On February 8, Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician currently in exile in Russia and a personal friend of President Vladimir Putin, claimed in an op-ed published by Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that Ukraine’s “pro-American” course had made it the poorest country in Europe:
“For 30 years, Russia has gradually turned from an exemplary student of Washington into its antagonist. But can this be explained by madness, when, by refusing the advice and guardianship of the United States, the country becomes stronger, richer and more influential? Ukraine, on the contrary, remained the most faithful to the pro-American course, which eventually made it the poorest country in Europe.”
That is misleading. For more than 30 years, Ukraine’s society and political elite have been ideologically split into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps. Contrary to Medvedchuk’s claim, the three most pro-Western former Soviet republics - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - have fared far better economically than Russia.
Independent Ukraine - between the West and Russia
Ukraine became independent 31 years ago - on December 1, 1991. Under Ukraine’s form of government, the president is elected by popular vote, has significant powers and determines the country's foreign policy.
Two of Ukraine’s presidents, Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994) and Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005), balanced between the United States and the European Union, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, by forging economic and political alliances with both the West and the East.
One Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014), was strictly pro-Russian. In November 2013, he refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which led to Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests (the Maidan revolution).
Since Ukraine became independent, Russia has been its key economic partner. In 2013, a year before the attempted annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, Russia accounted for 30.2% of Ukraine’s imports and 23.8% of its exports. Russia ceased to be Ukraine’s main trading partner only in 2019.
The most important indicator that Ukrainian society was not pro-American until recently is its attitude toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In May 2002, then President Leonid Kuchma announced Ukraine's intention to join NATO. In polling conducted among Ukrainians that June, 32% supported membership, almost the same number opposed it (32.2%) and 35.8% found it difficult to say one way or the other.
Over the next 11 years, the percentage of poll respondents supporting Ukraine's accession to NATO ranged from 15.4% to 26.7%. The percentage of those opposing NATO membership exceeded 50% starting in 2005 and reached 67% by 2013. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of Moscow-orchestrated hostilities in the Donbas, support for NATO membership grew but remained below 50%. In 2014-2021, 34% to 48% of Ukrainians favored joining NATO.
It was only after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that a strong majority of Ukrainians began to support joining NATO. In January 2023, support for Ukraine's membership in the organization reached 86%.
Ukraine became Europe’s poorest country in 2014-2015, when it lost control over 7.2% of its territory due to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, and its gross domestic product (GDP) was nearly halved.
Before that, in 2013, according to the World Bank, Ukraine’s per capita GDP was higher than that of three European countries - Moldova, Kosovo and Armenia.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s economic situation further deteriorated as a result of the hostilities and the loss of territory. As of March 2022, Russia controlled 24.4% of Ukraine’s territory. By the end of 2022, after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, Moscow held 16.55% of Ukraine’s territory.
Prosperity in the most pro-American former republics of the USSR
Medvedchuk's assertion that following a pro-American course has made former Soviet republics poorer is false. The economic performance of the most pro-American of the former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which joined NATO in 2004, has been much better than Russia's.
For example, the average annual salary for workers in Russia in 2021 was €8,276 ($7,001, according to the average 2021 exchange rate), €18,707 ($15,826) in Latvia, €21,481 ($18,173) in Estonia and €21,741 ($18,393) in Lithuania.
According to International Monetary Fund, Russia’s per capita GDP in 2022 was $14,665, while Latvia’s was $21,482, Lithuania’s was $24,032 and Estonia’s was $29,344 (two times higher than in Russia).