With their rapprochement to the EU, the Ukrainians believed they were embarking on the path to a prosperous future. But they underestimated Moscow’s will to keep the country in its orbit and overestimated Europe’s will to share its prosperity. But in particular, they overlooked their own Ukrainian rift. A rift into which Putin eventually drove a crude wedge.
For many in the West, the conflict over Ukraine did not begin until February 2022, but the spark of disunity was ignited long ago in 2003, during the Orange Revolution. The situation in the country was by no means as clear-cut and, above all, as simple as the West liked to make it. Most elections were characterized by polarization between the east and the west of the country.
However, this political division was only an expression of a drifting apart in the economic development of the two parts of the country. The eastern part of the country was even the more prosperous. It was dominated by heavy industry. From coal and iron to the last weld, diesel locomotives, tractors and components for aerospace were produced there, which were ultimately supplied to the Russian markets. Subsidized Russian gas additionally ensured competitiveness. The western part of the country, on the other hand, benefited much more from the rapprochement with the EU; tourism and direct investment allowed this part of the country to flourish in the form of consumption-driven growth. In a so-called two-vector policy, Ukrainian politicians tried to leverage these advantages from both blocs.
In contrast, the West focused almost exclusively on the ethnic composition, which was dominated by native Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Until the end, people referred to President Viktor Yanukovych, a native of Dnipro, as the pro-Russian president, even though he had personally negotiated the rapprochement agreement with the European Union. The showdown came in 2013, when Putin offered Ukraine, on the brink of bankruptcy, a $15 billion loan, subsidized gas supplies and membership in his Eurasian Economic Union – while the West offered structural adjustment funds and cuts in social services. Full-fledged accession was denied Ukraine from the start. Yanukovych could not accept this.
In 2013, the showdown on the Euromaidan by the Western Ukrainian opposition and the Russian economic war against the new Ukrainian President Shocola King Petro Poroshenko began.