East vs West: how Ukraine is being pulled apart and used by its neighbours

The world’s third busiest McDonald’s located in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Photo: Cathal Charker

Ukraine is a country being split apart by not just internal strife but external powers as well. What does it mean to live on the edge of two very different superpowers?

Due to its location in Eastern Europe, Ukraine is a country with strong cultural ties to both the European Union and the Russian Federation. Many of the country’s landmarks, services and infrastructure shares commonality with their Russian equivalents. However, recently this has started to change. Ukraine is becoming increasingly westernized and leaning towards closer diplomatic ties with the European Union. Currently engaged in conflict with Russia since 2014, Ukraine has many reasons to sever its ties to Russia and look westward. Will Ukraine abandon its roots in hopes of greener pastures? Can a middle ground be achieved?

Russo-Ukrainian relations and EU

But first a history lesson. Ukraine and Russia share a rather troublesome past. Since the foundation of the Kievan Rus in 882AD, Russia and Ukraine have been synonymous with each other. Even the name is a dead giveaway, Kievan because of the center being the city of Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine) and Rus which forms the basis of the name Russia. More recently however, two major events between the two countries have taken place.

The first is the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on December 26th, 1991. Part of the USSR since 1922, the country shared many of its resources and culture with Russia. By helping each other, the two countries grew exponentially, with the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic ranking 2nd (only beaten by Russia) in terms of economic and political power. Though this wasn’t always a friendly relationship. Evidence of this can be seen in the “Declaration of state sovereignty in Ukraine” which signified Ukraine’s decision to place itself above the USSR. Though Ukraine had announced its independence in August of the following year, it was the dissolution of the Union that finally split the Russo-Ukrainian relationship.

A statue of Vladimir Lenin in Odessa that was converted into a statue of Darth Vader following a decree of de-communization in 2015. Photo: Cathal Charker

Since the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, Ukrainian-Russo relations have been lukewarm. Under the recent leadership of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) things were looking up for the two countries. Under Yanukovych, relations improved, and deals were made. The government clearly had a pro-Russian stance. The people on the other hand did not. Increasing backlash against the Ukrainian government, in no small part due to their stance on Russia lead to Euromaidan (also known as the 2014 Ukrainian revolution). Euromaidan culminated in the ousting of President Yanukovych and a new interim government was introduced. However, the major impact of Euromaidan was the rise of Pro-Russian sentiment which ultimately lead to Russian intervention in Ukraine leading to the unlawful annexation of Crimea and the formation of two rebel proto-states in the Donbas region, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Since these events, Ukraine has been at war with the two republics as well as Russia in an attempt to reclaim their lands and prevent further territory from being lost.

A map showing the territory lost to Pro-Russian and Russian forces following Euromaidan. Photo: Brookings Institution

So that’s what’s going on with Russia but what about Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union? An Association Agreement (which promotes deeper political ties, economic links and a respect for common core values) was drafted between 2007 and 2011, due to the Donbas Crisis parts of this agreement were partially implemented early in November 2014. Full implementation of this agreement occurred in September 2017. In addition, Ukraine has been working towards reaching many of the EU’s goals and targets and in many cases has achieved this. Public opinion towards the EU is also very high in Ukraine. According to a poll done by the International Republic Institute in May 2017 51 percent of the population (including those in Russian controlled areas) supported joining the EU (17 percent supporting joining Russia, 32 percent answering “difficult to answer”). So, it would seem that overall, the EU is seen as the preferable alternative to Russia.

Why all the fuss by the Rus?

Additionally, it’s important to examine how the two superpowers view Ukraine. For Russia, Donbas and Crimea are territories that should be theirs. Though there is obvious monetary incentive for Russia to take Crimea and incorporate Donetsk and Luhansk due to the heavy industry located in the area, both areas have huge cultural importance to Russia, being historic centers of production. Furthermore, Russia’s official reasoning of saving ethnic Russians and their culture/language isn’t entirely unfounded as the Ukrainian government does attempt to distance itself from Russia. Most recently this was by making Ukrainian the only language to be used in schools, a move which angered the Kremlin. In addition, Russia repeatedly attempted and succeeded in blocking Ukraine’s entry to NATO though the EU is equally to blame for that. Germany, France and the UK all opposed Ukraine joining NATO due to fear of Russian retaliation, both militarily and economically. Perhaps if the EU had taken a stronger line in 2008 in support of Ukraine, the current situation could have been avoided.

Furthermore, there is also the economics of the situation. Ukraine is an extremely poor nation by European standards. For example the average yearly salary for someone working in Kiev amounts to €4289 and the country’s currency, the Hryvnia (₴) is currently at an all time low in terms of exchange rate, €1 is worth ₴31. The world bank recently announced that Ukraine had left its recession with a 2.3 percent growth last year, after years of higher than 5 percent losses in GDP for several years. Though Ukraine’s economy has a long way to go, it’s starting to look up as the war starts to calm down and trading is continued. In fact Russia is Ukraine’s number one trade partner.

So what does this all mean?

So that’s the two powers at play in Ukraine. Russia who is forcefully trying to reclaim much of “its” lands and the European Union who are rapidly trying to secure their border and rectify their mistakes. The people support the West rather than the East, but whether this is true support for the EU or a lesser than two evils situation is up for debate. Regardless, Western influence, culture and ideals have seeped into Ukraine and that this has been exacerbated by Russian aggression and the subsequently failing (albeit slowly now recovering) economy.  What will happen to Ukraine is anyone’s guess, most of the population want Donbas and Crimea back, Russia out and membership into the EU but perhaps that’s a pipe dream. Many alternatives have been proposed, ranging from splitting the country in half with the east joining the Russian federation or having Donetsk, Crimea and Luhansk becoming fully independent nations, no longer under the control of anyone. Whilst it remains to be seen what the solution will be, it’s clear that Ukraine is a country being torn apart by internal and external forces.