The conflict in Ukraine is an ongoing political situation between Ukraine, Russia and pro-Russian militias. Those who did not follow the conflict from the beginning are largely left in the dark by the mainstream media. Online journalists and bloggers aren’t much help either, and so far seem to be more interested in impressing everybody with their knowledge than actually explaining what’s going on. That’s where I hope to come in!
The origins of the crisis can be traced back all the way to 2004, when Ukraine was mired by corruption and its people were languishing under stagnant economic conditions. President Viktor Yanukovych hoped to remedy this situation by establishing closer ties with the EU, and they in turn offered him a stimulus package that would bring Ukraine politically and economically closer to the European Union. This stimulus package would end Ukraine’s economic stagnation, but would only be implemented if Yanukovych agreed to certain conditions, such as the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, whom the EU considered to be a political prisoner.
Yanukovych was willing to implement all of the economic reforms contained in the package, but refused to release Tymoshenko, and so he rejected the deal outright. Already an unpopular President after he failed to honour some of the 2004 constitution’s revolutionary terms, Yanukovych now faced enormous civil opposition from Ukrainians who not only blamed him for the economic conditions and the corruption, but also for turning down their chance of recovery. Thus began the Euromaidan protests, calling for Yanukovych’s resignation and the signing of the EU stimulus package.
Desperately needing to look productive, Yanukovych turned to Russia, which offered him a similar stimulus deal based around natural gas exports and a membership in the Eurasian Customs Union, thereby moving Ukraine away from the EU. The release of Tymoshenko was not a part of the deal, and so Yanukovych readily accepted. This led to an intensification of the ongoing protests, which were then met with police brutality and regional crackdowns. Once-peaceful demonstrations, now enduring censorship and force, turned violent as protesters took to the streets demanding that Yanukovych resign. This would culminate in a revolution that would see demonstrators temporarily occupy Kiev’s Independence Square.
Failing to quell the revolutionary violence through police brutality, Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia in February 2014, where he was received as Putin’s guest. The next day, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to strip Yanukovych from his post, and issued an arrest warrant on suspicion of killing protesting civilians. An interim government was also established by Parliament, with temporary President Oleksandr Turchynov signing the original EU trade agreement that Yanukovych turned down. Yulia Tymoshenko was also released from prison shortly thereafter.
Putin regarded Turchynov’s interim government as illegitimate, and accused the EU and U.S. of instigating a coup d’état in order to expand their political influence to Russia’s door. Putin called for the reinstatement of Yanukovych as President, but his request was denied. Soon after, massive ultranationalist and pro-Russian separatist demonstrations break out all over Southern and Eastern Ukraine, in places such as Crimea and the Donbass region. These demonstrations soon mobilize into pro-Russian separatist forces, ousting the regional government of Crimea and installing their own government which agreed with Putin’s assessment of the situation.
After Ukraine lost control of Crimea, exiled Yanukovych quietly requested that Putin send in Russian troops to “restore law and order”, while in public he tells press it would be wrong for Russia to intervene. Putin, recognizing Yanukovych as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, agrees and begins mobilizing troops to the Ukrainian-Russian border and to Crimea. He publicly states that his troops are only there to defend Ukraine’s high population of ethnic Russians, although there are accusations that his forces were covertly sending weapons and personnel into the Donbass region (which shares a border with Russia) as early as February 2014.
As Putin officially moves his troops to Ukraine, the separatist government of Crimea puts forward a referendum, asking whether to incorporate Crimea into Russia, or whether to ratify a long-standing agreement that would keep Crimea as part of Ukraine but with a lot of autonomy and separate power. 96% vote to join Russia, but the referendum is declared illegitimate for wildly exaggerated turnout figures and accusations that pro-Russian militias intimidated journalists and activists who wanted a fairer question. The referendum is also criticized for being one-sided, i.e. the only possible outcomes were great autonomy for Crimea, or total absorption into Russia. There is no option to rejoin Ukraine completely.
(One of Putin’s claimed motivations for sending troops to Crimea)
On March 18th 2014, Crimea and Russia sign a treaty which officially begins the process of incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation. A day later, Ukrainian Armed Forces are ejected from their Crimean bases and the Ukrainian government relinquishes control of the peninsula, although this is not the end of the fighting. Pro-Russian separatist militias and Ukrainian forces continued to fight in the Donbass region, and when Petro Poroshenko is elected as President in May 2014, he immediately calls for Russia to stop propping up the Crimean separatists and allow Ukrainian forces to regain control. Putin refuses.
On July 17th, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Shortly after, leader of the Donbass separatists Ignor Girkin claims responsibility for shooting down a military aircraft, but once it was revealed to be a civilian aircraft, he backtracks and the separatists deny shooting it down. The plane is believed to have been shot down by a missile launched from territory held by pro-Russian separatists, but Russia blames Ukraine for the plane’s destruction.
On August 14th, British journalists claim to have evidence that Russia is sending military aid to separatists in the Donetsk area, which separatists call the independent Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), leading Western governments begin to accuse Russia of aggressive expansionism and of destabilizing eastern Ukraine, while Russia maintains that the EU and the U.S. deliberately destabilized Ukraine for their own profit. DPR Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko claims to have been supplied with tanks, APCs, and troops shortly thereafter, further adding to the speculation.
The fighting continues today with Russia providing a steady flow of aid into Eastern Ukraine, and Petro Poroshenko beginning plans to retake Crimea, formulate his peace plan, and begin seeking EU membership. Back home, Putin faces economic sanctions and a falling currency value due to almost unanimous EU condemnation of his actions, while accusations surface that Poroshenko has deliberately targeted civilian areas in Donbass, which constitutes a war crime.