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Deconstructing the Donbass

Man standing next to a crater in Debaltseve, Ukraine

Man standing next to a crater in Debaltseve, Ukraine

It has been nearly a year since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, and yet tensions remain extremely high in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass region. Since fighting began in April 2014 between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, more than 5,500 have been killed and nearly a million people have been displaced. On February 12th of this year, a Franco-German proposed ceasefire known as Minsk II was reached between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Despite the recent detente, the fragility of the agreement and the future of the provinces remains uncertain.

Map of Ukraine with the Donbass region highlighted

Map of Ukraine with the Donbass region highlighted

In September 2014 the Minsk Protocol (or Minsk I) attempted to broker a ceasefire between the Ukrainian army and separatist units, but it failed to properly quell the conflict and soon after effectively broke down. A heavy rebel offensive in January of this year resulted in the separatists gaining control of the highly symbolic Donetsk airport, prompting the need for a renewed halt to the fighting. Minsk II called for an immediate and full bilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of all heavy weapons, the release of hostages, and allowing the restatement of Ukrainian government control. It also calls for constitutional reform in Ukraine with the adoption of a new constitution by the end of the year. Although Minsk II has thus far slowed fighting, the battle for the city of Debaltseve left approximately 500 civilians killed after the institution of the ceasefire. The strategic city of Mariupol similarly falls under a gray area within the agreement, and sporadic fighting has persisted on a small scale in pockets throughout the Donbass.

Russia has repeatedly denied its direct involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but it is clear the Kremlin is more connected than they are letting on. Separatists have been confirmed as coming from Russia, but Putin refers to such combatants as ‘volunteers’. The true extent of Russian material support and their level of military engagement has been shrouded in uncertainty due to Russian interference, though it is clear a weakened Ukraine is beneficial to Russia’s regional aims. Amnesty International has cited growing war crimes and rising Russian involvement as destabilizing to the situation.

Pro-Russian rebels atop tank in Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels atop tank in Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine

Outside of the Donbass, Russia has greatly increased its military capacity in Crimea and the Black Sea, moving mobile ballistic missile systems to the Crimean peninsula and expanding its surface ship and signals intelligence ship deployments. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe remarked, “What we’ve seen is easy to describe as the militarization of Crimea … Crimea has become very much a power projection platform.” In response, NATO nations have stepped up their presence in the Black Sea region and have been conducting joint military exercises. While tensions seem to be growing, the actions are largely posturing and not necessarily indicative of impending conflict.

Further recent revelations have shown just how far Putin may be willing to go to get his way in the region. Putin admitted that he ordered the Russian defense ministry to deploy elite units to Crimea “under the cover of strengthening the protection of our military facilities,” and he was preparing to arm the nation’s nuclear weapons.

The Minsk II agreement came at a surprise to many, and if it can successfully be carried out it would mark the first significant step towards ending the crisis. While the West has hesitated at escalating the conflict by militarily backing Ukraine more directly, it should further pursue the diplomatic route so long as military conflict remains at a minimum. Future internal political questions will remain for Ukraine ahead as it considers federalization and decentralization, which should also be monitored with respect to the will of the Ukrainian people, especially the 5.2 million living in the zone of conflict.

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What’s Next for Russia and Crimea

Ukrainian military officials leave their posts, escorted by Russian forces

Ukrainian military officials leave their posts, escorted by Russian forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 18 that he signed a treaty with Crimean leaders to annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine into the Russian Federation. Putin claimed earlier in March that pro-Russian self-defense forces (not Russian military units), entered the Crimean peninsula and established control over government buildings, airfields and the strategically significant Sevastopol port on the Black Sea. The action comes after months of anti-government protests in Ukraine culminated in the ousting of their Moscow-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych. In response, the US, EU, and other Western governments have condemned the military incursion, suspended Russia’s membership in the G8, and have placed economic sanctions against Russian officials with further measures pending. Ukraine has pulled its forces out of the peninsula to avoid military confrontation, leaving the peninsula and over two million Crimean people under Russian control.

Direct warfare between Ukraine and Russia is very unlikely and would be devastating for both;  Ukraine would be affected more in terms of loss of sovereign authority and Russia in terms of tarnishing what legitimacy and reputation it has left. War is an option that neither side wants.

What is more likely to occur is a quasi-controlled Crimea territory under Russian control that deepens the political and economic divide between Russia and the West. More trade agreements and political summits will be either cancelled or postponed, and effective cooperation in the near future will be largely undermined by the Crimean issue. Putin has staked too much on Crimea to withdraw quickly, and the West cannot let the controversy go unpunished else leaders will receive criticism for appearing acquiescent and weak. The focus on the conflict between Russia and the West will likely center on saving face rather than direct and significant action from this point forward.

Timeline of Key Events

November 21, 2013: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refuses to sign a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of increased ties to Russia, sparking national outcry

November 2013 – February 2014: Anti-government rallies in Ukraine demanding political and economic reform result in massive rallies, the occupation of government buildings, and violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators

February 20: The deadliest clashes yet result in over 70 deaths as government snipers fire on protesters

Late February: Ousted former president Yanukovych flees to Russia, early elections are scheduled in Ukraine, and Russian armed forces begin to take control of military installations in the Crimean peninsula. Anti-government protests end after Yanukovych’s departure

Early March: US, EU and other international governments condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine and begin issuing economic sanctions and cancelling agreements with Russia

March 4: Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he has reserved the right to protect citizens in eastern Ukraine but vowed force would only be used as a last resort

March 16: A referendum taken in the Crimea shows overwhelmingly support to leave Ukraine and join Russia

March 18: President Putin signs a treaty with Crimean leaders to annex the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation


Despite the strong rhetoric against Putin’s actions, producing a tangible deterrent to Russia could potentially cost the West just as much as it would affect Russia. In today’s globalized economy, the reality of options that the US and the rest of the international community can implement effectively is limited. Actions such as suspending Russia from the G8, cancelling trade agreements, and organizing additional military exercises are more important in a symbolic sense than a practical one.

European nations are too highly dependent on Russian natural gas, and international business leaders don’t want a war over the Crimea which would undercut their profits. The sanctions and cancelled summits thus far have been targeted on Russian economic and political leaders believed to be profiting on the Crimean crisis and more have been promised, but the impact will assuredly not coalesce Russia into doing an about face on the issue.

Crimea has a population of about 2.3 million, the majority of whom are ethnically Russian and speak Russian though almost a quarter of the population are ethnically Ukrainian. There is an additional Crimean Tatar minority which has returned to the peninsula after they were forcibly deported in WW2. The Tatars have expressed their fears of increased persecution under Russian authority and many have fled further west into Ukraine. Thus clearly the ramifications of the intervention have angered more than just the world at large, it has had a real impact on stirring up past grievances.

The closest comparison to what is happening in Crimea at present is the reaction to the conflict over South Ossetia, which has been under de facto control of Russian and South Ossetian authorities since the 2008 Georgian War. Similarly to Crimea, South Ossetians passed an unofficial referendum that voted for independence the ruling government did not recognize, and Russian military forces occupied the area in the name of protecting their civilians. The vast majority of the international community condemned the incursion, and in addition to Russia only four other countries (two of which are tiny Pacific island nations) recognized South Ossetia as a sovereign state.

What is next for Russia and Crimea depends on how Putin and Western leaders manage their leverage over one another. Neither stands to gain significantly from isolating the other side economically or even politically, but simultaneously backing down would only serve to embolden the competition. Crimea will continue to be officially considered part of Ukraine though the reality that it is under Russia’s wing will serve as a wrench in negotiations for some time.

The majority of the Crimean people voted in favor of joining Russia, and those have effectively had their wish granted. Excluding select elements of Russia’s leadership, few others stand to gain, and even then in the long run it is hard to tell if the benefits will outweigh the costs of the decision to intervene.



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Frozen Revolution in Ukraine

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

In recent months the Ukrainian people have increasingly demonstrated against their government over the repression of basic rights, rampant corruption and the economic direction of the country. Recently the clashes between riot police and protesters turned fatal when at least three were killed in the capital of Kiev, the primary locus of the conflict. The protests initially erupted on November 21st of last year when the government rejected key bills for a trade agreement with the EU in a shocking surprise and they have come to be labelled as the EuroMaidan movement. It is important to note that the controversy of moving towards greater European integration or returning to the Russian sphere of influence is secondary to the frustration and anger at the current administration of Victor Yanukovych and direction of the country as a whole. The quick implementation of harsher anti-demonstration laws have only added fuel to the fire, escalating the stakes between the increasingly detested government and protesters. It is apparent that the Ukrainian government cannot subdue the popular opposition with force alone, and if they refuse to make real concessions the conflict is likely to escalate further.

In response to the heightened tensions, Yanukovych has promised to review the anti-protesting laws and reshuffle elements of his government. Token concessions will not likely sway his critics, however, as they are demanding an end to the power structure that has been deepening its control over the political and economic affairs of the country since Yanukovych took office in 2010.

Examples of some of the provisions that were signed into law on January 17 include:

1. Gathering and sharing information on the Berkut (special security forces) or judges carries a penalty of up to a year in jail

2. Blocking access to government buildings and residential buildings carries a penalty of up to five and six years in jail, respectively

3. Participation in peaceful demonstrations while wearing a mask, scarf, helmet or another means of protecting or concealing one’s face or head carries a penalty of up to ten days in jail

Further provisions allow for broad interpretation and implementation of censorship on the internet and ‘extremist activities’ in general. These measures have been overwhelmingly criticized both domestically and internationally; some have described the laws as moves towards dictatorship in the country.

The controversy of the ‘hijacking’ of the opposition by extremist factions is reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Bashar al-Assad to decry and generalize the Syrian opposition as foreign terrorist elements. Svoboda is the most significant far-right party actively participating in the protests and there are smaller fringe groups that are attempting to push more radical agendas against the state. It would be naive to paint the opposition as free of extremist actors but it is clear that they are a minority. The majority of Ukrainians are not extremists bent on dismantling the state but rather wish for an end to a government not representative of the people that they see as creeping away from democracy.

Although the contexts and scale are completely different, similar to in Syria the opposition needs to be cognizant of itself presenting a representative voice in pursuing their demands, else they will face internal conflict and have a tougher time presenting themselves as legitimate. Extremist elements who promote and carry out unprovoked violence against the police need to be isolated and disavowed from the majority opposition. The goal of the opposition should not be to influence change in the government structure via violent force, but rather mass demonstration and civil disobedience to the unjust laws that limit basic freedoms.

Yanukovych and the security forces should realize the more brutal they act, the less credibility they will have to the rest of the world and the further the situation is likely to devolve. Political changes are imperative, and in order to reach a settlement the government must be willing to give up more power than it is currently comfortable with. Yanukovych should make it clear he is willing to make significant reforms to the power structure he has been building and the opposition should support a negotiated solution and take measures to prevent escalating the bloodshed which can be done without abandoning their cause or diminishing their impact.

The Ukrainian people are demanding reform and they are not going to back down easily. If they can brave the subzero temperatures for days on end to make a statement, then perhaps their government should listen.

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