Ukraine was ruled from 2010 to 2014 by President Viktor Fёdorovič Janukovič and his supporters from the Donetsk region in the east of the country. He manoeuvred between the EU and Russia in search of political gains. Guided by considerations of domestic urgency, Janukovič helped create hope among the population for an agreement with the EU, for which he would work. The Ukrainian President, however, failed to obtain guarantees from the EU of substantial financial aid as compensation for the damage that Ukrainian industry would suffer as a result of economic rapprochement with the EU. On the eve of the presidential elections, which were to be held in early 2015, the issue became vital.
At the same time, Janukovič had to take into account pressure from Russia. Russia first showed Ukraine – in the form of trade barriers – the losses resulting from choosing the EU instead of Russia, and then – in the form of an aid package – the advantages of choosing Russia. As a result, in November 2013, Yanukovich unexpectedly suspended the process of signing a political and economic association agreement with the EU. In return, he received generous financial and economic aid and assistance from Putin in December.
The decision taken in November 2013 led to mass protests in the centre of Kiev, which almost immediately turned into a constant clash in Majdan Nezaležnosti – Independence Square, the central square of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Most of the protesters were ordinary people living in poverty and were deeply affected by the rampant corruption in the State apparatus, in which the Janukovič family was also involved. For those citizens, association with the EU seemed a way out of the situation at the time, and when the door to Europe closed, it came as a shock to those people.
The civil protest, known as Majdan, was joined by right-wing nationalist and pro-Nazi groups, mainly from Western Ukraine. According to them, Janukovič, originally from the east, tried to “merge” Ukraine with Russia by deception – a move to which many Westerners were openly hostile. Finally, the Majdan protests were supported and financed by Ukrainian oligarchic clans, angered at the fact that Janukovič and his allies in Donetsk – having seized significant power – were aggressively expanding their business empires at the expense of other oligarchs. For them, Majdan was a means to obtain early presidential elections and overthrow Janukovič.
The events in Ukraine were not initially the focus of the US Presidential Administration, which was mainly concerned with: the situation in the Near and Middle East and East Asia; the Iranian nuclear programme; the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan; and relations with the People’s Republic of China. For both geopolitical and ideological reasons, however, the United States had long supported the pro-Western movement in Ukraine and were wary of the Kremlin’s plans for Eurasian integration. To prevent Ukraine from entering the Russian sphere of influence, the United States provided assistance to right-wing, Western opposition leaders and openly encouraged their efforts.
In mid-February 2014, the conflict in the centre of Kiev escalated with renewed vigour and turned into clashes, which led to a conclusion predetermined by third parties. At first, it seemed that Janukovič had decided to overcome the stalemate by forcibly dispersing the Majdan, which by that time had turned into a serious militant group, created on the basis of the nationalist organisation Pravyj Sektor (the Right Sector: a Ukrainian far-right political party and paramilitary organisation). The President of Ukraine, however, stopped the police offensive and started a dialogue with the opposition leaders, which soon turned into negotiations on concessions by his government, but ended on 21 February 2014 with the President’s actual surrender. The corresponding agreement between the Ukrainian authorities and the opposition leaders was “signed” by the Foreign Ministers of the EU countries, namely France, Germany and Poland. But immediately after the signing, that document was rejected by the Majdan: its most radical members demanded the President’s immediate resignation. Janukovič fled Kiev, the police disappeared from the streets, and the Majdan rioters could celebrate their victory.
Such tragic events were very painful for Russia. From Russia’s viewpoint, Ukraine has been a weak, fragile, and often unreliable partner for twenty years, and it creates problems for the transit of products of the Russian energy giant Gazprom to Europe (as we Italians realized and ascertained years ago). At the same time, Ukraine began to transform itself into a State led by a coalition of pro-Western elites and anti-Russian pro-fascist and anti-Semitic nationalists. According to the Kremlin, that change was fraught with two threats: the oppression of Russian language, culture and identity in Ukraine, and the country’s accession to NATO. Putin reacted immediately: in all likelihood he set into motion the plans already developed by Russia in case Kiev took the road to NATO membership. An attitude of which the US intelligence services were already aware.
Determined and characterised by geographical proximity, Russian policy towards Ukraine immediately gained momentum. Russia’s main objective was to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and, ideally, to reorient it in favour of the Eurasian integration project, the key element of which was the reunification of the so-called “Russian world”. As part of that new “proactive course”, Russia set two goals for itself.
The first task was to protect Crimea from the new regime. That goal was achieved by physically isolating the peninsula from mainland Ukraine, and neutralising Ukrainian troops in Crimea with Russian special forces and helping pro-Russian elements establish control over the local government, Parliament and law enforcement agencies. Russia encouraged a referendum on Crimea’s status and launched a massive propaganda campaign in favour of its reunification with Russia. The vote was held on 16 March 2014, with a large majority in favour of reunification. Two days later, an agreement was signed in Moscow on the inclusion of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation. Sevastopol is a city in the disputed territory of Crimea with a Russian-speaking majority. It is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine, which considers it a city with special status, but it is actually a federal city of Russia.
The second task was the federalisation of Ukraine, which would prevent the country’s complete submission to Kiev, thus making any step towards NATO membership technically impossible. On 1 March 2014, Putin asked the Federation Council for authority to use Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine and received it. Russian troops began conducting exercises on the Ukrainian border, thus demonstrating their readiness for an invasion, but the border was not crossed. The Kremlin pressured the new government in Kiev, prevented the United States and the EU from intervening by raising the stakes dramatically, and encouraged Russia’s political allies in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine.
In the south and east of Ukraine, where the Russian-speaking population was the majority, mass demonstrations began demanding regional autonomy and official status for the Russian language. After the demonstrations, organised militia groups began to occupy administrative buildings and take control of the city. In the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, militia groups held regional referendums in early May 2014 and announced the creation of republics independent of Kiev. Russia made no secret of its support for the separatists, but refrained from recognising the republics and sending Russian troops to protect them.
Russia, however, failed to rouse the entire south-east of Ukraine to resist Kiev. The hope that the predominantly Russian-speaking Novorossiya – which made up the entire south-east – would break away from the authorities that had defenestrated Janukovič and create a federation failed to materialise. The most important cities – Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Kherson, Nikolaev, Odessa and Zaporozhye – remained under Kiev’s control. Ukraine’s interim government also launched an “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which resulted in significant casualties on both sides and a humanitarian crisis, but did not lead to Russian military intervention.
Russia did not recognise the legitimacy of the Majdan-backed government, although it did not refuse contact with its representatives. The United States, on the other hand, provided political support to Kiev with ample publicity, as evidenced by visits to the Ukrainian capital by then Vice-President Joe Biden (2009-2017), Secretary of State John Kerry (2012-2017), CIA Director John Brennan (2013-2017) and numerous other senior US officials. Russian media claimed that it was the United States that was directing the Ukrainian authorities’ actions.
Russia took a number of diplomatic measures to resolve the crisis in Ukraine and achieve its goals. However, “telephone diplomacy” between the Presidents of Russia and the United States, as well as contacts between Foreign Minister Sergei Viktorovič Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry, produced no results. The Geneva Declaration of 17 April 2014 and the road map issued by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 8 May 2014 remained on paper. Instead, more attention was drawn to sending Russian troops to the Ukrainian border for exercises in what appeared to be preparations for an invasion. The presence of the troops was supposed to dissuade Kiev from taking tough action against its opponents and demonstrate Russia’s determination to defend its interests.
On 25 May 2014, early presidential elections were successfully held in Ukraine, culminating in the undisputed victory of Petro Porošenko (2014-19), an oligarch and one of the Majdan main sponsors The radicals, like the party previously led by Janukovič, did not receive significant support. It was impossible to ignore the choice of tens of millions of Ukrainians and Putin decided to resume contacts with Kiev at the highest level. The Kremlin, where Porošenko was well known, was therefore preparing to interact with the Ukrainian elites again, but under new conditions.
Within weeks, the measures taken in response to Russia’s actions radically changed the nature of the relationship of the former Cold War adversaries. Russia’s policy caused an extremely negative reaction from the United States and its allies. Russia was considered an aggressor and was actually expelled from the G8, a group of major industrialised countries that returned to the G7 format. The EU reduced contacts with Russia and NATO froze cooperation with Russia. Western leaders postponed the bilateral Summits with Putin, although exceptions were soon made. In the UN General Assembly, during the vote on the referendum in Crimea, one hundred States refused to recognise the outcome, while only eleven countries took the opposite position. In the face of almost unanimous condemnation, the Russian delegation suspended its participation in the work of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Russia’s accession process to the OECD also slowed down. Many Western delegations refused to attend high-level international meetings in Russia, including the annual Security Conference in Moscow and the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg.
The United States, and later its allies, imposed sanctions on Russian officials and companies covering entire sectors of Russia’s industry. Their aim was to inflict damage on Russia that would force it to make concessions on the Ukrainian issue and ideally lead to a regime change, i.e. overthrowing Putin by a “coup d’état” or a popular uprising. The subsequent waves of sanctions, combined with Russia’s increased political isolation, immediately led to a sharp drop in its stock market, a massive capital flight and a further weakening of the rouble. Although Russia’s relations with Europe in the energy sector were too important for many EU countries, the trend towards diversification of energy supplies in the Old World increased significantly. As a result, it became more difficult for Russia to import high-tech products.
In the military sphere, Russia began to be seen as an adversary of the West. NATO was once again intensifying its efforts to achieve its original goal of the late 1940s, e.g. “keep the Russians out”. The temporary deployment of relatively small Western contingents in Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States could turn into permanent bases for NATO troops, including US troops on the Alliance’s eastern border. NATO’s anti-missile defence system, currently being deployed in Europe, is openly targeted against Russian nuclear forces. Neutral States, such as Sweden and Finland, are considering joining NATO and, if this decision is taken, they will be accepted with open arms. Thus, at the decisive NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014, the “new old face” of the Alliance was presented to Europe and Russia.