By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A crisis between Ukraine and Russia, which has loomed since 2014, continues to escalate. Two separate incidents—an escalation of Russian troops near Ukraine and a coup plot against Ukraine—came to light throughout November. How did these countries get to this point?
For several weeks in November, the United States, NATO, and Ukraine have reported an unusual spike in Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Additionally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Friday that two Russians were caught on tape plotting to enroll Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov, in a coup to overthrow the Ukrainian government. The Kremlin has dismissed both claims.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia have diminished since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. In his video series A History of Eastern Europe, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explains the extraordinary lead-up to this event.
A Nation in Flux
According to Dr. Liulevicius, between World War I and World War II, Ukrainians found themselves divided by borders. Most lived in the Soviet Union, with others in Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union brought the Terror Famine, or Holodomor, to Ukraine in the 1930s, cracking down on its cultural leaders and bringing mass murders. Ukraine didn’t fully gain independence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Unfortunately, its government got off to a rocky start. Corruption and an energy dependence on Russia didn’t help.
“Over time, disappointment with insider politics as usual produced a popular movement called the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004,” Dr. Liulevicius said.
Fueled by the political campaign of Viktor Yushchenko, who ran as an opposition candidate to the government, the Orange Revolution boiled over when Yushchenko was poisoned and nearly killed. The government returned fraudulent election results declaring his loss.
“One in every five Ukrainians went out in protest in the Orange Revolution, but there were contrasts; there was [a] divide between east and west,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “One in three people in the west protested, but fewer than one in 20 in the eastern part of the country.”
Part of this divide was because the western part of the country had been more recently “Sovietized” and could remember a past without the heavy influence of Russia. Their spirit of a solely Ukrainian identity inspired them. However, little progress was made during Yushchenko’s time in office.
Russia Re-Enters the Picture
“In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected president, with most of his support based in the eastern regions, and also with the support of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin,” Dr. Liulevicius said. ” Yanukovych also jailed his opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, a co-leader of the Orange Revolution and a former prime minister, accusing her of corruption in office.
“At the end of 2013, when Yanukovych bizarrely first negotiated and then refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, again mass protests erupted in Kiev, Lviv, and other cities.”
The government tried to quell the protests, but by February 2014, Yanukovych believed his power was crumbling and he fled to Russia. Putin declared his ouster and the subsequent change of government illegitimate, while Russian media called the protesters neofascists and Nazis.
“Russian forces moved into Crimea,” Dr. Liulevicius said. However, Russia denied the unknown troops were Russian, refusing to take responsibility for them or the violence they exacted on those who opposed annexation.
“Russia then annexed Crimea officially, over international protests. Later, in March 2015, Putin proudly admitted openly what his government had earlier denied—that he had masterminded the annexation of Crimea from the start. It was not a spontaneous response to calls for help from locals, but a plan, and the annexation in fact had been ordered weeks before the referendum was staged under the watchful eyes of gunmen.”
Since then, Russia’s influence in and around Ukraine has only increased.