So, What’s Actually Happening in Ukraine?

Police react violently toward demonstrations, as Ukrainians consider a new path away from Russia and toward the European Union.

Anti-Yanukovych protesters defend their barricades in front of anti-riot police on Independence Square in Kiev, on December 11, 2013.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Dec. 11, 2013, 8:05 a.m.

Why Did This All Start?

It be­gins with the re­la­tion­ship between Ukraine and Rus­sia. Ukraine’s east­ern neigh­bor has had a strong in­flu­ence on the na­tion for cen­tur­ies, and Kiev’s policies have long sup­por­ted Mo­scow. So, it only makes sense that when a trade agree­ment was presen­ted to Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych by the E.U. that deep­ens Kiev’s eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al ties to the 28-mem­ber bloc, he panned it be­cause of pres­sure from Rus­sia.

The protests star­ted right after this an­nounce­ment on Nov. 21. Pro­test­ers took to In­de­pend­ence Square, set up scaf­fold­ing and tents, waved large E.U. flags, and have main­tained demon­stra­tions in the fri­gid tem­per­at­ures and snow­fall. Crowds have reached 500,000, ac­cord­ing to some es­tim­ates.

Pro­test­ers have called on Ya­nukovych to dis­miss the cur­rent gov­ern­ment and call elec­tions to vote in a new gov­ern­ment that will sign the trade pact with the E.U. They have also called for the re­lease of de­tained pro­test­ers.

Vi­ol­ence broke out in the Ukrain­i­an cap­it­al of Kiev Tues­day night as ri­ot po­lice at­temp­ted to dis­mantle tents and dis­perse pro­test­ers who have been ral­ly­ing against the pro-Mo­scow gov­ern­ment for the past three weeks.

Pro­test­ers re­claimed their po­s­i­tions in City Hall and In­de­pend­ence Square later in the morn­ing after swift out­cry from European and Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials. Clashes with po­lice turned bloody on Nov. 30, as well.

It’s a com­plic­ated situ­ation hap­pen­ing in the east­ern European na­tion of 46 mil­lion, as cit­izens con­tem­plate two op­tions for its fu­ture: con­tin­ue har­ness­ing its strong ties to Rus­sia or join the European Uni­on with more pro-West­ern eco­nom­ic policies.

Here are some ba­sic ques­tions about the situ­ation, which could lead to a change in Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment and have broad­er im­plic­a­tions for the re­gion and Rus­sia’s stand­ing in Europe.

Why Did This All Start?

It be­gins with the re­la­tion­ship between Ukraine and Rus­sia. Ukraine’s east­ern neigh­bor has had a strong in­flu­ence on the na­tion for cen­tur­ies, and Kiev’s policies have long sup­por­ted Mo­scow. So, it only makes sense that when a trade agree­ment was presen­ted to Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych by the E.U. that deep­ens Kiev’s eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al ties to the 28-mem­ber bloc, he panned it be­cause of pres­sure from Rus­sia.

The protests star­ted right after this an­nounce­ment on Nov. 21. Pro­test­ers took to In­de­pend­ence Square, set up scaf­fold­ing and tents, waved large E.U. flags, and have main­tained demon­stra­tions in the fri­gid tem­per­at­ures and snow­fall. Crowds have reached 500,000, ac­cord­ing to some es­tim­ates.

Pro­test­ers have called on Ya­nukovych to dis­miss the cur­rent gov­ern­ment and call elec­tions to vote in a new gov­ern­ment that will sign the trade pact with the E.U. They have also called for the re­lease of de­tained pro­test­ers.

Who Are These Pro­test­ers?

Op­pos­i­tion lead­er Vi­taly Klitsch­ko (VAS­ILY MAX­IMOV/AFP/Getty Im­ages)Un­like more Rus­sia-friendly Ukrain­i­ans from the east­ern part of the coun­try, the pro­test­ers are European-friendly people from west­ern Ukraine who want to join the E.U. They are also protest­ing against cor­rup­tion and fraud that have tain­ted the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment.

One of the op­pos­i­tion lead­ers is former heavy­weight box­ing world cham­pi­on Vi­tali Klitsch­ko, who wants to be­come the Ukra­ni­an pres­id­ent in 2015.

Demon­strat­ors have also ral­lied be­hind Yulia Ty­moshen­ko, a jailed polit­ic­al lead­er who would be re­leased if Ukraine signed the E.U. agree­ment. She was a key fig­ure in the pro-West­ern ral­lies in 2004, and was im­prisoned in 2009 for ex­ceed­ing her powers.

However, not all of the pro­test­ers are mod­er­ate re­formers. Some are far-right ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists.

Is There a Path For­ward?

A pro­test­er breaks apart a statue of Len­in at a monu­ment on Dec. 8. (ANATOLI BOIKO/AFP/Getty Im­ages)The Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent doesn’t seem to want to give in­to the de­mands of the pro­test­ers. In­stead of sign­ing the E.U. agree­ment, Ya­nukovych wants to sign a trade pact with Rus­sia and China. When re­ports of a pos­sible agree­ment between Kiev and Mo­scow were re­por­ted, demon­strat­ors tore down a statue of So­viet lead­er Vladi­mir Len­in, dis­mantled it, and handed out pieces of the statue, sim­il­ar to the af­ter­math of the Ber­lin Wall top­pling.

The coun­try still main­tains pro-Rus­sia re­gions in the East, though sup­port has re­cently dwindled. The re­gion is more in­dus­tri­al and re­lies on Rus­si­an nat­ur­al gas. Kiev is set to pay Mo­scow about $4 bil­lion in debt re­pay­ments and gas bills in the first part of 2014. When Kiev ini­tially con­sidered the trade pact with Rus­sia, the Krem­lin threatened trade sanc­tions against Ukraine.

There is a pos­sible path for­ward. Ukraine is now de­mand­ing $28 bil­lion in fin­an­cing from the E.U., which could lead to fur­ther agree­ments with the euro­zone.

Why Hasn’t Ukraine Joined the E.U. Yet?

(BBC)Since 2004, sev­er­al former So­viet states have joined the European Uni­on, a ma­jor vic­tory for the West. Those in­clude Es­to­nia, Latvia, Lithuania, Po­land, the Czech Re­pub­lic, Slov­akia, Hun­gary, and Slov­e­nia.

But the E.U. has failed to con­tin­ue that out­reach to oth­er former So­viet na­tions that con­tin­ue to struggle with Rus­si­an de­pend­ence and hu­man-rights vi­ol­a­tions. Those na­tions are Ar­menia, Azerbaijan, Be­larus, Geor­gia, Mol­dova, and Ukraine, ac­cord­ing to Ed­ward Lu­cas in The Wall Street Journ­al:

They do have three things in com­mon, none of them help­ful. Their abil­it­ies to make deep re­forms range from weak to nil. The E.U. does not want them as full mem­bers. And the Krem­lin wants to keep them in its or­bit.

Blue and Yel­low: The New Or­ange?

The cur­rent protests mir­ror some of the sights from the Or­ange Re­volu­tion that took the coun­try by storm fol­low­ing a con­tested pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Protests in Kiev and throughout the na­tion las­ted from Novem­ber 2004 to Janu­ary 2005, as demon­strat­ors ac­cused Ya­nukovych of elec­tion fraud and voter in­tim­id­a­tion after he was de­clared the win­ner in a run­off.

Fol­low­ing the protests, however, the run­off res­ults were scrapped and Ukrain­i­ans were gran­ted an­oth­er elec­tion in late Decem­ber 2004. Both in­tern­al and out­side ob­serv­ers mon­itored the elec­tion. Ya­nukovych’s op­pon­ent Vikt­or Yushchen­ko won the second run­off with 52 per­cent of the vote. Ya­nukovych, however, be­came pres­id­ent six years later in a fairly con­duc­ted elec­tion.

Some people in the re­gion, though, don’t think the Or­ange Re­volu­tion and the cur­rent demon­stra­tions are sim­il­ar. Pawel Kow­al, a chair­man of the European Par­lia­ment del­eg­a­tion to the E.U.-Ukraine Par­lia­ment­ary Co­oper­a­tion Com­mit­tee, told the Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or:

The Or­ange Re­volu­tion was a middle-class re­volu­tion, was or­gan­ized by the op­pos­i­tion, and had strong lead­ers: Yulia Ty­moshen­ko and Vikt­or Yushchen­ko. Today, those on the streets are mainly young people and stu­dents who gathered there spon­tan­eously to protest against Ya­nukovych and his gov­ern­ment.

What’s the Re­ac­tion From the United States?

U.S. As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State Vic­tor­ia Nu­land (left) and U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine Geof­frey Pay­ette in the In­de­pend­ence Square in Kiev. (SERGEY GA­PON/AFP/Getty Im­ages)The United States has been crit­ic­al of the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment’s de­cision to crack down on protests in Kiev, as po­lice use bull­dozers and bat­ons on demon­strat­ors.

Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden called the Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent on Monday, plead­ing with Ya­nukovych to meet with op­pos­i­tion lead­ers to find a way through the crisis. Ac­cord­ing to the White House, Biden “noted that vi­ol­ence has no place in a demo­crat­ic so­ci­ety and is in­com­pat­ible with our stra­tegic re­la­tion­ship.”

On Tues­day, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry ex­pressed “dis­gust,” echo­ing Biden:

We call for ut­most re­straint. Hu­man life must be pro­tec­ted. Ukrain­i­an au­thor­it­ies bear full re­spons­ib­il­ity for the se­cur­ity of the Ukrain­i­an people. As church bells ring to­night amidst the smoke in the streets of Ky­iv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They de­serve bet­ter.

U.S. As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State Vic­tor­ia Nu­land and Am­bas­sad­or Geof­frey Py­att handed out bread and bis­cuits to pro­test­ers and po­lice in Kiev on Wed­nes­day after hold­ing talks with the Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent.

Who Are These Protesters?

Op­pos­i­tion lead­er Vi­taly Klitsch­ko (VAS­ILY MAX­IMOV/AFP/Getty Im­ages)Un­like more Rus­sia-friendly Ukrain­i­ans from the east­ern part of the coun­try, the pro­test­ers are European-friendly people from west­ern Ukraine who want to join the E.U. They are also protest­ing against cor­rup­tion and fraud that have tain­ted the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment.

One of the op­pos­i­tion lead­ers is former heavy­weight box­ing world cham­pi­on Vi­tali Klitsch­ko, who wants to be­come the Ukra­ni­an pres­id­ent in 2015.

Demon­strat­ors have also ral­lied be­hind Yulia Ty­moshen­ko, a jailed polit­ic­al lead­er who would be re­leased if Ukraine signed the E.U. agree­ment. She was a key fig­ure in the pro-West­ern ral­lies in 2004, and was im­prisoned in 2009 for ex­ceed­ing her powers.

However, not all of the pro­test­ers are mod­er­ate re­formers. Some are far-right ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists.

Is There a Path Forward?

A pro­test­er breaks apart a statue of Len­in at a monu­ment on Dec. 8. (ANATOLI BOIKO/AFP/Getty Im­ages)The Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent doesn’t seem to want to give in­to the de­mands of the pro­test­ers. In­stead of sign­ing the E.U. agree­ment, Ya­nukovych wants to sign a trade pact with Rus­sia and China. When re­ports of a pos­sible agree­ment between Kiev and Mo­scow were re­por­ted, demon­strat­ors tore down a statue of So­viet lead­er Vladi­mir Len­in, dis­mantled it, and handed out pieces of the statue, sim­il­ar to the af­ter­math of the Ber­lin Wall top­pling.

The coun­try still main­tains pro-Rus­sia re­gions in the East, though sup­port has re­cently dwindled. The re­gion is more in­dus­tri­al and re­lies on Rus­si­an nat­ur­al gas. Kiev is set to pay Mo­scow about $4 bil­lion in debt re­pay­ments and gas bills in the first part of 2014. When Kiev ini­tially con­sidered the trade pact with Rus­sia, the Krem­lin threatened trade sanc­tions against Ukraine.

There is a pos­sible path for­ward. Ukraine is now de­mand­ing $28 bil­lion in fin­an­cing from the E.U., which could lead to fur­ther agree­ments with the euro­zone.

Why Hasn't Ukraine Joined the E.U. Yet?

(BBC)Since 2004, sev­er­al former So­viet states have joined the European Uni­on, a ma­jor vic­tory for the West. Those in­clude Es­to­nia, Latvia, Lithuania, Po­land, the Czech Re­pub­lic, Slov­akia, Hun­gary, and Slov­e­nia.

But the E.U. has failed to con­tin­ue that out­reach to oth­er former So­viet na­tions that con­tin­ue to struggle with Rus­si­an de­pend­ence and hu­man-rights vi­ol­a­tions. Those na­tions are Ar­menia, Azerbaijan, Be­larus, Geor­gia, Mol­dova, and Ukraine, ac­cord­ing to Ed­ward Lu­cas in The Wall Street Journ­al:

They do have three things in com­mon, none of them help­ful. Their abil­it­ies to make deep re­forms range from weak to nil. The E.U. does not want them as full mem­bers. And the Krem­lin wants to keep them in its or­bit.

Blue and Yellow: The New Orange?

The cur­rent protests mir­ror some of the sights from the Or­ange Re­volu­tion that took the coun­try by storm fol­low­ing a con­tested pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Protests in Kiev and throughout the na­tion las­ted from Novem­ber 2004 to Janu­ary 2005, as demon­strat­ors ac­cused Ya­nukovych of elec­tion fraud and voter in­tim­id­a­tion after he was de­clared the win­ner in a run­off.

Fol­low­ing the protests, however, the run­off res­ults were scrapped and Ukrain­i­ans were gran­ted an­oth­er elec­tion in late Decem­ber 2004. Both in­tern­al and out­side ob­serv­ers mon­itored the elec­tion. Ya­nukovych’s op­pon­ent Vikt­or Yushchen­ko won the second run­off with 52 per­cent of the vote. Ya­nukovych, however, be­came pres­id­ent six years later in a fairly con­duc­ted elec­tion.

Some people in the re­gion, though, don’t think the Or­ange Re­volu­tion and the cur­rent demon­stra­tions are sim­il­ar. Pawel Kow­al, a chair­man of the European Par­lia­ment del­eg­a­tion to the E.U.-Ukraine Par­lia­ment­ary Co­oper­a­tion Com­mit­tee, told the Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or:

The Or­ange Re­volu­tion was a middle-class re­volu­tion, was or­gan­ized by the op­pos­i­tion, and had strong lead­ers: Yulia Ty­moshen­ko and Vikt­or Yushchen­ko. Today, those on the streets are mainly young people and stu­dents who gathered there spon­tan­eously to protest against Ya­nukovych and his gov­ern­ment.

What's the Reaction From the United States?

U.S. As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State Vic­tor­ia Nu­land (left) and U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine Geof­frey Pay­ette in the In­de­pend­ence Square in Kiev. (SERGEY GA­PON/AFP/Getty Im­ages)The United States has been crit­ic­al of the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment’s de­cision to crack down on protests in Kiev, as po­lice use bull­dozers and bat­ons on demon­strat­ors.

Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden called the Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent on Monday, plead­ing with Ya­nukovych to meet with op­pos­i­tion lead­ers to find a way through the crisis. Ac­cord­ing to the White House, Biden “noted that vi­ol­ence has no place in a demo­crat­ic so­ci­ety and is in­com­pat­ible with our stra­tegic re­la­tion­ship.”

On Tues­day, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry ex­pressed “dis­gust,” echo­ing Biden:

We call for ut­most re­straint. Hu­man life must be pro­tec­ted. Ukrain­i­an au­thor­it­ies bear full re­spons­ib­il­ity for the se­cur­ity of the Ukrain­i­an people. As church bells ring to­night amidst the smoke in the streets of Ky­iv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They de­serve bet­ter.

U.S. As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State Vic­tor­ia Nu­land and Am­bas­sad­or Geof­frey Py­att handed out bread and bis­cuits to pro­test­ers and po­lice in Kiev on Wed­nes­day after hold­ing talks with the Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent.

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