What’s Happening in Ukraine?

UPDATE (March 11): The situation in Ukraine continues to unfold. President Yanukovych has been forced from office; arch-rival and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been released from prison; and Russia has intervened militarily in Crimea – a peninsula in southern Ukraine with a majority population that identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Whether Crimea will remain part of Ukraine or join Russia is unclear. A referendum is expected for March 15. For more up-to-date information on the Ukrainian crisis, see the BBC Timeline of Events  or the Guardian’s Ukrainian News Page.

Ukraine(Source: CIA World Factbook)

Just this week, protests in Ukraine turned deadly leaving nearly 100 dead and hundreds more wounded. The escalated violence began late Tuesday and into the early morning hours on Wednesday, February 19, 2014, when riot police met opposition as they entered the main anti-government camp located in Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev. Police were responding to a government mandate for demonstrations to end and all protestors to disperse. When police entered the anti-government camps, protestors responded with make-shift bombs, fireworks and stones. Riot police responded with equal force using stun grenades. The violence continued throughout the day on Wednesday and into Thursday. Just moments after a truce was announced between leaders of the opposition and the Ukrainian government late Wednesday evening, protestors tried to regain control of Independence Square which they had lost just two days before. The latest conflict was the deadliest yet as both sides used firearms and automatic weapons during the struggle.

The violence has forced the international community to take a stand. Both the United States and France have criticized the Ukrainian government’s use of force in responding to protestors and have threatened the use of sanctions should the violence continue. Foreign Ministers from France, Germany, and Poland are expected to hold talks in Kiev to decide whether sanctions are necessary. Given the security concerns, the official date of this meeting is not known.

What is the cause of this conflict?

Demonstrations in Ukraine took form last November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a trade deal with the European Union (EU). Over time, this deal had the potential to save Ukraine hundreds of millions in trade-related taxes. President Yanukovych had been promising a closer relationship with the EU for years. Many felt betrayed by his decision and took to the streets to carry out peaceful protests. As demonstrators set up camp in Independent Square, or Maidan as Ukrainians call it, the “Euro-maidan” protests gained international attention.

Anti-government frustrations grew when Ukraine quickly signed a deal with Russia that would provide $15 billion in economic aid and lower the cost of natural gas by 33 percent. Facing domestic strife, the government responded to protests by introducing tougher punishments and anti-protesting law this past January. These new regulations were quickly relaxed. Nevertheless, a deadline for protests to end was put in place, and once riot police entered the main opposition camp in Independence Square to push protestors out, the violence intensified.

Why does any of this matter?

There are three important issues to keep in mind when thinking critically about the Ukrainian protests and why they’ve garnered so much attention. These of course aren’t the only areas to consider, but are a good place to start.

History: Ukraine is a former Soviet Union member country and has faced an uphill struggle politically, socially, and economically since its independence in 1991.

Geography: Ukraine is a dividing country between Western and Eastern Europe and has become an important influential factor for both the EU and Russia. Russia sees improved relations with Ukraine as a way to gain control over other former Soviet states. The EU sees it as a growth of European values eastward.

Gas: Ukraine is home to a number of pipelines that carry natural gas from Russia to Europe. Russia has used these pipelines as a political bargaining chip in the past, cutting off flows completely in 2006 and 2009. Incidentally, this indirectly affects the flow of gas from Ukraine westward. Under the new agreement with Russia, gas prices will decrease significantly.

What is the future of Ukraine?

It’s hard to say what will happen in Ukraine. The fight now seems to have grown to a broader cry against official corruption and police violence. Protestors are calling for the resignation of President Yanukovych and many of his cabinet members. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has already resigned. President Yanukovych has also dismissed the leader of the armed forces, Colonel General Volodymyr Zamana, replacing him with the Navy Commander, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin.

According to a poll taken at the beginning of the month, Ukrainians are pretty well divided on the issue. At the time, almost half (47%) supported the anti-government protests and 46.1% did not. However, a majority (63%) believed that in order to achieve any sort of positive outcome, it was necessary for all parties to sit at the negotiating table.

Read more:
“What’s Happening in Ukraine” A guide for kids (BBC)
“Riots in Kiev Continue: 6 Things You Need To Know About Maidan Protests In Ukraine” (International Business Times)
Anti-Government Protests In Ukraine Turn Deadly” (NPR)
“From Flames to Fiery Opposition, Protests in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand” (CNN)
“How Much Money Did Ukraine Lose When It Nixed the EU Deal?” (International Business Times)
“Ukraine Crisis: President and Opposition Agree Truce” (BBC)
“Ukraine Leader Strains for Grip as Chaos Spreads” (NY Times)
“Photos From the Anti-Government Protests in Ukraine” (Slate Magazine)