Ukraine declared independence 25 years ago. The Soviet Union was beyond saving. Now, Ukraine is once again fighting for self-determination, writes DW’s Bernd Johann.
For several days in August 1991, the world held its breath and turned its eyes to Moscow. Tanks were rolling through the streets of the capital. Some wanteo take down the reformer, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and snatch power away from him. They failed, and with them went the Soviet Union. A multinational state from Lviv, Ukraine, in the west to Vladivostok in the far east was established by force.
Imperialism was over, but only briefly, as post-Soviet states – Ukraine now in particular — know all-too well. Russia has annexed Crimea and Donbass in eastern Ukraine is overrun by Russian-backed separatists. It’s been 25 years since Ukraine declared independence, and Russia is again at its door.
Remnants of imperialism
The 1991 coup stirs up mixed feelings among the Russian people. Commemoration events were sparsely attended. For many, the end of the Soviet Union remains a tragic turning point, for their country is no longer an empire with the influence to loom over other nations.
It is an especially uncomfortable memory for Moscow’s leadership. In the summer of 1991, thousands of Russians stood up courageously to a clique of intelligence officers. They were also taking a stand against the military, which still has the say in Russia.
And there is nothing that scares Russia’s leadership more than democratic movements like the one seen most recently in Ukraine.
Untangling from Moscow
The failed coup brought freedom to Soviet states. The Ukrainian parliament declared independence immediately thereafter, on August 24, 1991. Belarus and other Soviet states followed suit, while the Baltic countries and Georgia had already broken away.
Kyiv’s formal disentanglement from Moscow was quick, but Ukraine would continue to swing between Western and Russian influence. It was Russia’s continued political and economic intervention, culminating in a military siege of Crimea in 2014, that finally pushed Ukraine westward.
Contrary to Belarus’ stagnation under President Alexander Lukashenko, Ukraine’s civil society has quickly developed over the last several years. The government of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s sitting president, has enacted reforms to bring the country closer to Europe. There’s been progress, but corruption remains. The oligarchy has reestablished itself. Judicial reform is slow, and the electoral system leaves much to be desired.
No resolution to conflict in sight
The largest problem remains the conflict with Russia, which can be destabilizing over the long-term and even pose an existential threat. There’s currently little hope for a political resolution to either Crimea or Donbass. Neither side has fully implemented the Minsk Protocol. Russia’s greater leverage demands firmer international assistance for Ukraine.
No one should believe that Russia intends to withdraw its troops from Ukraine anytime soon. It won’t let Kyiv go because the Kremlin’s lust for empire remains strong.
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