In April 2021, tensions between the Ukraine and Russia over the separatist territories and Crimea escalated suddenly, worrying Western diplomacies. Large movements of Russian troops on the border and in occupied Crimea have raised fears of a resumption of the war and even an invasion of the Ukraine. After pressure from Europe and Washington, the withdrawal of the troops (which Moscow said were part of an exercise) has cooled the area down again.
However, the peace process is stuck at 2015, at the time of the Minsk meetings and the roadmap agreed upon with the mediation of Belarusian President Aljaksandr Lukashenka. Repeated ceasefires, which have been broken several times, have so far prevented skirmishes along the contact line from escalating into open war again. But the plan that was supposed to lead to the pacification of the separatist-controlled regions, with local elections being held under Kyiv’s supervision, has so far remained on paper.
Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have continued their slow process of detachment from Kyiv: since 2016 the currency used is the Russian rouble, the banking system has disconnected from the Ukrainian one, while in February 2018 the detachment of the telephone networks also took place. Then, in April 2019, Moscow introduced simplified rules for granting Russian passports to their inhabitants.
More than five years after the Revolution of Dignity, as the experience of EuroMaidan has come to be remembered, Ukraine is still grappling with the same problems as always: pervasive corruption at every level of society, a very low level of trust in the political class, the excessive power of the oligarchs and an economic crisis that crushes not only the lower classes but also the fragile middle class.
Meanwhile, the debate on the reconstruction of the democratic state has shifted from the national political class to the entire state bureaucracy. Years of kleptocratic governments have fostered endemic corruption at every level. Fighting it has become the slogan of almost all politicians, who accuse each other of accumulating undue wealth. A noisy debate that has entangled the most important reforms, preventing them from seeing the light of day, with the result that European support (along with valuable loans from the International Monetary Fund) has also faltered and remains conditional on the steps required in Kyiv, especially on the fight against corruption.
What is being fought for
The post-Maidan Ukrainian crisis escalated into a real war in the aftermath of Russia’s military annexation of Crimea: in the spring of 2014, Kiev’s troops tried to regain control of part of the Donbass that had fallen into the hands of supported separatists from Moscow and to avoid the repetition of what happened in Crimea.
Although the separatists claimed they were fighting for the freedom of the Donbass (with a large Russian-speaking Russian and Ukrainian ethnic component) against what they called military aggression by central government forces, it is undeniable that the first leaders of the revolt were all Russian citizens and in many cases belonging to the Moscow security forces.
If the ethnic and linguistic factor certainly plays a role in the war, it does not explain everything. In fact, the Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are not the only Regions in Ukraine to have a strong presence of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians and the military and political response of Kiev has limited the spread of separatists to an extremely limited area of the Donbass , equal to approximately 7% of the national territory. On the other hand, it is not easy to identify the popular support enjoyed by the self-proclaimed separatist authorities, given the isolation in which they are closed and the scarcity of transparency and democratic rules in which they operate.Since the 2015 Minsk Accords, the front line has remained frozen, factually a hard border.
Former President Viktor Janukovič’s sudden backtracking on the road to Europe at the end of 2013 is year zero of the war in the Ukraine. Protests arising from Janukovič’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union led to thousands of people occupying the square, day and night. The riots took the name EuroMaidan for the central Maidan Nazaležnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv and the Ukrainians’ desire for Europe. The demonstrations went on for weeks, despite attempts by riot police to remove the barricades and the bitter cold of Kyiv’s winter. They culminated in late February, when 84 protesters died under sniper fire. The final toll of more than three months of EuroMaidan was the death of 103 protesters and 13 policemen. As a result, Janukovič fled to Russia and a new government was formed.
This is where the second phase of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis began. In response to the formation of the new government and Kyiv’s pro-European turn, Russia – in a maskirovka (undercover war) operation – took possession of strategic facilities in Crimea, supported the organisation of a sham referendum on independence and annexed the Black Sea peninsula to the Federation, all in less than a month. Apart from the military presence of the Black Sea fleet, which would have been challenged by any future entry of the Ukraine into NATO, the Russian reasons for annexation concern recent history. Crimea, with its majority of Russians and Russian-speaking population, was only “ceded” to the Ukraine in 1954 at the behest of Nikita Khrushchev, when the USSR’s internal borders were little more than marks on paper.
The annexation, formalised on 21 March, has not been recognised by the international community and Crimea, de facto under Russian control, remains formally a disputed territory.
The pro-Russian, anti-Maidan wave has spread beyond Crimea to the eastern regions of the Don Basin, the so-called Donbass. There too, armed men, not only locals, took control of the institutions, called a referendum on the Crimean model and declared the independence of two new entities, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (the capital cities of the two largest regions of the Donbass). The central government responded with a military operation to reconquer the territory that has crystallised into the current low-intensity war around the friction line established by the Minsk agreements.
Without Crimea and with the eastern regions – industrialised and rich in raw materials – removed from the government’s control, what remains of Ukraine has resolutely taken the European route. On 27 June 2014, the government signed the fateful Association Agreement with the European Union, from which it all began, turning its back – perhaps forever – on Russia. Then in 2016 came the signing of the agreement for the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), the free trade area resulting from the Association Agreement, which should give a new boost to the economy through trade with the European Union.
The knot of the Donbass is still open. The process of pacification and integration of the territories under the control of the separatists supported by Russia has stalled. No progress has been made since the 2015 Minsk agreements, despite some troop withdrawals on the Ukrainian side desired by President Zelenskyi. The war in Donbass has so far claimed over 13,000 civilian and military lives. A succession of ceasefires has frozen the situation on the ground but has not stopped clashes between combatant forces or the use of artillery, even in inhabited areas, causing a slow but steady increase in the death toll. And the enormous problem of internal refugees remains unresolved, estimated by the Kyiv Ministry of Social Policy at almost 1.5 million in 2020, a figure that makes Ukraine the country with the highest number of internal refugees after Syria. More than half of them have settled in areas of Donbass under government control, not far from the conflict zones. Moreover, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), only 750,000 have been integrated in some way into the local communities.
Key figure or organization
Viktor Medvedčuk has been on the political scene since the days of Leonid Kučma, the second President in the history of independent Ukraine. For many, he is the real Trojan horse in the country. A Member of Parliament since the 1990s, albeit with a few breaks and other appointments, and an oligarch who has run a lucrative law firm since Soviet times, he is also a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was godfather to his second daughter, Daryna. Medvedčuk has repeatedly been held responsible for the Russian infiltration into Ukrainian domestic politics, from the suppression of the Maidan uprising to the separatist uprisings in Donbass. In addition, he owns three television channels, which are considered to be an aligned means of disseminating Russian propaganda. Medvedčuk had become too unwieldy and in May 2021, on the orders of the Prosecutor General’s Office, he was arrested on charges of treason.
Focus 1 – The status of the Republic
The two entities under the control of the Russian-backed separatists are two quasi-states without any international recognition that call themselves the Donetsk (Donetskaja narodnaja respublika, DNR) and Luhansk (Luhanskaja narodnaja respublika, LNR) People’s Republics. The initial plan was to unite them as Novorossija (literally New Russia) with the ambition of expanding towards the Black Sea and Odessa, a project that later failed.
The two “republics” are inspired by Russian tradition and the Orthodox principles of the Moscow patriarchate, seen as an identity cult, but have also adopted some Marxist-Leninist principles, such as the collectivisation of land and the nationalisation of industry.
However, these two quasi-states are actually ruled by armed gangs, often fighting each other for control of smuggling and raw materials, in rivalries that have resulted in numerous high-level murders. A large part of the population has left the cities and taken refuge in the Kyiv-controlled territories, leaving in the DNR and LNR only those who have nowhere else to go, mostly the elderly and those employed in mining.
Focus 2 – The disputed referendum
The 2014 referendum held in Crimea is a divisive issue. While for many it was a demonstration of the will of the people with its 97% vote in favour, for others it was a “caricature of democracy”. It was called very quickly, and the referendum campaign hardly existed, except in the form of propaganda for independence. The vote took place without the supervision of international observers in polling stations full of armed people, without voting booths and without the use of electoral rolls. Even the questions left little choice: the possibility of maintaining Crimea’s existing status as an autonomous region of Ukraine was missing.