How Ukraine’s fate was decided in a hunting lodge

The deal with Russia whereby Ukraine became independent in 1991 included a pledge to respect existing borders

Soldiers without identifying insignia guard the Crimean parliament building next to a sign that reads ’Crimea Russia’ after taking up positions in Simferopol, Ukraine. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Soldiers without identifying insignia guard the Crimean parliament building next to a sign that reads ’Crimea Russia’ after taking up positions in Simferopol, Ukraine. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images


As the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, its republics elected their own governments and began voting for independence.

The Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, could not believe, however, that Ukraine would separate from Russia.

Most Russians felt they were of the same stock as Ukrainians – Slavs descended from the once united Rus people.

Classic Russian writers like Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov placed their tales in Ukraine. Gogol and Shevchenko were born there. So too was Brezhnev.

Gorbachev and his wife Raisa both had Ukrainian blood. To them Ukraine was to Russia what Bavaria was to Germany. It had been part of greater Russia since the “Eternal Peace” three centuries earlier, when Kiev and the Cossack lands east of the Dnieper went over to Russian rule.

‘Normal, sane people’
Gorbachev made a televised appeal to the “normal, sane people” of Ukraine to hear him, not just with their heads but with their hearts.

He was genuinely shocked when 90 per cent of Ukrainians voted for independence on December 1st, 1991.

The Russian government under Boris Yeltsin, who was determined to break up the Soviet Union, immediately recognised Ukraine as an independent country.

US president George HW Bush also acknowledged Ukrainian independence, causing Gorbachev to moan “how could Bush do this!”

On December 2 nd,Yeltsin discussed the vote with Gorbachev, who had been desperately trying to cobble together a new union.

“Nothing will come out of the union now, Ukraine is independent,” gloated Yeltsin, who had been drinking.

“And you, what about Russia?” asked Gorbachev.

“So what!” retorted Yeltsin, “We can live without Ukraine.”

New union treaty
However on December 6th, the Russian president told Gorbachev he was going to Belarus next day to meet Belarus leader Stanislau Shushkevich and Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk and would make every effort to convince the Ukrainians to sign the new union treaty that Gorbachev wanted.

“If not,” he added ominously, “we’ll have to consider other options.”

On December 7th, 1991, Yeltsin and Shushkevich arrived at a shooting lodge in Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest. Waiting for them was Kravchuk, a former communist who had reinvented himself as a democrat and nationalist.

Kravchuk feared Yeltsin would threaten him and argue for a union, which could result in a “Yugoslavia-type script”. He told Yeltsin he would not agree to a new union.

Yeltsin didn’t threaten him. Instead he asked officials to find a formula that would meet their aspirations. The Ukrainian leader recalled that, as the officials worked through the night, the three principals chatted, joked and laughed. Kravchuk took pleasure in disclosing that even Ukrainian districts with large Russian populations had voted for independence.

“What? Even the Donbass voted yes?” exclaimed Yeltsin.

Russia’s legal counsel Sergey Shakhrai came up with the formula that met their requirements. A Cossack lawyer with a curling moustache, he argued that as the USSR was founded on the basis of a 1922 treaty signed by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (and the Transcaucasian Federation that had ceased to exist), so the three surviving states could legally dismantle it.

At 4pm, on Sunday, December 8th, the Slav leaders signed the Agreement on the Creation of a Commonwealth of Independent States.

It stated: “We, the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation (RSFSR), and Ukraine, as originators of the USSR on the basis of the Union Treaty of 1922, confirm that the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, ceases its existence.”

The new commonwealth would have no flag, no ministry of foreign affairs, no parliament, no citizenship, no tax-raising powers and no president.

After seven decades the USSR was finished in all but name, and its 293 million people destined to be separated among 15 independent republics.

Yeltsin would later say that there among the pine trees his thoughts went back to the Soviet military actions in Tbilisi, Baku and Vilnius, and he was determined not to wait calmly for a new tragedy “with our paws folded back like timid rabbits”.

The three men at the hunting lodge were worried about a military response by hard-line Soviet forces. They wanted international ratification. Yeltsin called Bush from the lodge’s telephone. Addressing him as “dear George,” he told Bush about the agreement and assured him that it recognised the five principles that the US required for recognition of future independent states: peaceful self-determination, respect for existing borders, respect for democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights, and respect for international law.

Intense dislike
Gorbachev was furious. He summoned all three participants to the Kremlin. The Ukrainian president laughed at the idea. Kravchuk had taken an intense dislike to Gorbachev. He returned to Kiev instead, fearful “that violent methods would be used against Ukraine” by elements of the Soviet armed forces.

The Soviet leader accused Yeltsin of “some kind of a political coup… meeting in the woods and shutting down the Soviet Union”. He berated Yeltsin, saying that it meant “Ukraine will have its own army of 470,000, which is 100,000 more than united Germany!”

He forecast that there would be laws on citizenship that discriminated against Russians, just as in the Baltics. “That’s what democrats do! They say ‘Russians get out’.”

Yeltsin snapped: “Why are you interrogating me? A way had to be found out of the dead end, and we found it!”

Two weeks later the Soviet Union collapsed and all 15 republics became independent.

Conor O’Clery is a former Moscow correspondent of The Irish Times . The above is extracted from his book, Moscow, December 25, 1991, The Last Day of the Soviet Union ( Transworld, 2011).

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