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Ukraine at 30: reflecting on Ukraine’s path toward Western integration

Independence Day Parade in Kyiv, Ukraine. 24 August 2021. Photo: Youtube
Ukraine at 30: reflecting on Ukraine’s path toward Western integration
Article by: Mark Temnycky
On August 24, Ukraine celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its independence. Tens of thousands gathered in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to celebrate this monumental day. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also announced that a parade would be held near the Maidan (Kyiv’s Independence Square) to commemorate this historic event.

Much has transpired since Ukraine’s initial independence day on August 24, 1991. The country has seen two revolutions and the war with Russia that broke out in 2014 and continues to the present day. What key events for the past 30 years have shaped Ukraine’s present and future and became the point of no return in its steadfast drive towards the consolidation of democracy?

Independence Day of Ukraine: facts & brief history

After an unsuccessful coup attempt by hardline Communist Party leaders to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union and declared its independence. The Eastern European state then established its own military, created its own currency, and formed a government. During this early period of independence, Ukraine was a neutral state. While it slowly began to distance itself from Russia, Ukraine initially did not pursue membership options with the European Union (EU) or NATO.

It was not until independent Ukraine’s first protest movement, or Orange Revolution, that saw it beginning to pick a side. In 2004, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma began to look for a successor as his second term ended. Kuchma’s preferred candidate was former Governor of Donetsk Oblast (province) Viktor Yanukovych, a politician who preferred stronger ties with Russia. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko campaigned on establishing closer ties with the West. Yanukovych and his camp would try to steal the 2004 Ukrainian elections, but hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens gathered to the Maidan to protest the initial election results. The Ukrainian Central Election Commission and Ukrainian Supreme Court eventually declared that a third election would be held, and Yushchenko won.

During President Yushchenko’s tenure, Ukraine would slowly start to build its relationship with the West. The Ukrainian frequently discussed NATO and EU membership with Western leaders, and in 2008, NATO announced that it would welcome the Eastern European state’s aspirations for membership.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and several other geopolitical events, derailed any future discussions about this topic. The 2008 Global Recession, infighting within Yushchenko’s cabinet, and an energy crisis would see Yushchenko’s popularity rate plummet. By 2010, the Ukrainian president had not lived up to his promises, and this allowed Yanukovych to return to the political scene. Yanukovych then won the presidential elections in 2010, and he would try to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality.

For years, Ukraine’s leaders hoped to gain benefits from both the West and Russia. The Eastern European state, however, would eventually have to pick a side. Unbeknownst to Yanukovych, it would be the Ukrainian people who would decide Ukraine’s future.

During President Yanukovych’s tenure, Ukraine extended Russia’s naval base lease in Sevastopol in exchange for energy deliveries. He was also keen on establishing better relations with Russia. By 2013, both the West and Russia pressured the Ukrainian leader to finally pick a side. At this time, Russia had formed an economic organization with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, Yanukovych had discussed signing an association agreement with the EU, which had celebrated its twentieth anniversary since the Treaty of Maastricht in November 1993.

Torn between these options, Yanukovych decided to renege his commitment to the European Union. In response, several hundred Ukrainian citizens gathered to Maidan to protest their president’s decision. This led to Ukraine’s second protest movement, or the Euromaidan.

A timeline of the Euromaidan revolution

Yanukovych tried to end the protests, but these demonstrations lasted for three months. By February 2014, the Ukrainian president ordered special forces to fire upon the peaceful protestors to end their movement. This tragic decision led to the deaths of over 100 Ukrainian civilians, and they became known as the Heavenly Hundred. These individuals would be posthumously commemorated for their courage, patriotism, and selfless service to Ukraine in its freedom for democracy, and a chapel was built in their honor.

Do you remember Maidan? Take this quiz to find out

Following these events, Yanukovych fled to Russia as he feared for his life. After his departure, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) voted to impeach the president.

Under newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the Verkhovna Rada amended Ukraine’s constitution, stating that the Eastern European country would pursue Western integration. The Ukrainian government would then work tirelessly with the EU to reform its government, and after three, long dedicated years, the EU introduced visa-free travel to Ukraine. This landmark and numerous defense reforms to Ukraine’s military, economy, and political system have helped Ukraine on its path toward EU membership.

This progress, however, has not come without consequence. As Ukraine continues to align itself with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to meddle in Ukraine’s affairs. Following the impeachment of Yanukovych, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, stating it was looking out for the interests of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking peoples. Then, in April 2014, Russia launched a military incursion into eastern Ukraine. Armed militants in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts would take over their respective central government buildings. In response, the Ukrainian government launched an anti-terrorist operation against these militants, and this led to the Donbas conflict. The crisis continues to this day. 14,000 people have been killed, and nearly two million have been displaced.

The price of Russia’s war is too heavy for Ukraine to lift alone – report

Overall, Ukraine has undergone various burdens and tragedies as it tries to integrate itself with the West. Nonetheless, this Eastern European country has continued to press on. The thirtieth anniversary of independence will undoubtedly be a period of celebration and cheer as Ukraine commemorates this historic occasion.

During these celebrations, however, the Ukrainian government and its citizens should be reminded of the sacrifices made by the Heavenly Hundred and the soldiers and volunteers fighting in the Donbas. Their sacrifices have allowed Ukraine to continue its path toward true freedom and democracy.

PLUS 1: traveling photo exhibition dedicated to the fallen Defenders of Ukraine

Based on what has transpired, Ukraine’s path toward Western integration now seems inevitable. This Eastern European country has overcome numerous challenges, and it is finally ready to reap the benefits of EU and NATO membership. It deserves nothing less.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and its impact on US and European foreign policy and national security. His articles have been published by the Atlantic Council, the Wilson Center, the Center for European Policy Analysis, Forbes, the Diplomatic Courier, and Euromaidan Press.
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