What Is Happening in Ukraine? Understanding Recent Protests in Kiev With 9 Questions

Source: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The situation in Eastern Europe is going from bad to worse, as Wednesday's tentative truce between the Ukrainian government and the opposition came crashing down Thursday morning. News of the raging battle in the battle in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev has taken over the front page of every newspaper and the news feed of every social media platform. But there's a good chance that before the violence kicked off you weren't too familiar with the internal politics of Ukraine.

Don't worry, you're not alone. Here's a brief rundown of what you need to know. 

1. First off, what should I know about UKRAINE's history?

Here's your cheat sheet: Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe that used to be part of the Soviet Union. It became an independent country when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Ukraine shares its eastern border and part of its northern border with Russia, and to the south is the Black Sea. The west and northwest of Ukraine is bordered by several European countries, including Poland, Hungary, and Romania. 

Take a look at the map below, because geography is key here: The huge chunks of Ukraine that border Russia are filled with Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who generally favor close ties with Russia. Those who live in the western half, bordering European Union countries, speak Ukrainian. They tend to look toward western European nations for guidance, and are keen for Ukraine to become part of the EU.

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2. WHY ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING?

In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych was supposed to sign a monumental trade agreement with the EU. This agreement would have solidified Ukraine's commitment to Europe and helped smooth the way for the country to become an EU member.

At the eleventh hour, Yanukovych backed out of the deal, which had taken years to negotiate. Those who had long been willing this momentous step forward in EU-Ukraine relations were devastated, and took to the streets to express their anger.

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3. WHY DID YANUKOVYCH REJECT THE EU DEAL?

Simply put, he didn't want to piss off Russia. That may seem ridiculous, but Russia still holds a lot of power over Ukraine. The two countries currently have an open economic zone agreement, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was threatening Yanukovych with sanctions. 

Russia is also responsible for delivering a huge amount of gas to Ukraine, for which it charges Ukrainians an incredibly high rate. Disputes over gas prices have led Russia to switch off the gas supply to Ukraine in the past which (since most gas pipelines from Russia to the rest of Europe go through Ukraine) means gas is switched off in other parts of Europe too. And yes, Russia has no qualms about switching it off in the depths of winter

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In return for not signing the agreement with the EU, Putin dangled cheaper gas prices in front of Yanukovych's nose. He followed this up a few weeks later with an offer to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian government bonds. Yanukovych, whose country got well and truly walloped by the financial crisis, couldn't resist. 

4. HOW DID YANUKOVYCH GET ELECTED?

With all the horrific images of the fiery battle currently raging in Kiev flying around the internet, it's easy to forget that not all Ukrainian citizens want to overthrow Yanukovych. Those in the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country are generally Yanukovych supporters. In the map below, the dark blue areas represent the places where more than 70 percent voted for Yanukovych. It wasn't exactly a landslide — the dark orange areas show where pro-Europe rival Yulia Tymoshenko won by more than 70 percent — but Yanukoych did win the 2010 election fair and square. He followed up this win with a move that seems borrowed directly from Putin — he threw rival Tymoshenko in prison. She's still there today. 

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5. WHEN DID THE PROTESTS BEGIN?

The protests began almost as soon as it was announced that Yanukovych rejected the EU deal. Tens of thousands of protesters spilled onto the streets of Ukraine's capital Kiev on November 21, 2013 to demand that Yanukovych change his mind about the deal. It was the biggest anti-government protest Ukraine had seen since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

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6. WHO ARE THE PROTESTERS?

One thing to remember about the protesters camped out in Independence Square in Kiev is that they are not "the opposition," in the sense that they're all a cohesive unit. In fact, less than a third of protesters belong to any organization at all

Some of the organized groups are ultra-nationalist, some are civil society groups, and some are staunch democrats pushing for closer ties with the West.

One of the more prominent opposition leaders is Vitali Klitschko, aka World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Dr. Ironfist. On Monday, Klitschko and fellow opposition leader Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in what was seen as a show of western support for the pair. 

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7. HOW Is THE GOVERNMENT REACTING TO THE PROTESTS?

Badly. Protesters were violently beaten by riot police in an attempt to suppress them. In January, the Ukrainian government passed new legislation clearly aimed at the protesters occupying Independence Square, outlawing unauthorized installation of tents and stages in public places. The laws also require all foreign-funded NGOs involved in anything that could be considered "political activity" to register as "foreign agents."

All online news outlets are now required to register as such and, at the request of the government, internet service providers have to cut off internet access to any groups or individuals the government chooses.

8. WHY HAS THE SITUATION SUDDENLY ESCALATED?

Around 20,000 protesters began marching from Independence Square toward the parliament buildings on Tuesday in support of a vote to reinstate the 2004 Constitution, which would limit Yanukovych's power and strengthen parliament. Riot police drove armored vehicles into the crowd, sparking the bloodiest battle of the uprising to date. By Wednesday, 26 people were dead.

A tentative truce between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders was short-lived, and by Thursday, a full-on gun battle had taken over central Kiev. Government snipers took up positions on top of buildings to fire at protesters, while protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails and rocks at the riot police.   

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9. Is There Any End in Sight? 

Good question. EU foreign ministers met today in Brussels to discuss the situation, and announced that they would impose sanctions on Ukrainian officials "as a matter of urgency." These sanctions will include asset freezes and visa bans. In a statement, the EU Council urged both sides to engage in a "meaningful dialogue" to bring an end to the violence:

The European Union is appalled and deeply dismayed by the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. No circumstances can justify the repression we are currently witnessing. We condemn in the strongest terms all use of violence. Those responsible for grave human rights violations should be brought to justice ... We call upon the Government to exercise maximum restraint and opposition leaders to distance themselves from those who resort to radical action, including violence.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney released the following statement earlier Thursday:

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As the situation in Kiev continues to spiral out of control, it's unclear what EU leaders' next steps will be if these sanctions have no effect. 

You can continue to monitor the situation in Independence Square on this live Web feed. (Warning: violent content.)

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