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The following is a chapter from Serhii Plokhii's book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Basic Books, 2015). Krytyka republishes this excerpt with the publisher's kind permission.
March 18, 2014 was a day of triumph for Vladimir Putin, the sixty-one-year-old president of Russia, who was then serving his third term in that office. In the speech he delivered that day in the tsarist-era St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin, a venue for meeting foreign delegations and holding the most solemn ceremonies of state, the Russian president asked the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, whose members were gathered in the hall, to pass a law annexing the Crimea. The reaction of the audience, which greeted the speech more than once with explosive applause, left no doubt that the law would be passed without delay. Only three days later, the Federal Assembly declared the Crimea to be part of Russia.
In his speech, Vladimir Putin hailed the annexation of the Crimea — an act undertaken in violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine, which had been guaranteed by Russo-Ukrainian treaties and ensured by the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 — as a triumph of historical justice. Much of Putin’s argument was historical and cultural in nature. He referred to the disintegration of the Soviet Union as an expropriation of Russia, repeatedly called the Crimea a Russian land and Sevastopol a Russian city, and attacked the Ukrainian authorities for neglecting the interests of the people of the Crimea and, most recently, of seeking to violate their linguistic and cultural rights. He claimed that the Crimea had as much right to secede from Ukraine as Ukraine had to secede from Russia.
The annexation of the Crimea opened a new page in the post-Soviet history of Ukraine and Russia alike. It was followed by Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, where Russian mercenaries, volunteers, and Moscow-funded and sponsored insurgents proclaimed independent republics in an attempt to create “New Russia,” a name borrowed from that of a Russian imperial province of the late eighteenth century The former imperial power was back, not only using its virtual monopoly on the supply of oil and gas but also its military power to redraw the map of the region and rewrite the history of the Soviet collapse. It now proceeded to the direct annexation of the territory of a sovereign state. As in the last days of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine found itself at the center of a dramatic transformation of Soviet post-space and in the midst of the most severe East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
For Ukraine, Russian aggression raised fundamental questions about its continuing existence as a united state, its independence as a nation, and the democratic foundations of its political institutions. No less important were questions about the nature of Ukraine’s nation building project, including the role of history, ethnicity, language, and culture in the forging of Ukraine’s political nation. Could a country whose citizens represented different ethnicities, spoke (often interchangeably) more than one language, belonged to more than one church, and inhabited a number of diverse historical regions withstand not only the onslaught of a more militarily powerful colonial master but also its claim to the loyalty of everyone who spoke Russian or worshipped at an Orthodox church? Most of the Ukrainian population answered all these questions in the affirmative.
The events leading up to what became known as the “Ukraine Crisis” of 2014 began in February 2010 with the electoral victory of the main target of the Maidan protests of 2004, Viktor Yanukovych. The new president began his tenure by changing the rules of the political game. His ideal was a strong authoritarian regime, and he tried to concentrate as much power in his own hands and those of his family as possible. He rewrote the constitution by forcing parliament to cancel the 2004 amendments and yield more power to the presidency. That was followed by the imprisonment of his main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was put on trial and then jailed in the summer of 2011. With power concentrated in his hands and the political opposition silenced or intimidated, Yanukovych and his appointees focused their attention on the enrichment of the ruling clan. In a brief period, Yanukovych and the members of his family and entourage accumulated huge fortunes, transferring up to $70 billion into foreign accounts and threatening the economic and financial stability of the state, which by the autumn of 2013 found itself on the verge of default.
With the opposition crushed or coopted, Ukrainian society once again pinned its hopes on Europe. Under President Yushchenko, Ukraine had begun negotiations with the European Union on an association agreement, including the creation of a free economic zone and visa liberalization for Ukrainian citizens. The hope was that, once signed, the agreement would save and strengthen Ukraine’s democratic institutions, protect the rights of the opposition, and bring European business standards to Ukraine, reining in the rampart corruption spreading from the very top of the state pyramid. The EU association agreement was supported by some oligarchs who feared the growing power of the president and his clan and wanted to protect their assets by establishing clear political and economic rules. Big business also wanted access to European markets and dreaded the possibility of being swallowed by its Russian competitors if Ukraine were to join the projected Russia-led Customs Union.
Everything was ready for signing ceremony at the EU summit in Vilnius scheduled for November 28, 2013. But then, a week before the summit, the Ukrainian government suddenly changed course, proposing to postpone the signing of the document. Yanukovych went to Vilnius but refused to sign anything. If the European leaders were disappointed, many Ukrainian citizens were outraged. Official promises to the country’s citizens given throughout the previous year had been broken, and hopes for a better European future were dashed. Those were the feelings of the men and women, mainly young, who camped out on the Maidan, Ukraine’s independence square, on the evening of November 21 after the government announced its refusal to sign the agreement. Yanukovych’s aides wanted to put an end to the protests as soon as possible in order to head off a new Orange Revolution. On the night of November 30, riot police brutally attacked the students camping on the Maidan. That was the one thing Ukrainian society was not prepared to tolerate. The next day, more than half a million Kyivans, some of them parents and relatives of the students beaten by the police, poured into downtown Kyiv, turning the Maidan and its environs into a space of freedom from the corrupt government and its police forces.
What had begun as a demand to join Europe turned into the Revolution of Dignity, which brought together diverse political forces, from liberals in mainstream parties to radicals and nationalists. Once again, as in 2004, the protesters refused to leave the streets. In mid-January, after weeks of peaceful protest, bloody clashes began between police and government-hired thugs on the one hand and the protesters on the other. The violence reached its peak on February 18, 2014. In three days, at least 77 people were killed — 9 police officers and 68 protesters. The killings caused a sea-change both in Ukraine and in the international community. The threat of international sanctions forced the Ukrainian parliament, where many feared that the sanctions would affect them as well, to pass a resolution prohibiting the use of force by the government. On the night of February 21, with parliament against him and the riot police gone from downtown Kyiv, President Yanukovych fled revolutionary Kyiv. The Maidan was jubilant. The tyrant had fled; the revolution had won. The Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych, appoint an interim president, and install a new provisional government headed by the leaders of the opposition.
The protests in Kyiv surprised political observers, as they presented an unusual case of mass mobilization inspired by issues of foreign policy. The protesters wanted closer ties with Europe and opposed Ukraine’s accession to the Russia-led economic union.
Russian aspirations to dominate Ukraine were an important factor in the protests on the Maidan. President Vladimir Putin, who had led the Russian government since 2000, first as president, then as prime minister, and again as president, had gone on record characterizing the collapse of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Before returning to the presidential office in 2012, Putin proclaimed the reintegration of post-Soviet space as one of his primary tasks. As in 1991, that space was incomplete without Ukraine. Putin wanted Yanukovych, whom he had supported in the presidential elections in 2004, and then in 2010, to join the Russia-led Customs Union — the basis for a future, more comprehensive economic and political union of the post-Soviet states. Yanukovych made concessions to Russia by prolonging the Russian lease of the Sevastopol navy base for twenty-five years, but he was not eager to join any Russia-led union. Instead, in a failed attempt to counterbalance growing Russian influence and ambition, he edged toward association with the European Union, preparing to sign the agreement.
Russia responded in the summer of 2013 by initiating a trade war with Ukraine and closing its markets to some Ukrainian goods. Moscow used both sticks and carrots to stop Ukraine’s westward drift. Among the carrots was the promise of a $15 billion loan to save the cash-strapped and corruption-ridden Ukrainian government from imminent default. The first tranche of that money was delivered once Yanukovych refused to sign the EU association agreement. But the protests on the Maidan and the ouster of Yanukovych changed the Kremlin’s plans.
On February 27, 2014, Russian commandos in unmarked uniforms left the Russian navy base in Sevastopol and took control of the Crimean parliament. Under their protection, Russian intelligence services engineered the installment as the new prime minister of the Crimea of the leader of a pro-Russian party that had obtained only 4 percent of the vote in the previous parliamentary elections. Then Russian troops, along with mercenaries and Cossack formations brought from the Russian Federation, blocked Ukrainian military units at their bases with the assistance of locally recruited militias. As the new Ukrainian government struggled to take control of the police and security forces previously loyal to Yanukovych, the Kremlin sped up preparations for a complete takeover of the peninsula by hastily organizing a referendum on its fate. The new government of the Crimea cut off Ukrainian television channels, prevented the delivery of Ukrainian newspapers to subscribers, and unleashed propaganda for the separation of the Crimea from Ukraine. Opponents of the referendum, many of them belonging to the Crimean Tatar minority, were intimidated or kidnapped.
In mid-March 2014, the citizens of the Crimea were called to polling stations to vote for reunification with Russia. The results of the Moscow-endorsed referendum were reminiscent of Brezhnev-era polls, when the turnout was reported as 99 percent, and the same figure was given for the percentage of voters supporting government candidates. It was now claimed that 97 percent of voters had supported the unification of the Crimea with Russia. In Sevastopol, local officials reported a pro-Russian vote amounting to 123 percent of registered voters. The total turnout was declared to be 83 percent, but according to the Human Rights Council attached to the office of the Russian president, less than 40 percent of registered voters had taken part in the referendum. On March 18, two days after the referendum, Vladimir Putin called on the Russian legislators to annex the Crimea as an act of historical justice, undoing part of the damage done to Russia by the disintegration of the USSR.
The Ukrainian government in Kyiv did not recognize the referendum but was in no position to do much about it. It ordered its troops to withdraw from the peninsula, unwilling to risk war in a country still divided by the political turmoil of the Revolution of Dignity. The Ukrainian army, which had been underfunded for decades and had no experience of warfare, was no match for the well-trained and equipped troops of the Russian Federation, who had fought a prolonged war in Chechnia and mounted the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Kyiv was also busy trying to stop Moscow’s destabilization of other parts of the country. The Kremlin demanded the “federalization” of Ukraine, with the provision that every region have veto power over the signing of international agreements. Russia did not just want the Crimea but was trying to stop Ukraine’s movement toward Europe by manipulating local elites and populations in the east and south of the country.
If Ukraine refused to follow the Russian “federalization” scenario, there was another option — the partition of the country by turning eastern and southern Ukraine into a new buffer state. A Russian-controlled polity called New Russia was supposed to include Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Odesa oblasts, allowing Russia overland access to the newly annexed Crimea and the Russian-controlled Transnistria. It did not look plausible, as in April 2014 only 15 percent of the population of the projected New Russia supported unification with Russia, while 70 percent were opposed. But the southeast was not homogenous. Pro-Russian sentiment was quite high in the Donbas, where 30 percent of those polled supported unification with Russia, and low in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, where supporters of Russia accounted for less than 7 percent of the population.
It was from the Donbas that Russian intelligence agencies began the destabilization of the rest of Ukraine in April 2014. The Donbas also stood out as one of the most economically and socially troubled regions of Ukraine. Part of the rust belt of the Soviet Union and then of Ukraine, it was the recipient of huge subsidies from the center to support the dying coal-mining industry. Donetsk, the main regional center, was the only major Ukrainian city outside the Crimea where ethnic Russians constituted a plurality — 48 percent of the population. Many citizens of the Donbas were attached to Soviet ideology and symbols, with monuments to Lenin, which were largely demolished in central Ukraine in the course of the revolution, standing as symbols of the region’s Soviet identity.
Paramilitary units often trained and financed by Russia showed up in the Donbas in April 2014. By May, they had taken control of most of the region’s urban centers. The local elites, led by Rinat Akhmetov, a business partner of the ousted President Yanukovych and Ukraine’s richest oligarch, played along, hoping to shield themselves from the revolutionary changes coming from Kyiv by turning the Donbas into something of an appanage principality under the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. They miscalculated, and by the end of May had lost control of the region to Russian nationalists and local activists, who launched an anti-oligarchic revolution. As in Kyiv, people in Donetsk were fed up with corruption, but many in the Donbas oriented itself on Russia, not Europe, and hoped not for a corruption-free market economy but for a Soviet-era state-run economy and social guarantees. If the protesters on the Maidan saw their country as part of European civilization, the pro-Russian insurgents imagined themselves as participants in a broader “Russian World” and their war as a defense of Orthodox values against the advance of the corrupt European West.
The loss of the Crimea and the turmoil in the Donbas, as well as Russian efforts to destabilize the situation in Kharkiv and Odesa, led to a new mobilization of Ukrainian civil society. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians, many of them participants in the Maidan protests, joined army units as well as new volunteer formations and went to fight the Russia-led insurgency in the east. Since the government was able to supply the soldiers only with weapons, volunteer organizations sprang up all over Ukraine, collecting donations, buying supplies, and delivering them to the front lines. Ukrainian society was taking up the task that the Ukrainian state was not in a position to perform. Between January and March 2014, according to data from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the share of those who supported Ukrainian independence jumped from 84 percent to 90 percent of the adult population. The share of those who wanted Ukraine to join Russia fell from 10 percent in January 2014 to 5 percent in September. Even most of those polled in the Donbas see their region as part of the Ukrainian state. The percentage of “separatists” wanting either independence or union with Russia grew from under 30 percent to more than 40 percent between April and September 2014 but never reached a majority, giving most pro European Ukrainians hope of retaining those territories, but also pointing to future problems in forming a common national identity.
In the presidential election of May 2014, in a show of political unity, Ukrainian voters gave a first-round victory to one of Ukraine’s most prominent businessmen and an active participant in the Maidan protests, the forty-nine-year-old Petro Poroshenko. With the end of the legitimacy crisis generated by the ouster of Yanukovych, Ukraine was ready to stand up to both open and covert aggression. In early July came the first major victory—the liberation of the city of Sloviansk, which had served as the headquarters of the best-known Russian commander, a former lieutenant colonel of military intelligence, Igor Girkin (Strelkov). In a desperate attempt to stop the Ukrainian advance, Russia began to supply the insurgents with new armaments, including anti-aircraft missiles. According to Ukrainian and American officials, it was one such missile that shot down a Malaysian Boeing 777 with 298 people on board on July 17, 2014. The victims came from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Britain and a number of other countries, giving the Ukrainian conflict a truly global character.
The tragedy of the Malaysian airliner mobilized Western leaders in support of Ukraine, leading them to impose economic sanctions on Russian officials and businesses directly responsible for the aggression. It turned out to be too little, too late. In mid-August, as the two Russian-backed separatist republics found themselves on the verge of defeat, Moscow stepped up the offensive and sent regular troops into battle along with mercenaries. The Kremlin saved the self-proclaimed republics from collapse but failed to realize its original plan of creating a New Russia — a Russian-controlled polity extending from Donetsk in the east to Odesa in the west that would provide a land bridge from Russia to the Crimea. Russia also failed to stop Ukraine from enhancing its political and economic ties with the West. With Ukraine refusing to accept any loss of its territory or give up its goal of political, economic, and cultural integration with the West, Russia refusing to let Ukraine leave its sphere of influence, and the West concerned about the threat to international order but divided over the best strategy to check growing Russian ambitions, the war in eastern Ukraine turned into a prolonged conflict with no end in sight.
By early 2015, the war in the Donbas had claimed more than 5,000 lives, more than 10,000 were wounded, and more than one million people had to flee their homes. About five million people found themselves trapped in no man’s land as the unrecognized Donbas republics began their descent into the political, economic, and social abyss of a frozen conflict. Is this not too high a price to pay for the prospect of European integration? Perhaps so. But at stake for Ukraine and most of its people in the current conflict are the values that they associate with the European Union — democracy, human rights, and the rule of law — and not just membership in the Union per se. Also at stake is the independence of their country and the right of its citizens to make their own choices regarding its domestic and foreign policy. For centuries, such values and ideas have inspired people all over the world to pursue freedom for themselves and their nations.
While the outcome of the current war cannot be foreseen, it is certain to transform Ukraine in more ways than one. Russian aggression sought to divide Ukrainians along linguistic, regional, and ethnic lines. While that tactic succeeded in some places, most of Ukrainian society united around the idea of a multilingual and multicultural nation united in administrative and political terms. That idea was born of lessons drawn from Ukraine’s difficult and often tragic history of internal divisions, and it is based on a tradition of coexistence of different languages, cultures, and religions over the centuries. Ukrainian history is full of both conflict and coexistence. One can only hope that the latter will prevail.