World

02.18.14

Up to Speed: What’s Going on in Ukraine?

Your cheat sheet to the complex web of money, power, and politics behind Ukraine’s violent protests.

On Tuesday, at least 25 were killed when the three month-long standoff between Ukrainian demonstrators and police exploded into violence once again. Thousands of protesters armed with rocks, bats, and fire bombs, battled police as fires raged in the city center. The bloodiest day in the last three months of Ukrainian demonstrations comes after a truce seemed imminent. What happened? Here’s a cheat sheet to the complex web of money and power politics that got Ukraine to this volatile state.

Why Are People Protesting?

On November 21, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backtracked on previous promises to sign a trade pact with the European Union after years of negotiations, and instead decided to strengthen ties with Russia. The agreement would have established free trade and political cooperation and put Ukraine on the road to EU membership. Though the government initially said the agreement was just suspended until a solution was found, Ukrainians hoping for a move away from decades of dependency on Russia and toward the freer markets and more open politics of the EU were furious.

Why Did the President Back out of the Deal?

Yanukovych said the country couldn’t afford the blow of trade sanctions threatened by Russia. (And Russia later sweetened the pot for Yanukovych—more about that in a second.) Kiev is heavily dependent on Moscow’s gas, which comprises 60 percent of the nation’s supply and has been cut off before.

It’s been widely agreed that motivation behind the retreat came directly from Moscow.

“The reason is well-known: pressure that Russia exerts on Kiev,” explained NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. In August, as signing the EU deal drew nearer, Russia exerted this threat by ramping up border checks and duty fees on incoming shipments from Ukraine.

In addition to pressure from his neighbors, Yanukovych may have been unnerved by the European Union’s demand to free his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from jail after she was sentenced in a case thought to have political motivations.

When Did Protests Begin?

Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Kiev a few days after the decision was announced to demand the president sign the European deal, making Independence Square the epicenter of demonstrations. Within 10 days, an estimated 1 million people assembled. Riot police used stun grenades and batons to violently beat them back. In the frigid temperatures, demonstrators constructed barricades, built a massive tent city and occupied government buildings. After three months of controlling City Hall, protesters agreed to vacate it earlier this week in exchange for charges against detained activists being dropped.

What Do They Want?

Kiev’s protesters want democratic government reform and an alliance with the European Union as their country sinks further into deep financial troubles. Ten years ago, the country’s Orange Revolution overthrew the former authoritarian government, but the country remains an economic basket case. Ukraine is currently in its third recession since 2008, and is seeing foreign reserve coffers at their lowest levels since 2006. It’s estimated the country currently has enough in its central bank for two months of imports, and currency dropped to a five-year low earlier this month. A wannabe strongman like Yanukovych hasn’t exactly made things better. This week, protesters were infuriated when the Ukrainian parliament refused to vote on a bill that would resurrect limits on the president’s powers.

How Did the Government Respond?

In the days after initial protests, Yanukovych said he favored “moving toward the EU,” but noted an agreement could harm Russian trade relations. But this sentiment was apparently short lived. In January, a slew of new laws smelled of a Soviet-style crackdown: extremism and foreign agents were banned; libel and unsanctioned protests now carry heavy sentences; and internet access can be arbitrarily restricted. Some government officials have resigned, notably Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, and Yanukovych has extended opposition leaders seats in the government. But this offering was rejected by activists who are pushing for new elections and an abolishment of the anti-protest laws.

What’s Russia’s Role in This?

Vladimir Putin has not acknowledged allegations of pressuring Yanukovych into ditching the EU, and has chided the European Union for bullying Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia called the upsurge in protests “connivance by Western politicians and European structures.”

But experts theorize Russia is hoping to rope former Soviet Bloc nations back together, and wants Ukraine to join into an alliance with the Eurasian Customs Union, which currently includes Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.

In December, Putin and Yanukovych struck a $15 billion loan deal, and Russia made an initial $3 billion bonds purchase from Ukraine. The payments were suspended after violence overtook the city, but on Monday, $2 billion more was paid out, solidifying Russia’s cash-based hold over Ukraine.

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See what the world thinks about the turmoil in Ukraine.

What’s the Russian-Ukrainian Relationship?

Ukraine proclaimed its modern independence upon the Soviet Union’s dissolve in 1991. Under Soviet control, the country’s economy was brutalized and it has since been slow to recover. Its location—Ukraine occupies a key political position as the border country between Russia and the EU—and its large population of 45 million make the country strategic. And Russia is quick to act on its fear that western influence could spread east. In 2008, Putin threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Ukraine if the nation joined NATO. Another reason to keep an upper hand: Russia also funnels oil to Europe via a pipeline that runs directly through Ukraine.

What’s Next?

For now, an impasse holds Ukraine in a limbo punctuated by violent outbursts. Opposition leaders have requested Western nations directly confront Putin’s government over Russia’s behind-the-scenes role. Leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have condemned the Ukrainian government, and personally met with opposition leaders. Whatever happens in the meantime, President Yanukovych is not a popular man in Ukraine right now, and he’s bound to lose the election one year from now.