Foreign Policy Blogs

Breaking Down Ukraine’s Breakdown


A protester faces the fire preventing police from crossing the barricade line in Kiev on January 22nd, 2014 (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov)

In the past several months, the world has been gripped by the graphic political drama unfolding in Ukraine, but events have often unfolded so fast that it has been difficult to put them in context. And although the violence has stopped, the future of Ukraine is more uncertain than ever before.

Here we’ll break down Ukraine’s geography, its most powerful political players, and how this all connects back to Ukraine’s first successful revolution nearly ten years ago.

Geography and Demographics:

Although the significance of geography and demographic divide has often been exaggerated in the coverage of Ukraine, it is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Ukraine’s West is largely Ukrainian speaking, more interested in pursuing ties with the EU, and has in the past supported Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.


Ukraine’s East, which is bordered by Russia, is largely Russian speaking and has traditionally supported closer ties with Russia rather than the EU. Viktor Yanukovych drew much of his support from these regions.

Yet much of the country speaks also speaks Surzhyk, a mingling of Russian and Ukrainian, and Kiev, the heart of the initial pro-European uprising, is at least 60 percent Russian speaking. And although it is quite well known that Viktor Yanukovych struggles in Ukrainian, opposition leaders like Yulia Tymoshenko and Vitali Klitschko would also likely consider Russian to be their first language.

One last geographic anomaly: Crimea. Crimea was annexed and colonized by Russia in the mid-19th century, but was transferred over from the Russian Republic to the Ukrainian Republic within the Soviet Union in the 1950s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea remained a part of Ukraine, but continued to have a majority Russian population and to host a Russian naval base in the Black Sea. Crimea is perhaps the most staunchly pro-Russian region of Ukraine.

Major Players:


Viktor Yanukovych (Photo by Igor Kruglenko)

Viktor Yanukvoych: President of Ukraine 2010-2014. Yanukovych has historically encouraged close ties to Russia. His party, the Party of Regions, drew much of its support from the Eastern half of Ukraine. Yanukovych’s career has been sullied by numerous allegations of misconduct from his two convictions of robbery and assault in his youth, to election fraud in the 2004 elections, to allegations of diverting public funds and taking bribes to build an absurdly luxurious mansion outside of Kiev. Nevertheless, he has maintained that his overthrow is part of an illegal coup and that he is the democratically elected president of Ukraine.




Viktor Yushchenko (Photo by Muumi)

Viktor Yushchenko: President of Ukraine 2005-2010. Yushchenko was supported by Western Ukraine and defeated Yanukovych in a revote. Although Yushchenko set Ukraine on a steadier course to Europe, he became extremely unpopular during his presidency due to political infighting and is no longer a serious political contender.






Yulia Tymoshenko (Picture by Euku)

Yulia Tymoshenko: Prime Minister of Ukraine 2005-2005, 2007-2010. Tymoshenko made billions selling natural gas to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, but transitioned into politics in the late 90’s. She allied herself with Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution and then ran for President against Yanukovych in 2010. She lost and was subsequently jailed by Yanukovych in what was largely regarded as a politically motivated corruption trial. She was released earlier this week, but claims to have no intentions to run for president later this May.





Vitali Klitschko (Photo by Klitschko Management Group)

Vitali Klitschko: Until recently, Klitschko was best known as the world heavyweight champion in boxing. However, in 2010 Klitschko founded the UDAR political party and has been a vocal leader of the Euromaidan protests. He supports a pro-European foreign policy and as a politician with a clean slate, is widely considered to be a very serious candidate for the presidency with broad appeal.






Arseniy_Yatsenyuk_2011-09-28 (1)

Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Photo by Ybilyk)

Arseniy Yatsenyuk: Yatsenyuk served as the Minister of Economy and Foreign Minister of Ukraine during the Yushchenko presidency. He is one of the leaders of Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Fatherland” party. He has also been a vocal leader of the Euromaidan protests and is also considered to be a serious candidate for the Ukrainian presidency.






Oleh Tyahnybok (Photo by VO Svoboda)

Oleh Tyahnybok and the Svoboda Party: Tyahnybok is the leader of the extreme right-wing Svoboda party. He and the party are often accused of making anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi remarks. Although Tyahnybok is not likely a serious contender for the presidency, many reports have blamed his party for initiating violence in the Kiev protests.







Rinat Akhmetov (Photo by Komul)

The Oligarchs: In Ukraine, oligarchs wield tremendous political and economic power. In 2008, it was reported that 50 individuals account for approximately 85% percent of Ukraine’s GDP. Although their interests are by no means unified, the actions of just one oligarch, like Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, can have tremendous consequences for Ukrainian politics.





The EU: The EU has cautiously supported the protesters on Kiev Square while condemning violence on both sides. It has yet to extend substantial financial aid like Russia, but ministers from Poland, Germany, and France were key to negotiating the first peace between Yanukovych and the opposition.

Russia: Russia has deep cultural, political, and economic interests in Ukraine, not to mention a huge military base in Crimea. As Ukraine’s largest economic partner, threats of Russian sanctions are taken seriously in Ukraine. Although Russia has supported Yanukovych in the past, he has been an unreliable ally and there is likely little incentive for Russia to actively support his reinstatement at this point. Russia has condemned the recent events as a violent coup and threatened sanctions, but military force, though possible, is unexpected.

The U.S.: President Obama’s statements on Ukraine, though supportive of the protesters, have been even more restrained than those of the European Union. The U.S.’s interests are often at odds with Russia’s, but the situation should not be viewed through the lens of some struggle of great powers as in the Cold War. Ultimately, the most powerful players in Ukraine are the people themselves.





The Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2004 (Photo by Marion Dumiel)

November 2004 – January 2005: The Orange Revolution. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych was reported to have defeated opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in presidential elections. But after widespread allegations of electoral fraud, particularly by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Ukrainians took to the streets in what became known as the Orange Revolution. The massive peaceful protests successfully forced a revote and Viktor Yushchenko was elected President in the new round of voting.

2005–10: The Orange government. Viktor Yuschchenko’s five year term was marked by tremendous political infighting, particularly with his on-again, off-again Orange ally and two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Abroad, however, Yushchenko managed a more consistently pro-European foreign policy, although he occasionally made some concessions to Russia, including at one point appointing his rival Viktor Yanukovych to the post of Prime Minister.

2010 Elections: The end of Orange. By 2010 Viktor Yushchenko was vastly unpopular and did not even make it into the second round of voting. This time Yulia Tymoshenko faced off against Viktor Yanukovych and lost by a margin of three percent. Despite Yanukovych’s dubious electoral record, these elections were generally considered to have been free and fair.

2010–Nov. 21, 2013: Changing foreign policy Although Viktor Yanukovych was decidedly Moscow’s favored candidate, he pledged to continue the previous government’s policies expanding cooperation between the EU and Ukraine. In November 2013, however, without warning either the EU or Ukrainians, Viktor Yanukovych unilaterally decided against signing two crucial treaties that would bring the Ukraine closer to the EU economically and politically.


Early peaceful pro-EU protests in November 2013 (Photo by Evgeny Feldman)

Nov. 21–Nov. 30, 2013: Euromaidan. Peaceful protesters numbering between 100,000 – 200,000 at their peak gathered at Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square in Ukrainian) to demonstrate against Yanukovych and his decision to abandon cooperation with the EU.

Nov. 30 2013–Jan. 16, 2014: Increasing outbreaks of violence. Elite police units, known as the Berkut, were first sent in on the 30th to disperse protesters with nonlethal force. Protesters and journalists were injured and consequently attracted the attention of more protesters. Clashes between police and protesters periodically occurred during this time, but there was no lethal force. Russia offered to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian bonds in an attempt to quell the unrest.


Protesters clash with riot police in Kiev (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov)

Jan. 16–Feb. 18, 2014: Protests turn lethal. After Viktor Yanukvoych’s government passed laws criminalizing many of the protester’s peaceful methods of protest, new waves of protests took place and not just in Kiev. The protests were becoming less about joining the European Union and more about fighting against a perceived tyranny.

Clashes with the police increasingly involved weapons like Molotov cocktails, and the first three deaths of protesters were reported by January 22. Despite some conciliatory gestures by Yanukvoych, such as dismissing his Prime Minister, eventually repealing the anti-protest laws, and offering amnesty to some of the protesters, things quickly spiraled out of control. By February, police declared the removing of protesters from the square to a “counter-terrorism operation” and began to use live ammunition. According to Ukraine’s Health Ministry at least 88 protesters and 16 policemen were killed in the protests, with as many as 2,000 injured.

For a more detailed account of the most dangerous days in Kiev, the Interpreter Magazine’s detailed liveblog coverage is recommended.

Feb. 18–present: Revolution. After enough officials defected from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, and after a short-lived truce endorsed by the European Union,  parliament was able to pass a series of laws that stopped police operations, reinforced parliamentary powers, impeached President Yanukovych and called for early elections in May 2014. Yanukovych stated that he did not intend to resign and fled to Eastern Ukraine. The speaker of the parliament has since taken on the role of acting president with the approval of the parliament.



Eugene Steinberg

Eugene graduated Tufts University with degrees in International Relations and Quantitative Economics. He works with the editorial team at the Foreign Policy Association on Great Decisions 2014. He is deeply interested in Eastern European affairs, as well as the intersection of politics, technology, and culture. You can follow him on twitter @EugSteinberg