What on Earth Just Happened in Ukraine?

The February 3 resignation of Ukraine’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius sparked another political crisis in Kyiv, a crisis that deepened with a failed vote of no-confidence on February 16. The governing coalition in parliament is unraveling and early parliamentary elections look likely. Analysts fear that a populist or even radical government may come to power, undoing the progress that has been made.


Abromavicius performed admirably, cutting the bloat in his ministry almost in half and driving the privatization of corrupt state enterprises. In his resignation speech, Abromavicius accused Ihor Kononenko, a key player in the Poroshenko Bloc, of attempting to place his own deputy minister in Abromavicius’ ministry to be responsible for state gas and oil company Naftogaz and other state enterprises. By specifically naming Kononenko in his resignation speech, Abromavicius wanted to pressure President Petro Poroshenko and the political establishment to put reforms into high gear and draw the international community’s attention to problems within the government. Abromavicius’ short tenure shows just how difficult attempts to reform are in a country where clientelism and cronyism run deep.

The West’s reaction to the crisis has been both outspoken and frustratingly vague. The West has been unwilling to target the real causes of the crisis. Backing pro-Europe politicians because they support US interests does not mean that one can turn a blind-eye to their failures and flaws. Politicians must be responsive to their own citizens and the needs of their country.

Although a group of 10 ambassadors to Ukraine released a statement expressing strong disappointment at Abromavicius’ resignation and the unwillingness of the Ukrainian parliament to focus on the necessary reforms almost immediately after the minister resigned, the statement referred only to “parochial differences” among Ukraine’s leaders that need to be “set aside” and to “vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades” that must be put “in the past.” On February 10, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde referred to “vested interests” and warned that the IMF could halt its financial support of Ukraine if the government did not do a better job fighting corruption, though she failed to mention any names.

Abromavicius’ high-stakes gamble worked, to some extent: the IMF suspended the next tranche of Ukraine’s $17.5 billion IMF program, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has already opened an investigation into Abromavicius’s claims, and Kononenko has suspended himself from serving as first deputy chairman of the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko.

The international community also took notice. But the imprecise nature of its initial response opened the door to the high political theater of February 16, the consequences of which threaten to undermine reform significantly. In the morning of February 16, Poroshenko sacrificed Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, seen by many as protecting the interests of the old guard, and called for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to resign. But Poroshenko was double dealing: he called for Yatsenyuk’s resignation while hoping that he would remain in office, albeit in a weakened state. On the evening of February 16, the parliament deemed the government’s work “unsatisfactory,” but, paradoxically, failed to push Yatsenyuk out in a no-confidence vote by 32 votes. No issues have really been addressed: Kononenko remains in the party, the coalition is fracturing, and the lack of reform has not been addressed.

The West, and especially the United States, has been loath to criticize Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk directly, having supported them as they worked to stabilize the country after disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow. The United States, like everyone else, craves stability and predictability. Ukraine’s government, however, is not stable; it is stagnant. Backing Poroshenko unequivocally is no longer the answer, as the greatest obstacle to reform may be that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk never escaped from the old system that the Euromaidan hoped to dispel. They have not been able to defeat the oligarchic interests that far too often dictate policy in Ukraine, especially as their allies often represent those very interests. The West’s representatives in Ukraine must name names, including oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and attach concrete strings to the support they are giving Ukraine.

Poroshenko must do more if he wants Ukraine to become a normal European country. His government is extremely unpopular, as a November IRI poll shows: 70 percent of Ukrainians disapprove of the job he is doing, 82 percent disapprove of the job Yatsenyuk is doing, and 83 percent disapprove of the job parliament is doing. Ukrainians want to see visible progress on corruption and reform, and they want their bottom line to improve. The West must support them by publicly pressuring Poroshenko to purge the elements in his bloc and government who are dragging their feet on reform, leaving sentimentality and “vested interests” behind. Unfortunately, Poroshenko himself may be caught too deep in the mire for this to be possible.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers

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Georgia’s Former President Saakashvili appointed the New Governor of Odessa: Implications for Georgia and Ukraine

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.


How are Georgians reacting?

What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.

Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time,[1] but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.

Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.

In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”

While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.

The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,

…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.

Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”

What does this mean for Ukraine?

So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.

As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.

Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili.[2] If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.

Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.


[1] Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.

[2] For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public. 

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Do sanctions on Russia create more problems than they solve?

The sanctions on Russia seem to be working. The sanctions, coupled with large victories by pro-Western parties in 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, may contribute to a sense that matters are heading in the right direction for the U.S.

Why then did Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov say that the sanctions will fail? Partly, of course, he’s saving face. But he has a point. Politically, Putin is the strongest man in Russia. While the Russian oligarchs have immense power, they’re still not as strong as Putin. And even though Russian billionaires are steadily losing money, the reality is that Putin’s inner circle can probably weather the crisis, cossetted as they are by his influence. They’re wagering that the sanctions coalition and public approval for it will fracture before their fortunes decline.

So if the oligarchs can’t put enough pressure on Putin to leave Ukraine, what does that mean for Russia? The effects of economic sanctions are passed off to local consumers. The Russian ruble is at its lowest value since 1998. Its central bank has spent almost all of its cash reserves to keep the ruble afloat and may soon  raise interest rates, further damaging an economy that’s been going nowhere for a while. Inflation is on the rise. Capital flight reached $151.1 billion by the end of 2014. The Russian economy hasn’t looked any healthier in 2015.

In a fully functioning democracy, the people, feeling the economic pressure, would move to replace their leaders with ones more willing to deal with the West. Good luck in Russia. First, in Russia elections are not meaningful. There is no alternation of power. Second, Putin possesses an extraordinary ability to transmit a siege mentality through his control of the Russian media, which presents a unified image of the spiteful and jealous West as perpetrators of great injustices against a Russia that is simply assuming its rightful place. Nothing illustrates this better than how differently the downing of flight MH17 is perceived in Russia from the rest of the world. Because of his almost total control of the media, Putin can use the existence of the sanctions to distract from their effects, rallying the people against the “oppressive” West.

Another problem with the sanctions is that they are an attempt to force Putin to assume a position he cannot accept: that of Russia as a secondary nation. Although his speech in March 2014 in which he defended Russia’s involvement in Crimea was mainly a public-relations stunt designed to justify Russia’s actions, it demonstrated a worldview that is incompatible with the West. Through a flawed interpretation of history, Putin sincerely believes that Russia, after feasting at the main banquet, has been asked back to the children’s table.

Sanctions are a blunt weapon, whose effects are often hard to measure or to translate into political gains. However, there is no real alternative. Harsher sanctions could be imposed, but there is only so much to sanction, and cooperating with some of the European nations, whose economies are closer tied to Russia, has been difficult. Also, while isolating Russia economically and politically is the goal, Russia still has a role to play internationally. Sanctioning Putin directly would hamper attempts to work with him, further fuel his narrative of Russia as victim, and also could push him to take drastic action. The more options are taken away from a cornered man, the more likely it is that he will act irrationally. The only other option, military action, is out of the question.

So where does this leave us? The sanctions may have some significant negative side effects for long term U.S.-Russian relations, but they are also the only feasible way for the United States to defend its interests. Doing nothing would have a detrimental, trend-setting effect. Isolating Putin completely would probably create even greater problems. In the end, the United States must do two things. First, the West should try to do more to help Ukraine economically, to give it more stability. Of course, the internal stability of Ukraine depends very much on Ukraine. Ukraine is not the fifty-first state. It’s not even a member of the EU or NATO. Still, the U.S. can attach strings to its aid, such as necessitating anti-corruption measures, making use of the surge in pro-Western feeling in Western Ukraine. Second, the United States must continue to support NGOs in Russia and work to counteract Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric by introducing media of its own into Russia. Provoking the ire of the Russian people against Putin would be a huge coup for the West.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research assistant intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015

In July 2014 we published a post titled “Ukraine Crisis Timeline: Talk of Peace, Acts of War.” This updated version of that post makes clear the pattern of Vladimir Putin’s strategy of iterative deception and aggression.

We have marked in brackets the elapsed time between key events to highlight the hypocrisy of Putin’s words versus his actions in Ukraine.

I. Yanukovych’s Downfall; Putin’s Countermeasures

November 21, 2013: Yanukovych backs off from his tentative agreement to initial an association agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit – contrary to his campaign promises when he was elected in 2010. Popular protests in Kiev begin immediately and grow larger with each passing week. Yanukovych uses increasing violence to suppress the protesters, and Russian media portray the Maidan protesters as Western-instigated fascists. This deception and escalation continue for three months.

February 21-22, 2014: Yanukovych flees Ukraine; Maidan protesters take control of Kiev government buildings; an interim, pro-EU government is formed.   [3 months]

February 27: Pro-Russian separatists seize their first official building in Crimea; each day, new government buildings and military bases are surrounded and taken over by pro-Russian separatists backed by “little green men” (covert Russian troops).      [5 days]

March 5: U.S and reluctant Europeans announce minor sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea; Russia continues to deny involvement in supporting separatists; Ukraine military forces in Crimea crumble.

March 16: Self-appointed Crimean officials, also backed by anonymous green-uniformed men with guns, hold a referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine; allegedly, 97 percent of voters wish to join Russia; Moscow quickly agrees to the request and moves to annex Crimea. [17 days]

March 20: U.S. and EU announce financial sanctions against additional Russian individuals close to Putin, in reaction to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.                                                  

March 31: In response, Putin promises to withdraw most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (but fails to do so).    [11 days]        

April 7: Separatists occupy government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for referenda on independence for these three major regions, and asking Russia to send “peacekeepers” to protect them.   [7 days]

II. Ukraine Fights Back; Russia Escalates and Claims “Historic” Rights

April 15: Start of Ukrainian military operations against pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk (Kharkiv uprising fizzles); EU remains hesitant to apply increased sanctions despite mounting evidence of Moscow’s backing for the separatists. [8 days]

April 17: Putin announces his concept of the historic “Novorossiya,” attempting to provide historical rationale for Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine.     [2 days]

April 20: US sends 600 troops temporarily to Poland and the Baltic States as a gesture of reassurance that NATO allies will be defended against similar Russian incursions. 

April 24: In response to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operations” Russia begins new military exercises near its border with Ukraine.      [4 days]         

April 26: Russian political operative Alexander Borodai, the self-declared political leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic cedes control of separatist fighters to Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin, alias Ivan Strelkov (“The Shooter”).     [2 days]

May 2: Clashes develop between the separatist minority and the pro-unity majority in Odessa (very far from the Dombass enclaves), leaving at least 42 dead.

May 11: Self-appointed pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk hold referenda, not recognized by Kiev or the West; they declare independence.

May 25: Petro Poroshenko elected as Ukraine’s president on a reformist, pro-EU platform, with a 54.5 percent majority; but he also says he seeks negotiations with Putin.

May 26: Putin says he will respect the results of Ukrainian elections.

Late May-Early June: Separatists begin attempts to take the strategic Donetsk airport; Ukrainian forces fight back, with heavy casualties on both sides; continuing military clashes as separatists try to consolidate control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions; Russian armaments and “volunteers” strongly in evidence, despite Moscow’s denial of involvement

III. Separatist Offensive; Talk of a Peace Plan

June 4: Separatist rebels take two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern border region of Luhansk and fighting continues near the key rebel-held town of Sloviansk.             

June 9: Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says that Russia and Ukraine have reached an understanding on the implementation of a cease fire and peace plan for the East.

June 12: Ukrainians says three Russian tanks entered rebel areas in the east, along with other armaments; Russia denies the allegation.       [3 days]

June 14: Pro-Russian rebels shoot down a military transport plane, killing 49 Ukrainian troops, showing the sophistication of weaponry now possessed by the rebels; protesters in Kiev attack the Russian embassy.

June 16: Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Ukraine, economically reinforcing pro-Russian separatist actions in eastern Ukraine.    [2 days]

June 23: Poroshenko declares a temporary ceasefire based on Russian offer of negotiations for a peaceful political settlement between separatists and Kiev government; rebels officially agree one day later.

IV. Moscow Postures; Separatists Violate Ceasefire

June 24: Vladimir Putin officially rescinds power to use Russian military in eastern Ukraine as a gesture of his purported commitment to a peaceful settlement; nine Ukrainian servicemen die the same day when rebels shoot down an army helicopter.

June 27: The EU signs an Association Agreement with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

June 28: Rebels release eight members of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) who had been detained since the end of May.

June 30: Poroshenko ends his unilateral ceasefire based on continuing violations by separatists with numerous Ukrainian casualties and the strengthening of rebel positions.

Ukrainian Government Takes the Offensive

July 5: Rebels are pushed out of their strategic bastion of Sloviansk; Ukrainian flag hoisted over city council building, fostering optimism for Ukrainian victory in Eastern Ukraine; pro-Russian rebels publicly criticize Putin for “lack of support.”

July 14: Ukrainian military plane shot down at 21,000 feet; Kiev government says missile came from Russian territory since pro-Russian rebels did not have adequate weaponry to hit plane at high altitude.    [9 days]

July 16: Obama warns Putin of further sanctions on Russia following continued violence in eastern Ukraine, with mounting evidence that Moscow is feeding this escalation,

V. Malaysian Airlines Shoot-down; Russian Denials, European Countermeasures

July 17: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashes in eastern Ukraine killing 298 civilians, mostly Dutch and other Europeans and Australians; plane was downed by a sophisticated Buk surface-to-air missile supplied by Russians; separatists initially boasted they had shot down a large “Ukrainian military aircraft”; when the civilian nature of flight discovered they instead blame Kiev for the shoot-down; Moscow denies involvement.

July 25: EU announces plans for more hard-hitting economic sanctions that target Russian state banks, as well as Russia’s energy and defense sectors; Ukrainian government forces continue to push into Donetsk and Lugansk, although at the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties.   [8 days]

July 28: U.S. State Department releases photographic evidence of Russian artillery strikes into Ukraine; Russia denies authenticity of photographs.

July 31: as of this date nearly 1,200 persons have been killed in eastern Ukraine, with nearly 3,500 wounded since the separatist movement began in April; over 140,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled to Russia, with over 100,000 internally displaced.

August 3: Ukrainian Defense Minister proclaims that Kiev’s forces will defeat pro-Russian separatists shortly, citing success in reducing rebel controlled territory.

VI. Moscow Begins New Buildup, While Still Talking of Peace; Ukrainian Elections Confirm Kiev Government’s

August 5: Ukrainian military spokesman announce that Russia “has begun an enormous buildup of armored vehicles, aircraft, and personnel at the Ukrainian border” with over 45,000 soldiers, 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 192 Russian warplanes and 137 military helicopters ready to be deployed across the Ukrainian border.     [2 days]                                                                                                                  
August 7: In response to European sanctions, Russia launches retaliatory sanctions against the West, banning food imports from Europe and the United States.

August 9: Ukrainian army surrounds Donetsk, leading to hopes of success.

August 15: Ukrainian government claims to have destroyed a Russian military convoy that had crossed into Eastern Ukraine – the most direct engagement to date between Ukrainian and Russian military forces. Putin continues to deny existence of Russian military conveys and troops in Eastern Ukraine.

August 22/23: A convoy of 280 Russian trucks crosses the Luhansk border claiming to provide “humanitarian aid” to the region. The Ukrainian government calls this a direct invasion; U.S. and Europe threaten additional sanctions if Russia does not cease support for separatists. Most Russian trucks return, but only after delivering substantial supplies.

August 25: Poroshenko dissolves parliament and calls for parliamentary elections to be held in October. Meanwhile, Russia escalates its operations against Ukraine, launching a new offensive in Novoazovsk, southeast Ukraine, thereby opening up a second front to create a land bridge between the Russo-Ukrainian border and Crimea.

August 26: Putin and Poroshenko meet in Minsk to discuss reconciliation, and agree on a “roadmap” to a ceasefire by closing the Ukrainian-Russian border to prevent movement of soldiers and military equipment into Ukraine – but hostilities continue.

August 29: Following escalating Russian activity in eastern Ukraine, Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenuyk announces a course towards seeking NATO membership for Ukraine.

September 2: Putin privately boasts he could take Kiev in two weeks if he so wished.

September 5: Putin and Poroshenko reach ceasefire agreement at Minsk. Agreed points include a decentralization of power, OSCE monitoring of the Russo-Ukrainian border, release of all hostages, and measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Dombass.

September 6: Only one day after the Minsk agreements, the shelling of Mariupol begins. This is a key port city in south-eastern Ukraine previously cleared of separatists by local Ukrainian miners. Fighting also continues in Donetsk and Lugansk, despite the Minsk agreement.

September 18: Poroshenko addresses the US Congress seeking aid for Ukraine. President Obama promises $53 million aid package $46 million for Ukraine’s military, and $7 million for humanitarian aid.

October 2: World Back forecasts that Ukrainian economy will contract by 8 percent in 2014 due to disruptions and costs of the continuing crisis in the eastern regions.

October 12: As a purported token of de-escalation, Putin orders 17,600 Russian troops stationed in the Rostov region near the border with Ukraine to return to their bases. Putin has often shown signs of de-escalation in Ukraine right before intensifying aggression.

October 26: Ukraine holds parliamentary elections in which Ukrainians vote overwhelmingly for pro-Western parties: President Poroshenko’s bloc and the People’s Front headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk got 21.8 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively, although Poroshenko’s bloc won many more seats due to its better performance in single member districts.  The other pro-Western parties were Self-Reliance with 10.97 percent, the Radical Party 6.36 percent and Fatherland (led by Yulia Tymoshenko) with 5.68 percent. Total seats in new government coalition: 303 (0f 450) The Opposition Bloc (Yanukovich party’s remnants) got 9.43 percent.  Total seats in opposition, including independents: 79.

October 29: NATO officials report unusual Russian aerial maneuvers, signaling continued Russian hostility and military posturing. [3 days] 

October 30: Ukraine and Russia reach a deal on gas deliveries.

November 2: Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine hold elections one week after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Kiev and the West refuse to recognize these elections.

November 7: Russia sends a column of 32 tanks, 16 pieces of heavy artillery, and 30 trucks ferrying fighters and supplies into the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk. [5 days]

November 8: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev states that the world is “on the brink of a new Cold War.”  Gorbachev blames the west for victimizing Russia and says, “I am absolutely convinced that Putin protects Russia’s interests better than anyone else.”

November 15: Putin meets with his fellow world leaders at the G-20 conference in Australia, where he receives heavy criticism and leaves early.

November 30: Russia sends another “humanitarian” convoy into Eastern Ukraine despite Ukrainian protest that humanitarian aid is a guise for further military assistance to separatists. This is the eighth such convoy Russia has sent into Eastern Ukraine.

December 4: Putin holds his annual state of the nation address in which he blames the Ukraine crisis on the “unlawful” ouster of Yanukovich and on Western support for “far-right factions” controlling the Ukrainian government. He calls Western sanctions a plot to keep Russia from achieving great power status.

December 8: After  a nearly six months hiatus, Russia resumes gas supplies to Ukraine, providing approximately 43.5 million cubic meters per day.                 

December 16: Despite a rise in interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent, the ruble loses nearly half of its value. Although Western sanctions are an important part of the reason, the primary cause is the low price of oil (which stands well below $60 a barrel, when Moscow needs $100-plus to finance government budget and trade balance). Meanwhile, the U.S. implements additional sanctions on Russia.

December 18: In a three-hour television conference, Vladimir Putin blames foreign interference for the conflict in Ukraine and for Russia’s economic troubles.

December 24: Ukraine pays off $1.65 billion to Russia as agreed upon in gas deal signed in October. A bomb destroys a railroad track outside Odessa.

December 26: Eastern Ukrainian separatists and Ukraine exchange hundreds of POWs.

December 29: Ukraine signs a bill that drops its non-aligned status. Moscow calls this move a threat to Russia’s national security.

December 30: Opposition Leader Alexander Navalny and hundreds of protesters are arrested after an anti-Putin demonstration in Manezh square.

January 4, 2015: An explosion destroys the door and windows of the Euromaidan Coordination Center in Odessa. Ukrainian officials call the incident a terrorist attack. This attack is just one of five similar attacks in Odessa in the past month.

January 5, 2015: French President Francois Hollande suggests that international sanctions should be lessened if Russia makes progress on upholding peace in Eastern Ukraine. Similar statements are made by two top German officials the previous day.

VII. Separatists Return to the Offensive, Bolstered by Increasingly Visible Russian Military Intervention

January 11: Pro-Russian separatists begin an aggressive new offensive in the area surrounding the Donetsk Airport.

January 13: A rocket believed to be fired by pro-Russian separatists hits a bus in Volnovakha in the south of Donetsk, killing 13 civilians.

January 14: Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, proposes an end to sanctions if Russia ceases to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Key EU leaders quickly disown her statement, which she quickly “re-interprets”.

January 22: Under increasingly heavy assault Ukrainian military forced to retreat from the Donetsk Airport, which had served as a center of conflict since September 2014, due to both its symbolic and strategic value.   [11 days]

January 23: Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic announces that separatist forces reject all forms of a ceasefire.

January 24: Grad and Uragan rockets fired by pro-Russian separatists kill 30 civilians and wound 100 others in Mariupol, in south-eastern Ukraine. Increasing evidence of direct Russian military intervention, involving more and heavier weaponry and as many as 9000 Russian troops.

January 27: The Ukrainian parliament formally labels Russia as an aggressor state and the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as terrorist organizations.

January 28: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov states that Ukraine must remain neutral in order to avoid further territorial divisions.     [1 day]

According to the United Nations human rights office, the death toll from the war in Ukraine has reached over 5,000 with 10,948 wounded and over half a million Ukrainians displaced due to the continuing conflict.

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The Russo-Ukrainian War: Phase III

Given the launch in early January of a vigorous new separatist offensive in eastern Ukraine, backed by a reported 9000 Russian troops and abundant new armaments, it is now incontrovertible that Moscow is engaged in a full scale war in Ukraine.

Phase I of this initially undeclared war was the lightning Russian take-over of Crimea in March/April 2014, under the initial cover of a seemingly plausible separatist movement.

Phase II was the establishment of self-declared separatist governments controlling parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, initially with crude attempts at plausible deniability as to the extent of direct Russian military involvement.

Phase III has now begun, with the separatists attempting to expand their enclaves to include the entirety of both of the contested provinces –this time with blatant Russian military backing on a larger scale.

Given Moscow’s now-familiar pattern of escalating military support for  the separatists each time the Ukrainian military seems to be gaining ground, this is now clearly a war that Ukraine cannot possibly win absent sharply increased U.S. and European backing.

For any Western intervention to succeed, it must include not just increased economic sanctions but also substantially enhanced military aid. It is true that the current financial sanctions have resulted in visible damage to Russia’s economy, and this damage has been multiplied by the precipitous drop in oil prices. However, Putin has obviously decided to double down on his aggression in Ukraine despite these economic setbacks–and, arguably, perhaps even because of them. This is not surprising, given that the war has been highly popular domestically and that it will be a long time before the mounting longer-term economic costs are fully apparent to most Russian citizens.

Phase I of Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war in Ukraine ended, from his point of view, in a resounding success. Russia’s stealth campaign in Crimea, triggered by the February 21 ouster of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, took just one month to reach its triumphal conclusion.

By March 16, the entire province was under Moscow’s military control, and its puppet separatists held a sham referendum with an alleged 97 percent vote in favor of secession.

Crimea was formally annexed to the Russian Federation on March 21, thus permitting it to claim sovereignty over its major naval base in Sevastopol and a province that most Russians had long thought of as an intrinsic part of their country. At home, Putin’s popularity soared to over 80 percent in the polls, and it has remained in that range ever since.

The lesson for Putin was clear: given the weak Western response, he could score large geopolitical and domestic political gains with no significant price to pay internationally. Yes, there were numerous rhetorical condemnations by Western leaders, plus selective financial sanctions against a few members of Putin’s inner circle. But, for Putin, these were mere pinpricks, reminiscent of the initial outcries and minimal sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2008 war with Georgia. These minor costs have long since been forgotten, and Russia now enjoys full and unchallenged control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two provinces taken from Georgia via Putin’s intervention.

Despite this ominous Georgia precedent, many analysts and policy officials in both Europe and the US treated the Crimea annexation as a one-off event. They argued that Crimea was a special case, with a 60 percent ethnically Russian population and a strategic naval base on long-term lease that Moscow “understandably” wanted to secure permanently. Furthermore, Crimea had historically been a part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev transferred the territory to the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, a decision that Putin argued was illegitimate.

Within just three weeks, however, this optimistic interpretation was proven to be delusional.

Phase II of the Ukraine war began on April 7, when pro-Russian separatists took over key government buildings in the capitals of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkhiv, proclaiming that these provinces would seek independence from Kiev. Although the Kharkhiv portion of the uprising fizzled, Russian-backed rebels in the other two capitals quickly expanded their territorial control. Only seven weeks later on May 11 the separatists held bogus referenda, with the polling centers surrounded by gunmen, “confirming” the two provinces’ secession from Ukraine.

Despite clear evidence that none of this could have happened without Russian instigation and strong (albeit semi-covert) military support, the EU temporized for months before deciding to join the U.S. in a significant escalation of economic sanctions. Brussels finally agreed to institute moderately punitive financial sanctions only on July 29. This was twelve days after the separatists had shot down Malaysian Airways Flight 17, killing 298 (mostly European) passengers. The shoot-down involved a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system supplied by, and most likely directly supported by, the Russian military.

In August, the Ukrainian army launched an offensive to recapture territory held by the separatists, with some initial success. Since then, there have been both lulls and spikes in military action on the ground, with Putin at times giving the appearance of seeking a peaceful outcome. He and Ukrainian president Poroshenko agreed at a September 5 meeting in Minsk that they would both back a cease-fire. But the cease fire was repeatedly violated by the separatists and involved substantial casualties from shelling on both sides, despite the relatively stable battle lines that obtained through most of the fall. In retrospect, it is clear that Putin was simply buying time in which to help consolidate the rebel governments and their military positions in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Phase III began overtly in January with a new separatist offensive strongly backed by Russian soldiers and new heavy weaponry. On January 22, the separatists finally captured Donetsk airport, previously under siege for months. They also began shelling Mariupol, a key port city and transportation hub in the southeast corner of Donetsk province. Both places have major symbolic importance but they could also serve as strategic gateways for further expansion of separatist control into contiguous provinces.

Putin’s short-term goal is to ensure that the separatists gain full control of the two provinces whose independence they have proclaimed. Based on his well-established pattern of “two steps forward, one step (temporarily) back,” he might then order a pause in fighting, and he might once again go through the motions of seeking a negotiated solution while the separatists fully consolidate their new regimes.

In the middle term, however, if Putin succeeds in totally severing these two provinces from Kiev’s control his sights will most likely be set on a fairly prompt Phase IV. This fourth stage in the Russo-Ukrainian War would probably involve the establishment of a “land bridge” from Mariupol to Crimea, through the provinces of Zaparozhe and Kherson. There have also been signs that Putin may not have given up on Kharkiv, a key province immediately to the northeast of Donetsk and Luhansk.

And, for the longer term, there are continuing signs that Vladimir Putin still has his sights set on the eventual creation of a “Greater Novorossiya” stretching through Odessa all the way to Transnistria–the breakaway province of Moldova that was once part of Catherine the Great’s actual historic Novorossiya.

Unless the United States and its key European allies take prompt and decisive action, including major military assistance, there is every likelihood that the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine will continue to be sliced away, one or two at a time. This would mean the dismemberment of Ukraine and the death knell of its Orange Revolution–once a beacon of hope for would-be democrats throughout post-communist Europe and Eurasia. It would also confirm the definitive end of the post-Cold War dream of a “Europe Whole and Free.”

Related Publications: 

Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015 by Alex Fisher and Adrian Basora 
Georgia and Moldova Remain Fragile as Russian Aggression Continues by Maia Otarashvili 

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