Ukraine has been an independent state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Ukrainians have their own ethnic identity, its limited history as a sovereign state and the presence of a substantial ethnic-Russian and Russian-speaking population, particularly in the eastern half of the country, has spurred ongoing efforts by Russia to keep Ukraine in its orbit. For decades, these efforts were largely successful; the 2004 Orange Revolution gave way to retrenchment of pro-Russian forces when Viktor Yanukovych won a narrow victory over Yulia Tymoshenko and her pro-European bloc. However, discontent ran high in subsequent years, particularly in the western half of the country, and finally, widespread anti-government protests erupted in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in November 2013.
These protests, named “Euromaidan” after their pro-European bent and the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in downtown Kiev, where the unrest originated, came in response to then-president Victor Yanukovych’s decision not to join the EU and his prior acceptance of Russia’s $15 billion bailout. To protesting Ukrainians, Yanukovych was a corrupt and autocratic pawn of Russia. In response to rising tensions, Yanukovych deployed internal security forces and passed a series of laws that severely restricted Ukrainians’ basic rights of speech and assembly. In February of 2014, as armed conflict between protesters and government forces mounted, Yanukovych was removed from his post by a vote of the Ukrainian Parliament. He fled to Crimea, and later to exile in southern Russia. Over the next several days, Crimea was seized by pro-Russian forces and annexed by Russia. While the majority of Crimea’s population of 2 million is ethnically Russian, there are significant minorities of Ukrainians and Tatars, who are generally disinclined to join the Russian Federation. Shortly after the annexation a referendum was held, asking Crimeans to decide between gaining greater autonomy within Ukraine and joining Russia. This referendum, which resulted in 95.5% of the vote in favor of joining Russia, was deemed invalid by the UN General Assembly and a broad array of international experts, since it was conducted during a Russian military occupation.
Since the annexation, there has been ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the status of Crimea and Ukraine’s increasing geopolitical alignment toward the West. In April 2014, low-level fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatist rebels in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine escalated into an undeclared war. Solid numbers are difficult to come by, but it is widely estimated that over 10,000 civilians and combatants have been killed, primarily between April 2014 and the signing of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement in February 2015. While large-scale fighting has come to an end, occasional skirmishes break out, and tensions remain high between western Ukrainians and those in the east supplied with Russian support. Without a more permanent agreement on the status of Ukraine and its disputed territories, and some accommodation found between the two sides in what essentially amounts to a civil war, the world risks finding another Korean Demilitarized Zone on Europe’s doorstep. With many actors, a deep history, and complicated political and national allegiances among citizens, the need for UN intervention could not be more apparent. How can DISEC bring a more permanent end to the violence, and how can a peaceful solution be created and maintained?