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Well, I was being a little silly.
Ukraine was a significant center of industry and investment during the late Czarist period. Eastern Ukraine, in particular, was important due to the discovery of coal. The investment of western industrial companies helped to lay a good foundation as well.
In the post-WWII era the region was rebuilt. New factories replaced those destroyed by the war. A strong educational system helped to feed the human capital requirements as well. Research, manufacturing, etc. were all expanded. Sevastopol was particularly important as it provided an ice-free port as well as access to the Mediterranean (via the Bosphorus).
Subsequently, the loss of Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR deprived the successor state, Russia, of major economic assets. Plus, it deprived the Russian defense industry of significant capabilities not easily replicated.
Eventually, Ukraine began to look westwards as its own Russian-oriented administration failed to deliver economically or institutionally. On top of that, Russia began to get very upset at what they saw as encroachment in their traditional domain by NATO and the EU. Of course, the new admissions to NATO (in particular) had long histories of conflict with Russia and so there was a measure of self protection.
Ukraine ousts the pro-Russian folks and welcomed a more western oriented (and intensely nationalist - and corrupt) government. This pissed Moscow off as they were now faced with the prospect of western military assets on their border and, possibly, sharing the port of Sevastopol. Combined all that with aspirations and openness to joining NATO and the stage was set.
What followed was a significant effort to economically strangle and hold economic hostage the nation of Ukraine. Plus, the destabilization of their eastern regions added to the stress.
This is the relatively recent history of Russia-Ukraine relations. However, there is much more to the story.
Kruschev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in the 50s.
Just a few decades before, Kruschev and the Bolsheviks had ravaged Ukraine to a degree little appreciated.
Before the Bolshevik domination is centuries of conflict between the centers of power of Kiev and Moscow. Throw in various principalities, kingdoms, etc. throwing their fortunes in the mix and we have a swirling mess.
Beyond that we have the Russian mythology that seems to define its leaders. In particular, successful leaders expand the borders of the Russian empire. Failures lose territories and frequently their heads along with them. Add to the mix the centuries long effort to secure access to the Mediterranean. Putin seem to have incorporated all of this along with his own intense imperial and nationalist tendencies and his assessment of the collapse of the USSR.
The bottom line is that Russia feels threatened by the possibility that its erstwhile enemies/rivals on the geopolitical stage will have troops stationed on its borders. They desire more defensive depth (which, btw, is what a crappy principality like Moscovy has done for centuries - gain more and more defensive depth). All of this has evolved into what Putin and his administration assess as an existential threat and is worthy of investing whatever is required to deal with it.
Personally, I think Putin is nuts. Some claim that he is rational, and perhaps he is rationally assessing the inputs to which he is exposed - but this assumes that he is being fed bad inputs from everyone around him. This absolves, incorrectly, Putin of much of what he has done.
He is not acting logically or rationally vis a vis “shared reality.” His efforts to secure Russian borders and Russian stability seems to have had the opposite effect. Russian prestige has plummeted. He has rapidly turned Russia into a vassal of China. The sanctions will have decades & generations-long impacts on Russian development. Even if Ukraine is totally subsumed into the CIS, Russia loses. The resource export orientation of the Russian economy does add some protection, but the energy sector is precarious; the world seems to have decided to simply ditch fossil fuels in the medium/long term. This will depress prices and Russian revenue. And, it will further tighten the Chinese noose around their neck.
It is a mess.
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