What Went Wrong in Ukraine – And When?

Since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the ongoing war with Russia, Ukraine has been branded as a villain seeking foreign assistance. With National Bank reserves of 5 billion euros and a public debt equal to 80.2 per cent of GDP, Ukraine will have to repay 38 billion euros of EU loans over the next five years. As with people, help from the outside usually brings bad results if there is no incentive to take responsibility over one’s own future by reflecting on past mistakes. So what went wrong for Ukraine – and when?

First, some history.

When the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires fell in 1917 and 1918 respectively, Ukraine, which had been split between the two for more than one hundred years, entered a short era of anarchy. Because of the fact that there were too many people and unions, who wanted to obtain the power over Ukraine’s territory, and each had a different agenda, none of them succeeded. As a result, the Russians took the opportunity and occupied Eastern and Central Ukraine, while other parts were divided between Poland, Hungary and Romania. Since the Soviets had managed to monopolise power over the bigger part of Ukraine, it can be said that at this time Ukraine’s path from anarchy to a centralised state begins.

In a short period of time, the USSR succeeded in establishing a very harsh tax system and an extensive bureaucracy over Ukrainian territory, otherwise known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Constitution of 1918 and lots of other laws and regulations aiming to reach the communist ideal were passed. The next step made towards centralisation of power was the development of infrastructure followed by the establishment of huge public enterprises.

When, in 1939, the Second World War broke out, the Soviets occupied Poland and as a result western Ukraine was ‘reunited’ with the rest of Ukraine under Soviet rule. Step by step, the system created in Soviet Ukraine was fully replicated in western Ukraine, though there it had faced enormous resistance. Due to the cultural, religious and/or political influences of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, western Ukraine was reluctant to give up its heritage and dissolve itself into the Soviet Ukrainian identity. The opposition movement was led by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, who were fighting against both the Soviets and Nazis. If we take as a premise Ukrainian territory as it is today and Ukrainians as the people inhabiting it, then this fight between the western Ukrainian resistance movement and the Soviet Ukraine, which lasted around 30 years, was nothing less than the biggest civil war in Ukrainian history – and it has dramatically affected the present.

For the state to become inclusive, it should overcome a power-sharing process as the last step. Even though the Soviet leaders had difficulties with it, they established three branches of government and a great number of organs, such as the KGB, within them. As with absolute monarchies, it was done mostly to satisfy the elite and keep them at hand, meaning that power was in theory dispersed yet still belonged to a single person. History provides many examples of what happens to countries that fail to make this final move of establishing an efficient system of checks and balances. Sooner or later the elites willstart plotting against each other and their leader, the pressure becomes unbearably strong and consequently a country turns into chaos and disappears from the world map, just as the USSR did.

In 1991, when the USSR burst into pieces, Ukraine, as its successor, inherited not only a territory with two absolutely different eastern and western Ukrainian identities, but also the legal and tax system. Unlike the Baltic countries which decided to start from scratch, meaning from anarchy to a centralised state and then to an inclusive one, Ukraine chose the seemingly easier route of simply carrying on with the Soviet system. Yet the most striking thing here is not the fact that Ukraine lacked intellectuals at that time to make it successful, but that former Soviet puppets monopolised power. Instead of writing something completely new and free, Ukraine just started a new chapter of the same book.

If cancer is identified in the early stages, it’s still curable. Ignorance usually has lethal results. The same can be said about the misalignment between power and identity in Ukraine, which stems from the historical, cultural and even political differences between the East and the West. Back in 1991, while choosing a vector of development, Ukrainian officials could have chosen between one of two options: to decentralise power to identity levels or to create unity by building a new, single Ukrainian narrative. Yet by turning a blind eye to the problem back then, they made it even worse, resulting in the deaths which occurred during the Maidan Revolution of 2014, preceded by peaceful demonstrations which started four years previously.

Countries don’t become free and prosperous in a day, and the past is meant to be reflected on. Regardless of two massive revolutions, Ukraine is still struggling to become a truly inclusive and free country. The economy remains very fragile with its 37.6 per cent overall tax burden and bureaucracy as extensive as it used to be half a century ago. The number of state-owned enterprises hasn’t outstandingly decreased and the proportion of companies owned by oligarchs is still the same in post-Soviet Ukraine. Decriminalisation of drug consumption and distribution as well as gun ownership is not even on the agenda. Moreover, politicians still fight the opposition and reward those who serve them well. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. Originally published on Austria Centre’s page.

About the author

Mariia Chaplia

Mariia Chaplia

Mariia Chaplia is Communications Associate Intern at Students for Liberty. She studied law at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and global affairs at the Civil and Political School. She is a recent graduate of the Charles Koch Internship Programme.


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  • “Since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the ongoing war with Russia…”

    This mantra about annexation is as worn and torn as is legally incorrect. Here is why.  A “country” is not simply a territory; a country is defined as an agreement by all people to live in the same state according to fundamental conditions of coexistence enshrined in its Constitution. Occupation and annexation are defined as violating these constitutional principles by force, on part or all of the territory, usually by a foreign power, but not necessarily.

    The next question is – on what part of the country its Constitution has been grossly violated by force? In Donbas, Crimea or Kiev? I clearly recall that government building have been occupied first in Western Ukraine and then in Kiev, the president has been deposed in Kiev, Constitutional Court Justices have been arrested in Kiev and pro-presidential members of parliament fled from Kiev – all with full support and approval of the US. By my books the part of the country where the national agreement has been destroyed is IN WESTERN and CENTRAL UKRAINE. By my books it is this part of country that has been truly annexed from people of Ukraine and occupied by non-elected, US-controlled usurpers, mostly from ultra-right, fascist parties.

    Eastern Ukraine (and Crimea until it re-united with Russia), on the opposite, were two enclaves of LOYALISTS who remained faithful to the country’s constitution, law and order and refused to accept authority of the usurpers.

    This is why this mantra about annexation of Crimea and Donbas is wrong. If you want to use this terminology, then it was Western and Central Ukraine that have been “annexed” from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and “occupied” by non-elected usurpers who broke the Constitution and to answer the question in the title – this is EXACTLY what and when went wrong.

    • It all went wrong when ex president yanukovych decided that Ukraine is not going to join the E.U. and decide to change domestic laws and constitution that would limit poeples ability to protest. He was so stupid that he created a law that stated people could not gather in groups, and the rest is history. I would like all Russians to understand Russia only protects Russian speakers(Putins words). If unmarked men would sieze territory in Russia you can be sure that Putin will bomb the whole country just like Chechnya, when Putin came into power, and Syria today. Putin loves poetry and the Russians have truly become lost. How dare a people that can’t see past there governments crimes. If Russia wants Ukraine it then has to understand one major factor Ukraine if so Ukrainians, it’s not Russian, Russia is a country next door and any person that acts against the state is a criminal or in this case those little green men and all others that helped sieze public buildings, communication towers and banks are called Russian terrorists that are against the Ukrainian state. AND THIS IS WHEN IT ALL WENT WRONG.

      • Moron.

        What a load of crap.

        The EU refused to help Yanakovich, and Russia offered $15 billion, so of course he went for the better deal.

        Better get a more credible story from Lustration headquarters there in Kiev (or their bosses in Washington)

        • Look you still miss the point. Ukraine has been ongoing in a legal process to join the e.u. And Putin and Yanukovych( please spell his name correctly) decided on there own that it wasn’t going to happen and that is why people took to the streets,($15 bl. Was a bribe if you still haven’t experienced it in your life) and there was no siezure of buildings, only after yanukovych left and the siezures were in Crimea and later in the east of Ukraine. Yanukovych started to change laws so people don’t have the right to protest and then more people joined in in anger againsts this Putin puppet. Sorry but I am Ukrainian, my family is in the middle of this shit, and russians are rusophobians, they would change all history to suit them. The Russian empire was like the Borg, assimilation through any means necessary. Stalin prime example yet Putin erected a huge statue in Crimea and a sign that say welcome. I have pictures so don’t test me liitle dumb ass. Don’t Russians think there is something wrong with your government when an idiot puts up a statue of Stalin, that was a mass murderer. F.Y.I. Ukraine would not want to join Russia today because their government(Stalin) wiped out a quarter of our population before and after WWII, not to mention during. Ukrainians probably lost more than 10mil.people between 1930-50. Stallin killed then moved the Ukrainian population in the east out to Siberia. Ukrainians were slave to the Russian state and yet today the Russian government blames Ukrainians for being fascist, nazzis, when Russians themselves made a deal with hitler to split Poland in 2 and start WWII. Don’t you forget this in Russia, because Putin has created a whole bunch of poetry around this issue so that people question the facts. Fact is Russians were colluders with the nazzis. If Russians didn’t help hitler the war might not have reached such magnitude because let’s face the fact, Stalin could of helped squash hitler right in the beginning but they didn’t want that because there would be no way the USSR would catch the eastern block as they did after wwII. Look the Russians have a huge history lesson after Putin and I hope it gets one because the truth must come out, I love Russians, I want no war, but we must respect each other and each others property or else this whole world will go to shit. Russians and ukrainians are brothers and sister we have a shared history(not Russian history)let’s build a world of love dignity and respect.

  • I just have a couple of questions for Maria. One, if Ukraine is genuinely ‘struggling to become a truly inclusive and free country’, why the obvious campaign against use of the Russian language, although nearly everyone in Ukraine can speak it and many use it as their daily communication? Especially considering more than a third of Ukraine’s trade was with Russia before the government placed an embargo on it? If trade resumes at some future point, will Ukraine’s Russian customers be willing to learn Ukrainian to do business? Or does Ukraine plan never to do business with Russia again? That doesn’t strike me as very inclusive. Has trade with the EU compensated for the loss of the Russian market. Your balance of trade suggests not.

    If Ukraine’s most progressive phase commenced with its independence, when it no longer had the Soviet Union to blame for its troubles, why did the national population immediately pitch over and begin a steady and inexorable decline, from a peak of nearly 52 million around 1994 to about 45 million in early 2013, just before the loss of Crimea and the eastern region?