More than 5,000 lives lost. A vast and unfolding humanitarian crisis. The downing of a civilian airliner that shocked the world. A failed ceasefire. And shades of an East-West proxy war.
It’s hard to imagine — but true — that the raging conflict between Ukraine and Russia, or at least Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels, all started with a humble trade agreement.
As tensions run high more than a year later and Europe now tries to broker a new peace deal between Moscow and Kiev, it’s time to look back on how we got here, and where things are headed:
How it started
While the roots of the crisis run quite deep, what’s happening now began to unfold in earnest in the fall of 2013.
That’s when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych scuttled a trade deal with the European Union that would have pulled the country, so recently a satellite of the Soviet Union, toward Europe in the latest twirl of a dance that has lasted centuries.
Instead, Yanukovych jumped at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to buy $15 billion in debt from his cash-strapped government and cut the price of vital natural gas to the country.
Yanukovych’s decision set off protests in Ukraine’s more Europe-leaning west calling for the government’s ouster. Security forces responded harshly, beating protesters and firing live ammunition into demonstrations, resulting in several deaths. As clashes spread, so did international anger over the situation.
By late February, Yanukovych had fled to Russia, the government had fallen and a new pro-Europe government had formed to replace it.
That, in turn, set off pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea, a semi-autonomous Ukrainian republic and the location of a major Russian navy base.
After thousands of Russian troops filtered into the territory — purportedly at the invitation of Ukraine’s self-exiled president — Ukraine’s regional parliament called a referendum on secession, and before you could say “borscht,” Crimea was part of Russia.
And it’s here that things turned even uglier. Pro-Russian fighters occupied government buildings in the country’s east, demanding a referendum on independence.
Before long, rebel forces — supported by Russia, according to Western leaders — had taken control of major cities in Ukraine’s east. Fighting broke out between the rebel groups and Ukraine’s military, fighting that continues today.
In a major and likely inadvertent escalation in July, a suspected surface-to-air missile believed to have been operated by pro-Russian rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 people aboard and hardening Western opinion, particularly in Europe, against Russia.
What’s happening now
Europe is now trying to broker a peace between Ukraine and Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met privately with Putin on Friday.
A Putin spokesman called the meeting “a positive step in settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.”
Merkel is pushing a peace plan said to be in line with what Russia and Ukraine had earlier agreed to last September in Minsk, Belarus.
But that agreement was shattered by continuing fighting.
The exact details of the new peace proposal remained unclear in the wake of the meeting between the two European leaders and Putin.
Under the prior agreement reached in Minsk, Ukrainian leaders and pro-Russian rebels had agreed to a complete ceasefire and a creation of a 30-kilometer buffer zone. They also agreed to remove heavy weaponry from the front lines of the conflict.
Since then, however, fighting by both sides continued, and now pro-Russian rebels hold significantly more territory, analysts say.
One big question in the latest peace discussion is what would be the starting point for separatist strongholds: the land under rebel control in September and the territory held now, said analyst Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center.
The rebels now control about 40% of the territory each of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and about half of the population in both, Kofman said. The region’s value lies in its coal. It’s like the West Virginia of the Ukraine, and now Kiev must buy its winter coal back from the rebels.
In the meantime, two key events are expected to unfold in the coming week.
Merkel will visit with Obama on Monday, when the two leaders are scheduled to talk about Ukraine and Russia, as well as other matters.
At the same time, Obama must decide whether to use diplomacy or weapons to resolve the Ukraine crisis.
Kiev is seeking U.S. weapons for the ground war with the separatist, and the White House has acknowledged it’s considering sending “lethal” weapons, including anti-tank and anti-mortar systems, to the out-muscled Urkainian infantry.
The Ukraine military is essentially looking for “everything” it can get its hand on, short of planes, for a ground war: anti-tank guided missiles, armored vehicles, reconnaissance drones, counter-battery radars, secure communications equipment, and heavy weapons, Kofman said.
The delivery of Western weapons could escalate the warfare, especially if Russia begins using its air force in support of the rebels, experts say. Kiev asserts the Russian army is fighting beside the rebels. Putin denies that claim and calls the Ukrainian army “a NATO legion.”
Merkel opposes weapons for Ukraine, and next week’s meeting with Obama is expected to yield an announcement by both countries on how to reach a peace deal, analysts say.
Obama will also be pressed to make a decision on whether to send U.S. arms to Kiev.
“This is a moment in time that kind of decides in some respects Ukraine’s fate,” Kofman said.
Meanwhile, the carnage grows disturbingly, according to the United Nations.
The death toll exceeded 5,358 people as of February 3, and 12,235 more people have been wounded since last April, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.
The three weeks prior to February 1 has been particularly brutal: at least 224 civilians were killed and 545 more wounded, the U.N. said.
“Any further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine,” the U.N. said.
Added Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch through a spokeswoman: “Whatever the resolution to the conflict is, while it drags on both sides are making life for civilians a living hell by firing indiscriminate weapons into civilian areas and launching attacks from civilian areas.”
What’s next: possible scenarios
West awaits Putin. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that the ball is now in Moscow’s court to resolve the crisis in its neighboring country. He made that remark during a visit to Kiev on Thursday. He called on Moscow to withdraw heavy weapons from civilian populations and remove foreign troops and heavy equipment from Ukraine in order to achieve a diplomatic solution “that is staring everyone in the face.”
Putin pushes autonomy for rebels The rebels have captured a lot more land since the last ceasefire in September. Will they be willing to give that or all of it up in the name of peace?
Moscow has an enormous political stake in Ukraine, and it would be disastrous for Putin to capitulate, analysts say.
At a minimum, Putin would want Kiev to give political status and autonomy to the separatist-held regions, akin to the relationship between China and Hong Kong, for example, Kofman said.
Putin tests Obama. Sooner or later, nothing will come of the latest peace efforts, said John E. Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.
Germany doesn’t favor a military solution, but Russia does.
“And the facts on the ground seem to favor Russia,” Pike said. “At that point, Obama will have to decide what further assistance to provide Ukraine, and Putin is betting that Obama will blink and do nothing. This is probably a good bet, given that … Obama said the U.S. ‘must always resist the urge to overreach’ when it comes to getting involved in global crises.”
Will Kiev commit political suicide? Ukrainian leaders and their constituents don’t want to surrender anything to pro-Russian rebels.
To legitimize separatist-held regions would be political suicide, analysts say.
Has the West surrendered upper hand? Putin will read the visit by Hollande and Merkel as a sign that he’s gained the upper hand, said Gary Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“If there is to be a political solution of any lasting value it will only come after Ukraine, with Western support, regains the initiative on the battlefield. Not easy to do for sure but that’s the reality we’re dealing with,” Schmitt said.
U.S. gives Kiev weapons. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says it’s time for Obama to send U.S. weapons to Ukraine.
“This is a military that really hasn’t had any influx of new military equipment since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s a country that gave up its nuclear weapons under this promise of freedom and integrity,” he said.
“And now I think the United States is in a position to say, ‘Look, you need to have the tools and the ability to defend yourself.’ We’re not talking about giving Ukraine weapons necessary to invade into Russia, just to defend their territorial integrity.”
Putin fears U.S. weapons. Putin understands only “shear force” and met with the European leaders to buy time, as the White House weighs sending weapons to Ukraine, said former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili.
“It is not by any accident that Putin started to talk now because he learned that American weapons are on their way,” Saakashvili said. “He will again to try to win time. He will try to seize the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine and then try to force Ukrainian forces to flee and go for a coup in Kiev.”
All-out war unlikely. While Putin’s approval rating among Russians is sky-high, polling last year showed that the Russian people aren’t wild about an out-and-out invasion of Ukraine, said Robert D. Kaplan, the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor. “He may be a dictator, but dictators care about public opinion as much as democrats,” he said in an interview last year.
What will it take to end this?
Ukraine is a linchpin of Putin’s plans for Russia, whether it’s reassembling a historical empire or shoring up the Russian economy, Conley says. So whatever happens must support that. Kaplan says Putin can’t pull back without gaining assurances that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. Ukraine, he said, needs assurances about its sovereignty and energy security.
Another analyst imagined three possible outcomes: A slow-simmering war that lasts for many years. A ceasefire that doesn’t entirely satisfy Moscow and Kiev but essentially creates a frozen conflict for a long time. Or a political settlement where Russia withdraws forces from Ukraine and Kiev recognizes the separatists, Kofman said.
“That is the best likely outcome but most difficult to achieve politically,” Kofman said of the last scenario.