The Ukraine that existed last summer, was a space on the map whose boundaries were drawn by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. Not, perhaps, the people you'd pick to draw the boundaries of your country, but that's what happened. In this space lived people who certainly regarded themselves as “Ukrainians” but also people who regarded themselves as “Russians”, “Tatars”, “Greeks”, “Hungarians” and all the other nationalities recognised by the Soviet system. The Russian Empire of 1917 had possessed much but not all of the territory known as Last Summer's Ukraine. In particular, St Petersburg possessed most of central Ukraine as well as south and east Ukraine (a territory known as Novorossiya when the Empress Catherine conquered it from the Ottomans). The west was then part of the Austrian Empire. But, after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the First World War, it was taken by Poland. After the attack on Poland in 1939 Stalin incorporated it into the Ukrainian SSR. Some small territories were taken from Romania and added as well. Krushchev's addition of Crimea rounded out the territory the world recognised as independent Ukraine in December 1991.
In simple terms, the present effect of these completely different histories of the parts of Last Summer's Ukraine is that the south and east tend to look towards Russia while the west looks towards Europe and the centre has a certain ambivalence. And so, if you wanted to keep Last Summer's Ukraine together, there was a central prohibition, a “First Rule of Ukraine”: “do not attempt to force a choice between east and west” or, more plainly, “do not demand that one half of the country swallow what only the other half wants”. Violate that rule and the whole thing could tear apart. Ukraine could stay together so long as, for example, no government in Kiev tried to make Ukraine a formal military ally of Russia. Such an idea would be welcomed by many in the east and south but would be anathema in the west and, to a lesser degree, in the centre. In short, the only choice for a stable Ukraine would be neutrality, or, more grandly, to proclaim itself a bridge between Russia and NATO. Likewise an exclusive trade agreement with Russia would be welcome in the south and east but unacceptable in the west. So, again, the correct stance, the one that would preserve Ukraine, would be to advocate trade agreements with both. The “bridge” concept again. Everyone who knows anything about the realities of Ukraine knew this. I can't stress this enough: this sort of understanding would have been Lecture 1 of Ukraine 1011. So long as one half did not have the other half's preference shoved down its throat, the two halves could rub along together. But that is precisely what the West did. Twice. The West pushed the NATO option in the so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2005 and pushed an exclusive trade deal with the EU in 2013. If one wanted to tear Ukraine apart, two more explosive issues than military alliances and exclusive trade could not be found. When last Summer's Ukraine survived the first Western attempt to blow it up, the West tried again2, this time with trade.3