The war that broke out in Ukraine in February 2022 is closely linked to street demonstrations that took place in the country between late 2013 and 2014, commonly known as Maidan Revolution, Revolution of Dignity or Euromaidan, as they were about Ukraine’s European identity and their core was Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the most important square in Kiev.
On 21st February 2014, three months of largely peaceful protests ended in a spasm of deadly violence and President Victor Yanukovich was forced to flee Kiev and then Ukraine. The Rada (Ukrainian parliament) appointed an interim leader pending early elections.
In the meantime, Russian military forces arrived in Crimea and began a de facto occupation that is still ongoing. At the same time, demonstrations by pro-Russian and anti-government groups in the eastern Donbas region had turned into open warfare between Russian-backed separatist forces (which proclaimed themselves representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics) and the Ukrainian army, backed up by teams of volunteers.
How did simple street demonstrations escalate into a war in which some 14,000 people died and which, in February 2022, led to one of Europe’s biggest post-war humanitarian crises?
In November 2013, Ukraine was ready to sign an association agreement with the European Union that would have allowed free trade with the rest of the continent. It would have been the conclusion of a rapprochement process with Brussels that began following the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.
On 21st November, however, the Ukrainian government announced that it would “suspend” preparations for the agreement, preferring an alternative Russian proposal for a customs union. Putin, for his part, announced the abolition of customs barriers between the two countries, a reduction in gas prices and a $15 billion loan.
Within hours, thousands of people took to the streets in Kiev to protest. The “Revolution of Dignity” was therefore born.
Over the next three months, protests turned into a broader expression of popular discontent. The reasons were manifold: Yanukovich’s authoritarianism, prevailing corruption, the economic crisis and the decision not to sign the EU association agreement. Eventually, the political leadership’s decision to accept a 15 billion loan from Russia was seen as a sell-out of the country in favour of Moscow’s interests.
Challenging cold weather and the police, hundreds of thousands of people occupied the squares of the main cities of the country. Demonstrators came from very diverse communities. In spite of the presence of an extremist and fascist fringe group, which actually took part in the protests and in some cases coordinated them, demonstrators were mainly students or young workers having a clear pro-European identity.
As historian Yaroslav Hrytsak explains, the generational aspect is important: “This is a revolution of the generation having the same age as independent Ukraine (born around 1991); it is more similar to Occupy Wall Street protests or to protests in Istanbul. It is a revolution of highly-educated young people, people who are proactive in social media, 90 percent of whom have a university degree, but no future”. (Kyiv Post, 27th November 2013).
Yanukovich tried hard to crush the protests, first by sending in the feared “berkut” internal security forces to suppress the marches, then by passing a number of laws that severely restricted citizens’ fundamental rights of expression and association. These measures did nothing to quell the protests, which had now spread throughout the country.
Demonstrations remained largely peaceful until mid-February 2014 when, between 19th and 20th February, special police units in Kiev fired on the crowd, killing about 100 people and injuring many more.
Faced with the crisis, officials from several Western nations arrived in the country to negotiate early presidential elections. The Ukrainian parliament turned against Yanukovich, voting first to remove many of his powers and end the repression, then to remove him permanently. Yanukovich left office and fled to Russia.
On 22nd February, the Rada appointed an interim president and prime minister, who declared their intention to carry out internal reforms and consider integration with Europe as a top priority. Putin called the change of regime a “coup d'état” and declared that Russia would reserve the right to use all available options, including force as a last resort.
It must be said that not all Ukrainians supported the protests or their political agenda. As already mentioned, Euromaidan also included a number of extreme right-wing ultranationalist groups. Although a minority, their presence was emphasised both by Russian propaganda and by a part of the citizens (especially those living in the eastern part of the country), in order to highlight the risks for the civil rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians should the country definitively turn to the West.
One of the most tragic events denounced by pro-Russians was the massacre that took place in Odessa on 2nd May 2014 when, during a street demonstration against Yanukovich’s impeachment, 48 people, including trade unionists, demonstrators and members of extreme left-wing parties died in a fire in the House of Trade Unions, the perpetrators of which were members of extreme right-wing movements.
The occupation of Crimea
A few days after the fall of Yanukovich, Ukraine found itself at de facto war with Russia. Some soldiers, who would later be recognised as Russian militia although their uniforms had no identifying labels, took over Crimea. Locals began to call them “little green men”. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, who initially claimed that they were locals who had formed local defence militia, later admitted the presence of Russian soldiers in Crimea and even went so far as to reward some of them in public ceremonies. There was then a de facto annexation of Crimea, considered to be illegal by almost all international organisations.
Annexation was preceded by a referendum, which was not recognised by Kiev, in which Ukrainian citizens living on the peninsula and Russian citizens with residence permits were asked to decide on the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation as a federal entity. According to the criticised results of the referendum, held on 16th March, 96.77% of votes were in favour of annexation to Russia and 83.1% of those entitled to vote took part, despite the fact that several members of the Tatar minority had announced a boycott of the polling station.
According to the Russian government’s census of Crimea in 2014, 67% of Crimeans were Russian, 15.7% were Ukrainian and 12.6% were Tatars.
Having a naval base in Sevastopol and military airfields in Kacha and Simferopol, the peninsula became strategic territory for Moscow, which in 2014 began to deploy more and more troops there.
The war in Donbas
In April 2014, the “green men” also started to occupy administrative buildings in the cities of the Donbas region. Funding, heavy weapons, ammunition and supplies arrived from Russia.
The war officially began on 7th April, when pro-Russian separatists declared the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Moscow supported and armed the rebels and many Russian citizens joined the fighting, although the Russian Federation did not consider itself as officially involved in the conflict. An “anti-terrorist” operation was launched from Kiev involving the army and volunteer militias, some of them linked to the extreme right. As in Crimea, two referendums were held in Donetsk and Lugansk, another eastern Ukrainian region on the border with Russia, which resulted in overwhelming “yes” votes on 11th May.
Between late 2014 and early 2015, a number of international agreements known as “Minsk Agreements”, mediated by Germany and France, sought to end the war in Donbas. The so-called Minsk II, signed on 12th February 2015, included a package of measures such as ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the release of prisoners of war and a constitutional reform that would have granted self-government to some areas of Donbas. The fighting has since died down without ever ceasing completely. The conflict in Donbas has claimed some 14,000 lives and forced some two million people to leave their houses.
The post-Yanukovich era
In May 2014, Petro Poroshenko was elected as the new president of Ukraine. After an initial few months in which international analysts appreciated the government’s commitment to stabilising the economy and introducing a control system to make management of public procurement more transparent, over time Ukrainians revealed the absence of a plan to fight against corruption and rein in the country’s oligarchs. Not only that, it also emerged that many of those responsible for 2014 shootings of protesters had gone unpunished just as no consistent steps towards ending hostilities with separatists in the east had been seen.
In October 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky came to power, after defeating incumbent President Poroshenko in a runoff with 73% of the vote. A successful Russian-speaking actor, openly populist and skilled at communicating with young people, as the president, Zelensky has focused on digitising the administration, resuming talks with Vladimir Putin and on the process of reconciliation between the Russian-speaking majority areas and the rest of the country.
Towards total war
In spite of announcements, diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions in eastern Ukraine in recent years have not shown any significant sign of success.
In November 2021, satellite images showed a gathering of Russian troops on the border. According to Kiev, 100,000 soldiers, armed and equipped with tanks, were ready to invade Ukrainian territory while a plan was underway to overthrow Zelensky government.
On 7th December, US President Joe Biden promised Russia sweeping sanctions in the event of an invasion, however, ten days later, the Kremlin made detailed demands to Western countries: NATO would have to cease all military activities in Eastern Europe and reject any application for membership by any former Soviet nation. In January 2022, US and Russian officials met in Geneva but did not solve their differences and on 24th, NATO reinforced its military presence in Eastern Europe with ships and fighter bombers.
On 27th January, Biden announced that, according to US intelligence, Russians would invade Ukraine in February.
On 21st February, after recognising Donetsk and Luhansk republics, President Putin ordered the deployment of more troops in Donbas in what he called a “peacekeeping operation”. The next day, the Federation Council unanimously authorised Putin to use military force outside the Russian Federation.
At around 4 a.m. on 24th February 2022, President Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” in the Donbas region.
Immediately afterwards, explosions in several Ukrainian cities were reported, including in the two most populous ones: Kiev and Kharkiv. Meanwhile, shock troops landed in Odessa.
Putin justified this operation invoking the Second World War and explaining that his offensive aimed at “denazifying” the country, omitting that Zelensky had been democratically elected, was Jewish and had lost relatives during the Holocaust.
Putin also spoke of genocide: “The purpose of this operation is to protect the people who for eight years have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by Kiev regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as to try those who have perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation”.
Thus began the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Translated by Valentina Gianoli