Events in Ukraine have been moving swiftly and unpredictably since protests began in November 2013. The unrest began when President Viktor Yanukvich announced that Ukraine would not be signing an association agreement with the European Union that would increase trade and expand a more robust relationship with the west. By February 20, the many twists and turns had led to two days of the bloodiest violence the capital city of Kiev had seen in nearly seven decades, leaving 88 people dead.
That’s when the real chaos began.
That day foreign ministers from France, Germany and Poland flew in to broker a deal between the Ukrainian government and the opposition. Russia also sent an envoy, though it clearly did not support the opposition. Early the next morning, Ukraine President Yanukovich announced that he would allow elections in December, earlier than the scheduled March 2015. This was a compromise to the opposition’s call for the immediate resignation of the president.
Over the next several hours, the parliament acted quickly to move forward on the details of the agreement that had been hammered out in the past 24 hours. Coinciding with the announcement of earlier elections, the parliament voted to revert to the 2004 constitution, which severely curtailed presidential powers and put more of the governing decisions in their hands. They also changed the criminal code, which allowed jailed former prime minister, and Yanukovich rival Yulia Tymoshenko to be freed. She was released the next day.
The interior minister who was blamed for authorizing the violence against protestors was fired, 17 lawmakers resigned from the president’s party, and the way was paved for a new coalition government that would include members of the opposition to be created within ten days. The hard fought agreement was signed by Yanukovich and opposition leaders in a ceremony late Friday. By Friday night, demonstrations had stopped but protestors remained in Independence Square.
Then the president disappeared.
Late that Friday night, protestors and reporters found the president’s residence abandoned. Reporters stayed there overnight, pouring over documents left behind. On Saturday, Yanukovich appeared on TV insisting he was still the president and called the situation a coup d’etat. Over the next several days, the world wondered where he was, with rumors of sightings and thwarted escapes via plane dominating the fast moving coverage. His whereabouts would remain unknown for nearly a week.
In the interim, the Ukraine parliament named an interim president and moved to have new elections in May. An arrest warrant was issued for the now former president Yanukovich, and the police force blamed for the killing of protestors was disbanded. Just as the protests in Kiev subsided, reports of new ones surfaced in Crimea.
What About Crimea?
Crimea is located on the Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea, which is where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is located. An autonomous republic, Crimea is legally part of Ukraine, a status that was agreed to in 1994 between the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia. Crimea has its own parliament that is allowed to issue local referendums that do not conflict with the Ukrainian Constitution or laws. The parliament approves the head of the Crimean Council of Ministers, the leader of Crimea, who is initially nominated by the Ukranian president. The largest numbers of ethnic Russians are located in Crimea, and it is where the strongest pro-Russian sentiment exists.
The region voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovich in the 2010 elections.
On February 28, Viktor Yanukovich appeared at a press conference in southern Russia. He explained that he had not fled, but that his life was in danger and was on the move to keep himself and his family safe. He maintained that he was still president of Ukraine and the current government was not valid and that the planned elections in May were illegal. He noted that the protests in Crimea were a natural reaction to the coup, but stopped short of supporting any military action.
The Use of Russian Forces
The next day, March 1, 2014, the Russian parliament approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian forces in Ukraine.
In the days leading up to Yanukovich’s appearance and the parliament’s approval of use of force, Russia had already begun what was being termed a “soft invasion” by some. Several key government buildings in Crimea had been taken by pro-Russian gunmen and two airports in the region were seized. Over the next several days, under the auspices of “stabilizing” Crimea and “protecting Russians in Ukraine,” Russian ships mobilized and troops surrounded Ukrainian military installations in Crimea. Crimea’s parliament held an emergency session and swore in a new pro-Moscow government, reportedly as armed Russian gunmen stood by.
The Ukraine interim president called the aggression an act of war and called up all military reserves.
The International Outcry
Meanwhile the international community has issued punitive economic sanctions against the Russian government amid condemnation from the remaining members of the G8, saying Russia’s acts of aggression are “incompatible with G8 membership.” The joint statement referred to themselves as the G7. Russia’s actions have been deemed a direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law by the United States and the UN.
While no shots have been fired, Russia has invaded Ukraine.
The situation is reminiscent of 2008 when Russia sent troops to the territory of South Ossetia. Georgia had tried to overtake the area by force. In that situation, NATO decided to not intervene and Russia maintained control of the area. The current situation is more worrisome to Europe and the United States, however, due to Ukraine’s importance as part of Europe’s trade and energy pipeline.
In the end, the international community is being forced to mediate a fight that really is about a country’s decision on who they want to be. In spite of being deemed an independent nation since 1991, Ukraine exists as the result of outside forces and has struggled to define its identity. All of Russia’s actions are tied to its history and its fears of western influence. The country is motivated by the desire to maintain control over what they feel is rightfully tied to the homeland. In their struggle, the Ukrainian people have periodically reached out to the west and continue to do so now.
The United States and the EU have offered economic support to Ukraine. President Obama has spoken directly to President Putin, who has remained unmoved by the international pressure. Talks this week in Paris between Russia and Western powers ended without agreement. The situation has been deemed the greatest crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
The new Crimean government, which is not recognized by Kiev or the international community, has declared it wants to join the Russian Federation and has called for a referendum vote by the Crimean people on March 16, in violation of the Ukrainian constitution.
The Pentagon announced this week that the United States has bolstered “training exercises” with Poland’s air force, and have increased air patrols of the area. Russia continues to bolster its military presence in the Black Sea, amid reports that it has seized a Ukrainian air force post in the peninsula.