Facts on Russia vs. Ukraine

In light of the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, we offer the following brief demographic and historical information that can help make sense of the two countries and the tensions between them. 


  • Current population: 144 million
  • Ethnic Ukrainians comprise less than 2% of Russia’s population.
  • Established in 1721, the Russian Empire, was one of the world’s largest empires, surpassed in size only by the British and Mongolian empires.
  • A series of military defeats in World War I led to the toppling of the Russian Empire in the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the rise of the Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin’s leadership in the early 1920s.
  • The Soviet economy industrialized rapidly under Joseph Stalin’s brutal rule (1928-1953), but stagnated in the following decades.
  • In the late 1980s, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring) which eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union into Russia and fourteen other independent republics in 1991.


  • Current population: 45 million
  • Ethnic Russians comprise 17% of Ukraine’s population.
  • Much of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire from the latter half of the 18th century through the Russian Revolution in 1917.
  • Ukraine experienced independence only briefly from 1917 until 1920, when it was taken over by the Soviet Union.
  • Under Soviet rule, Ukraine endured two famines that killed eight million Ukrainians.  Another 7-8 million died at the hands of German and Soviet armies during World War II.
  • Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Sources: CIA World Factbook’s entries on Ukraine and Russia, available at: