The History of Post-Independence Ukraine


Kristof Hemstad, Writer

Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been plagued by corruption scandals, economic incompetence, and Russian meddling. As Ukraine’s relations with the US and Europe have improved in recent years, Russian threats have increased.

On December 1st of 1991, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine holds a referendum on independence, with 92 percent of Ukrainians voting yes, and Leonid Kravchuk is elected president. Of the fifteen Soviet republics, Ukraine had the second-largest population and economy.

Later in January 14th of 1994, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and the United States sign a statement reaffirming Ukraine’s resolve to hand over all strategic nuclear weapons to Russia and decommission strategic launchers on its soil. The statement also states that Russia is willing to compensate Ukraine for the value of the highly enriched uranium in the warheads, that the US is willing to assist Ukraine in dismantling the launchers, and that Ukraine will receive security assurances once it joins the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non–nuclear weapons state.

Not long after on February 8th of 1994, Ukraine was accepted into NATO’s Partnership for Peace, which is open to all non-NATO European countries and post-Soviet governments. Ukraine and Hungary join the alliance as the fifth and sixth members, respectively. Russia joined NATO in June of that year and participated in a variety of cooperative actions with NATO, including joint military exercises, until NATO formally suspends relations with Russia in 2014. Russia had opposed NATO’s eastern expansion since the Cold War ended. Eventually, thirteen previous partnership members join the alliance.

Then in July 10th of 1994, Leonid Kuchma, the former Prime Minister, defeats incumbent President Leonid Kravchuk. It is the first time in a former Soviet country that an incumbent has lost a presidential election. Slow development, repeated economic crises, and allegations of systemic corruption characterize Kuchma’s leadership.

In July 9th of 1997, in Madrid, Kuchma, the President of Ukraine, talks with NATO leaders, signing a pact that establishes a unique collaboration between Ukraine and the defense alliance. A NATO-Ukraine commission will meet at least twice a year to discuss the cooperation under this agreement.

Then in September of 16th 2000, Heorhiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist who was looking into allegations of corruption in the Kuchma administration, vanishes. Two months later, his beheaded body is discovered in a forest outside of Kyiv. Kuchma’s employees are allegedly ordered to assassinate Gongadze, according to audio recordings. The issue has sparked popular outrage about corruption among Ukraine’s elites, which has resulted in street protests. Western countries are rethinking their support for Kuchma’s administration.

In November of 2004, Yushchenko, a pro-Western candidate, is running against Viktor Yanukovych in a presidential election. Yanukovych is Kuchma’s preferred candidate and is backed by Russia. The election is a tug-of-war between supporters of closer connections with the European Union (EU), NATO, and the West, and supporters of closer ties with Russia. In September, Yushchenko is poisoned with dioxin; he survives, but his face is damaged. Protesters dressed in orange, Yushchenko’s campaign color, take to the streets in large numbers after two botched rounds of voting award Yanukovych the election, forcing a re-vote in December, which Yushchenko wins. A year after Georgia’s Rose Revolution, the second so-called color revolution in a post-Soviet state raises alarm bells in Moscow.

Following a Georgian military assault against a rebel enclave in South Ossetia, Russian troops invaded Georgia in August 2008. The invasion resulted in a five-day war and a stronger Russian presence in the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which together account for nearly one-fifth of Georgian territory. As a result of Yushchenko’s support for Georgia, tensions between Kyiv and Moscow have risen even higher. Following this, Russia acknowledges both republics as separate states, despite the fact that neither is recognized by the majority of countries.

In 2013, the Ukrainian government states that it will not sign the association agreement at an upcoming EU-Ukraine summit in Lithuania. Thousands of Ukrainians turn out to oppose Yanukovych’s announcement on EU ties. For the past two months, mostly peaceful demonstrations have taken place in Kyiv’s main Maidan area. After the government attempts to disperse demonstrators, they become violent, and the resulting response kills over a hundred individuals. Yanukovych and opposition leaders reached an agreement on February 21 that includes plans for presidential elections before the end of the year. Yanukovych flees to Russia shortly after. He leaves a lavishly adorned palace in his wake, which protesters regard as proof of his corruption. Ukraine’s acting president and prime minister make it plain that bringing the country closer to Europe will be a primary goal.

In 2014, Russia incited an armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area to take government structures. With Russian troop buildups reported around the border, Ukrainian forces are resisting but are fearful of triggering a much larger conflict. By early 2022, combat had claimed the lives of over fourteen thousand people, a quarter of them were civilians, and two million Ukrainians had been internally displaced. Parts of two territories, Donetsk and Luhansk, have declared independence.

Further in 2022, after the Kremlin recognizes the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk as autonomous, Putin deploys Russian military there. The military action increases fears that Russia may try to seize complete control of the territories that are partially administered by Ukraine and use it as a pretext for a larger invasion of the country. Putin claims in a speech to Russia that the Ukrainian government is a “puppet dictatorship” controlled by foreign powers, and that NATO has rejected Moscow’s security concerns. More specifically, Putin has explained “”In NATO documents, our country is officially and directly declared the main threat to North Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for the strike.” Germany has announced the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in retaliation to Russia’s actions, while the US, EU, and UK have pledged additional financial measures against Russian firms.

To conclude, from when Ukraine was first independent after the Soviet Union fell in 1991 all the way into Russia invading Ukraine in 2022, Ukraine has and likely will deal with all manner of Russian interference, corruption, and economic troubles.