Ukrainian crisis and its evolutions

Beginning of the political crisis. Protests in Kiev broke out after President Viktor Yanukovych's government suspended in November 2013 the signature process which would have led to a far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union, thus leading to three months of protests which ended with the Ukrainian Parliament removing in February 2014.

Beginning of the political crisis. Protests in Kiev broke out after President Viktor Yanukovych’s government suspended in November 2013 the signature process which would have led to a far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union, thus leading to three months of protests which ended with the Ukrainian Parliament removing in February 2014.

President Yanukovych from office and setting early presidential elections for May 25, 2014. But after the ousting of the former President and the establishment of a new pro-European ad interim government – headed by acting PM Yatsenyuk, and acting President Oleksandr Turchynovtension started running high also in Crimea, the pro-Russian peninsula of Ukraine where – at the end of February 2014 – the buildings housing the parliament and government were seized by pro-Russian forces and a pro-Russian leadership installed. The situation became even worse once, on 11 March 2014, the local parliament of Crimea voted on a declaration of intention to favour independence from Ukraine – just five days before the provided referendum of 16 March, when the peninsula’s residents finally chose to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation (96.8% of voters within 83% of the peninsula’s inhabitants voting). Later, on 18 March, Putin addressed the parliament defending Moscow’s actions on Crimea and signing a bill to absorb the peninsula (bill approved by the Duma on 21 March) which is now a de facto Russian territory. Meanwhile, Ukraine – March 21 – and European leaders signed the political elements of the Association Agreement and on April 1st, the Ukrainian Parliament ordered security services to disarm all “illegal armed groups” in the country and voted to allow NATO to hold joint military exercises with and other countries on Ukrainian soil.

Spill-over effect on the south-eastern Ukraine. It is worth noting that the protests continued also in the south-east regions of Ukraine (see maps below) – Luhansk, Kharkiv and Donetsk – where, at the beginning of April 2014, pro-Russian protesters occupied governmental buildings, asking for a referendum to secede from Kiev and join Moscow. As of today (end of April 2014) official buildings in at least nine cities and towns remain occupied. Despite Ukrainian police and interior ministry’s special forces cleared protesters out of the regional administration building in a bloodless operation in Kharkiv, but protesters continue to hold the regional administration building in Donetsk and the Ukrainian Security Service’s (USB) building in Luhansk. On Saturday 12, masked men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles seized also the police station and the district of Security Service of Ukraine headquarters in Slavyansk, a Donetsk Oblast city of 125,000 people. Later in the day, the Interior Ministry in Donetsk was also seized by gunmen. Nonetheless, previous ultimatums issued by Kiev to pro-Russian separatists to abandon buildings they had seized in about 10 towns and cities in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine (for the geographical distribution of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, see the two maps below) had been followed by little action. Moreover, as of today (end of April 2014) official buildings in at least nine cities and towns remain occupied.

Protesters’ arguments. The separatists argue that Ukraine’s new pro-western government has failed to adequately decentralise power and funding to the region and has threatened restrictions on the Russian language, discriminating against a significant minority in the east of the country. According to a local businessman, “today the majority want to live in Ukraine, not in Russia. But if this place becomes anti-Russian, we do not want it … they don’t want to see armed neo-fascists from western Ukraine and Kiev in their region”.Such sentiments are believed to be widespread in the east, whereas Kiev central authorities are often believed not to take enough in account these complaints about a clampdown on the Russian language and a resurgence of nationalism. Indeed, as pointed out by another influential lawmaker and businessman from Donetsk region and close associate of Ukraine’s richest oligarch Akhmetov, “Kiev’s new pro-western government could defuse separatist sentiment by swiftly devolving more governing authority and control over finances to regional governments”.

Government’s reaction. Hence, acting President Turchynov announced earlier on Tuesday 15 an “anti-terrorist” operation to end the grip of separatists, sending in the army to try and secure control of government buildings in 9 cities of the Donetsk Oblast region (see maps below), which he insisted would be “phased, responsible and balanced”. On the other hand, Kiev also said it was ready to open dialogue with pro-Russian groups in the east – a move that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said was “certainly a step in the right direction, albeit very belated”. A day after, on April 16, acting president Turchynov, argued that troops had retaken Kramatorsk airport, but pro-Russian forces were showing no signs of retreat. Meanwhile, prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk told the cabinet that a newly-formed “constitutional commission” would swiftly draft constitional changes delegating more governing power from Kiev’s central government to regional legislatures and administrations. Despite the 17 April international  peace deal, which stipulated an immediate end to violence in eastern Ukraine and called on illegal armed groups to surrender their weapons and leave official buildings, the stand-off in towns across the eastern Donetsk region appears to be intensifying. Therefore, the Ukrainian authorities have re-launched an anti-terror operation to take back several towns in the east overrun by pro-Russian militants. Acting President Olexander Turchynov said he had ordered the operation to restart after two men – including local politician Vladimir Rybak – were found dead after being “brutally tortured”.

International reaction. (1) On Sunday 13, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency session to discuss the escalating crisis in Ukraine, following Russia’s request – after Moscow called Kiev’s planned military operation to restore control of government buildings in Ukraine as “a criminal order” and pledging to “protect” people in eastern Ukraine from violence if necessary. Nonetheless, no concrete action was decided, especially due to fierce disagreements. More specifically, while the US ambassador to the UN accused Russia of orchestrating the recent protests and seizures of buildings in eastern Ukraine – according to the US state department “Russia is now using the same tactics that it used in Crimea in order to foment separatism, undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and exercise control over its neighbour”, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin denied all claims that Moscow was behind the violence, putting rather the emphasis on the incapability of the West to “see the real reasons for what is happening in Ukraine”, thus putting the blame on it “it is the West that will determine the opportunity to avoid civil war in Ukraine”. (2) Following the unfolding of the events after the beginning of Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation on April 15, international concernes heightened. More specifically: as for Russia, the Kremlin argued that “the Russian side expects a clear condemnation from the UN and the international community of these anti-constitutional actions”, heightening concerns that any bloodshed resulting from attempts by the Kiev authorities to retake control of eastern Ukrainian cities could prompt direct military intervention by Russia; as for the US, they “agreed that the use of force is not a preferred option”, but defended Ukraine’s government responsibility “to provide law and order” as “these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated his readiness to deploy troops in eastern Ukraine if diplomatic efforts fail to resolve the escalating crisis there. More specifically, he underlined that he hoped for a political resolution to the crisis but warned that the campaign for Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election was “being run in an absolutely unacceptable way”. He also called on Kiev to withdraw its forces from southeastern Ukraine and engage in dialogue on the country’s future with pro-Russia protesters in the region.

Finally, at the meeting of US, the EU, Russia and Ukraine Foreign Ministers on April 17 in Geneva – discussing the possible diplomatic progress in the conflict and the de-escalation of the crisis, main points agreed:

– All sides refrain from violence, and reject expressions “of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including antisemitism”;

– All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned; all illegally occupied streets and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated;

– Amnesty will be granted to protesters and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes;

– The OSCE would play a leading role in helping the authorities implement the agreement;

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