The fires that burned in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) earlier this week mostly died down on Thursday, but the protests on the streets of Ukraine continue to roil the Eastern European country. Since November, the crisis has continued to grow to the point where experts are openly worrying about the potential risk of civil war in a state that lies between the European Union on one side and Russia on the other. Here’s what you need to know about the current situation and its implications:
How it all began
The protests began on November 22, after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed course and refused to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union that had been in the works for years after heavy pressure from Moscow to abandon the agreements. Despite a violent police crackdown, protesters vowed to continue blockading streets and occupying public buildings until their central demand is met: the current government, including Yanukovych, must go.
The treaties would have opened the European Union market to Ukrainian companies and could have boosted the Ukrainian GDP by more than six percent over ten years. The country is suffering through an economic depression and lower tariffs and expanded competition could have also lowered prices, “fueling an increase of household consumption of some 12 percent.” Ukraine would have also adopted 350 EU laws, codifying what many Ukrainians saw as a “commitment to European standards of governance and social justice.” To them, the treaty was a way of diminishing Russia’s long-time influence and reversing the trend of persistent economic corruption and sluggishness.
“We don’t need the EU’s money. We need the EU’s values,” one protester told TIME. Ukrainians have long viewed the West through rose-colored glasses and now see Russia as a “corrupt, inefficient, oligarch-driven regime” that can garner influence by flouting its “oil, gas and natural resources,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs said.
Yanukovych explained his last-minute change of heart by claiming that “EU’s aid offers were insufficient and that Ukraine cannot afford to lose close trade ties with Russia.” Russia — which is trying to construct a Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics — began derailing the deal in August, when it imposed painful trade sanctions against Ukraine and threatened the country with “gas bills.” “I have been one-on-one with Russia for three and a half years under very unequal conditions,” Yanukovych complained to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Only days into the protests, Ukrainian police brutally cleared Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where protesters had been peacefully assembled. Videos of police beating protesters went viral and heightened the outrage. The next day, protesters defied a court order and returned in even greater numbers — with an estimated 350,000 people taking to the streets of Kyiv and more assembling in cities across the country, even in the historically pro-Russian east.
Hundreds of people were injured in the violent clashes, including dozens of journalists.
Protesters vowed to step up their efforts after a failed vote of no confidence in the Ukrainian parliament, continuing to take over public buildings in the nation’s capital, blockading the central bank and the Cabinet Ministry and seizing City Hall. Protesters vowed to occupy Kyiv’s streets and public buildings until their demands are met, despite the onset of deep winter.
Russia steps in
CREDIT: AP Photo/Sergei Grits
Given the debate between whether Ukraine would turn towards the west or east in its future, it only seemed fitting that Moscow would soon step in. Russian president Vladimir Putin announced in December that it was willing to slash the amount Ukraine paid for Russian natural gas, a huge political win for the embattled Yanukovych. In addition, Russia would finance a $15 billion no-strings attached loan to help stave off a looming financial crisis. As of February, half of that loan has been dispersed to Kyiv.
Several weeks later, it seemed like the protests had themselves run out of gas, though Ukrainians still grumbled that the effects of the loan were unlikely to trickle down enough to effect their daily lives. That ennui changed with the hasty passage in mid-January of a slew of laws designed to further quiet dissent and curtail the freedom of assembly. It appears that legislation was the spark needed to reignite the Maidan, with protesters returning en mass calling for Yanukovych to hold early elections. “These laws were a police club to hold over protesters and neutralize them. All they did was pour oil on the flames, make the situation sharper and radicalize the protests. These laws were the biggest mistake of Yanukovich this year,” Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think-tank told Reuters.
It was then that the previously entirely peaceful protests began their descent into violence. Makeshift slingshots launched Molotov cocktails against policemen’s shields and government orders overturned previous bans preventing the use of water cannons in Kyiv’s freezing temperatures as tires burned on the streets. Groups of protesters began assaulting and arresting those who they believed to be members of “titushki,” unofficial gangs of pro-government civilians, placing them before civilian trials. At least one protester accused the police of torturing him after his arrest.
For a brief time, though, it appeared as though the government and opposition would actually be able to strike a deal. The anti-protest laws were repealed in late January; Prime Minister Mykola Azarov stepped down; Kyiv’s mayor was fired for allegedly ordering the initial crackdown. Demonstrators had earlier this week abandoned their posts in Kyiv’s City Hall — which they had occupied for nearly three months — as part of the deal struck with the government to provide amnesty to those who had taken part in the protests and the revocation of the anti-protest laws.
Days later, however, the scene stands as it is currently unfolding, with hundreds of riot police still circling the square with water cannons periodically returning to blast at the barricades. The most awe-inspiring images of the crisis appeared in the midst of this fighting, as demonstrators launched Molotov cocktails at the police formations and shone bright lasers at the guardsmen’s faces in an attempt to blind them as the fire designed to separate them from the police burned high. The Ukrainian government early Tuesday evening confirmed that at least seven protesters and two police officers died in the first wave of fighting. That number continued to grow until the first day’s casualty count had reached at least 25 dead and hundreds injured.
A truce announced on Wednesday night had already been shattered on Thursday morning, as the death toll sharply rose to at least 50 over the course of the crisis, with opposition medics saying that number was actually at least 100. A new disturbing development came in the form of video that the demonstrators claimed shows snipers firing into their midst, resulting in reports of civilians with gunshot wounds to the neck, brain, and heart. A hotel near the square has become a makeshift trauma hospital, as opposition medics race to save the lives of people injured in the clashes. In response to the escalation, Kyiv mayor Volodymyr Makeyenko resigned from Yanukoyvch’s ruling Party of Regions in protest.
Furthering the chance of greater bloodshed, the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior said that 67 of its police officers had been taken captive by protesters, and have authorized the issuance of service firearms to the riot police and orders to fire live ammunition in their own defense. “We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement on Thursday about the reports.
Opposition leader and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko meanwhile on Thursday reiterated the opposition’s primary demand in a video statement, namely that Yanukovych must call early elections, while urging his fellow countrymen to not allow excessive violence in the street.
Making matters all the more tense, Yanukovych now appears to be losing his grip on the west of his country, which is historically far less pro-Russia than the east. “Raising the prospect of Ukraine splitting along a historic cultural and linguistic faultline, the regional assembly in Lviv, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism near the Polish border, issued a statement condemning President Viktor Yanukovich’s government for its ‘open warfare’ on demonstrators in Kiev and saying it took executive power locally for itself,” Reuters report on Wednesday. And in the eastern province of Crimea, pro-Russian separatism is on the rise, Radio Free Europe report on Thursday, fanning fears of a possible civil war situation.
The world responds
CREDIT: AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the violence that’s taking place,” President Obama said on Wednesday, soon after landing for a summit in Mexico. “And we have been deeply engaged with our European partners as well as the Ukrainian government and the opposition to try to ensure that that violence ends. But we hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protestors in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression.”
Obama also emphasized that the U.S. expects the “Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protestors.” He also urged the protesters to remain peaceful as well, warning “that with our European partners and the international community there will be consequences if people step over the line.”
The European Union on Thursday approved targeted sanctions on Ukrainian government officials, as well as an arms embargo on the country. The U.S. also announced on Wednesday evening that it was imposing a visa ban on 20 Ukrainian officials as part of their initial response to recent escalations. Experts, however, say that the announced embargos are unlikely to do much to change Yanukovych’s calculations. This is particularly true of the arms ban, since as Ukraine was a primary hub for manufacturing weapons during the Soviet Era they are awash in weapons.
Russia has for its part called the West’s threats of sanctions “blackmail.” A statement from Russia’s foreign ministry on Wednesday demanded Ukrainian opposition leaders “stop the bloodshed” and said Russia would use “all our influence” to bring peace to Ukraine, according to Sky News. Russia has also described the demonstrators as launching an “attempted coup d’etat,” language that Ukrainian government officials have been echoed in calling the operation to clear out the Maidan and suppress the protests an “anti-terrorist operation.”
Why it matters
Analysts contend that the protests represent the continued break from the old Soviet system and signal the countries lurch towards greater democracy and openness. The demonstrations have also “brought to the forefront a new generation of protesters that grew up in an independent Ukraine and have faint — if any — memories of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as Europeans, they are disillusioned with politics as usual, and they feel increasingly at odds with establishment opposition figures.”
“Ukraine is [the] most corrupt country in Europe,” Klitschko told CNN in December. “Ukrainians don’t want to live in [a] police country.”
They’re also deeply frustrated by the state of the economy. The 2008 financial crisis took a particularly heavy toll on Ukraine, which saw its economy shrink by almost 15 percent in 2009. The declining economy is compounded by the country’s shrinking reserves of foreign currency and a population in freefall.
In the wake of so much suffering, Ukraine’s citizens are hungry for solutions. As Oleh Kostyuba points out in a New York Times op-ed, “polls showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians supported integration with Europe, even in the East, the region most oriented toward Russia.” Yanukovych’s sudden reversal added insult to injury for many Ukrainians. As Greg Satell writes in Forbes, while the Orange Revolution sent a clear message that elections could not be stolen, “this time people are taking to the streets to build a bridge to the future, for the country to adopt international standards and become, in the words of protesters, ‘a normal country.'”
And the fate of Ukraine is increasingly being seen as the latest front in a series of proxy clashes between the United States and Russia as each seeks to see their vision of Ukraine triumphant. As The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe pointed out earlier this week, the situation unfolding in Kyiv and across Ukraine is essentially Putin’s worst nightmare, the sort of chaos his efforts to suppress dissent in Russia are meant to prevent. Given the geopolitical stakes at play, it is unlikely that either side’s supporters turn their attention away from Kyiv’s protests in the near future.
AFP reported on Thursday afternoon that Yanukovych is willing to hold early elections, a key demand of the opposition, according to the Polish prime minister. Whether the Ukrainian president will follow through on said elections, though, remains to be seen.
Ukrainian member of parliament Lesya Orobets announced on her Facebook Thursday afternoon that the Parliament had adopted a resolution demanding that “all military and police troops leave Kyiv to their ordinary place of service and stop using weapons against citizens.”
“We managed to find votes!” Orobets continued, referencing the difficulty in find a quorum amid rumors that many MPs in the ruling majority party had chosen Thursday to fly out of Ukraine before EU travel bans came into effect. The Parliament also said that all activists should be released and cases closed, victims should be supported and compensated as well as their families, and asserting that only Parliament can declare a state of emergency, in defiance of Yanukovych.