Ukraine’s Post-Independence Struggles

1991 – 2019

Ukraine has been dogged by corruption scandals, economic mismanagement, and Russian interference since it achieved independence in 1991. At the same time, it has cultivated relations with the United States and Europe.

A campaign worker in Kyiv during the independence referendum
A campaign worker speaks to a crowd at a campaign stand in Kyiv. Liu Heung Shing/AP
Ukraine Votes for Independence

Amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine votes for independence in a referendum, with 92 percent of Ukrainians supporting independence, and elects Leonid Kravchuk as president. Ukraine had the second-largest population and economy of the fifteen Soviet republics.

A Ukrainian nuclear missile set to be destroyed
Soldiers prepare to destroy a ballistic SS-19 missile at the former rocket base in Vakulenchuk, west of Kyiv. AP Photo
Securing Nuclear Warheads

The Russian, Ukrainian, and U.S. presidents sign a statement that reaffirms Ukraine’s commitment to transfer all strategic nuclear warheads to Russia and dismantle strategic launchers in its territory. The statement also confirms Russian readiness to compensate Ukraine for the value of the highly enriched uranium in the warheads, notes U.S. readiness to assist Ukraine in dismantling the launchers, and specifies security assurances Ukraine will receive once it accedes to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non–nuclear weapons state.

UN peacekeepers from Ukraine
Ukrainian UN peacekeepers in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad in 1994. NATO had conducted air strikes in the region. Ivan Milutinovic/Reuters
Ukraine Joins NATO’s Partnership for Peace

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) welcomes Ukraine into its Partnership for Peace, a collaborative arrangement open to all non-NATO European countries and post-Soviet states. Ukraine and Hungary become the fifth and sixth members of the partnership. Russia becomes a member that June and conducts various cooperative activities with NATO, including joint military exercises, until 2014, when NATO formally suspends ties. As the Cold War ended, Russia had opposed the eastern expansion of NATO. However, thirteen former partnership members eventually join the alliance.

Leonid Kuchma shrugging
President Leonid Kuchma during a news conference. Viktor Korotayev/Reuters
Kuchma Becomes President

Former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma defeats incumbent President Leonid Kravchuk. It is the first time an incumbent has been defeated in a presidential election in a former Soviet republic. Kuchma’s presidency is marked by slow growth, several economic crises, and charges of rampant corruption.

NPT Signing Ceremony with Russian, U.S., Ukrainian, and UK leaders
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and British Prime Minister John Major, during the signing of the Budapest Memorandum. Win McNamee/Reuters
Budapest Memorandum Signed

The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances [PDF] is signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States, following Ukraine’s accession to the NPT as a non–nuclear weapons state. Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States commit to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence, and promise to not threaten or use force against Ukraine.

Ukrainians celebrate the new constitution
Ukrainians celebrate the approval of a new constitution. Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
New Constitution Ratified

The Ukrainian parliament ratifies a new constitution [DOC]. It theoretically has separation of powers, but the president holds significant sway. He or she can dismiss the prime minister and rescind acts of the cabinet, for instance. Among other things, the constitution guarantees free speech and private-property ownership and recognizes Ukrainian as the sole state language.

Ukrainian and NATO leaders exchange documents
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma exchanges documents with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana after a signing ceremony during the NATO summit. Blake Sell/Reuters
NATO, Ukraine Deepen Partnership

Kuchma meets with NATO leaders in Madrid, where they sign a document establishing a distinctive partnership between Ukraine and the defense alliance. Under this partnership, a NATO-Ukraine commission will meet at least twice per year to discuss the relationship.

Ukrainians protesting after Gongadze disappearance
Ukrainians rally to demand authorities speed up the search for Gongadze. Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Gongadze Scandal Prompts Protests

On September 16, Heorhiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist investigating alleged corruption in the Kuchma administration, disappears. His beheaded body is found two months later in a forest outside of Kyiv. Audio recordings eventually surface that purport to show Kuchma ordering subordinates to kill Gongadze. The scandal spurs public discontent about corruption among Ukraine’s elites, leading to street protests. Western countries reconsider their support of Kuchma’s government.

Yushenko holding back tears after the vote
Outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, surrounded by deputies, prepares to address a crowd of supporters. Mikhail Chernichkin/Reuters
Prime Minister Yushchenko Ousted Amid Reform Moves

The parliament passes a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who steps down. The vote is carried out by parties allied with Kuchma, who had surprised observers when he nominated Yushchenko to be prime minister in 1999. Yushchenko and his deputy Yulia Tymoshenko had been pushing through energy sector reforms that became unpopular with many of Kuchma’s oligarch supporters.

Protesters during the Orange Revolution
Police guard the parliament building in Kyiv as it is surrounded by opposition supporters. Sergey Supinski/AFP via Getty Images
Orange Revolution Overturns Flawed Election

The 2004 presidential race pits Western-oriented Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is Kuchma’s preferred choice and the candidate supported by Moscow. The election is a tug-of-war between those who seek closer ties with the European Union (EU), NATO, and the West and those who favor closer alignment with Russia. Yushchenko mysteriously suffers dioxin poisoning in September; he survives but with his face disfigured. After two flawed rounds of voting award the election to Yanukovych, protesters dressed in orange, Yushchenko’s campaign color, take to the streets in large numbers and force a revote in December, which Yushchenko wins. The second so-called color revolution in a post-Soviet state—a year after Georgia’s Rose Revolution—sets off alarm bells in Moscow.

A Ukrainian operator turns a valve at a gas pipeline
A Ukrainian operator at the main pipeline in the village of Boyarka, near Kyiv. Ivan Chernichkin/Reuters
Russia Shuts Off Gas

A pricing and transit dispute between the Yushchenko government and Russia’s state-owned Gazprom results in a gas cutoff, lasting a couple of days and quickly causing supply drops in European countries that import Russian gas via Ukraine. The dispute underscores the energy interdependence between Russia and Ukraine, with 80 percent of Russia’s gas exports to Europe passing through the country. At the same time, Ukraine relies on Russia for much of its own natural gas supply, for which it has historically paid below-market rates. The shutdown occurs amid an economic slowdown that begins to dent Yushchenko’s popularity.

Vladimir Putin speaking at the NATO summit in 2008
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks after the NATO-Russia Council meeting at the 2008 Bucharest summit. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images
NATO Expansion Bid Meets Opposition

NATO begins its twenty-second summit amid a debate about whether it should offer Membership Action Plans (MAPs)—forerunners to membership—to Croatia, Georgia, and Ukraine. But in discussions between NATO officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin expresses opposition to extending MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine. Unable to reach a consensus, NATO members decline to offer a MAP to either. During a separate meeting, Putin reportedly tells U.S. President George W. Bush that Ukraine is “not even a real nation-state.”

Russian troops in Georgia
Russian armored vehicles advance outside of Gori, Georgia. Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Russia Invades Georgia

Russian troops invade Georgia following a Georgian military operation against a South Ossetian separatist stronghold. The invasion leads to a five-day war and results in an increased Russian presence in the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which represent roughly one-fifth of Georgian territory. Yushchenko sides with Georgia, further increasing tensions between Kyiv and Moscow. Russia subsequently recognizes both republics as independent states, though neither is recognized as an independent state by most countries.

European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko shake hands
European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko greet before an EU-Ukraine summit in Paris. Charles Platiau/Reuters
Talks Open on New EU Relationship

The EU and Ukraine begin talks on a new “association agreement” and issue a communiqué that “Ukraine’s future is in Europe.” The EU considers such agreements to be legally binding contracts that commit countries to developing closer political, legal, and trading ties with the EU and sometimes lead to accession to the bloc. Implementation of the association agreement could mean major changes in Ukraine that would bring it closer to EU standards.

Viktor Yanukovich waves to supporters
Viktor Yanukovich greets his supporters during a rally in Kyiv. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images
Yanukovych Elected President

Yanukovych narrowly defeats Tymoshenko, prime minister at the time, in a presidential election that most international observers view as free and fair. Aided by political consultants from the United States, Yanukovych recasts himself as more open to EU integration. His victory is a sign of voter disillusionment with Tymoshenko and Yushchenko after several years of economic trouble.

Tymoshenko speaks to reporters
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko outside of court. Sergei Svetlitsky/AFP via Getty Images
Tymoshenko Sentenced, Brussels Freezes Agreement

Yanukovych has Tymoshenko arrested for “abuse of office,” and she is sentenced to seven years in prison. International observers see the prosecution as a politically motivated way for Yanukovych to sideline his main opponent, and the U.S. ambassador calls the trial a farce, a view shared by many. The jailing stalls negotiations with the European Union over improving trade and political ties. Brussels refuses to finalize the association agreement at the December EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv.

Viktor Yanukovich winks at Vladimir Putin
President Viktor Yanukovich and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Yanukovych Withdraws From EU Talks

The Ukrainian government states that it will not sign the association agreement at an upcoming EU-Ukraine summit in Lithuania. Yanukovych’s administration announces it will resume dialogue with Russia about joining the Eurasian Customs Union. Protests begin in Kyiv almost immediately.

A protester waves a Ukrainian flag in the Euromaidan protests
An anti-government protester waves the national flag from the top of a statue during clashes with riot police in Independence Square in Kyiv. Stringer/Reuters
Euromaidan Protests Lead to Government Collapse

Ukrainians turn out in large numbers to protest Yanukovych’s announcement on EU ties. Mostly peaceful demonstrations continue for two months in Kyiv’s main Maidan square. They turn violent after the government moves to break up protesters, and the ensuing crackdown kills more than one hundred people. On February 21, Yanukovych and opposition leaders reach a settlement that includes plans for presidential elections before the end of the year. Soon after, Yanukovych flees to Russia. He leaves behind a lavishly decorated palace, which protesters see as evidence of his corruption. Ukraine’s acting president and acting prime minister make it clear that a top priority will be to bring Ukraine closer to Europe.

A campaign poster during the Crimean referendum compares authorities in Kyiv to Nazis
A campaign poster in Crimea compares Ukrainian control to Nazism and urges voters to choose to join Russia instead. Viktor Drachev/AFP via Getty Images
Russia Seizes Crimea, Holds Referendum

Pro-Russia forces, including so-called little green men—Russian soldiers in Russian uniforms, but with identifying insignia removed—seize control of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula where the majority of residents are ethnically Russian. Soon after, authorities hold a disputed referendum in which Crimean voters choose to secede and join Russia. Brussels calls the referendum “illegal and illegitimate,” and Washington promises it will never be accepted. Russia annexes Crimea on March 21, though the UN General Assembly votes 100–11 against recognizing the referendum result and Russia is expelled from the Group of Eight. A month later, Putin admits that Russian soldiers were involved in the annexation and justifies it as a way to protect ethnic Russians allegedly threatened by violence from Kyiv.

Pro-Russia activists in Donetsk
Pro-Russia activists raise the flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. Alexander Khudoteply/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia Backs Bloody Separatist War

Russia provokes an armed separatist movement to seize government buildings across eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Ukrainian forces resist but are wary of sparking a much wider war, with Russian troop buildups reported along the border. As of 2019, fighting has resulted in more than thirteen thousand deaths, a quarter of them civilians, and internally displaced 1.5 million Ukrainians. Parts of two regions—Donetsk and Luhansk—have declared themselves to be independent republics. The West imposes sanctions on Russia.

Petro Poroshenko in front of a screen showing election results
Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko on election night. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images
Poroshenko Elected President

Petro Poroshenko, a pro-West oligarch, wins an outright majority in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, surprising many. Poroshenko promises to fix the economy by aligning Ukraine with Europe and to root out corruption that has trailed Ukraine since its independence. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration signals interest in helping Poroshenko battle corruption and assigns Vice President Joe Biden as its chief envoy for Ukraine.

Debris from flight MH17
Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 burns in a field in eastern Ukraine. Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Passenger Jet Shot Down With Russian Missile

A Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur is shot down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukrainian territory controlled by Russian and Russian proxy forces, resulting in the death of all 298 people onboard. A Dutch-led investigation later finds that Russia bears responsibility, with the missile having been provided by a Russian army brigade, but Russia denies responsibility.

Ukrainian tanks in Donetsk
A column of Ukrainian tanks rolls through the Donetsk region in September 2014. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images
First Minsk Agreement Signed

Russian units enter Ukraine to push back Ukrainian forces that were on the verge of regaining control of Donbas. Shortly after, negotiators conclude the first Minsk Agreement, aimed at ending the fighting. However, its terms are not implemented, and fighting continues along the line of contact.

Chancellor Angela Merkel embraces President Francois Hollande
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande after peace talks in Minsk. Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Second Minsk Agreement Signed

Putin and Poroshenko meet in Minsk to negotiate a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. They reach an agreement, shepherded by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that outlines thirteen steps to end the war, including an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of all heavy weaponry in order to create a “security zone.” Fighting and shelling along the line of contact still flare up from time to time. Both sides trade accusations on violations of the deal, though international observers place more blame on Russian and Russian proxy forces.

A Javelin anti-tank missile in Ukraine
A Ukrainian soldier displays a Javelin anti-tank missile during a military parade. Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Lethal U.S. Arms Sales Allowed

Under President Donald J. Trump, the United States approves lethal arms sales to Ukraine, moving beyond the nonlethal military assistance that the Obama administration had allowed. That summer, Trump had named Kurt Volker as his special envoy for Ukraine negotiations. Prior to that, the U.S. Congress created the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military aid for Ukraine.

Leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, attend a ceremony marking the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence. Murad Sezer/Reuters
Schism Emerges in Orthodox Church

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the leading authority for Orthodox Christianity, recognizes the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formally severing it from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has close reported ties to the Kremlin and had overseen the Ukrainian church for centuries. Russia accuses the United States of encouraging the break in order to weaken Moscow, and a Kremlin spokesperson reissues a promise to defend “the interests of Russians and Russian-speakers.”

Volodymyr Zelensky applauds during the 2019 presidential election
Volodymyr Zelensky celebrates following the announcement of the first exit poll at his campaign headquarters. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Volodymyr Zelensky Elected

Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian and political novice, wins a presidential runoff with more than 70 percent of the vote, defeating Poroshenko. Two months later, Zelensky’s party also wins a majority of parliamentary seats, marking the first time since independence that Ukraine’s president has a majority party in the parliament. Zelensky had campaigned against corruption and poverty, and pledged to end the war in the east; many saw the vote as a rejection of Poroshenko and his failure to root out corruption.

Volodymyr Zelensky and Donald Trump during the 2019 UN General Assembly
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listens during a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Donald J. Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A Phone Call Reverberates

Trump and Zelensky have a phone conversation that later becomes the focus of an impeachment inquiry by the U.S. House of Representatives. A U.S. government whistleblower complaint later emerges that expresses concern about Trump’s alleged effort during the call to enlist Zelensky to investigate Biden, a leading Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election. In November, several former and current U.S. officials testify before lawmakers that the Trump administration postponed a Trump-Zelensky meeting and held up congressionally approved military assistance to get Kyiv to investigate Biden. White House officials dismiss the complaints as politically motivated.

Ukraine’s Post-Independence Struggles