Ukraine is in worse straits than ever—now facing the threat of massing Russian troops on its border. The accepted wisdom is that seven years ago Ukraine’s former president, Victor Yanukovych, sought to sell his country out in a trade deal with Russia instead of joining the European Union as an associate member. This led to the Maidan Square democracy movement, which forced Yanukovych out of power. In response, Russia invaded Crimea and instigated a civil war in eastern Ukraine. Today, Ukraine is trying to hold off Russian aggression, calling for Washington and NATO to step in and protect its fledgling democracy from Russian threats and bullying.
This is not quite the whole story. The consensus view conveniently ignores how EU and U.S. diplomacy effectively set the stage for Ukraine’s destabilization and breakup. By overplaying their hand in EU negotiations with Ukraine, Brussels diplomats, supported by Washington, ended up handing Vladimir Putin the golden opportunity to claw back Crimea and to destabilize Ukraine’s evolution toward democracy. If not for excessive negotiating demands by Brussels, primarily on governance issues, the breakup of Ukraine could have been avoided, along with all the negative consequences that have since ensued. While Ukraine has acquired EU associate status, it has paid a high price for membership: the occupation of Crimea, stalemated civil war in Donbass, and 14,000 lives lost. How Ukraine got to this point carries important lessons for Western allies in dealing with the ongoing crisis.
The real story begins with Yanukovych, an ethnic Russian, who was elected president of Ukraine in 2010 by barely one-third of the country’s voters, primarily a majority from Russian-speaking regions, Donbass and Crimea. According to Freedom House, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe assessed that “the voting met most international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress that had been made since 2004.”
After his election, the new president’s challenge was negotiating potential EU association membership, while also coping with competing Russian demands for closer trade relations. In walking this tightrope, Yanukovych had to grapple with divided Ukrainian public opinion. EU support centered more in western parts of Ukraine than in the ethnic Russian regions. According to independent polls as late as August 2013, only 42 percent of the electorate overall supported the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, while 31 percent preferred a customs union deal with Russia.
Despite polls showing less than majority support for either a Russian or EU deal, Yanukovych resolutely pursued EU association membership. Today it is largely forgotten that he initialed an association agreement with Brussels in March 2012. Simultaneously, Yanukovych openly opposed Russian Customs Union membership. In response, Russian pressure became increasingly heavy-handed. Moscow opened a trade war against Ukraine in 2013. When Putin visited Kyiv in July 2013, he would not even speak to Yanukovych as the two stood side by side in official ceremonies.
In public speeches at the time, Yanukovych would defiantly reaffirm his determination to finalize the deal with the EU, including the enactment of controversial judicial and governance reforms demanded by Brussels addressing the rule of law, an independent media, and law enforcement. The Ukrainian parliament passed a series of reforms by two-thirds majorities to ensure broad parliamentary support for the changes called upon by Brussels.
Yanukovych had also been pressured by Brussels to curb the criminal prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko over her negotiation of the controversial 2009 gas deal with Russia. The court conviction of Tymoshenko in 2011 and her sentence to seven years imprisonment became a focus of EU demands. Brussels warned that Tymoshenko’s treatment threatened the initialed trade agreement whose formal signing had been scheduled for November 29, 2013, in Lithuania. As a signing condition, Brussels insisted on Tymoshenko’s release from prison for medical treatment abroad. That demand turned out to be a very tough pill for the internal politics of Ukraine to swallow.
Ukraine began to seriously destabilize. On November 21, the parliament failed to pass motions for Tymoshenko’s medical treatment release, meaning the EU’s demand could not be met. The same day the Yanukovych government desperately issued a decree calling for three-way negotiations between Ukraine, the EU, and Russia to sort out all issues between the competing blocs. Still, at this point, Yanukovych did not appear to be wavering. The same day that parliament failed to approve Tymoshenko’s release, he reaffirmed that “an alternative for reforms in Ukraine and an alternative for European integration do not exist ... We are walking along this path and are not changing direction.”
Adding to the pressure, over the next days the Maidan demonstrations began, broadly covered by Western media. Thousands, primarily western Ukrainians, took to the Kyiv streets, protesting, often violently, against any backsliding over finalizing the EU association agreement, and calling for greater Western-style democracy.
On November 26, 2013, cracks in Yanukovych’s resolve to push forward with Brussels appeared. While he attended the EU summit in late November, the association agreement was not signed. Acknowledging that Russia had asked for Ukraine to delay the signing, he again called for further EU negotiation on its terms. Yanukovych also asked Brussels for substantial compensation to make up for any cost of lost trade with Russia if Ukraine moved forward with Brussels. Finally, he pleaded again for three way talks between Ukraine, Russia, and the EU to try to resolve diplomatically all outstanding issues and controversies. The EU refused to take part in any three-way process and demanded instead that Yanukovych immediately sign the trade deal. The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel, declared that the EU would not put up with “a veto of a third country.”
From this point forward, the Ukrainian government began to fracture. The Maidan Square movement increasingly took on a revolutionary air with the United States openly fanning the flames of opposition to Yanukovych, the elected president. Notwithstanding Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which calls for diplomats “not to interfere in ... internal affairs,” the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs openly appeared in December 2018 on Maidan Square with the US ambassador. They encouraged peaceful protest against the elected government in power, even handing out baked goods to the demonstrators and security forces.
In February 2014, as EU and U.S. diplomats sought to mediate a transition solution between opposition activists and Yanukovych, the situation on Kyiv streets continued its deterioration. Clashes between demonstrators and riot police became increasingly out of control with over 130 deaths, including eighteen police.
On February 22, 2014, Yanukovych fled Kyiv as an angry mob ransacked his official residence. The same day the Ukrainian parliament relieved Yanukovych of his powers as president, declaring that he had removed himself from power and was “not fulfilling his obligations.” The parliament set a new presidential election for May 25, 2014, and an interim government was established. Finally bowing to EU demands, the government released Tymoshenko from prison. The police quickly shifted loyalties declaring that it now stood “by the people.” The military and security services followed suit, announcing that they would not oppose the popular will.
Russia protested Yanukovych’s violent overthrow. Having watched as ethnic Ukrainians, with open U.S. and EU support, forced democratically-elected Yanukovych out of office, Putin turned from diplomacy to consideration of other options to assure that Russia’s interests were protected, knowing that Washington and Brussels had no military cards to play. On February 23, the day after the Ukrainian parliament took its action against Yanukovych, pro-Russian demonstrations broke out in Sevastopol, Crimea. A few days later, on February 27, masked Russian troops without insignia took control of Crimea’s parliament and swiftly occupied strategic locations throughout the region, with no significant military or civilian resistance.
A Crimean majority may well have supported Russia’s arrival, content to break away from Ukraine. In a 2001 Ukrainian census, 65 percent of Crimeans were reported as ethnic Russians with only 15.7 percent identifying themselves as Ukrainian. In a 2008 poll conducted by the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, 63.8 percent of all Crimeans supported succession from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia. In a series of polls conducted by a United Nations organization between 2009 and 2011, a majority of 65 percent to 70 percent of Crimeans consistently declared their preference to join Russia. Particularly after having seen how NATO had used military force to support Kosovo’s break away from Serbia to become an independent state, Putin showed little concern over international protests that Russian troops were violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation by occupying Crimea.
Putin also simultaneously fanned ethnic Russian revolts in the eastern Ukraine region. Demonstrations quickly escalated into fighting between self-declared republics in Donetsk and Luhansk and the Kyiv government. By August 22, 2014, Kyiv accused Russia of openly invading Ukraine. The Donbass conflict has now simmered for seven years. Russian troops, exceeding 100,000, are presently massing along the Donbass border area, creating fears that Russia might launch a full-scale invasion.
As George Kennan warned decades ago in his Long Telegram, Russia’s “neurotic” worldview emanates from a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” about its borders. Particularly after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Washington and Brussels should have considered that changing the status quo by drawing Ukraine into EU association status, combined with pledges of ultimate NATO membership, might trigger an extreme Russian reaction. Instead, the European Union, supported by the United States, wildly overplayed its hand, leading to a diplomatic debacle for stability in the region.