Understanding the Crisis in Ukraine

Hillary Clinton made headlines a few months ago when she compared the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crimea to those of Hitler before the Second World War. Whether or not you agree with Hillary, the statement raises a whole lot of questions, many of which aren’t being answered by the news. With so much information available at our fingertips every minute, it’s easy to feel more bewildered than informed. Everygirl reader Shelley from New York emailed us with this question:

“I love your weekly ‘In the Know,’ but I sometimes feel that by the time an event is in the news I’ve already missed a lot of the context necessary to understand it properly. In particular, the current situation in Ukraine is still a bit of a mystery to me. Obviously I can see what’s happening right now, but I wish someone could explain to me just how things got to be this way.”

We know how you feel, Shelley. Hillary’s comment, for instance, draws on a hundred years of history, which, unless you’re an Eastern Europe historian, you’re really not likely to know. We want to unpack some of the back stories and swirling around the events in Ukraine right now, so you feel like you can speak a little more intelligently next time it comes up.  

Some background on Ukraine

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. It has been under foreign control more than once, and was incorporated in large part into the Russian Empire at the end of the 1700s. Later, after the Russian Revolution, the eastern territories of the country became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, while the rest was incorporated into Poland. Ukraine suffered terribly under Josef Stalin. “The bread basket of Europe,” as it was known for its wheat crop, was plunged into a massive and completely manmade famine in the 1930s, created by his economic and collectivisation plans. Roughly 7 million people starved. During WW2, it was occupied by the Nazis, and another 5 million died. Almost all of the country’s 1.5 million Jews were murdered. After the war, the remaining western territories were annexed from Poland and occupied by Russian Red Army. Ukraine then lived out the Cold War as one of Russia’s Soviet “satellites,” with relatively high autonomy but very little real agency. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an independent, democratic Ukrainian state was established.  

Democracy in Ukraine has never exactly been smooth sailing–virtually every major politician since independence has their fair share of corruption allegations. Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the main opposition figures to the pre-revolution government, was released from prison on the same day toppled President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. She had been serving a seven-year corruption term for a gas deal she made with Russia when she was Prime Minister in 2009. Although her imprisonment was no doubt a politically expedient way for the ex-president to remove his strongest political enemy from the public stage, and she remains popular today, there are plenty in Ukraine today who would prefer to see an entirely new, politically untainted leader in the upcoming elections.


Crimea, explained

Crimea became part of the Russian Empire in 1783, annexed by Catherine the Great. The spot has always been hugely strategically important–Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has lived at the port city of Sevastopol virtually since then. The native population, the Crimean Tatars, are traditionally Muslim. In 1944, Stalin accused the group of collaboration with the Nazis and deported the entire population to Central Asia and Siberia. Tatars did not begin to return to Crimea until after the fall of Communism. Today, they make up about 12% of Crimea’s population, compared to the Russian 60%, many of whom arrived after the war and filled empty Tatar homes. In 1954, Crimea was transferred by Nikita Kruschev from Russia to Ukraine. This surprising move likely had less to do with his generosity on the 200th anniversary and more to do with the fact that Ukraine is physically attached to Crimea, whereas Russia is not. Crimea, still badly devastated by the war, was in dire need of aid which could be much better administered by Ukraine.  

Crimea’s place in the collective Russian identity is incredibly important, and really shouldn’t be underestimated in Putin’s actions in this crisis. The Russian Orthodox Church is closely entwined with the state and Russian nationalism, and the region has a big place in the mythology of Russian Orthodoxy. It was in Crimea in 988 that Prince Vladimir, one of the more celebrated heroes of Russian history, was baptised by the Byzantine Emperor and brought Christianity to the early kingdom of Rus, the early Slavic state from which modern-day Ukraine and Russia are both descendants. The countryside in Crimea is littered with Russian religious and war memorials–it is Russia’s own Holy Land.

The Timeline

2004:  The Orange Revolution. 

The presidential election is widely believed to have been rigged.  When Viktor Yanukovych wins, the country responds with widespread protest. A new election is called and Yanukovych loses to his opposition, Viktor Yuschenko.

2010:  He’s ba-aack!  

After a free and fair election, Yanukovych wins the presidency.

2013:  The EU vs. Russia debate.  

In November, Yanukovych abandons an agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. People in Kiev return to the streets in protest – 800,000 at their height in December. Putin offers to forgive $15 billion of Ukrainian debt to bolster his ally’s government.

JANUARY 2014:  A city Occupied.  

Demonstrators camp out in Kiev, turning it into a “tent city.”

FEBRUARY:  Everything changes quickly

– Sports fans around the world tune in to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics on the 7th.

– All 236 arrested protesters are released. Things look up until the worst violence in 70 years breaks out on the 18th. What triggered the clashes is still not clear.

– Yanukovych signs a deal on the 21st calling an election for December, but disappears the next day. 

– Parliament names speaker Olexander Turchynov as new President, calls an election for May 25th, and issues a warrant for Yanukovych’s arrest.

– Yanukovych, now in Russia, appears on television denouncing what he calls a “coup” in Ukraine.

– The Sochi Olympics end on February 23rd.  

Meanwhile, in Crimea…

– Pro-Russian demonstrations develop in the port city of Sevastopol and the capital, Simferopol.

– Men in unmarked uniforms – but carrying Russian guns – appear outside airports, government buildings, and other important sites.

– Crimean Prime Minister Anatolii Mohyliov declares that all orders from the new Kiev government will be upheld in Crimea.

– Armed men seize administrative buildings. Under seige, the Crimean parliament dismisses Mohyliov and replaces him with pro-Russian Sergey Aksyonov.  

MARCH: Putin moves on Crimea

– Russia’s parliament approves the use of force in Ukraine, although it’s internationally agreed that they are already present.  

– President Obama urges Putin to de-escalate the situation. Putin says his actions are legitimate and intended only to protect Russians in Crimea.

– Russian troops assume de facto control of Crimea, preventing Ukraininan troops from regaining control of their air base.  Standoffs between the two forces have the worried attention of world leaders, but so far have remained nonviolent.

– Russian finance takes a dive on “Black Monday” as rumors circulate about a possible military ultimatum, later denied. 

– Putin speaks publicly for the first time. He denies that the armed men in Crimea are Russians but says any force in Crimea would be for self-defense.

– The Crimean Parliament asks to join Russia, and declares that a referendum on the issue will be held on the 16th.

– Russia says it will support a union with Crimea.  

– Russian gas company Gazprom warns Ukraine that their gas supply may be cut off.

– Warning shots are fired at monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) attempting to enter Crimea, after being turned away by armed men the day before.

– Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk vows not to give “a centimeter of ground” to Russia.

– Rival pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine rallies are held around Ukraine. Pro-Russian demonstrators turn violent on their opposing rally in Sevastopol.  

– Ukraine’s Parliament authorizes the creation of a National Guard made up of 60,000 men and women.

– A UN resolution criticizing the Crimean referendum is vetoed by Russia.

– Official results from the Crimean referendum report a vote of 97% in favor of joining Russia.

– The United States and European Union freeze assets and impose travel bans on a number of Russian and Ukrainian officials over the referendum.

– Ukrainian troops leave Crimea as Russian troops amass on Ukraine’s eastern border.

APRIL: from Crimea to Ukraine

– NATO suspends all civilian and military co-operation with Russia

– Pro-Russian separatist protesters occupy buildings in the east of Ukraine; acting President Turchynov announces an “anti-terrorist operation” in opposition to the separatists.

– Russia, the European Union, and the United States agree on “de-escalation” efforts as three people are killed as Ukrainian forces fend off a raid on their base in Mariupol.

– Anti-Semitic leaflets raise concerns in the eastern city of Donetsk.  Pro-Russian separatists denounce the leaflets as a hoax to discredit them.

– Turchynov relaunches military operations against Russian separatists in response to the torture and death of two men, one a local politician, in Donetsk.

– Eight OSCE officers are accused of spying and detained by separatists in Sloviansk.  One is released on medical grounds two days later; the rest are released the following week.

MAY: Ukraine’s Government pushes back

– Government buildings in Donetsk are occupied by protesters.  

– Turchynov reinstates conscription, declaring Ukraine on high alert.

– A government offensive in Sloviansk leads to the death, injury, and arrest of many pro-Russian separatists, Turchynov announces.

– Clashes in Odessa leave at least 42 dead, mostly pro-Russian separatists.  Two days later, pro-Russian protesters attack the police headquarters in Odessa, prompting the release of those already arrested in the earlier clashes.  


So where does Putin fit in?

There are two kinds of people who love history: the good kind, and the kind who want to create for themselves a place in it.  Vladimir Putin is the latter.  After a recent phone call, German Chancellor Angela Merkel described him as being “in another world.”  As far as Putin is concerned, his actions in Crimea and potential actions in Ukraine are entirely legitimate.  He is standing up to the corrupt and hypocritical West, and reversing the tide of Russian weakness on the world stage since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Early in his presidency, he was keen on coming together with the West as a way of increasing Russian strength – things like the G8 mattered to him.  That isn’t so much the case today.  To Putin, Russia is exceptional, and morally superior to pretty much every other country.  Recently, Putin’s personal popularity has been on the decline, and unrest in the region may be the perfect way to regain his faltering political ground.  A strong show of force in Ukraine, based on fervent Russian nationalism, is a distraction from the economic stagnation, rampant corruption, and government oppression of which many Russians were growing tired.  Now that we understand a little more about the place of both Crimea and Ukraine in the Russian psyche, it isn’t difficult to understand why the annexation of the region could be a hugely popular achievement for Putin.  What’s more, Russian media has been promoting some pretty fiery rhetoric, saying that those Ukrainians who participated in the revolution were fascist, nationalists, and anti-semites backed by America who, now that they have overthrown their legitimate government, are poised to release an ethnically-based terror on Russians in Ukraine.  

Putin believes that the revolution has brought about a new, illegitimate state, which negates all of Russia’s past treaties with Ukraine as well as international law.  As a result, he isn’t too worried about President Obama’s argument that any incursion on Ukrainian territory would be in violation of those laws.  Right now, the US and EU are just hoping that the threat of total economic and political isolation could be devastating enough to Putin to act as a deterrent to further escalation.  

Now that you’re armed with a little more information, what do you think?  Did Hillary Clinton make an interesting point, or was she perhaps being a little alarmist?  We love Hillary, but also think it’s probably best to be very careful in comparing anyone to Hitler.  

What else do you want to know? Ask The Everygirl! We want to keep you informed, so we’ll be running stories like this regularly to address your questions. Email info <at> theeverygirl <dot> com with subject line “UNDERSTANDING (TOPIC)” or leave a comment with your request, and we’ll pick the most popular topic for our next report.

The Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal


  • KievSky

    In Ukraine is not a civil war, and the Russian attack by terrorists, without a declaration of war!!!