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First revolution, then war: Ukraine’s long fight for a European future

As Ukraine seeks to join the EU, an activist’s death symbolises his country’s struggle to leave Russia's orbit.

By Katie Stallard

The revolution started with a trade deal. When Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych announced in November 2013 that he was turning his back on an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, thousands of people protested in Kyiv, the capital. They marched into Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (from which the Maidan Revolution got its name), carrying Ukrainian and EU flags and chanting “Ukraine is Europe”.

Among them was Roman Ratushnyi, a slender 16-year-old with short brown hair who wanted to study law at university. Roman and his fellow protesters rallied peacefully, calling on Yanukovych to respect the wishes of the people and pursue the European future they had been promised. Instead, they were brutally beaten by riot police.

The violent attack on the young, peaceful protesters garnered widespread disgust and drew much larger crowds to the square. Where at first there had been thousands of people, soon there were tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands, with rallies taking place in other Ukrainian cities too. By mid-December the protesters had taken over several buildings and set up a protest camp on the Maidan, erecting enormous barricades at the entrances to keep the authorities out. They still wanted the EU association agreement to be signed, but they also now demanded the end of Yanukovych’s corrupt, authoritarian rule.

Reporting from Kyiv during that long winter of protest, I remember being struck by the number of people who were carrying EU flags, and the values they told me they associated with that circle of gold stars. For some, it was the rule of law and the prospect of access to fair courts, instead of a legal system that catered to the highest bidder. For others, particularly among the younger generation, it symbolised a future beyond the kleptocratic oligarchy that had long dominated the country, and the possibility of being able to study and work in the EU in the years to come.

These views were not shared across all of Ukraine, or even by everybody in the capital; the predominantly Russian-speaking regions in the East that relied on trade with Russia were particularly concerned about the consequences of jeopardising those ties (which is not to say they welcomed the invasion that followed). But the crowds who rallied on the Maidan in the snow and the bitter cold were convinced that they were fighting for a fairer, more democratic Ukraine, whose future was with the EU, not Russia.

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[See also: In Ukraine, Russian is now the “language of the enemy”]

The months of largely peaceful protest on the Maidan culminated in a day of terrible violence on 20 February 2014, when scores of protesters were killed (there is still some debate as to who fired the first shots). I saw interior ministry troops firing into crowds of unarmed people, so close that I could see the muzzles of their rifles flash. The bodies of the dead and dying were carried into the lobby of our hotel, which was transformed into a makeshift clinic, red crosses hastily painted on white sheets and hung above the doors. By nightfall, though, the protesters were still in control of the square. Within 48 hours Yanukovych had agreed to hand over some of his powers and form a new national unity government, before changing his mind and fleeing across the border to Russia.

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The protesters in the capital celebrated victory and the following month, on 21 March 2014, Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk signed the first part of the EU association agreement. But it was just the first phase of a much longer struggle for Ukraine’s future. That same month Russia annexed Crimea and started a war under the auspices of a separatist rebellion in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. While the conflict largely faded from Western headlines, more than 14,000 Ukrainians died during the fighting there over the next eight years. Antipathy towards Moscow and popular support for joining the EU, which had overtaken Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner in 2012, also increased. Whereas a 2011 poll found that 84 per cent of Ukrainians viewed Russia favourably, that figure had fallen to 32 per cent by 2019. That year the country amended its constitution to enshrine its commitment to joining Nato and the EU.

When Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, began his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Roman Ratushnyi, then 24, was again among the first to step up. Ratushnyi, who had spent the last eight years as an environmental campaigner and civic activist, went straight to the nearest recruitment centre in Kyiv and signed up to fight as a member of the volunteer territorial defence forces. He was deployed as part of an army reconnaissance unit in north-eastern Ukraine during the early months of the war, before being sent further east to the Donbas, where the heaviest fighting has been concentrated. He was killed on 9 June, near the eastern city of Izyum, one month before his 25th birthday.

Ratushnyi’s flag-draped coffin was carried back to the Maidan for a memorial service on 18 June. Hundreds of mourners turned out to pay their respects, including Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, who called him “a hero and a warrior” and promised that a street would be named after him in the capital. A more fitting tribute would be to realise the dream for which he first campaigned as a teenager, and later gave his life.

Volodomyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, submitted his country’s formal request for EU membership four days into the war, signing the letter on 28 February in his khaki military fatigues. He requested immediate accession, arguing that Ukrainian soldiers were not only fighting for their own country, but “for the whole of Europe”. In reality the process is likely to take years, but if Ukraine is given candidate status, as is widely expected, at an EU leaders’ summit on 23-24 June, it would at least mark a significant step towards the European future for which so many Ukrainians like Ratushnyi have fought and died.

[See also: Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?]

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