What You Need To Know About The Ukraine Protests

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UkraineIllustrated by Ammiel Mendoza; Photo: REX USA/Rex.
Ukraine's borders and government have most often been chosen for it by other, larger nations. But, since the end of the Cold War, it's had an opportunity to define itself and to contend with internal tensions and external pressures forcing it to choose between leaning West (toward a visibly more prosperous Europe) or East (toward Russia). And, as muddied and complex as it may seem (and rightfully is), the current crisis is simply an extension of those open questions, made more volatile by pressure from an increasingly imperialist Russia, political differences between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living there, and a haphazard border drawn 60 years ago.

If you're having trouble keeping up with every new development and the slew of think pieces being published daily explaining the region’s history and politics, as well as all the prognostications regarding its future, we’ve got your primer right here.

What is happening right now in Ukraine?
The noise you hear when you listen to news reports about Ukraine is saber rattling: Russia's President Vladimir Putin sent troops to supposedly protect ethnic Russians in Crimea — a peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea from Ukraine’s southeast — and those soldiers have “secured” buildings including the Parliament, Russia’s rented naval base, and the offices of the Ukrainian navy, among others, in the capital of Simferopol and the port city of Sevastopol. The semi-autonomous Crimean government has declared it will hold a referendum to decide whether it will remain part of Ukraine at all in March. The ousted Ukrainian president has called his removal an illegitimate coup, and the interim Ukrainian prime minister called Russia’s actions “a declaration of war” and called up its military reserves on Sunday.

Meanwhile, President Obama personally expressed his displeasure with Putin over the invasion of Crimea, and Secretary of State John Kerry publicly mulled the possibility of diplomatic sanctions against Russia and is headed to Kiev on Tuesday. Many in Ukraine have called for restraint, at least for now, to avoid an outright war. Whether that can be avoided or not is essentially up to Putin.

How did we get here?
Let’s start with the short term! Last November, then-president Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer economic ties with a Russian-led trade bloc and touched off several weeks of increasingly violent protests by Ukrainians against his government.

The protests didn’t slow down, and so Yanukovych’s administration began to crack down: slowly at first, by making large gatherings illegal and texting people whose GPS showed them in the Maidan Square, and then with more and more force. Multiple witnesses in the final days of the protests described unarmed protesters shot by snipers aiming for the head and neck.

In the end, despite having developed plans to fake a terrorism attack to support a massive military crackdown in Kiev, Yanukovych fled in the dead of night and eventually ended up in Russia — where he called the parliamentary vote to end his tenure in office a coup and “asked” for Russian troops to go to Crimea for its own protection, providing at least some political cover for Putin to invade.

Meanwhile, the Parliament made Oleksandr Turchynov the acting president, called for elections in May, and reversed the law that sent popular former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to prison after Yanukovych took office (more on her below), securing her release. She will likely run for office in the May election, so you’ll probably see at least another half-dozen sexist takedowns dressed up as think pieces between now and then, which you should feel free to ignore.

But, that doesn’t explain the sudden Russian involvement!
Right you are! In the original Cold War, part of the Soviet Union’s strategy to prevent troops — particularly NATO troops — from reaching Russian soil was to surround itself with satellite countries to act as buffers. Putin, in particular, and Russia, in general, see NATO and the United States as an ongoing threat to Russia’s plans, if not its continuing existence. So, the more the Ukrainians leaned West, the more Russia felt threatened.

Putin’s military strategy, such as it is, does rely, at least in part, on Crimea, which voted for the Ukrainian referendum for independence from Russia in 1991 and eventually became a semi-autonomous part of Ukraine. The Russian fleet has a foothold in the Black Sea, with Ukraine’s permission, via its base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Between the base and the ethnic Russian population there and in eastern Ukraine, Russia's perceived interests in Crimea — and in Ukraine, in general — could be damaged if the country tilts West.

On top of that, the deal with the E.U. that Yanukovych rejected was a potential first step toward possible eventual membership in the more economically stable European confederation and, more symbolically, was seen as a touchstone of acceptance of Ukraine and its people as Europeans on an equal footing. The move toward deeper ties with Europe began after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution — in which Yanukovych was deposed and the populist hero Tymoshenko originally came to power. The Orange Revolution and its Western leanings were not particularly welcomed in Russia, and the two nations had a complicated relationship before Yanukovych came back to power and vowed to improve them.

The rejection of the E.U. deal by Yanukovych was reportedly related to the E.U.'s insistence that Tymoshenko be released from the prison sentence she received shortly after Yanukovych took office. Though Tymoshenko lost the election and gave up power peacefully, she was imprisoned by the now-deposed Yanukovych on charges that she negotiated a bad deal with the Russians for access to natural gas. Publicly, the prior administration announced it canceled the E.U. deal because the E.U.'s aid package was too small to make up for the economic losses that would result from pissing off the Russians — including the economic losses from the gas deal for which Tymoshenko was jailed.

So, what does this mean for us in America?
In the short term, it mostly means that we’ll be stuck listening to politicians posture about what the right thing to do is or was or could’ve been — even Sarah Palin came out of near-hiding to slam President Obama about it. Republicans will continue to claim that this is just more proof that Obama lacks leadership and this is why countries don’t respect us. And, Democrats will claim he’s doing a great job. And, everyone will fret about a new Cold War.

But, if Russia continues to behave aggressively in Crimea or expands its efforts into the eastern parts of Ukraine, our government will probably do things like condemn them in speeches at the U.N., work with others to kick them out of the G8, and maybe freeze some more people’s bank accounts or restrict their travel.

But, weren’t we going to bomb Syria last year because they were being all aggressive? They didn’t even invade anybody.
Syria doesn’t have nukes. (Notably, this is why a lot of rogue states, like North Korea and Iran, would like to have nukes.)

I want to read more thoughtful analysis by smarter people!
Me, too! Start here:
Julia Ioffe’s piece at The New Republic
Mary Mycio’s piece at Slate
Steve LeVine’s piece at Quartz
David Remnick’s piece in The New Yorker
Linda Kinstler’s piece at The New Republic