century and counting: Ukraine's ongoing fight to free itself from Russia This month marks 100 years since Ukraine joined the Soviet Union. It did so after Ukraine lost in a bid for independence. Ukraine once again finds itself in another life-and-death battle with Moscow.

A century and counting: Ukraine's ongoing fight to free itself from Russia

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Russia fired more missiles at Ukraine today, knocking out power and infrastructure. Ukrainian officials say Russia plans a fresh offensive in the new year. Now, this month marks a hundred years since Ukraine joined the Soviet Union. NPR's Greg Myre has this reporting from Kyiv.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The past century in Ukraine has been packed with monumental events - wars, famine, political upheavals. Yet, there's a recurring theme that can be boiled down to a single sentence. Ukraine tries to break free from Russia, and Russia refuses to let it go. Volodymyr Viatrovych is a member of Ukraine's parliament and a prominent historian.

VOLODYMYR VIATROVYCH: (Through interpreter) The Russian empire started to expand with Ukraine. In the minds of many Russians, their empire cannot exist without Ukraine. That's why they keep coming back.

MYRE: He invited me to a cafe in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which the Russians pulverized in the first days of the war. He lives nearby and said this was a fitting place to discuss both history and current events.

VIATROVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: When the Russians invaded before dawn on February 24, Viatrovych says he sent his wife and 6-year-old son to western Ukraine for their safety. He drove to Kyiv for an emergency session of parliament, which declared martial law. By 2 p.m. that day, he received a rifle so he could join the security forces defending the capital. It was a day of high drama in a war that's still playing out. But as a historian, Viatrovych also sees the actions of President Vladimir Putin as part of a pattern of behavior by Russian leaders.

VIATROVYCH: (Through interpreter) Putin's many statements in recent years made clear he wanted to renew the Russian empire. This was a warning to me that this war was going to happen.

MYRE: Ukraine first declared independence from Russia in 1918, seeking to capitalize on the collapse of the Russian monarchy a year earlier. But Vladimir Lenin and the communists, the successors to the Russian monarchy, sent troops to Ukraine and defeated that short-lived independence. With no real alternative, Ukraine formally became part of the Soviet Union a century ago on December 30, 1922. Andrew Weiss is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He notes that Soviet leaders repeatedly crushed Ukrainian protests and rebellions, which helps explain why Ukrainians are fighting so fiercely today.

ANDREW WEISS: If you look at all the hardships that Ukraine experienced in the 20th century - and they're vast - this is the moment where all the wrongs of the last hundred-plus years need to be redressed.


MYRE: Ukrainians thought this matter was finally resolved in December, 1991, when they held a referendum on independence. A whopping 92% voted in favor of going their own way. The Soviet Union collapsed later that month. But Vladimir Putin had other plans. The Russian leader says he doesn't accept Ukraine's independence, that it's really part of Russia. He even claims that only Russia can protect Ukraine from foreign invaders. Here he is earlier this month.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) I have said it before, but I want to say it again. Russia can be the only real guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

MYRE: Putin worked to install friendly, pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine. Ukrainians pushed back with massive street protests in 2004 and then again a decade later, leading Ukraine's president to flee to Russia in 2014. Just days after that episode, Putin invaded Ukraine. Then came his full-scale invasion this February. He never expected such a tough fight. Andrew Weiss says Ukraine is now.

WEISS: Mobilizing all the citizens to make good on the things that people a hundred years ago could only aspire to. And that's a country that will have an identity that's largely founded in opposition to Russia and in a national narrative of survival and overcoming.

MYRE: For Ukraine, the stakes in this war are huge. The same is also true of Russia. Russian Garry Kasparov is the former world chess champion and a staunch critic of Putin. He says the Russian leader knows he can't lose this war because...

GARRY KASPAROV: If he is losing war, especially the war of his own making, he doesn't survive. The outcome may signal the end not just Putin's era, but the era of the empire. It's 21st century. It's time for empire to go.

MYRE: Kasparov was still living in Russia 15 years ago when he entered politics and challenged Putin's hold on power. When it became clear that Kasparov's safety was at risk, he left Russia and now lives in New York. This year, his organization, the Renew Democracy Initiative, is raising money for Ukraine.

KASPAROV: We see it not just as a moral duty to help Ukraine to survive and win the war, but also as an opportunity to revitalize the discussion about democracy and the values of freedom. Ukraine keep demonstrating to us that these values are worth fighting and dying for.

MYRE: Many military analysts warn the war is unlikely to produce a clear resolution on the battlefield. They say it's likely to require negotiations and compromises. Now, that's not a popular opinion in Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and many citizens say they want all Russian troops driven out of the country. Zelenskyy recently told Time magazine, quote, "we're dealing with a powerful state that is pathologically unwilling to let Ukraine go." Valeriy Chaly is Ukraine's former ambassador to the United States.

VALERIY CHALY: We can't postpone the war for the future generation.

MYRE: He says the region will be more stable if Ukraine wins the war and joins NATO. This is what Ukraine's government wants. Though, joining the alliance is highly unlikely in the near term.

CHALY: This buffer zone or gray zone is not good from a geopolitical point of view. If you have gray zone between two security blocs, two military blocs, everybody wants to make a step, you know? And this has happened with Ukraine.

MYRE: Back in Bucha, the town pummeled by the Russians, construction workers are already rebuilding, putting rooves on homes in the snow and the mud of a freezing December day. Historian Volodymyr Viatrovych says Ukrainians believe, this time, the confrontation with Moscow will end differently.

VIATROVYCH: (Through interpreter) I believe our generation has an opportunity to put an end to this. Ukrainians are more united, more mobilized, more ready to fight than in 1918.

MYRE: And, he adds, now much of the world is supporting Ukraine.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Kyiv.


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