When Ukraine declared independence on August 24, 1991, it not only meant the revival of the Ukrainian state—it was the decisive event in the collapse of the totalitarian soviet empire
Predecessor of the president. Once the process of legitimizing Ukrainian SSR's sovereignty was launched, Volodymyr Ivashko, the 11th First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine (1989-1990), was promoted in Moscow and transfered his duties to Leonid Kravchuk
Ukraine did not gain independence like a bolt from heaven because of Moscow’s failed putsch in August 1991, a hypothesis that is not only based on a narrow-minded ignorance of history, but one that is also the ideological meme used to impose Russian imperial stereotypes on Ukrainians. In 1991, the USSR gave the appearance of a mighty monolith. The myth of its monolithic might was supported by deliberate propaganda and cultivated in the soviet educational system from kindergarten to graduate school.
In reality, the system built by the bolsheviks in the early 20th century had already exhausted its resources. The way the totalitarian communist empire had been built, with a monopoly of power resting in the Communist Party, flew in the face of the laws of the universe and of social organization, whose underlying principle is diversity. The strategic goals of the communist government were utopian and unnatural, while the ways in which it tried to reach them, illegitimate and inhumane. By 1985, soviet leadership headed by Mikhail Gorbachev began an attempt to overcome their systemic crisis through perestroika or rebuilding, but these efforts were doomed because they were based on the idea of preserving a system that was neither viable nor sustainable.
A parade of sovereignties
From November 1988 through December 1990, most of the soviet republics passed declarations of sovereignty, which included making republican laws supersede soviet ones. The first to do so was the Estonian SSR, whose legislature passed a Declaration of Sovereignty on November 16, 1988. It was soon followed by the Lithuanian SSR on April 18, 1989 and the Latvian SSR on July 28, 1989. These documents stated, among others, that the future status of the republic within the USSR would be established on a contractual basis. On September 23, 1989, the legislature of the Azerbaijani SSR passed a Constitutional Bill “On the sovereignty of the Azerbaijani SSR,” which declared the republic a “sovereign socialist state within the USSR” whose territory was governed by its own and soviet laws, provided that the latter did not violate the sovereign rights of the Azerbaijani SSR.
At the beginning of 1990, all three Baltic countries announced that they were leaving the USSR altogether. On February 2, the Estonian legislature passed the Declaration of State Independence of Estonia, while on February 23, the Estonian SSR issued a Resolution “On preparing for the independence of Estonia,” which proposed “starting official negotiations between the USSR and the Estonian SSR regarding the renewal of the independence of the Estonian Republic based on acknowledging the validity of the Treaty of Tartu signed between Estonia and the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic on February 2, 1920.
Meanwhile, on February 15, 1990, the legislature of the Latvian SSR issued its Declaration of State Independence of Latvia, which included “the need to take steps to transform the Latvian SSR into a free and independent Latvian state.” On May 4, it issued the Declaration of the renewal of the independence of the Latvian Republic. The country’s highest lawmaking body declared the July 21, 1940 Declaration “On the entry of Latvia into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” invalid and restored the Constitution of the Latvian Republic, which had been set by a Constituent Assembly on February 15, 1922, across the entire territory of Latvia.
On March 11, the Lithuanian legislature followed suit and issued an Act on the renewal of the independence of the Lithuanian state and declared the Constitution of the USSR null and void across the entire territory of Lithuania.
The Baltic republics also supported Georgia, which issued a Resolution “On the guarantee of Georgia’s state sovereignty” on March 9, 1990. This stated its intentions of eliminating violations of the May 7, 1920 treaty between Georgia and Soviet Russia and restoring Georgia’s rights as a nation. It also proposed starting negotiations to restore Georgia as an independent state.
On Moscow Time. Ukraine was the Great White Hope of the new Commonwealth Agreement
(Leonid Kravchuk, the first President of the independent Ukraine, and Mikhail Gorbachev)
The situation in the Ukrainian SSR evolved somewhat more slowly. Because of its significance within the soviet empire, the nationally self-aware elite was systematically destroyed over the course of decades while the local segment of the communist system was built up especially strongly. The Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) leadership led by Volodymyr Shcherbytskiy tried to counter any political initiatives among the citizenry and prevented the formation of any civic organizations that were not under the control of the CPU. Moreover, it resisted democratization and continued to promote the preservation of the USSR.
Nevertheless, national democratic forces began to emerge in Ukraine, the most active of whom concentrated themselves around various cultural associations. The earliest of these were societies established in the capital: the Ukrainian Culture Club (1987), the Heritage Ukrainian Discovery Club (1987), the Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society (1988), and the National Union to Foster Perestroika (1988). The Lion’s Society was established in Lviv. Similar societies, communities and associations began to emerge widely and encompassed all of the country’s major cities. Their activities were largely aimed against the russification policies of the communist regime, which had reached dangerous proportions in the 1970s and 1980s, threatening the very existence of the Ukrainian nation.
As the number and activity of these civil organizations grew in Ukraine, the question arose of how to coordinate their activities and establish a single mass-scale civil organization at the national level. This became Narodniy Rukh Ukrainy, the National Movement of Ukraine for perestroika, which was organized formally in September 1989 at a constituent convention in Kyiv. Initially, the Rukh platform did not directly and unequivocally include demands that Ukraine leave the USSR, but stressed that “national state development in the republic needs to be carried out with the purpose of confirming the state sovereignty of the Ukrainian SSR,” and that constitutional reform “should lead to the USSR becoming a Federated Union of truly sovereign states based on the full and equal status of each of its members.”
Broad public support for Rukh was the decisive factor in the success of national democratic forces during the election to the Verkhovna Rada on March 4, 1990. In the run-up to the election, Rukh and those organizations whose spirit matched it formed a Democratic Bloc. It saw 111 of the candidates on its electoral lists seated in the 442-seat 12th convocation of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR. This was a remarkable success in what was effectively a one-party system—the provision in the USSR Constitution that confirmed the leading role of the Communist Party was only dropped after this election—and the CPU’s monopoly on the news and information industry. On July 16, 1990, the newly-elected Rada issued a Declaration of the State Sovereignty of Ukraine.
Needless to say, Moscow did not just stand idly as the center of the USSR while this parade of sovereignties marched by.
The CIS Agreement: new marriage or overdue divorce?
Over the course of April and May 1990, USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a slew of laws passed by the Supreme Council of the USSR that were intended to preserve the Union: “On the procedure for deciding matters related to the departure of republics from the USSR” of April 3; “On the basis of economic relations between the Soviet Union, and union and autonomous republics” of April 10; “On establishing powers between the Soviet Union and federated subjects” of April 26; “On the free national development of citizens of the USSR who reside outside their national states or do not have such states on the territory of the USSR” of April 26; and “On USSR citizenship” of May 23. In addition, the Kremlin was busy promoting a draft of a new Union Agreement as an instrument for preserving the USSR and preventing its disintegration by reforming the soviet system. When Ukraine adopted its Declaration of Sovereignty, work on this Agreement went into high gear. On July 20, it became the main item on the agenda at a joint session of the Presidential Council and the Council of the Federated USSR chaired by Gorbachev.
The idea of a Union Treaty as an instrument for regulating the status of the republics was first raised in the declarations and resolutions issued by the legislatures of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia, whose March 9 declaration was expanded on June 20, 1990. It was clear that all these documents saw a contractual definition of the status of the republics within the USSR as a temporary measure in order to leave the Union in a civilized, peaceful manner, not as a model for rejuvenating it.
A conceptually different model was applied in the Russian SFSR’s Declaration of State Sovereignty, which announced the “decisive establishment of a lawful state as part of the renewed USSR” and the association of Russia with the other republics “based on an agreement.”
It was this Russian model that the soviet leadership also adopted as an instrument for resolving the problems of the USSR’s national polity. On June 12, 1990, the Kremlin held a meeting of the Council of the USSR Federation chaired by Gorbachev and joined by the heads of parliament of all of the soviet republics. The decision was made to set up a working group consisting of representatives of each of the republics to draft and sign a new Union treaty. Ukraine’s representative was Volodymyr Ivashko, the then-head of the republic’s legislature.
That same day, 35 minutes before the working group was scheduled to meet, Russia passed its Declaration of State Sovereignty. Most likely this step was agreed with Mikhail Gorbachev in order to influence the stances of those republics that had not yet passed their declarations, especially Ukraine. In any case, it was no mere coincidence that the basic approach to the Union Treaty of Russia’s leadership and that of the Soviet Union were the same—rather, it reflected their imperial mentality.
According to Ivashko, Borys Yeltsin declared immediately that they had to start with an inter-republic agreement involving “no preliminary economic or political conditions whatsoever,” not with the new Union Treaty. However, official reports from TASS stated that at the Federation Council meeting, the discussion was about “the need to immediately draft and sign a Union Treaty.” This reflected less a difference of principles between Gorbachev and Yeltsin in their views of the function of the Union Treaty, than a difference in their views of how and by what means to preserve the USSR.
When he reported back to the Verkhovna Rada about the working group’s meeting, Ivashko recommended passing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Ukrainian SSR as quickly as possible, as it would give Ukraine’s representatives at the negotiations a mandate to draft a new Union Treaty and establish a new federation.
To prepare proposals regarding the Union Treaty, working groups were drawn up in each of the individual republics and in the Supreme Council of the USSR. The working group of the Ukrainian SSR included Volodymyr Hryniov, the deputy head of the Rada, Vitold Fokin, deputy chair of the Council of Ministers, and several experts: Volodymyr Vasylenko, the main academic consultant of the advisory group of the legal department of the VR secretariat; Serhiy Dorohuntsov, chair of the Ukrainian SSR Industrial Forces Study Council under the Academy of Sciences; and MP Mykola Shulha, chair of the VR State Commission for State Sovereignty and Interrepublic and International Relations.
The first version of the Union treaty was sent out to the union republics by President Gorbachev in November 1990. Published November 24, however, it had been drafted by the Union’s central bodies without involving the republics. Moreover, the model of Union that it proposed cardinally conflicted with the Declaration of Ukraine’s state sovereignty: the Union was unambiguously defined as a “sovereign federated state” and was bestowed with very broad powers, making the sovereignty of the republics a legal fiction.
In order to get this draft approved and effectively preserve the USSR, the Union’s leadership decided to hold a nationwide referendum to approve the new Union Treaty. Scheduled for March 17, 1991, the question regarding the future of the USSR was formulated thus: “Do you think its necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics in which human rights and freedoms are fully guaranteed to any nationality?” The question was clearly improperly formulated from a sociological point of view, including its PR-ish wording and the fact that it actually addressed at least three different issues, as well as from a legal one, as its subject did not correspond to what was permissible for referenda in the legislation of the time, including Art. 4 of the USSR Law “On nationwide voting” dated December 27, 1990. This testified to the Kremlin’s determination to get its way politically and preserve the USSR, even if it used questionable methods.
But a few days prior to the referendum, on March 12 and 13, all the union and republic papers published, not the first version of the Union Treaty issued back on November 24, 1990, but a second version. Although it was differently named—Treaty on the Union of Sovereign Republics—, it was essentially the same conceptual modal as the first, in which the Soviet Union was defined as a “sovereign, federal democratic state” and its member republics were deprived of the most essential sovereign powers. The text of this second treaty had also been drafted by the Kremlin without the participation of the republics. The soviet leadership was counting on an affirmative response to the referendum question to legitimize it as the voice of the people in support of the published draft Union Treaty.
Over January, February and March 1991, all the Communist Party’s affiliates and its entire propaganda machine worked overtime to promote Gorbachev’s version of the Union Treaty, slandering nationalist separatists and scaremongering among ordinary citizens about the catastrophic consequences of a possible collapse of the USSR. In January, there was even a show of police force being used against civilians when special forces units of the soviet Interior Ministry were thrown at participants in the national liberation movement in Lithuania.
Ukraine and the preservation of the USSR
In this situation, the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, having overcome resistance from imperialist communist elements, passed a Resolution “On confirming a referendum in the Ukrainian SSR for March 17, 1991” on February 27. Along with the all-union referendum, the document called for surveying the population of the Ukrainian SSR as to their thoughts about the nature of a future Union. For this purpose, a second question was added to the ballot: “Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of a Union of Soviet Sovereign States based on the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine?”
A total of 37,732,178 citizens of the Ukrainian SSR were on the voting lists in Ukraine. Of these 31,514,244 voted on the first question, 83.52%, with 22,110,889 or 70.16% approving and 8,810,089 or 27.99% disapproving. On the second, republic-related question, 31,465,091 or 83.48% voted, with 24,224,687 or 80.17% voting yes and 5,656,701 or 17.97% voting no.
With this kind of result in hand, the Ukrainian leadership agreed to participate in drafting a new Union Treaty. The formal drafting process began on April 23, 1991, at Novo-Ogarovo, the suburban Moscow residence of the soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR never approved the members of the Ukrainian delegation nor established the formal authority of the Ukrainian representatives who participated in the Novo-Ogarovo process. Responsibility for negotiations in the Preparatory Committee was taken on by Leonid Kravchuk, who was the then-head of the Verkhovna Rada. He also designated Mykola Shulha to represent Ukraine in the working group.
On June 18, Leonid Kravchuk addressed the morning session of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR with an announcement that he did not have the final document in hand and that agreement had not been reached on a large number of key positions and the formulation of the draft. That same day, in an interview with the All-Union Broadcasting Company, he announced that, of the 23 articles in the treaty, the representatives of the republics had agreed about 19, but that the four remaining points were the most fundamental. Despite this, the text of the Novo-Ogarovo draft Union Treaty was distributed to the Ukrainian MPs under the name “Treaty on a Union of Sovereign States” with a covering letter from Gorbachev and published in the Union press on June 28 and in the republican press on June 29. There was no mention of the provisions that had not been agreed yet. Moreover, the published draft contained, not 23 provisions, as Kravchuk had stated, but 26.
The more the Kremlin tried to force events its way, the greater the tension during the negotiations, which finally went into a dead end.
The State Committee for Emergencies
With negotiations going nowhere, a group of the most conservative officials from soviet special forces, the Communist Party, and soviet and military bureaucracies, hoped to save the USSR from collapse by staging a putsch on August 19, 1991, declaring a state of emergency and bringing the army into Moscow.
When the State Committee for Emergencies, as it called itself, declared a state of emergency, different political forces in Ukraine reacted variously. The CPU leadership, headed by Stanislav Hurenko, demanded that Party organizations support the SCE, follow its orders and ensure that they were followed locally. On August 19, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPU Hurenko called a meeting with Kravchuk and Army General Valentin Varennikov, who arrived in Kyiv on orders from the putschists to ensure the loyalty of the Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers.
At this point, the CPU leadership completely discredited itself as an anti-democratic and anti-Ukrainian force. By contrast, popular support for national democratic forces grew enormously. At an extraordinary session on August 24, 1991, the Verkhovna Rada passed an Act declaring the independence of Ukraine, with 346 votes in favor among the 442 deputies.
Nevertheless, the declaration of independence was anything but an accidental event driven by the putsch in Moscow. In fact, the putsch did not lead to independence; rather it was a response to Ukraine’s refusal to participate in the renewal of the USSR or to reject its path to rebuilding a Ukrainian state. The defeat of the putschists only speeded up the formal announcement—in fact, the renewal of, in strictly historical terms—of Ukraine as an independent state.
In 1991, the renewal of an independent Ukrainian state took place in a completely peaceful manner. Still, this in no way diminishes the legality and legitimacy of this historic event. As it moved towards independence, Ukraine played a decisive role in the disintegration of the USSR and the ultimate dismantling of the totalitarian communist system.
The Russo-Ukrainian War
However we might feel about the elements of Ukraine’s soviet period—especially formal attributes such as its government structure and administration, its right to directly participate in international relations, especially in the UN, its right to freely leave the USSR—, it is important to keep in mind that this was not the result of mutual good will but of concessions forced by the totalitarian communist system on the Ukrainian liberation movement, whose most prominent proponents in recent history were the Armed Forces of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist’s military arm, the UPA.
The soviet system of government contained elements that were devised to neutralize any liberationist potential in the Ukrainian nation. However, during this new phase of the struggle and the decline of the totalitarian communist system, they worked to establish an independent Ukrainian state and they were used as an instrument for restoring the Ukrainian state and getting the country recognized at the international level as a fully legitimate subject of international law.
However, Russian policy towards Ukraine did not undergo any fundamental changes after Ukraine restored independence. The ruling Russian elite has ignored international law, a major Ukrainian-Russian political agreement, and any number of other treaties and memoranda, and has continued to treat Ukraine as a part of Russia and to dream of an imperial comeback and the restoration of “One Great Russia” through the absorption of Ukraine.
The liberation struggles of 1917–1920, the rural resistance of the 1920s and 1930s, the armed struggle of OUN-UPA in the 1940s and 1950s, the restoration of independence in 1991, the European and Euro-Atlantic orientation of Ukraine, and—most importantly—the explosion of Ukrainian national spirit have convinced Russia’s political leadership, its pundits and analysts of the impossibility of dreams of an imperial comeback—as long as there is a Ukrainian Ukraine, a Ukrainian nation and a Ukrainian idea. For this reason, the Russian establishment has formulated its current strategy towards Ukraine as: “What we need is not a pro-Russian Ukraine but a Russian Ukraine.” Under the current circumstances, the main instrument for creating a “Ukraine without Ukrainians” is not war or genocide to destroy the nation as in the past, just in the past—but primarily humanitarian aggression.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, the restoration of an independent state may have been had the basic ideological political and legal conditions for a Ukrainian national rebirth, but it was not accompanied by a consistent Ukrainian-centric state social policies in general, especially as relates to language and culture.
By contrast, Russia has been paying great attention precisely to this dimension in both its domestic and its foreign policies. And under cover of these policies, it has been carrying out its aggression against Ukraine in three main areas: (1) inspiring and supporting a mass scale information and propaganda war; (2) engaging in a linguistic and cultural war; and (3) carrying out a historiosophical war, that is, speculating on historical events. The Kremlin’s strategic goal is to destroy the identity of the Ukrainian nation, which is the backbone of the Ukrainian national state. This means destroying the independent Ukrainian state once and for all, which is supposed to provide a “final solution to the Ukrainian question” to satisfy Russian imperial ambitions.
However, Russia’s humanitarian aggression poses a treat to all citizens of Ukraine, regardless of their ethnicity, social rank or material status. The illegal annexation of Crimea has proved that if a crime is carried out against the Ukrainian nation and the independent Ukrainian state is eliminated, Ukrainians will be forced to become citizens of another nation and forget about democracy, dignity, human rights and basic freedoms.
Today, the world is witness to a paradoxical and shameful situation, where under cover of a covert military operation, Russia’s leadership is using officials in the Ukrainian government to carry out its humanitarian invasion. Personal responsibility for maintaining a Ukrainian-centric path in state policy lies with the President of Ukraine as the guarantor of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, the upholding of the Constitution of Ukraine, human rights and freedoms. The Premier and Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, as the heads of the executive and legislative branches of power in the country also bear personal responsibility.
Most of all, ordinary Ukrainians need to become aware of the essence and the specific consequences of Russia’s current humanitarian aggression in order to join forces to counter the threats to Ukraine as a sovereign state. Their level of awareness and initiative will determine what political course the country’s government maintains, how well it defends the statehood Ukraine regained in 1991, and, most of all, the prospect that it offers to ordinary Ukrainians.
Volodymyr Vasylenko is an expert in international law and academic. He was co-author of the first draft Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine and consultant to the Verkhovna Rada in the drafting of the final act. In 1992-1995, Mr. Vasylenko served as Ukraine's Ambassador to Benelux and representative to the EU and envoy to NATO
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