Crisis in Ukraine – A Primer


From the EU Association Agreement to the Russian Invasion


Overview of the Crisis in Ukraine


What has grown into the deepest crisis facing Europe since the end of the Cold War began in November 2013 as peaceful protests against a corrupt and authoritarian regime in Ukraine that betrayed its peoples’ aspirations for a democratic, European future, and has led to an invasion by the Russian Federation, in complete contradiction to international law and the Russian Federation’s international obligations, of sovereign Ukrainian territory. Below is a short description of the crisis from its beginning to its current phase.


1. First Phase of the Crisis – the Association Agreement


On 21 November 2013, then President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovych passed a decree that suspended the Association and Free Trade Agreement the country was to sign with the European Union. This was largely viewed by the Ukrainian people as a betrayal by its government.  Thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in protest in the capital, Kyiv, and in many other cities across Ukraine (including eastern and southern regions). Round-the-clock protests continued for a week.


During the night of 29-30 November 2013, Berkut (internal security forces) stormed the few hundred protestors (largely student activists) remaining at Kyiv’s Independence Square and brutally beat and assaulted the protestors, in an attempt to disperse them.


In response, on 1 December 2013, hundreds of thousands (estimates range from 500,000-1,000,000) people demonstrated in Kyiv demanding that those who perpetrated the attacks be punished. The government and President Viktor Yanukovych did nothing. A permanent protest camp was set up at Independence Square (Maidan).


On the night of 10-11 December 2013, Berkut and internal army troops tried to storm the protestors’ barricades and disperse them. In response, thousands of Kyivans came out an ensured that the protest camp remained secure.


On 17 December 2013, President Yanukovych and the President of the Russian Federation V. Putin signed an agreement that provided for the purchase of $15 billion of Ukrainian bonds by Russia and a discount on gas prices. The terms of the opaque and intransparent deal effectively placed Ukraine completely under Russia’s political and economic sphere of influence.


2. Second phase of the Crisis – Parliament adopts dictatorial laws


In response to continuing peaceful protests, the government of Ukraine cynically attempted to silence dissent by passing, on 16 January 2014, a series of dictatorial laws that severely curtailed freedoms of speech, assembly, the right to legal due process, and freedom of association. The laws were passed in all contravention of parliamentary procedure; President Yanukovych, who was supposed to be the guarantor of the rights of the citizens of Ukraine, signalled his approval for both the content of the laws and the procedure by which they were adopted by signing them into law.


Despite the six weeks that had passed since Berkut illegally and violently attempted to disperse peaceful demonstrators, no meaningful charges or investigations into the events took place.


On 22 January 2014, the draconian dictatorship laws entered into force. This incited more radical actions by protestors, including the throwing of stones and molotov cocktails at police barricades. In response, law enforcement and security forces launched disproportionate and brutal attacks on the protestors, including on those who did not take part in the violent actions. At least 5 protestors were killed in the immediate days following the adoption of the draconian laws.


In the days following the outbreak of violence and the disproportionate and brutal response by police and law enforcement, pro-government thugs – the so-called titushky – burned cars and attempted to incite further violence in Kyiv and other cities. Law enforcement ratcheted up its level of brutality towards protestors; in the following weeks there were several cases of torture and beatings of protestors. Hundreds of people were arrested on spurious charges.  Those who went to hospital following these beatings were surreptitiously taken from hospital for questioning in some cases by police and in other cases by unidentified individuals.


On 28 January 2014, President Yanukovych signed a decree removing from power the Prime Minister M. Azarov, and the Cabinet of Ministers – who stayed on in the role of acting Ministers. None of the officials responsible for the use of brutal force were removed or investigated – both the Minister of Internal Affairs and the General Prosecutor stayed on in their roles. S. Arbuzov, a loyalist of President Yanukovych, was appointed acting Prime Minister several days later.


On 6 February 2014, S. Glazyev, an advisor to President Putin with responsibility for Ukraine, called on the Ukrainian authorities to use force to break up the “coup” they were facing. He accused the US of “arming rebels,” and blackmailing Ukrainian authorities into negotiating with “putschists.”


A sociological poll on the demonstrations was released by the respected Democratic Initiatives Foundation which showed that 86% were ready to stay “as long as necessary” and that 54%  of those living in “tent city” were from Western Ukraine, 23% from Central, and 21% from Eastern Ukraine.


On 17 February, a law on amnesty came into effect on all cases relating to protests from 27 December to 2 February. In effect, the government had taken hostages that it then bargained with – as a result of the amnesty, protestors agreed to free administrative and government buildings. On 17 February the three opposition parties called for demonstrations in front of parliament as they attempted to put to a vote a return to the 2004 Constitution – which would return to parliament some of the powers the president had illegally usurped when in October 2010 the Constitution was reverted to the 1996 model by a legally questionable decision of the Constitutional Court.


3. Third Phase of the Crisis – Yanukovych regime declares war against its own people


On 18 February, the Yanukovych regime abandoned any pretense of legality. Protestors attempted to come to parliament. They were blocked by the internal army and security forces. Particularly brutal methods were used by law enforcement – sound grenades were thrown from rooftops into the crowds; there is evidence that snipers were used. At least 5 people were killed and dozens injured. Later in the night, security forces attempted to storm the tent city at Independence Square, but demonstrators successfully defended the Square.


On 19 February a de-facto state of emergency was implemented in Kyiv. The subway was shut down, the auto inspection blocked roads into the city and into the city center. Mass protests continued to spread to the regions of Ukraine – including the eastern and southern regions in which Yanukovych had his base of electoral support.


On 20 February, Minister of Internal Affairs V. Zakharchenko issued criminal orders that live ammunition be issued to special forces. Snipers and Berkut forces shot live rounds at demonstrators on the streets. Between 70 and 100 people were reported killed, with hundreds injured. The regime effectively declared war against its own people. Several security and police units announced that they will not carry out orders against their own people – in Zakarpattya, Lviv, Volyn, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, Ternopil and Poltava oblasts.


The parliamentary majority that supported Yanukovych began to disintegrate and a new majority began to be formed. Parliament passed resolutions banning the firing of weapons by the authorities and demanding the return of special forces to their places of permanent location.


On 21 February, the leaders of the three opposition parliamentary parties signed an agreement with Yanukovych, which called for a return to the 2004 Constitution which limits the powers of the president; immediate work on constitutional reform to be completed by September 2014; early presidential elections not later than December 2014.The protestors on Maidan refused to accept this deal and called for Yanukovych’s immediate resignation. Yanukovych fled Kyiv the night of 21 February, abdicating his role as president.


On 22 February, parliament removed all presidential powers from Yanukovych, as a result of his self-abdication. The vote was cast with 328 of 450 deputies in favour which was a clear constitutional majority. Parliament also appointed  a new parliamentary speaker, officials responsible for the activities of the State Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Defense and General Prosecutor.


Parliament of Ukraine is the highest legislative body in Ukraine, which was duly elected and representative of the people, acted legitimately within its constitutional responsibilities. 


 On 23 February, in accordance with the Constitution, Parliament appointed Speaker Turchynov acting president. All state, security and defense organs recognized the new authorities and carried out their orders in accordance with Ukrainian law. Parliament regulated the political crisis facing the country after Yanukovych fled and abdicated his responsibilities.


On 24 February, the governments of Canada, the US, the states of the European Union and Japan recognized the new authorities in Ukraine as legitimate. No major world power except for the Russian Federation has doubted the legitimacy of the new authorities.


4. Fourth Phase of the Crisis – Russia invades Crimea


On 27 February, Ukraine’s parliament established a new coalition of 250 deputies, and approved a new Cabinet of Ministers, headed by PM A. Yatseniuk, who received 371 votes for, the largest majority to ever support the appointment of a PM.


On 27 February, the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, occupied by unidentified armed gunmen, in closed session, voted non-confidence in the Crimean Cabinet of Ministers and voted to hold a referendum on the status of Crimea on 25 May 2014. The same day, A. Aksyonov, head of the party Russian Unity, was appointed head of the Cabinet of Ministers of Crimea, supposedly with 55 deputies voting for. These decisions passed by Crimean parliament cannot be viewed as legitimate, as they were carried out behind closed doors, with no press or witnesses, under the threat of armed gunmen in the Parliament. Aksyonov’s party received about 4% support in the last election to Crimean parliament.


On 28 February, movements of Russian Federation troops into the territory of Crimea began. Airports were occupied, and armed forces bases and headquarters of the Ukrainian armed forces were surrounded. While the Kremlin continued to deny that these are in fact Russian troops occupying Ukraine, and claiming that these are Crimean “self-defense” forces maintaining “order,” the sheer size, scale and technical capabilities (e.g. Russian military helicopter gunships and armored personnel carriers) of the forces present belies this nonsense.


Ukrainian forces acted and continued to act with admirable restraint, and large-scale violence has up until now, been avoided. The Russian occupation of Crimea has intensified over the last two weeks, with several thousand troops now reported over the territory of Crimea. It is clear thatAksyonov and his “government” – who have issued several illegal and unconstitutional resolutions and orders – including demanding that Ukrainian military units come over to their side, are acting as a proxy for the occupation by the Russian authorities.


The authorities of the Russian Federation and the Kremlin-propaganda machine have used a great amount of effort to attempt to paint the new government as illegitimate, “extremist,” and “fascist.” These are blatant lies. They have also attempted to create and present a situation in Crimea in particular and in the eastern provinces in Ukraine as one in which the rights of national minorities, Russian speakers and ethnic Russians are under threat from the new authorities. In actual fact there have been no moves taken by the new government that would present a threat to any minority group, or any citizen. It is the Russian occupation that is threatening Ukraine and its peoples. The OSCE High Commissioner for Minorities, who visited both Crimea and Kyiv, in early March found no evidence of violations or threats to the rights of Russian speakers.


On 4 March, in response to Russian president Putin’s contention that the new Ukrainian government is anti-Semitic and extremist, several prominent leaders of the Jewish community, including Josef Zissels, who spent years in Soviet camps as a dissident, and is Chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine (VAAD) wrote an open letter to Putin, in which they stated,


Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts. It seems you have confused Ukraine with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year…


The Jews of Ukraine, as all ethnic groups, are not absolutely unified in their opinion towards what is happening in the country. But we live in a democratic country and can afford a difference of opinion…


Yes, we are well aware that the political opposition and the forces of social protests who have secured changes for the better are made up of different groups. They include nationalistic groups, but even the most marginal do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior. And we certainly know that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government – which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.


We have a great mutual understanding with the new government, and a partnership is in the works. There are quite a few national minority representatives in the Cabinet of Ministers: the Minister of Internal Affairs is Armenian, the Vice Prime Minister is a Jew, two ministers are Russian. The newly-appointed governors of Ukraine’s region are also not exclusively Ukrainian. Unfortunately, we must admit that in recent days stability in our country has been threatened. And this threat is coming from the Russian government, namely – from you personally. [1]


On 6 MarchCrimean parliament “voted” to join Crimea to the Russian Federation, and to hold a referendum in Crimea on 16 March. The questions to be posed will be: “1. Are you for the joining of Crimea to the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation? 2. Are you for a return to force of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Crimea and for the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?” The referendum is illegitimate and in contravention of both the Constitution of Ukraine and Ukrainian legislation. It violates several articles of the Constitution, under which Ukraine is a unitary state, its territorial integrity and sovereignty are inviolable, and all decisions on changes to its borders must be adopted through an all-Ukrainian referendum. Moreover, any referendum taking place in a country under military occupation about whether a territory will join the occupying country  in question is a priori illegitimate, as there can be no hope for a free and fair expression of the will of the people.


The governments of the EU, the US and Canada all stated that they will not recognize the results of the referendum, and that the referendum is illegitimate.


In 1994 Ukraine agreed to surrender the third-largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world, in exchange for guarantees of her sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Russian Federation, along with the United States and United Kingdom, duly guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Russian Federation’s occupation of Crimea is a clear breach of its commitments under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, by which it is obligated, among other provisions,  to

  1. Respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders.
  2. Refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine.
  3. Refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.


Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been condemned by the leaders of the G7 and the European community. Throughout the crisis provoked by the Kremlin, Russian leaders have consistently refused to negotiate with Ukraine’s government. They have also made indications that they do not intend to stop with Crimea.


On 14 March, after violence broke out at a protest in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, in which there were indications that the violence may have been provoked by people brought across the border from Russia, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, in which they stated that the Russian Federation “is aware of its responsibility for the lives of fellow countrymen and citizens and reserves the right to take people under protection.” Worryingly, this is the same line that the Russian Federation used as a pretext for its invasion of Crimea, and the possibility exists that the Russian Federation will invade other territories of east/south Ukraine under the pretext of “maintaining peace.”


On 14 March, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine declared that the referendum in Crimea is unconstitutional and ordered that all preparations for it be halted.


On 14 MarchPrime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he will travel to Ukraine to meet with the Government of Ukraine to discuss the evolving situation there and how Canada can, along with its allies, continue to provide support. The Prime Minister will be in Kyiv on March 22 to meet with Prime Minister ArseniyYatsenyuk. Prime Minister Harper is the first G-7 leader to announce plans to travel to Ukraine since the beginning of this crisis. – See more at:


On 15 March the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine reported that 80 Russian troops supported by 4 armed helicopters and 3 armored personnel carriers entered Kherson oblast, directly to the north of Crimea.


On 15 March United Nations Security Council voted on draft resolution that would have reaffirmed Ukraine “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” and declared that the referendum scheduled for 16 March “can have no validity.” 13 of 15 members of the Security Council voted for the resolution; China abstained, and not surprisingly, Russia voted against – exercising its veto, which means that the resolution cannot be adopted. 

The regime of the Russian Federation has acted with aggression and belligerence towards a neighboring country, in contravention to international law and international treaties to which the Russian Federation is a signatory.

[1]The full text of the Open Letter can be found in its original at: A full text English translation can be found at


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