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 Russia's neighbor, Ukraine. A violent rebellion sparked by pro-European Ukrainians seeking a decisive break from the nation’s Soviet past set in motion a chain of events that at various times has threatened to tear the country apart. It's also provoked the tensest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Diplomatic efforts to end more than two years of conflict in rebel-held eastern Ukraine have run aground, with the government in Kiev and Russian-backed separatists blaming each other for reneging on a 2015 peace accord. While fighting is down from peak levels, Ukraine's military reports frequent soldier fatalities, with battles flaring up again in early 2017. The death toll is approaching 10,000. Casualties include the passengers and crew of a Malaysian Air jet shot down over the conflict zone in 2014. What began as street protests in Kiev turned into a global geopolitical impasse when a popular uprising sent Ukraine’s Moscow-backed leader fleeing. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, proclaiming a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there. The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia that escalated amid accusations Moscow sent weapons to separatist militias and dispatched its own troops into Ukraine. Ukrainians voted decisively to tighten ties with Europe by electing President Petro Poroshenko in May 2014 and many are frustrated by the pace of change. Disbursements from a $17.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout, sealed after the conflict choked the economy and drained reserves, have been delayed by heel-dragging on reforms. The U.K.'s vote to leave the EU and U.S. President Donald Trump's rapport with Putin have raised questions about continued Western support for Ukraine.
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 countries have been bound together by energy: Ukraine's pipelines provide transit for Russian natural gas en route to European markets, though the country has found alternatives to Russian supplies for its 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, and the conflict with Russia has brought many Ukrainians together, the country of 45 million remains divided with 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 pre-crisis 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. Western-oriented Ukrainians hope that aligning the country’s future with the EU will 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 between the worldviews of Moscow, Kiev, the U.S. and Europe. Tying all sides together is Russia’s oil and gas: Discounts from Moscow amounted to a crucial subsidy for Ukraine that Putin has now revoked, and Russia provides one-third of the EU’s gas imports. In imposing 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 Wesleyan University professor’s 2013 analysis of recent demonstrations, “Ukraine’s Identity Crisis: Understanding the Protests and the Politics.”
- A graphic by Bloomberg Visual Data tracking the situation in Ukraine.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes on the politics of Russian gas, the Cool War between Russia and the West, Ukraine’s economy and Vladimir Putin.
- 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.
First published Jan. 22, 2014
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