Domestic politics

The initially overwhelming public support for independence obscured a deep division in attitudes. Only in western Ukraine was independence valued for its own sake, as an ideal for which it was worth making sacrifices.

In Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and Crimea, most of those who voted for independence did so under the illusion that it would quickly bring prosperity. When it turned out that independence was instead followed by economic decline, they became increasingly hostile to the Ukrainian nationalists and the government in Kyiv. Their hostility was exacerbated by exaggerated fears that they would be forced to stop speaking Russian and use only Ukrainian.

In December 2012, the ruling eastern Ukraine-based Party of Regions government adopted a law reaffirming Ukrainian as the official language, but allowing local and regional governments to give official status to Russian and other languages spoken by at least 10 percent of their residents.

After Russia annexed Crimea, pro-Russian “volunteers” aided by special forces most likely deployed by the Kremlin seized the initiative in southeast Ukraine.  The resulting bloodshed and chaos served as a pretext for Russia to assert a right of Moscow to protect Russian speakers anywhere.   The transitional govern­­ment formed in February after months of street demonstrations and fighting was very weak and barely functional.  That helped Putin to depict Ukraine and President Yanukovych as victims of a fascist coup that was dominated ultra-right militias.  The Ukrainian military efforts to halt separatist activities and restore order in the south east were ineffectual and reflected the weakness of the transition government in Kiev despite the fact that ethnic Russians, unlike in Crimea, are not a majority.