The minimum you must know
Before the start of the February 2022 incursion:
Ukraine is a former Soviet Union state that developed into a mostly peaceful but impoverished independent democracy in the 1990s. It’s geographically a large country — the second largest in Europe. But Ukraine has a comparably modest population of only forty million people.
Like some of the former Soviet Union states, Ukraine hasn’t adequately developed its domestic economy or integrated into the global economy. There’s tremendous natural beauty there. The population has wonderful traditions and a sense of shared future. Therefore, there has always been great hope that Ukraine might one day fulfill its most optimistic objectives, and develop into a flourishing and fully enjoyable country. But Ukrainians remain desirous of complete economic integration with Europe.
Viktor Yanukovych was democratically elected in 2004 with initially overwhelming popularity, and he ruled for ten years. He gained influence while the country was in nascent development stages in the post soviet era. Ukrainians had very little. But Yanukovych created a sense of optimism anyway. He convinced his population he could develop the country into a peaceful place with open trading relations with wealthy European states and bordering Belarus, Poland, Romania and Russia. He felt Ukraine might easily develop into a phenomenal place to live. However, he faced tremendous challenges.
Yanukovych’s critics argue that he put his own business interests ahead of his country’s. But Yanukovych clearly made his country’s interests a top priority under difficult circumstances. He developed peaceful successful diplomatic relationships with all of Ukraine’s neighboring states. He also negotiated competently for open trading relationships with Western Europe.
Yanukovych used his country’s excellent diplomacy and great relations with former soviet states to entice Europe with the possibility that he might switch Ukraine’s allegiance away from the European Union to Eastern Europe, unless the European Union would give Ukraine valuable open trading opportunities. That must have only been a negotiating tactic because all of the former soviet states including Ukraine were looking for every opportunity to trade with Europe, and would have welcomed any of Europe’s wealth into the area. Ukraine also wasn’t under pressure from former Soviet states to neglect Europe. After all, all of the countries in the region could have benefitted to the extent that any one of them integrated into the global economy, and attracted investment and consumers into the region. (Any success Ukraine achieved in its negotiations with Europe would certainly have been enjoyed by Russia, too, for instance.)
But at the height of those negotiations, Yanukovych’s tough negotiating strategy of feigning disinterest in trading with the European Union undermined his credibility with his own population. Ukrainians couldn’t stand the idea surfacing in the news that Yanukovych might walk away from a European trading deal in favor of an Eastern European one. They became concerned he was going to limit their opportunities too much. His negotiating tactic to shun the European Union for Eastern Europe (when everyone expected him to accept the European Union’s terms!) led to a popular uproar. Instability spiraled out of control so quickly that Ukraine became the center of attention globally.
The Russian government was astonished at the developments in their closest neighboring state. What happens in Ukraine is obviously consequential to Russia because Ukraine and Russia used to be the same soviet country, sharing the same language and traditions. Citizens could travel freely between them. They were basically the same place. Completely unexpected instability in Ukraine therefore gained the attention of the Russian government. Perhaps the Russian government thought Ukrainian instability was resulting from a European plot to pressure and contain Russia.
Yanukovych was a legitimately democratically elected leader who was negotiating effectively for his country. From Russia’s perspective, his only fault was negotiating too successfully. Russia urged Europe not to make a terrible mistake in neglecting to support him.
This writer thinks it probably wasn’t Europe’s intention to unseat Yanukovych, or to destabilize Ukraine, and that nothing could stop the country’s mayhem from increasing and spreading. The population simply cared so much about the country’s negotiations with the European Union that their sensitivity (and not Europe) was responsible for their discontent. The disorder was no one's fault. But whether protests in Ukraine were encouraged by European agents there or not, the country started to fall into disarray. Disorganization spread to all major cities. In a matter of months, the Ukrainian government found themselves challenged by unruly people, and the entire situation unsustainable. Yanukovych's government had to cave under the pressure. The Ukraine government was overthrown as a result. Ukraine’s entire trading negotiations with both Western and Eastern Europe became unsuccessful. In fact, Ukraine’s trading relationship with all other countries became unsuccessful. No country at that time wanted to open up economically to a country in shambles.
Russians understandably feared the possibility that Ukrainian instability might spread across open borders and create instability in Russia. Russians imagined angry Ukranian mobs making a mess of Russian cities. It was a possibility the Russian government understandably simply couldn’t stand. Russia has been enjoying comparable success to Ukraine’s that they didn’t want thrown into jeopardy by Ukrainian events. Russia therefore responded immediately, competently and aggressively by sending security personnel into Ukraine to secure a substantial border area, and prevent this result. Russia stabilized significant regions and then immediately requested United Nations peace keepers be sent to stabilize the rest of Ukraine. Most of the Ukrainian population responded with tremendous relief. People in a few border areas held local elections and decided to join Russia. Russia respected those elections and has considered areas along the border to be part of Russia as a result.
A new Ukrainian government became responsible for the rest of Ukraine who immediately received Europe’s support. Europe and Ukraine say the subsequent government was fairly democratically elected. But the Russian government openly doubted that, and said they believed it was installed by Europe. Perhaps the fairest elections were held in Ukraine possible given the difficult circumstances and considerable instability there at that time. A Ukrainian business man named Petro Poroshenko took office in 2014.
Ukraine’s President Poroshenko was a very competent and tough leader. His critics say he was unnecessarily tough. But his firm attitude led him to be successful in some ways. He gained a little support and cooperation from NATO, for instance. He also gained significant investment in Ukraine from the International Monetary Fund. However, he wasn’t able to solve the problem of the average Ukranian's lack of respect for their own government, and to adequately create stability. As a result, Ukraine developed economically under his lead. But Ukraine's internal security situation didn't improve much. Perhaps Poroshenko's population didn’t develop economically fast enough for there to be stability there.
Poroshenko sought and received a Minsk peace deal with Russia negotiated by the Obama administration. So there was stability in Ukraine’s relations with their most important bordering state. Russia seemed to support the Ukrainian effort for lasting peace so much that Russia made annual requests at the United Nations for U.N. peace keepers to be sent to Ukraine as a result. Peacekeepers represent an opportunity for Ukraine to benefit from additional security from countries aligned with Ukraine, and at Ukraine’s discretion, from Russia as well. Russia has requested peace keepers more frequently than annually now for seven years. But Poroshenko mostly preferred to feign disinterest in that possibility and to portray his country’s relationship with Russia as acrimonious, perhaps because he felt acrimony was important for him in securing NATO and International Monetary Fund support. He could have easily had openly improving and phenomenal relations with Russia. But he neglected opportunities to enter into a follow up Minsk peace deal, and didn’t join with Russia to request U.N. peace keepers for his country. He also spoke openly at the United Nations about his disagreements with Russia over their border area, which he felt should be returned to Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s popularity wained both with his domestic constituency and foreign governments perhaps because he neglected those opportunities for peace, and because he wasn’t able to create sufficient respect in his own country for government. He couldn’t sufficiently improve the Ukrainian economy to support the entire population. He attracted foreign loans. But those funds were not used to adequately stimulate industries. He received some support from NATO. But that didn’t create an adequate sense of safety and security for the population. He was able to develop some segments of the Ukrainian economy. But not enough. He did his best under incredibly difficult circumstances. But large parts of the country remained socially unstable and Ukraine voted Poroshenko out of office in 2019, in a regularly scheduled election as a result.
Currently four percent of Ukraine’s population leave the country each year motivated by the perception of better security and economic opportunities in Europe, such as in Berlin and London. According to the Ukrainian government, Europe receives around one million Ukrainian refugees every nine months. (It’s possible the real number of migrants is even more.) Russia meanwhile argues that the exodus of refugees from the area means Russia was right to secure the parts of the country that they could, and to build a wall along the border area, because at least those areas are peaceful, successful and the population there consequently are remaining in place. Russia cannot help the rest of Ukraine, which are up to Ukraine’s government. Ukraine’s current Zelensky and previous Poroshenko governments appear to be at peace with one another. But there are media reports that the judiciary supporting the current leader has accused the previous one of sedition. Therefore, some effort may be necessary within Ukraine to maintain civil peace. (Are absolution and peace sometimes similar concepts?)
The current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became popularly elected in 2019. He was a media savvy popular television personality before getting into office, and enjoys broad domestic and international support. Everyone understands that he took over the country under extraordinary circumstances. The sensationalized perception of a pandemic, fluctuations in the global economy, various foreign relations complexities and uncontrolled migration aren’t simple matters for a new leader to take on. (Certainly there’s reason for optimism - the situation may quickly improve in all of these areas.) President Zelensky therefore enjoys the possibility of even greater popularity - supported by even better Ukrainian relations with all other countries (including Russia). His recent diplomacy with Presidents Erdogan and Macron of Turkey and France are creating global prestige for President Zelensky, because he appears to be doing the right thing for the Ukrainian people, and negotiating a real and lasting peace with all bordering states. Ukraine is also participating in a very important Olympics peace truce between all nations. The Ukraine Olympics athletes even made a “unanimous call for peace.” That’s a superb attitude about peace by the Ukrainian government.
Everyone hopes and believes President Zelensky can continue to use his great personality and popularity to improve national morale, grow the Ukrainian economy and make even more peace with all countries. (Perhaps he will support Russia’s requests at the United Nations that peace keepers be sent to Ukraine, because peace keepers can do more than provide - and even guarantee - Ukraine’s security. They can be affluent European consumers in Ukrainian stores. The subject of peace keepers can also helpfully keep the attention on peace and calm in the domestic and international press.) Clearly President Zelensky’s public comments reflect deep desire for peace and calm. The media can support him contributing to confidence and a sense of safety for everyone in the region. There’s global optimism President Zelensky can create peace and a better future for the Ukrainian people.