The allure of the West has helped shape Russian history since Peter the Great three centuries ago. Now it’s shattering even older bonds with its neighbor, Ukraine. A violent rebellion sparked by pro-European Ukrainians seeking a decisive break from the nation’s Soviet past has set in motion a chain of events that’s threatening to split the country apart and has provoked the tensest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
The unrest began when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, snubbed an integration pact with the EU last November in favor of a deal deepening ties with Moscow. Yanukovych was ousted in February after street battles with riot police that left at least 100 people dead. A furious Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by declaring he had a duty to defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Russian forces seized Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, with Putin annexing the peninsula in March and triggering sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union. A pro-Russian insurgency ensued in Ukraine’s easternmost regions and sanctions were tightened amid allegations Putin was arming the separatists. President Petro Poroshenko vowed to drive the rebels out after clearing two of their strongholds following a failed ceasefire. The Ukrainian government accused the rebels of shooting down a Malaysian Airlines jetliner that crashed in the region on July 17, killing all 298 aboard. The rebels blamed the Ukrainian military. To stave off financial collapse, Ukraine sealed a $17 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund; Russia cut off natural gas supplies over unpaid bills.
Ukraine and Russia trace their roots to the ninth century, when a collection of tribes founded Kievan Rus around modern-day Kiev. Ukraine struggled to carve out a national identity, falling under Moscow’s sway through most of the Russian and Soviet empires. More recently the two neighbors have been bound together by energy: Ukrainian pipelines provide transit for Russian natural gas en route to European markets and Russia supplies half of its neighbor’s own gas needs. The Soviet legacy still looms large and Ukrainian unity has often been in short supply. While language and ethnic differences don’t tell the whole story, the country of 45 million is split between Russian-speaking regions in the east and the Ukrainian-speaking provinces of the west near the border with Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. The country’s trade reflects that fault line, with about a quarter of exports shipped to the EU and the same amount to Russia.
What began as a dispute over whether Ukraine would face east or west has raised broader questions about its future as a unified state, and about relations between Russia and the rest of the world. The protesters who prevailed in Ukraine said aligning its future with the EU would strengthen institutions, bolster democracy and stem a slide back toward the days of Soviet rule. The enthusiastic support in Russia for Putin’s actions underscored the growing gulf in the worldviews in Moscow, Kiev, the U.S. and Europe. Tying all sides together is Russia’s oil and gas: Discounts from Moscow have amounted to a crucial subsidy for Ukraine that Putin has now revoked, and Russia provides one-third of the EU’s gas imports. Those sales have fueled Russia’s economic growth and bolstered its self-confidence. In deciding how much to deepen sanctions, European leaders have to face the question of what economic penalty they are willing to pay to rein in Russia, which has already slapped retaliatory bans on food imports from the EU and the U.S.
The Reference Shelf
- A report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies discusses the volatile energy ties between Ukraine and Russia.
- A Weslyan University professor’s 2013 analysis of recent demonstrations, “Ukraine’s Identity Crisis: Understanding the Protests and the Politics.”
- A graphic by Bloomberg Visual Data charting the reaction by markets to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
- A series of maps from the New York Times showing how the situation in Ukraine has unfolded.
- An interactive timeline by the BBC on the crisis in Ukraine.