Ukrainian Independence, Then And Now
August 24, 2015
by Brian Whitmore
Twenty-four years ago, Ukraine won its de jure independence. Today, it is in a war to achieve its de facto independence.
When Ukraine's departure from the Soviet Union became irreversible in the dramatic summer of 1991, the breakup of the Soviet Union became all but inevitable. Moscow's rulers were simply not interested in keeping together a union in which ethnic Slavs would constitute a minority.
And if Ukraine's current struggle for de facto independence from Moscow is successful and becomes irreversible, it may provide the shock and the catharsis Russia needs to move beyond its postimperial malaise.
In this sense, Ukraine's relationship with Russia is the linchpin for the former Soviet Union to truly become post-Soviet.
"The stakes of what is happening are not just some minor struggle in a faraway country of which we know little. The stakes are intellectually, morally, and politically much, much greater than that," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin, said in a speech at the Chicago Humanities Festival last year.
If the Russian-Ukrainian relationship is the kind preferred by Vladimir Putin's regime -- that of a patron and client, of a master and a vassal -- then the post-Soviet space will remain neo-Soviet and dominated by Moscow.
But if Ukraine is successful in breaking free of Moscow's grip, if it can successfully reform and join the West, if it can become truly and fully independent, this could provide the death blow to Russia's imperial legacy.
The old cliche that, "Without Ukraine, Russia is a country; with Ukraine, Russia is an empire," may be, well, cliche, but it also has the virtue of being true. Any Russian imperial project begins with Ukraine.
For more than two decades, Ukraine lived a dual existence. It was formally independent, but it lived in Russia's shadow. The Kremlin may have recognized Ukraine's independence in August 1991, but it never really accepted it.
And like Russia, Ukraine was riddled with corruption, cronyism, and oligarchic rule -- and much of its corruption, cronyism, and oligarchy was linked to Moscow and provided the Kremlin with a valuable tool to meddle and control Kyiv's affairs.
But unlike Russia, Ukraine's elite was pluralistic, its civil society was vibrant, and its elections were competitive.
Ukraine and Russia were separated at birth.
For more than two decades, Ukraine's rulers bobbed and weaved between these two realities, just as they bobbed and weaved between Moscow and the West.
But as Ukrainian society became more Westernized and more bold, and as Russia became more imperial and more overbearing, the duality became unsustainable. The bobbing and weaving just wasn't going to cut it anymore.
The result was a revolution.
Ukrainian civil society, in the words of Snyder, wanted to move from oligarchic pluralism to the real thing.
Ukrainian civil society wanted to move out of Moscow's shadow and break free from Moscow's grip. It wanted to be part of Europe. And it wasn't going to take no for an answer.
And the result was also, of course, a war, as Russia chose to use force to try to prevent the inevitable. It was a war in which Russia managed to take Crimea and perhaps a small chunk of the Donbas -- but in the process, appears to have lost the rest of Ukraine.
On August 24, 1991, Ukraine received its independence. Today, it is finally realizing it -- and the fallout will be profound.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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