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Ukraine is a
region in western Russia that pretends to be a country nation in Eastern Europe, near the ill-defined border with Asia; its capital, Kiev (or Kyiv) is considered the key hub of East Slavic culture. Once part of the Soviet Union (declaring independence on 24 August 1991), Ukraine is a potential candidate member of the European Union, although the common Eastern Bloc levels of corruption and economic underdevelopment would be a large hurdle before that even without the internal and external political clusterfuck omnishambles that developed in 2014.
Due to a quirk of geography, most of the natural gas Russia sells to Europe passes through Ukraine. Sometimes Russia tries to punish Ukraine for being in arrears on their gas payments by cutting the flow of gas to Ukraine, but then Ukraine makes up the shortfall from the gas that was supposed to go to Germany, forcing Russia to cut off the gas altogether in the middle of the winter. And France just laughs, because 90% of their energy comes from nuclear power.
Ukraine also has the dubious distinction of having to redo their 2005 presidential election because of widespread fraud; during this campaign the eventual winner, Viktor Yushchenko, suffered one of the most acute cases of dioxin poisoning ever recorded. Russia was blamed for all of this, as is the usual in Ukraine.[note 1]
Euromaidan, Crimean crisis and further dickery
Ukraine was about to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, but Victor Yanukovych (Yushchenko's former opponent, who was elected President in 2010) cancelled preparations for it on November 21, 2013, causing a wave of protests known by a Twitter hashtag, Euromaidan (a portmanteau of "Europe" and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, translated as "Independence Square," the main square of Kiev). The situation escalated — every attempt at forcibly suppressing the protests caused them to intensify, becoming a hotbed for pro-Europeanists and nationalists alike. As demonstrators occupied government buildings, clashes between protesters and riot police backed up by "Berkut" special forces led to snipers killing opposition activists.[note 2] Ultimately, Yanukovych signed a compromise deal to restore the 2004 constitution on February 21 (the fact that the larger Ukrainian Army refused to participate in gunning down protesters being a major factor in this decision) and then fled without formally resigning his post, leaving Chicken Kiev fans jubilant. At least until it was revealed that he'd embezzled significant amounts of money from the Ukrainian treasury, and took the cash with him when he fled. He has since reappeared in Russia, maintaining that he is still the legitimate President of Ukraine and that his removal was an illegal coup d'état. You can bet some Ukrainian hryvnias (and a galleon) what's the position of Russia.
Ukraine was not undivided in its opposition to Yanukovych's government. As a general rule, the protests received more support in the western parts of Ukraine, while the more pro-Russian eastern parts, which also contain more ethnic Russians[note 3], saw counter-protests in support of Yanukovych and even open calls to
sedition joining Russia. One of the peaks of these sentiments was the Autonomous Republic of Crimea: its "special status" city of Sevastopol includes a major sea port and a Russian naval base.[note 4]
The situation got worse after Yanukovych's re-emergence in Russia. Inter-ethnic tensions were exacerbated by a push by the remaining Ukrainian parliament to repeal a controversial 2012 law on regional languages[note 5] that in effect had made Russian the official language in regions recognized as predominantly Russian. The acting President vetoed the repeal, but the damage was already done.
Vladimir Putin then invaded, with militia and soldiers seizing Crimean parliamentary buildings and installing a pro-Russian prime minister, and a referendum to secede from Ukraine (widely denounced as a sham, especially considering the "Russian Bloc" party which was installed as the new leaders of Crimea never reached more than 3% before the Russian intervention) passed by 97% on March 16. By April, separatists stirring shit up in the rest of the country were able to establish an insurgency in the easternmost oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk (collectively known as the Donbass); in the coastal city of Odessa, a confrontation between pro-Russian and the pro-Ukrainian activists resulted in 42 pro-Russians dying in a fire at a trade union house.
Long story short: on June 27, the crisis went full circle with the newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko signing the Association Agreement (alongside Georgia and Moldova), a civilian airliner was shot down, and once it was clear the Ukrainian army would succeed in a bloody summer counter-offensive, over 3,000 Russian troops moved into the Donbass on August 28 in an attempt to freeze the conflict. On October 26, the first parliamentary elections since the revolution decimated Yanukovych's Party of Regions in favour of pro-European reformers.
It appears this entire escapade doesn't really make any sense in the long term for the Kremlin (both at the cost of supplying the annexed territory and global geopolitical risks), leading some to speculate that Putin may be losing it. Even China, at a time when Putin desperately needs allies, has been
partying ...ahem, notably silent.
Nonetheless, President Petro Poroshenko's penchant for shelling civilian targets, cutting off their water and social supplies, and blocking attempts at reform from parliament shows that this isn't solely a black-and-white issue; increasingly black-and-black, honestly, which has contributed to the massive humanitarian crisis within Ukraine. There are multiple instances of beatings, abductions, and possible executions of local residents by Ukrainian troops. Amnesty International noted that Kiev's volunteer "territorial defence battalions", such as the Aidar Battalion, Donbas Battalion, and Azov Battalion, are increasingly blocking humanitarian aid into eastern Ukraine. Similar concerns have been raised about Oleh Lyashko and his militia. Human Rights Watch noted that Ukrainian government forces and pro-government paramilitaries used unguided, indiscriminate Grad rockets against civilian areas. Amnesty International dug up several incidents of summary executions by Kiev's forces as well. Poroshenko's siege tactics on insurgent areas also disproportionately affect civilians. And of course, the insurgents have been known to abduct and torture pro-Kiev Ukrainians, destroy medical equipment, threaten medical staff, and occupy hospitals while taking hostages. Oh, and there's also Poroshenko's lack of will to target the oligarchs — since he is himself an oligarch. Meanwhile, the government has issued bans against 41 international journalists who are considered pro-Russian, which inexplicably includes three BBC journalists and two Spanish journalists missing in Syria. Trolls affiliated with SBU harassed and sent death threats to a number of Ukrainian journalists who were accused of treason due to their attempts to cover war on both sides.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk isn't much better, what with his hard-on for austerity, which includes eradicating education, healthcare, unemployment benefits, and social programs in general in exchange for enriching the oligarchs who helped fund his campaign. And though sources like RT have been exaggerating the role of the far-right groups (including the Right Sector) in the civil war, they are agitating the conflict unnecessarily. Unfortunately for all involved, it appears that the far-right groups are growing in influence with the actual Ukrainian army. Their latest antics include committing war crimes in the separatist-held territories, assaulting a gay pride march in Kyiv, and most recently, disrupting an LGBT festival in Lviv. Moreover, the Ukrainian government recently introduced a blanket ban on Russian social networks, prompting fury among Ukrainian users and reinforcing concerns that Poroshenko may be using anti-Russian rhetoric as a way to divert attention from the country's inner problems (such as corruption, which is government's direct fault). In the words of Francis Malige, the Director of the European Bank for reconstruction and development in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, fighting corruption in Ukraine is like sport fishing: "caught, photographed, released". Further controversy was drawn by the decision to rename a street in Kiev after the Ukrainian nationalist Roman Shukhevych who had been a collaborator with Nazi Germany and one of the organizers of anti-Jewish and anti-Polish ethnic cleansings. The country is also becoming a refuge for Islamists outlawed in Russia and EU countries.
Ukraine is sometimes called "the Ukraine," which annoys
the Ukrainians, although this practice is dying out. The reasoning for this is based on etymological debates over the origins of the word Ukraine: a popular version is that it comes from a Slavic word corresponding to "frontier" or "borderland"[note 6] — hence the ukraine ("the borderland"), although Ukrainians themselves would call the borders "kordony", and the borderland "okolytsia". A similar division manifests as Russians prefer using "на Украине" (on the Ukraine) instead of "в Украине" (in Ukraine). It's a manufactroversy, really, but you can think of "Ukraine" as referring to the country, and "the Ukraine" as referring to the region.
- A dog tries to sing the Ukranian national anthem
- Everything you wanted to know about Ukraine but were too afraid to ask
- What can history teach us about the unrest in Ukraine? and Ukraine and Russia's History Wars (discussing the frequent bitch-fighting by Ukrainian and Russians about what part of Slavic history is actually theirs)
- Let's slow roll any moves toward Crimean War II
- Eurosceptics, yes, this is partly your fault.
- Most likely true, in this case.
- Note to politicians: if one of your country's most important monuments turns into this under your watch, say sweet goodbye to your career.
- Largely because of ethnic cleansing by Joseph Stalin.
- Think of it as a Eastern European Guantanamo.
- How controversial? It caused a fistfight in the parliament. (See the Wikipedia article on Legislation on languages in Ukraine.) Though fistfights are actually not uncommon in the Ukrainian parliament.
- Окраине, "border" in modern Russian, vs Украина, the word for Ukraine.
- Serhii Plokhy. The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Visiting Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and a cradle of Russian culture, Washington Post
- Yushchenko Dioxin Level Off Charts, CBS News
- This chart is great news for Ukraine, bad news for Putin, Vox
- Tomé Filipe Gaspar Jorge. "Media’s symbolic power: RT and The Guardian' discursive construction of the Euromaidan protests and Crimean annexation." Aalborg University, 2014.
- Agreement on the Settlement of Crisis in Ukraine - full text, The Guardian
- Ukranian Protesters Invade President Yanukovych’s Lavish Estate, Find Private Zoo, New York Magazine (And more!)
- In Crimea’s sham referendum, all questions lead to ‘yes’, The Globe and Mail
- Crimea votes to leave Ukraine in secession referendum and join Russia, CBC
- How did Odessa's fire happen?, BBC News
- Ukraine takes one step closer to EU, Deutsche Welle
- Mr. Putin’s War—And Why He Continues to Deny It, The National Interest
- How Putin turned Ukraine to the West, Washington Post
- See these three more analyses from the Washington Post
- Russia’s Move Into Ukraine Said to Be Born in Shadows, The New York Times
- Putin's Press Conference Proved Merkel Right: He's Lost His Mind, The New Republic
- Putin Loses His Grip on Central Asia as China Moves In, Bloomberg Businessweek
- The World's Post-Crimea Power Blocs, Mapped, The Atlantic (Here's why.)
- Even Forbes finds him questionable.
- Amnesty International Says Both Sides of Ukraine Conflict Guilty of War Crimes, The Moscow Times
- Right Sector threatens Kyiv gay pride march (VIDEO), Kyiv Post
- LGBT festival in Ukraine abandoned after far-right protest
- Why Did "The Ukraine" Become Just "Ukraine"?, Mental Floss