Depending on which news feed you subscribe to, the current crisis in the Ukraine could either bring the U.S. and Russia to the brink of another Cold War, or just be the latest muscle-flexing from frequently shirtless, macho Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The reality, though, is that the clashes between pro-Western activists and troops loyal to now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych have taken 100 lives since government protestors peacefully occupied Independence Square in Kiev in November. And now, secession talk from the southern Ukrainian region in Crimea has brought tension between American and Russia to a dangerous boil.
As the back-and-forth continues, MTV News takes a look at how we got to this point:
How It Started
Anti-government protesters occupied Independence Square (known as Maidan) in November after president Yanukovych backtracked on a financial deal that would have brought Ukraine closer to integration into the democratic European Union. Instead, Yanukovych chose to ditch the EU deal in favor of closer ties to former motherland Russia.
In early December, more than 800,000 people demonstrated against the moves, marking the biggest such protests since 2004-2005 Orange Revolution that helped bring a pro-Western regime to power.
Yanukovych put new anti-protest laws in place and his police force attacked the peaceful protesters, killing at least 100 and injuring more than 600 during 48 hours of clashes from February 18-20. Opposition activists were also abducted and beaten in an effort to end the protests.
Why Choose Russia?
In addition to being a huge market for Ukraine’s exports and supplier of much of its natural gas, Russia promised the cash-strapped nation a badly needed $15 billion bailout that would save the Ukraine from defaulting on its debts. “Ukraine is a flawed democracy,” explained Timothy Frye, the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University.
“What’s at stake here is the principle of self-determination and [the idea that] Ukrainians should decide what parts of their country to keep and which ones not to.”
Did The Protesters Get What They Wanted?
Though government forces came down very hard on them, the protesters persisted in calling for Yanukovych to step down as they seized some government buildings in several Ukrainian cities.
On January 28, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned, parliament repealed the anti-protest law and passed an amnesty bill that would drop charges against those arrested during the unrest.
The February killing of the protesters — which included video of uniformed snipers taking aim at activists — led to the EU sending in foreign ministers to cool things off.
After days of talks with French, Polish and German ministers, on February 21, Yanukovych agreed to form a new national unity government and called for early elections. The next day, Yanukovych disappeared amid his claims of a coup, protesters took over presidential administration buildings and Yanukovych’s rival, former Prime Yulia Tymoshenko, was freed from jail after three years behind bars.
Last week, an arrest warrant was issued for Yanukovych and rival protests in favor of secession from the Ukraine broke out in the autonomous region of Crimea, a peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea which has a 60 percent Russian population.
(See how “Late Night” host Seth Meyers did in his “Insane In The Ukraine” news challenge.)
How Did Russia Get Involved?
After a clash between the Ukrainian activists and ethnic Russians in Crimea broke out on February 26, pro-Russian gunmen seized key buildings in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. Strangely, unidentified uniformed officers in combat gear showed up outside Crimea’s airports, raising fears that Russia had put boots on the ground.
What’s At Stake For The U.S.?
“There’s a deep worry about redrawing borders, because once you start to accommodate the Russian minority in Crimea, it runs the risk that other minorities on the wrong side of a border might make similar appeals and neighboring countries might get involved,” said Frye about why the Russian involvement sparked concern from the West.
“Whether Crimea is part of Ukraine or Russia doesn’t have a very big impact on the average American,” said Frye. “But the notion that states can create an artificial pretext to incorporate minority groups on the other side of the border [into their country] does.”
The World Reacts
After the Russian parliament approved Putin’s request to use Russian forces in Ukraine, large pro-Russian rallies in cities outside of Crimea worried American officials. Putin and President Obama, who Frye said have frosty relations at best, spoke on the phone for 90 minutes over the weekend about the U.S.’s request that Russia pull its forces back, a request Putin denied.
“The Russian government is protecting the rights of the Russian-speaking minority in the Eastern Ukraine and Crimea from what they say is the threat from the Eastern government in Kiev,” said Frye, noting that the interim government in Kiev isn’t really in a position to take those Russian bases in Crimea away from pro-Russian forces.
Are We Going To War With Russia?
On March 4 Putin denied that Russian troops had overrun Ukrainian fighters in Crimea, but talks the next day between France and Russia fail to reach agreement on cooling off the rhetoric.
Frye said Putin has long seen Obama’s support of democratic change in the Middle East and elsewhere as a challenge to Russian power and the pair’s phone conversation on Thursday did nothing to bridge their political gap.
“The solution a lot of people are hopeful for is for Crimea to remain in the Ukraine, but get more political and economic autonomy,” he said, noting both houses of Russian parliament approved a request on Friday to annex Crimea, despite U.S. threats of harsh economic sanctions against Russia. “That really ratchets up the likelihood for a broader, more sustained conflict,” Frye added.
At press time, two Russian naval ships had blocked an entrance to an inlet on the west coast of Crimea, pinning several Ukrainian naval ships in place. For now, though, nobody was talking about American troops entering the conflict, which, Frye said, could be Putin’s trump card.
“If he’s willing to ride out all the negative public reaction outside Russia and the sanctions that are not all that consequential, he knows he can get away with it because there is no desire to put [American] boots on the ground,” he said.