The crisis in Ukraine
Ukraine has had a tumultuous and bloody year — the loss of Crimea, civil war, an airliner shot down and a dangerous row between Russia and the West. But has an uneasy peace now broken out?
Why are we talking about Ukraine now?
It has scarcely been out of the headlines since last November. Its political turmoil has drawn in its neighbours and caused a potentially very dangerous confrontation between Russia, led by President Putin, and the western nations, who form the military alliance of NATO.
How did this happen?
It began with the mass protests in Ukraine's capital Kiev after its president, Viktor Yanukovych (democratically elected in 2010), rejected an economic agreement with the EU, Ukraine’s neighbours to its west. Yanukovych instead chose to pursue closer ties with Russia, its neighbour in the east.
Over 800,000 people occupied the central square in Kiev, known as the Maidan, calling for Yanukovych to resign and an end to his corrupt government. There were increasingly bloody clashes with the police. In February this year Yanukovych fled the capital and a new interim government took control.
Why didn’t that end the violence?
A substantial minority, around 17%, of the Ukrainian population are of Russian origin and speak Russian. They live mostly in the eastern part of the country near the Russian border and in Crimea on the Black Sea. They were mostly supporters of Yanukovych and his pro-Russian policies.
They were alarmed at his overthrow and disliked the pro-EU policies of the new government. They began forming armed militias to defend their interests and support their traditional ties with Russia. And Russia too was alarmed at the change of government.
What did Russia do?
Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 and a majority of its population are ethnic Russians. Its port Sevastapol is also home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In March Russia and its local supporters organised an armed takeover in the Crimea followed by a referendum which overwhelmingly supported joining Russia.
In the east of Ukraine pro-Russian demonstrations grew into armed insurgencies, seizing control of local administration buildings. These groups opposed the government in Kiev and demanded independence and, in some cases, to become part of Russia. The Ukrainian government fought back and by August this was a full-scale civil war, with over 2,400 killed on both sides and possibly half a million refugees.
It seems beyond doubt that Russia is arming and supporting the separatists and that Russian forces are involved.
On 17th July a Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down, causing the death of the 298 passengers and crew. It is very likely that pro-Russian separatists were responsible.
What has the West done?
The EU and the US are financially supporting the new government in Kiev (which held fair elections in May). The West has also introduced economic sanctions on Russia, making it difficult to raise money on the world markets, and also travel bans on many of Putin’s closest allies.
However, NATO has no plans to become involved in any military actions against the separatists.
So what is the current situation?
Last Friday a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine was agreed between Russia and Ukraine. It seems likely that Putin is happy to leave the situation as it is now. He has achieved his aim of preventing Ukraine joining NATO and the EU in the near future. Russia prefers to keep Ukraine as a weak, unstable neighbour between it and western Europe.
This stalemate in Ukraine shows that there are limits to how far the military and economic power of NATO, the EU and the US can defend small countries. There is no willingness at present in the West to risk open war with a nuclear-armed Russia or a serious disruption of the world economy.
- The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was established under US leadership in 1949 in response to the threat to western Europe from the Soviet Union. It is a military alliance of states who will come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, it seemed to be in decline. However, Russia’s newly aggressive actions may well revive its sense of purpose.
- Thousands took part in the protests at the Maidan from November 2013 to February 2014. Many of them camped through the winter there. Though initially peaceful, government forces became increasingly violent in their attempts to clear the square and were attacked in turn — 110 protesters were killed and 18 police officers.
- These are irregular armed forces, not part of a country’s army.
- Armed rebellions against a lawfully constituted government.