27th Mar 2023


When did Ukraine really gain 'independence' — 1991 or 2013?

  • Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine president in 2013. He later fled to exile in Russia, and his current whereabouts are unknown (Photo: Thierry Ehrmann)
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When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West assumed that the development of democracy and a prosperous capitalist economy for nations emerging out of the USSR would be axiomatic. This was not the case.

Take, for example, Ukraine.

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In December 1991, the Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to become independent, and Crimean residents chose to remain with Ukraine rather than Russia.

Leonid Kravchuk was then elected as the first president of Ukraine. The Ukrainians established their own military and navy, introduced their own currency, and formed their own government. The possibilities for Ukraine appeared to be endless.

Ukraine could have pursued Western integration, but Kravchuk chose to maintain a good relationship with Russia. This became the focal point of the 1994 Ukrainian presidential election.

While Kravchuk tried to balance Ukraine's relationship with the West and Russia, Leonid Kuchma argued that his country could not abandon its ties to Russia. Kravchuk lost the election, and Kuchma became the new president.

Kuchma worked hard to maintain a strong relationship with Russia during his presidency.

In 1997, Kuchma signed the "Treaty of Friendship" with Russian president Boris Yeltsin. The document stated that Ukraine and Russia would have their fleets stationed in Crimea. The Russian navy was also given a 20-year lease in Sevastopol.

The decision to maintain strong relations with the Kremlin led to financial issues. Nonetheless, Kuchma continued to push for a stronger relationship with Russia. This, in turn, deteriorated Ukraine's relationship with the West.

Enter Yanukovych

Economic problems and rampant corruption would pave the way to Ukraine's first revolution of independence in 2004. Having served as president for two consecutive terms, Kuchma tipped Viktor Yanukovych to be his successor.

Like Kuchma, Yanukovych supported stronger ties with Russia. Ukraine's oligarchs supported Kuchma's choice. Russian president Vladimir Putin also endorsed Yanukovych.

While Yanukovych favoured stronger ties with Russia, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko supported Western integration. These differences became the focal point of the election.

The Election Commission would declare Yanukovych the winner, but this sparked anger throughout Ukraine as it was evident that there was election fraud.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens gathered to the Ukrainian capital to protest the results. They adopted the colour orange as a symbol of peace and democracy, and the protestors camped at the city centre for several weeks.

Faced with this pressure, the Ukrainian Central Election Commission and Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the election, and Yushchenko became the next president of Ukraine.

During his tenure, Yushchenko met with Western leaders to discuss the possibility of joining Nato and the EU. But the Great Recession of 2008 hindered his ambitions.

The value of the Ukrainian hryvnia dropped significantly and political rifts emerged within Yushchenko's cabinet. Yushchenko would fail to resolve the economic crisis, and Yanukovych would become the next president of Ukraine.

Yanukovych's first course of action was to extend Russia's naval lease in Sevastopol. He also declared that Ukraine would be a neutral state. But by 2013, Yanukovych was pressured by both the West and Russia to join their respective economic organisations.

The events that followed paved the way to what is now known as modern Ukraine.

In November 2013, Yanukovych chose not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU as he favoured a closer relationship with Russia. In response, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians came to Kyiv to protest his decision.

Citizens of all ages, professions, ethnicities, and religions gathered to Kyiv to support European integration. The Ukrainians remained in the capital for several months.

By February 2014, Yanukovych ordered Ukrainian Special Forces to fire on the protestors so that they would disperse. This violence led to the deaths of over 100 peaceful activists.

Realising he had made a horrible mistake, Yanukovych fled to Russia, and the Ukrainian parliament impeached him.

But then a new problem emerged as Russia intervened.

In March 2014, the Russian Federation illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, claiming that it was rescuing ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking peoples.

Armed militants then emerged in eastern Ukraine, stating that they wanted autonomy from Kyiv. What followed was the first Russian incursion into Ukraine. Over 14,000 Ukrainians and Russians perished, and nearly two million people were displaced.

Nonetheless, Ukrainian officials continue to meet with Western leaders.

Ukraine rewrote its constitution to state its desire of integrating with the West. Ukraine then implemented a series of anti-corruption reforms, and the Ukrainian military worked closely with Western forces to implement defence reforms.

European officials commended Ukraine's efforts by granting it visa-free travel to the EU. These events showed that a political shift had emerged in Ukraine, and that this country was serious about its European aspirations.

Invasion #2

Now, Ukraine's sovereignty is under attack.

On 24 February, Russia launched its second incursion into Ukraine. Russia's war has been catastrophic. It has led to the deaths of thousands, and over three million Ukrainians have fled the country.

But Ukraine has shown incredible resilience. The Ukrainians have fought long and hard to achieve true independence, and their hard work is paying off.

If Ukraine wins the war against its aggressive neighbour, and if Ukraine becomes an EU candidate state, then this will demonstrate that Ukraine's fight for independence was worthwhile. The future of Ukraine lies with its people.

Author bio

Mark Temnycky is Ukrainian-American freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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