KIEV, Ukraine—In the winter of 1994, President Bill Clinton arrived at Kiev's Boryspil airport to seal the deal with a reluctant President Leonid Kravchuk to hand over Ukraine’s inherited stock of Soviet nuclear warheads in exchange for security guarantees from the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia.
Sixteen months later, I arrived at the same dilapidated airfield as part of a group of 60 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. We were the fifth, and largest, group assigned to Ukraine since Peace Corps opened its program there in 1992, doubling the number of volunteers on the ground. Unbeknown to us, we were on the frontline of what became the U.S.’s “soft diplomacy” policy in post-Soviet Ukraine, an effort to pull the country out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s.
The nuke deal ushered in what Vice President Al Gore declared “the year of Ukraine.” As American fears of Soviet-era nukes falling into the wrong hands eased, U.S. policy in Ukraine was focused on democratic and economic reforms in the newly independent states. Ukraine was soon flooded with multimillion dollar “democracy building” projects funded by USAID and the State Department.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, many of these projects outside their control were an irritant—particularly to the future Russian President Vladimir Putin, who would interpret them as U.S. interference in Russia’s sphere of influence. Many years later, Putin would retaliate.
When we arrived as volunteer English teachers and small-business development specialists in 1995, Ukraine was struggling to define itself. The country of roughly 46 million people had been a major industrial powerhouse in the Soviet Union. When that crumbled, so did Ukraine’s economy. Unemployment hovered around 15 percent. Hyperinflation made everyone a multimillionaire in the temporary currency Ukraine had adopted—the Karbovanets, or “koupon”—but they were still too poor to buy anything but the basics.
The standard of living was depressing. I was assigned to teach in Kaniv, a central Ukrainian city of about 30,000 people. Electricity and water was rationed to a few hours a day. City bus routes would be suspended for weeks because of a lack of gas. Everyone wore their heavy coats in the classrooms during the winter, and many of my students did their homework by candlelight.
The level of corruption was unfathomable. My Ukrainian colleagues would go for months without receiving their $40 salaries because the Ministry of Education's funds would be siphoned off as they trickled down through the bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians weren't sure exactly what this new “independent” Ukraine was. In the early days after independence, Ukrainian nationalists in the government seized the moment to declare Ukrainian the national language. Russian-speaking regions grumbled, but then carried on. Ukrainians were a passive bunch, and people continued to be more concerned about how to put food on the table than what language their tax forms were in.
The state made half-hearted attempts to promote Ukrainian “culture,” which often seemed more like a recycled version of an old Soviet definition: embroidered blouses, painted eggs, and folksongs about loving “vareniki,” Ukraine’s version of the perogi.
“It was like they were forcing this pseudo culture on us, and it was just such a turn off,” my friend Tanya recently told me. “None of us really accepted that that was what it was to be Ukrainian.”
In 1995, Ukrainians may not have completely understood themselves as a nation, but they were all united with a common goal: survival. They were also united in blaming politicians, whom they saw as being more interested in lining their own pockets. Those politicians played up regional differences during elections, particularly after the Orange Revolution of 2004, and during the election of Moscow-favored Viktor Yanukovych. Much of the debate centered on whether Ukraine’s future lay within the European Union or with a Russia-dominated economic block. Anti-Western rhetoric was fueled by Russian media, which remained a popular medium for the country’s Russian-speaking population.
Meanwhile, Putin wasn’t taking any chances with another Western-oriented color revolution in his neighborhood. He started shutting down U.S.-funded programs almost immediately after he came to power. Peace Corps was kicked out for "spying" in 2003; USAID completely withdrew in 2012. At the same time, Russia began implementing its own form of soft power: Nongovernmental organizations pushing a pro-Russia agenda popped up across Ukraine, particularly in the east and in Crimea.
Ukraine has become a country I never could have imagined during my two years of Peace Corps service or the many years I've covered the region as a foreign correspondent. Whereas a year ago it was hard to get editors interested in articles about Ukraine, today most of my reports contain horrific stories about the more than 3,500 civilians killed in the fighting in the east. They all have datelines from small eastern villages most Ukrainians had never heard of before April.
In Kiev, they chant, “Death to the enemy!” while in the east they shout, “Stop fascism!” The deep divisions have torn apart families and friends.
I’ve fallen out with a family I called my own during my two years as a volunteer. Back then, they took me in, watched over me and taught me to speak Russian. The last time I saw them, conversations about the conflict became too tense. I got tired of trying to prove to them that the Russian propaganda was wrong. They stopped listening, and I stopped coming around to visit.
On the other hand, Ukrainian friends who never expressed much interest in their country are now motivated by a growing patriotism born out of what they consider to be Russia’s direct involvement in the eastern rebellion and the annexation of Crimea. Blue and yellow flags are everywhere, and it’s an odd day when you don’t hear the national anthem, “Ukraine Is Not Yet Dead,” at least once in Kiev.
But what kind of nation will this be if the rebel-controlled areas in the east become another frozen conflict, like South Ossetia in Georgia or Transnistria in Moldova? Many analysts say it’s headed in that direction, and that this was Putin’s goal all along—to destabilize Ukraine enough to prevent it from turning westward.
“I’ve seen so many weird things happen in Ukraine in the last year, that I believe any scenario is possible now,” my friend Dima told me a few weeks ago, over a beer in Donetsk. “But it will never be like it was before, that’s for sure.”