A US-Backed, Far Right–Led Revolution in Ukraine Helped Bring us to War
In 2014 Ukraine, great power gamesmanship, righteous anger at a corrupt status quo, and opportunistic far-right extremists toppled the government in the Maidan Revolution. Today’s crisis in Ukraine can’t be understood without understanding Maidan.
A defiant crowd of protesters, a jumble of bodies where far-right extremists rub shoulders with everyday people, wants the head of the elected president. They chant anti-government slogans, occupy government buildings, and carry arms — some of them makeshift melee weapons, some of them hunting rifles and Kalashnikovs. By the time it’s all said and done, the demonstrations will lead to the death and hospitalization of both protesters and police.
This was the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution (or Euromaidan), which right around this time eight years ago actually succeeded in toppling the country’s elected government, sending then president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing for his life to neighboring Russia. Nearly a decade on, the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, as it’s known in Ukraine, remains one of the more widely misunderstood episodes of recent history. Yet understanding it is critical to understanding the ongoing standoff over Ukraine, which can largely be traced back to this polarizing event — depending on who you ask, an inspiring liberal revolution or a far-right coup d’état.
Like today’s Russia-NATO tensions more broadly, at the heart of the Maidan protests was the push by some Western governments, especially the United States, to isolate Russia by supporting the integration of peripheral parts of the former Soviet Union into European and Atlantic institutions — and Moscow’s pushback against what it saw as an encroachment on its sphere of influence.
In 2014, the man forced to navigate these tensions, Viktor Yanukovych, was taking his second crack at the Ukrainian presidency. He had first been ousted after the 2004 Orange Revolution that followed widespread charges of vote-rigging in the election that brought him to power. Before running again six years later, Yanukovych had worked to rebuild his reputation, becoming the country’s most trusted politician. By 2010, international monitors had declared the most recent election free and fair, an “impressive display” of democracy, even. But once in power, Yanukovych’s rule was again marred by widespread corruption, authoritarianism, and, for some, an uncomfortable friendliness to Moscow, which had made no secret of its backing him in the previous election. The fact that Ukraine was starkly divided between a more Europe-friendly West and Center and a more pro-Russia East — the same lines that largely determined the election — only added to the complication.
Yanukovych was in a tricky spot. Ukraine relied on cheap gas from Russia, but a plurality of the country — not, crucially, an absolute majority — still wanted European integration. His political career was caught in the same bind: with his party formally allied to Vladimir Putin’s own United Russia party, his pro-Russia base wanted to see closer relations with its neighbor; but the oligarchs who were the real reason he had gotten anywhere near the presidency were financially entangled with the West, and they feared competition to their grip on the country from across the Russian border. All the while, two geopolitical powers in the form of Washington and Moscow hoped to use these cleavages to draw the country into their respective orbits.
His biggest sop to Moscow, though, came early in his term, when he struck a deal letting the Russian Black Sea Fleet use Crimea as a base until 2042, in exchange for discounted Russian gas. Its hurried passage was marked by fistfights and smoke bombs in the Ukrainian parliament.
It was all this that led the liberal Brookings Institution to describe Yanukovych’s foreign policy as “more nuanced” than his pro-Russian leanings had first suggested. It was also what wound up sealing his fate. To halt this drift to the West, Putin performed a one-man good-cop, bad-cop routine, offering Yanukovych a no-strings-attached loan the same size as the IMF’s, while squeezing him with what amounted to a mini–trade blockade. With the EU failing to offer anything that would match the catastrophic loss of trade with Russia that Ukraine was looking at, Yanukovych made the calculated choice to go with Moscow’s offer. In November, he abruptly reneged on the EU deal, sparking the protests that would topple him from power.
Little to nothing has changed about Ukrainian corruption or authoritarianism, under either Poroshenko or current president Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2019 as an outsider change agent. Each has governed like an autocrat, using their powers to go after political opponents and weaken dissent, and have been embroiled in personal enrichment scandals that remain endemic to the Ukrainian political class. Not that it stopped either from being feted by Washington and flooded with American support. In fact, this new imperial patron has only added to these problems, with the current US president’s family being personally embroiled in one of the country’s major corruption scandals, before using his position to install a markedly corrupt prosecutor general. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s been embroiled in a mini–civil war since Maidan. After Putin moved to secure the Crimean naval base from NATO control, using the Russian military presence and a dubious referendum to illegally annex the majority-Russian region shortly after Yanukovych’s exit, pro-Russian separatists began mobilizing in the country’s east, first into protest, then into armed groups. After the interim government sent armed forces to put down the rebellion, Moscow sent its own troops in, and the entire region has been a deadly powder keg ever since.
But one crucial thing did change. With Yanukovych out, the interim government and Washington’s handpicked prime minister signed the EU deal whose rejection had started it all, solidifying Ukraine’s move to the West, and ushering in the brutal austerity measures demanded by the IMF. Over the years, Yanukovych’s successor signed off on a round of privatization, raised the pension age, and slashed gas subsidies, urged on by then vice president Joe Biden. Unsurprisingly, angry Ukrainians both voted with their feet and threw him out in a landslide.