Breakdown: The Crisis in Ukraine
This is a breakdown article, in which I try to make sense of a complicated political issue in a fairly easy to understand manner. The point is for everyone to be educated and knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world around them.
Right now I’m attempting to explain the crisis in Ukraine: what has happened so far, how we got there, and what we can expect. You could write a book on Ukraine and what’s led up to the current situation, so this is going to be a true breakdown: an overview article meant to give you a solid idea of what’s going on and link you to resources for further reading. I’ve pieced this together in the little free time I’ve had in the last several days - please forgive any typos or grammatical errors.
Read. Educate yourselves. Let’s get started.
Can you give me a brief background on Ukraine?
Sure. Ukraine is an Eastern European country that borders Russia to the east. It was part of the Soviet Union until its collapse, and since it has been an independent nation. It is a diverse ethnic blend of ethnic Russians, Belarusians, Tatars (a muslim minority) and Belarusians. Kiev is its capital.
Why did the riots start in the first place?
On November 21st, Ukraine rejected a trade deal with the European Union in favor of keeping close ties with the Russian government. This deal, in the works for years, would have allowed Ukraine citizens to travel through the EU without visas; in exchange, Ukraine would have initiated hundreds of new laws and regulations. This choice by the Ukrainian government to side with Russia over the EU infuriated many. Thousands of Ukrainian citizens responded by taking to the streets in peaceful protest. The protestors flocked to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, known as Maidan, the central square of Kiev, capital city of Ukraine. It means Independence Square, and was named so after Ukraine declared its independence from the falling Soviet Union in 1991.
The protests continued until late February, growing increasingly violent. In late November police brutally attacked a group of protests. On the 30th of November, protestors seized Kiev City Hall. Tension held the nation.
How and why did things escalate?
What started as a peaceful protest escalated slowly over the ensuing months. News of police attacking protestors and abducting activists only fanned the flames of revolution. The first deaths occurred on January 22nd, as two protesters were shot and killed by police.
Despite the deaths, by mid February peace seemed possible. An amnesty deal was reached that would have given amnesty to arrested protesters, and new rules limiting presidential powers were being strongly considered by the Ukrainian parliament. But it was not to be.
On February 18th the Parliament rejected debate on changing the constitution to limit presidential power. This news infuriated protesters; clashes on the same day left twenty-six dead and hundreds injured. And the worst was yet to come: the protests were shocked to a higher level of full-on revolution when government snipers apparently shot protesters in two days of violence beginning on February 20th. Between the snipers and the police-protester violence, at least 77 people were killed and more than 600 were wounded, according to the health ministry of Kiev.
Let it be noted that neither the police nor the protesters are blameless. Police were part of this death toll, and no one knows who cast the first stone that began this violence.
Shortly thereafter, under extreme pressure from the EU, Yanukovych signed a deal to transfer his presidential powers to the Ukrainian parliament and hold early elections. However, by the next day he had left the capital (it was later found out that Yanukovych had fled to Russia). This dealt a death stroke to his administration, which effectively ceased to be.
One of the protest leaders, Oleksander Turchyknov, stepped into the power vacuum as interim president. Arseniy Yatsenyuk joined as the interim prime minister. On February 24th, Ukraine’s parliament voted to hold early elections on May 25th.
Sounds like things were getting better..so what’s up with Russia and Crimea? Just what happened?
Things did seem to be looking up, until Russia got involved and everything went to hell.
Crimea is an autonomous region within Ukraine. It is governed by its own constitution, but must ultimately follow Ukrainian laws. Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, and has close but extremely complicated ties to Russia. From 1921 to the fall of the Soviet Union Crimea was a part of the Soviet Union. It was the scene of famine (including the devastating Holodomor) during the 20s and 30s and of ethnic cleansing during the 1940s. In 1954 Ukraine was given the devastated region, though it meant little until the USSR fell. Upon the fall of the Soviet Union it eventually became a part of Ukraine (after briefly declaring itself independent). The extremely short version is that Crimea’s integration with Ukraine has always been tense, and its close ties with Russia have led Russia to attempt to exert its influence in Crimea in the past.
It can be factually stated the Russian government does not support the protests in Ukraine (they said so many times, and quite strongly) and does not wish to see a change of government. The Yanukovych administration is on very close terms with Russia (if you’ll recall, that’s how this whole mess started) while the more liberal nascent government of the protest is far more liberal and western-oriented. With the Russian majority in Crimea providing an excellent excuse to move militarily into the region, Russia struck.
All that background is all fine and good but just what happened??
Okay, okay. Geez. Pushy.
So if you’ll recall, by late February Yanukovych had fled, an interim government had set itself up in Ukraine, and the Parliament had scheduled elections in May. Vox Populi, right? On the 28th of February Russia moved forces into Ukraine, ostensibly to protect the Russian speaking people there. They took over two airports and much of Crimea’s infrastructure, including the regional parliament, state television, and telecommunications hubs (BBC News). Though there was some confusion at first - some Russian troops were wearing unmarked uniforms - the Russian government soon admitted to its mobilization into Crimea. Russia has stated that it has a right to protect the Russian speaking population in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Since, thousands of Russian troops have poured into the Crimean region.
Note that second part - that’s where things get exceptionally worrisome. On March 1st, the Russian parliament approved troop deployment in Ukraine. Not just Crimea, but Ukraine. There are worries Russia could move further into Ukraine. On the 3rd of March, the Russian government claimed that ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych had asked for troops to enter Ukraine, which gave them legitimacy.
Russia has alleged that there is a threat to ethnic Russians in Ukraine which forced their hand, but this is largely seen as a thinly veiled excuse. Interim President Yatsenyuk has said that ethnic Russians are not in danger; UK Ambassador Mark Grant stated that ethnic Russians were not threatened and that such claims had been fabricated for Russian justification.
Most of the international community has decried Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea and its posturing for further action. Things aren’t entirely black and white though. Due to those close cultural ties there have been Pro-Russia rallies and demonstrations in cities near Crimea. Many of Crimea and Ukraine’s ethnic Russians support Russia’s movement into the country.
John Kerry, in a visit to Ukraine on the 4th, stated he did not believe ethnic Russians to be in danger. On the same day President Obama urged Russia to pull back.
What happens now?
Some fear the situation could boil over into all out war in the region if Russia does not leave Ukraine. Tomorrow - March 5th - there is to be a NATO member meeting that Moscow has agree to attend. Now, we wait.
“Timeline of key events in Ukraine protests." Yahoo News.
“Russian forces expand control of Crimea." The Washington Post.
“Ukraine’s Yanukovych asked for troops." BBC News.
“An FAQ roundup on the Crisis in Ukraine and Crimea." Slate Magazine.
“Ukraine Crisis: Obama urges Russia pullback." BBC News.
“Ukraine crisis deepens with pro-Russia riots in Crimea region." The Denver Post.