Ukraine: Where Will it End? Part I
One year after the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted after violent popular protests, the situation in the country remains very unstable. The change of power in February 2014 was followed by Russian annexation (incorporation) of Crimea and then civil war in the east of the country. Ukrainian and Western governments accuse Russia of direct military intervention. Russia denies this. The UN estimates that at least 5,300 have lost their lives so far in the conflict.
- How did Ukraine end up in crisis and war?
- What is the role of Russia, the EU and the US in the conflict?
- What does the road ahead look like for the new government in Ukraine?
- What are the consequences of the conflict for European and international cooperation?
The conflict has had major consequences outside Ukraine as well: there is talk of a new cold war, and Russia has been faced with severe economic sanctions . 2015 is characterized by great uncertainty both for Ukraine and for international political and economic relations.
2: Major upheavals
The last year has been marked by enormous upheavals in Ukrainian politics. In February 2014, incumbent President-elect Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out of power after three months of widespread popular unrest. They were triggered by Yanukovych’s failure to sign a negotiated agreement with the EU and instead signed one with Russia.
Yanukovych was succeeded by an interim government without trust in the east of the country. The unrest was widespread, but intensified when Russia annexed Crimea in March (incorporating Crimea into Russia), under the pretext of wanting to protect the peninsula’s Russian majority and Russian interests. Since then, presidential elections have been held in May, an election won by Petro Poroshenko . Following parliamentary elections in October, Ukraine also has a new elected government. At the same time, since April, there has been a civil war in the areas in and around Donetsk and Luhansk, a war which, despite a ceasefire from September 2014, is now in one of its most intense periods.
The new government thus faces enormous challenges: It must deal with the situation in the east of the country and national division. In addition, it will try to reform a system that is characterized by widespread corruption and weak government bodies . At the same time, the crisis has increasingly had major consequences for Russia, which – at least in the West and by the Ukrainian government – has been largely blamed for the situation in eastern Ukraine.
3: Euromaidan: popular power or coup?
According to Directoryaah, the crises Ukraine has been through over the past year are closely linked. On 21 November 2013, the then President Yanukovych rejected a fully negotiated association agreement with the EU. It would have created significantly closer political and economic ties with the union. The decision was largely perceived as a prioritization of the historically close relationship with Russia, which has been very skeptical of both the EU’s and NATO’s enlargement to the east. It was planned that Armenia, Georgia and Moldova would also sign similar agreements. Signing this would be in direct conflict with Russia’s plans for a Eurasian Economic Union (EUU). The EU emphasized that these countries were facing a choice of either or. Armenia chose to withdraw after pressure from Russia, and is now together with Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia in the EU.
The choice of path marked an important dividing line in Ukrainian politics when it comes to the country’s foreign policy orientation: Should Ukraine approach NATO and the EU, or maintain its close ties with Russia? Large parts of the population had probably noticed that neighboring Poland seemed to be making great economic progress with its EU membership. Yanukovych’s decision to reject the agreement with the EU sparked violent protests in the capital Kiev, and minor demonstrations in other cities. The protesters expressed great dissatisfaction with both the president and the incumbent government, which had been in power since 2010 and 2012, respectively. The protests were entitled « Euromaidan», A reference to Europe and the Maidan, the public square where the demonstrations were concentrated.
The riots culminated in violent street fights on February 20, 2014. Eyewitnesses told of snipers who executed protesters. At least 88 died. The next day, Yanukovych signed an agreement with the opposition. The parties had agreed to put an end to all violent conflict, secure desired constitutional amendments and hold new presidential elections by December 2014. The next day, however, Yanukovych disappeared from Kiev, and protesters took over the presidential administration. Parliament voted to oust him in what both he and those in power in Russia perceive as a breach of the February 21 agreement and a coup. In the following weeks, things happened quickly: an arrest warrant was issued for Yanukovych, Arseniy Yatsenyuk was appointed prime minister, and Berkut, the elite unit of the police accused of being behind the killings of protesters, was dissolved. Then the parliament decided to remove Russian as the second official language in the country.
The decision was admittedly revoked later, but by then it had already led to enormous dissatisfaction, especially among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The same was true in Russia. There, the action was interpreted as another sign of the new regime’s hostility to Russia. Three factors in particular were central to Russia’s view of Euromaidan and the new government: the Russians believed that
- it was an illegitimate coup against an elected president
- the new, provisional government had clear anti-Russian and neo-Nazi features. Here the Russians referred to the active role played by right-wing radical elements in the protests, as well as the ministerial posts of the nationalist party “Freedom” and the ultra-right-wing radical “Right-wing sector” in the interim government. (The presidential election and the parliamentary elections in 2014, on the other hand, the Russians see as legitimate.)
- American intervention had played an important role.
Point 3: The so-called “color revolutions” – including the Ukrainian ” Orange Revolution ” in 2004 – are linked in particular to the US aid agency USAID’s (USAs Norad) democratization programs. In Ukraine, according to US documents, between 1991 and 2013, $ 5 billion was spent on “supporting the aspirations of the Ukrainian people for a stronger and more democratic government.” Russia interprets this as a direct interference in countries’ “internal affairs”, and as a threat to its own regime security. That both the EU and the US were very quick to provide external support to the provisional government and the removal of President Yanukovych, is interpreted as a further confirmation of such outside interference. In the eyes of the Russian authorities, the removal of Yanukovych and the government was illegitimate.