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2014 Ukraine conflict

Obviously, there is a ton of historical background to the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. To keep things manageable, here we will start with the post-Soviet era, in which Ukraine’s political class was divided between those who wanted to remain close to Russia – with which, after all, Ukraine retained many social and economic ties – and those who wanted to pursue a more pro-Western course. Until 2004, the pro-Russian side had held control of the government, but in that year there were huge protests in Maidan Square (the “Orange Revolution”) and a pro-Western government came to power off the back of that. In 2010, the pro-Russian side of politics was elected back into power, but this time attempted a more even-handed foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and the EU. It’s worth noting that both sides of this conflict were just about equally as corrupt, leaving Ukrainians to languish with a stagnating standard of living while enriching themselves.

What immediately preceded this conflict was the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests, where Ukrainians protested against their government after they refused to sign a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of pursuing closer ties with Russia. The government tried to suppress the protests so brutally that they poured fuel on the fire, and the protests grew into an outright rebellion. The pro-Russian government was overthrown, and a new, Ukrainian nationalist government was installed in its place. (Worth noting that the Maidan protests always had a significant fascist/ultra-nationalist component. The new government was not as extreme as them, although they did pass a law criminalising “communism” at the same time as criminalising criticism of Ukrainian nationalist groups that collaborated with the Nazis and engaged in ethnic cleansing. In any case, that government was turfed in the 2019 elections.)

The Russian government was alarmed and enraged by events in Ukraine. They launched a military occupation of Crimea, which culminated in them annexing the peninsula. Crimea is a region that was (until the mid-1950s) a part of Russia, remained overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, and did not really identify with Ukraine at any point, making it relatively straightforward for Russia to accomplish this – they encountered little resistance there.

Then, they encouraged and supported separatist conflict in the far eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (the Donbas region). The trigger for this conflict was the moves the new nationalist government made to suppress the Russian language in Ukraine, amidst a broader climate of alarmist misinformation in the media about violence against Russian-speakers. Russian is the first language of about as many Ukrainians as Ukrainian itself, but in the east, Russian is particularly dominant. The separatists felt threatened by the new government’s concept of Ukrainian identity. But it was Russia’s material support for this separatist movement that enabled it to grow to the point that the Ukrainian government couldn’t put it down. It was a Russian anti-aircraft weapon that the separatists used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, for example.

In Minsk in 2014 and 2015, two separate rounds of agreements were signed to try to put an end to the conflict in Donbas. The first of these agreements called for an immediate ceasefire in Donbas, amnesty for combatants, and the withdrawal of weaponry and “illegal armed groups”, “fighters and mercenaries” from Donbas ahead of local elections to take place in December in accordance with a new Ukrainian law (as well as an economic recovery package for the territory). Both sides engaged in recurring violations of the ceasefire, and the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk decided to hold local elections in November instead and not in accordance with that Ukrainian law, pissing off Ukraine, the US and EU. So in February 2015, Minsk II had to be negotiated and signed. This deal contained a lot more specificity as to the terms of the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weaponry, and it required Ukraine to undergo constitutional reform with an eye to decentralisation. There were also to be new local elections. While Minsk II succeeded in considerably reducing the intensity of the fighting (at least, once Ukrainian forces withdrew from the city of Debaltseve a few days later), none of the rest of Minsk II was really implemented at all, and low-level conflict (in which 14,000 died) continued all the way up to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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