Ukraine Is the Same as It Ever Was

4 MINS READAug 25, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
Ukraine Is the Same as It Ever Was
A military parade passes through the streets of Kiev on Aug. 24. It is unclear exactly what the future holds for Ukraine, but the country's path will continue to be dictated by forces outside its borders.

Ukraine celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union on Aug. 24, hosting a military parade through the streets of Kiev that culminated in a speech by President Petro Poroshenko. In his address to the nation, the president declared that Ukraine's historical policy of trying to balance its ties to Russia and the West was no longer viable. Instead, it would be permanently replaced by Kiev's current strategy of integrating with the rest of Europe. But that approach may not be as "irreversible" as Poroshenko suggests. In all likelihood, his country's future will continue to be shaped, as it has for the past quarter-century, by the evolving competition between the powers that lie to its east and west.

The Soviet Union formally dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991. Ukraine's Supreme Council, however, had declared independence three months earlier, just days after a failed coup attempt in Moscow exposed the cracks spreading within the Kremlin as it struggled to maintain order and implement reforms. With Ukraine second in importance in the Soviet Union only to Russia itself, the move signaled that the socialist state's days were numbered.

The years since have been eventful for Ukraine, to say the least. It has undergone several dynamic and often disruptive developments: the transition from communism to democracy in the 1990s, the 2004 Orange Revolution, and the Euromaidan uprising a decade later. Now a conflict between Ukrainian troops and separatists rages in the country's east, and Crimea has fallen into Russia's hands. All the while, Moscow has steadily built up its forces in the region and along Ukraine's borders.

The ordinary Ukrainian citizen, then, likely celebrated the country's independence with mixed emotions, especially since there are no guarantees that Ukraine's future will be any more secure than its past. The Minsk and Normandy negotiations have so far failed to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and progress in either the security or political realm has remained elusive. The Ukrainian people, frustrated by the intractability of their country's problems, are becoming more dissatisfied by the day.

This discontent is just as likely to be found among citizens in the Western-leaning cities of Kiev and Lviv as it is within the Russian-oriented municipalities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Because Ukraine has repeatedly swung back and forth, leaning first toward Russia and then toward the West, each side has felt the bitter sting of betrayal over the past few decades. Considering that the polarization between the two has been aggravated by the Euromaidan uprising and the conflict that ensued, that sting is likely accompanied by real personal loss for many Ukrainians as well.

But though the past 25 years have given most citizens grounds to grieve, they also have brought reasons to hope. Despite the turmoil within and conflict without, Ukraine continues to be a sovereign state — no small feat considering that 25 years is the longest Ukraine has held on to its independence in modern history. Prior to 1991, the territory that now forms Ukraine had been controlled by or split among the Russians, Poles, Austrians, Germans and Turks.

Beyond Ukraine's survival as a state, its post-Euromaidan administration has also proved fairly cohesive in its first two and a half years in office. Fears that the Ukrainian government would be toppled by pro-Russia forces or far-right ultranationalists have not been borne out, nor has the current government in Kiev succumbed to the crippling divisions that doomed its Orangist predecessor. The parliament has experienced shake-ups over the past year with the departure of three ruling coalition parties and the resignation of former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. But Poroshenko has managed to keep his own position and an effective governing coalition intact.

In fact, the post-Euromaidan administration has been able to pass critical legislation, including the EU association and free trade agreement that former President Viktor Yanukovich rejected and a $17 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund. The success of the implementation of reforms associated with these deals has been mixed. Ukraine has made progress, however, in revamping its tax system and energy sector, and its economy is projected to grow in 2016 after two years of contraction.

At the same time, a silver lining has emerged in Ukraine's ongoing conflict with Russia: Kiev now receives more political, economic and security assistance from the West than it ever has in its post-Soviet history. This support is crucial for the Ukrainian government, which rose to power on a wave of pro-West sentiment, though it, too, holds uncertainties for Kiev. The United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union could compromise Ukraine's goal of countering Russia's influence within its borders by aligning more closely with the European bloc. Though the Kremlin has its own share of problems, Ukraine is well aware that Russia's ambitions to project power abroad have traditionally outstripped its internal weaknesses. A divided and distracted European Union could easily give Moscow an opportunity to bolster its position in Ukraine or exploit Kiev's own vulnerabilities.

It is unclear exactly what the future holds for Ukraine, but rest assured, the country's path will continue to be dictated by forces outside its borders. Ukraine's position in the borderlands of Europe has made it a battleground between Russia and the West for most of its history, including the past 25 years. By all appearances, the next 25 years will likely be no different as clashes between the two continue to unfold in both new and familiar ways.

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