Ukraine, once the breadbasket of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), proclaimed itself an independent state in August 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet in the second decade of the 21st century independence has become an ambiguous concept, with Ukraine’s future a prize to be contested between Russia to its east and the EU to its west – and with the contest resurrecting fears of a new cold war between the United States and Russia.
For Ukraine’s 44 million population the promise that came with independence was first tarnished by rampant corruption; now it has given way to destructive differences defined partly by language and partly by the competing lures of the capital, Kiev, and Moscow. Whereas three-quarters of the population are ethnically Ukrainian, around 17% – mainly in the east of the country – are ethnically Russian and around 30% of the population say Russian is their first language.
Some 2 million of these Russian-speaking Ukrainians instantly became Russian citizens on March 18th 2014 when Crimea, which had been made part of Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 (this generous gesture reflected Communist Party infighting in the Soviet Union), was formally annexed by Russia – the first time that a Russian government had expanded the country’s borders since the second world war. The loss of Crimea was compounded by a well-armed pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which has led to months of heavy – but inconclusive – fighting with government forces.
By the summer of 2015 this conflict in eastern Ukraine had claimed more than 6,000 lives since pro-Russian activists in early April 2014 seized government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. In the succeeding months both the violence and the rhetoric mounted: Russian troops were stationed intimidatingly close to the border and the US and the EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia and travel bans on senior Russian associates of President Vladimir Putin. In one hyperbolic outburst, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in late April 2014 accused Russia of seeking to trigger a third world war; in June Russia’s Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and said any future supplies would have to be paid for in advance by the near-bankrupt Ukrainian authorities. In a particularly troubling incident in July 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, with 298 people on board, was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a missile allegedly (and presumably mistakenly) fired by a rebel.
Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis is a matter as much of opinion as of fact. The Kremlin denies any participation by Russian troops in the fighting, while Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said in January 2015 that Russia had sent 9,000 troops and 500 tanks and armoured vehicles to support the pro-Russian separatists. What is undeniable is that in August 2014 Ukraine handed ten captured Russian paratroopers, who claimed they had crossed the border by accident, back to Russia and Russia handed 63 Ukrainian troops, who had crossed into Russia to escape separatist attacks, back to Ukraine.
The tensions with Russia emphasise Ukraine’s troubled history since independence. With the country set free from the command economy of the Soviet Union, Ukraine suffered deep economic recession and high inflation under the first president, Leonid Kravchuk (a long-time Communist Party functionary belatedly embracing nationalism). His successor in 1994, Leonid Kuchma, attempted to stabilise the economy by fostering closer links with Russia while also adopting pro-market reforms (economic growth did not finally resume until 2001).
An important feature of Kuchma’s first year as president was his signature, along with those of the US president, Bill Clinton, the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and the UK prime minister, John Major, on the Budapest memorandum, under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear warheads (the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal at the time) and transfer them to Russia. In return, the other signatories pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”. It is this agreement that the West accuses President Putin of flouting in his annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But the Kuchma presidency was also marked by corruption, cronyism and censorship; worse still, audio tapes were found that appeared to implicate him in the murder in 2000 of a dissident journalist (in 2011 a court dismissed the prosecution case). Cleared by the Constitutional Court to run for a third term in 2004, Kuchma decided instead to endorse his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, who also had the backing of Putin. Yanukovych’s opponent was Viktor Yushchenko, who argued for a close relationship with the EU – and who fell victim to a mysterious illness. This turned out be caused by dioxin poisoning and left him with a badly pockmarked face. Amid accusations by independent observers of electoral fraud, Yanukovych was declared the winner in the election’s second-round run-off in November. This immediately provoked the pro-West “Orange revolution” of 2004, with demonstrators in mass protests wearing orange, the campaign colour of Yushchenko. In December the Supreme Court ruled that the November run-off had been invalid and ordered a second one, which was won on December 26th by Yushchenko.
The following month President Yushchenko appointed Yulia Timoshenko, his foremost ally in the Orange revolution, as his prime minister – and within months was at odds with her. By 2008, with the country suffering not just from endemic corruption but also from the impact of the global financial crisis, Yushchenko was locked in a bitter power struggle with Timoshenko. In the presidential election of January 2010 Yushchenko received only 5% of the vote, leaving the February run-off to be decided by Timoshenko and Yanukovych.
Victory went to Yanukovych, and Timoshenko immediately claimed the result had been rigged. No matter: the pro-Putin Yanukovych was in the presidential palace and by June 2011 Timoshenko was on trial on charges of abuse of power during her two periods as prime minister, notably over a 2009 deal to purchase gas from Russia at an inflated price. In October 2011 she was sentenced to seven years in prison, and then in November she faced new charges of embezzlement and tax evasion allegedly dating back to the 1990s.
Whereas Yushchenko had seen Ukraine’s future in a close alliance with the EU (hence negotiations that began in 2007), Yanukovych – born in eastern Ukraine and instinctively pro-Russian – looked towards Russia. In April 2010, in exchange for a lower price for Russian gas, he extended Russia’s lease on its naval base in Sevastopol, in Crimea, to 2042, but then enraged many in Ukraine by declaring that the Soviet-era famine of 1932–33, in which perhaps 5 million Ukrainians died, was not – as Yushchenko had charged – a Soviet-inspired genocide.
Ukraine’s descent into chaos and war began in November 2013, when President Yanukovych backed out of a trade and co-operation agreement with the EU just days before it was due to be signed, arguing that Ukraine would be better off in the Eurasian Economic Union advocated by Putin (the EEU came into force in January 2015 with Russia, Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as its founding members).
The immediate result of Yanukovych’s apparent abandonment of the dream that one day Ukraine might be part of the EU was a swelling tide of popular demonstrations and the occupation by thousands of pro-West protesters of Kiev’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). After weeks of protest, around 100 Maidan demonstrators were shot dead on February 18th–20th 2014, apparently by government snipers. On February 22nd, a day after Yanukovych fled from Kiev, parliament voted to end his presidency and Timoshenko was freed from prison.
On the face of it, the pro-EU and pro-Western forces that a decade earlier had triumphed in the Orange revolution had triumphed once again. As Yanukovych retired to safety in Russia, his private residence outside Kiev was opened to the public to see its extraordinary opulence and the interim government issued a warrant for his arrest for mass murder.
Yet Russia and its allies have a different view. They see the Orange revolution as the continuation of a campaign by the US government and Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Open Society Foundations of George Soros, to seduce countries that once were in the Soviet orbit – for example, Serbia and Georgia – into the economic and political embrace of the West. In the same vein they see the ousting of Yanukovych as an illegal coup engineered by the West and favouring Ukrainian fascists (Svoboda, a political party tainted by anti-Semitism and with pro-Nazi origins, played a prominent role in the Maidan demonstrations). This coup d’état meant that it was the West, not Russia, that was reneging on the Budapest memorandum.
This does not, of course, legitimise the annexation of Crimea, but in March 2014 President Putin, accusing the West of double standards, offered Kosovo’s independence in 2008 as a parallel and self-determination as a justification:
Our Western partners created the Kosovo precedent with their own hands. In a situation absolutely the same as the one in Crimea they recognised Kosovo’s secession from Serbia legitimate while arguing that no permission from a country’s central authority for a unilateral declaration of independence is necessary.
Whatever the legal validity of Crimea’s secession, it was achieved with the loss of only two lives. The reason was that any Ukrainian military resistance would have been futile, since under its lease agreement for its Sevastopol base Russia was allowed to station up to 25,000 troops in Crimea. By contrast, government forces have fiercely opposed the separatists in eastern Ukraine. In March 2014 pro-Russia militias in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) seized government buildings and pro-Russia and pro-government demonstrations became increasingly violent. By early April pro-Russia separatists had declared the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the goal of unification with Russia. Later in the month separatists declared the People’s Republic of Luhansk, which in May merged with its Donetsk equivalent to form the confederation of Novorossiya (recognised only by South Ossetia, the barely recognised pro-Russia republic that seceded from Georgia in 1990).
Ukraine’s armed forces began their counter-offensive in mid-April 2014. With around 160,000 frontline personnel and almost 3,000 tanks, as well as helicopters and aircraft, on paper they should have had no problem in reasserting the government’s control over the east. Much of the army, however, is composed of conscripts with no wish to risk their lives – hence growing numbers of defections – and recruits mobilised in 2014 and 2015 were described by one government adviser as “alcoholics and dodgers, drug addicts and morons”. Moreover, despite its denials, it was clear that Russia was supplying the separatists with arms – and quite possibly with trained soldiers, too. The result has been a military stalemate, marked by ineffectual ceasefires and coinciding with an increasingly acute economic crisis and the massive destruction of many towns in eastern Ukraine.
The challenge for Petro Poroshenko, elected president in May 2014, is somehow to find a solution that will leave Ukraine intact, at least in principle if not in practice. Poroshenko’s pro-West stance is not in doubt, and was confirmed on June 27th 2014 – just 20 days after his inauguration – by his signature on the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement that Yanukovych had rejected. His pro-West policy is also of long standing: he was a billionaire supporter of the Orange revolution (his fortune comes from control of a business empire that includes a confectionery company – hence his nickname “the chocolate king”) and he served as President Yushchenko’s foreign minister. He also served as trade minister for President Yanukovych, but he was trying, he says, to move Ukraine closer to the EU despite Yanukovych’s opposition.
Despite his impressive curriculum vitae, any solution must clearly be agreed by players much more powerful than Poroshenko, who has not helped his cause by declaring in December 2014 that Ukraine should hold a referendum on joining NATO – precisely the opposite of what Putin has in mind. In February 2015 marathon talks in the Belarus capital, Minsk, involving Poroshenko, President Hollande of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany and, of course, President Putin, yielded a ceasefire under which both the Ukrainian government and the separatists would withdraw their heavy weapons and leave a wide security zone between them; all foreign troops and mercenaries would depart; militias would disarm; and Ukraine would recover control of its borders after the holding of local elections.
Optimists were encouraged by the Minsk agreement; realists have remained sceptical, not least because Poroshenko’s date for the local elections was a distant October 2015. The level of violence certainly diminished in the wake of the Minsk ceasefire, but not the level of rhetoric, with Russia particularly criticising the dispatch to Ukraine in April of American paratroopers on a six-month mission to train Ukrainian troops. In short, Ukraine’s crisis has all the features of a post-Soviet frozen conflict, with the country trapped between West and East, or as cynics might say, between a rock and a hard place.