Ukraine is a country located in the region of Eastern Europe. Since a popular uprising led to a shift in power in 2014, Ukraine has been in a permanent crisis. “Brotherhood” Russia has turned into bitter enemy, the economic problems are gigantic and continued corruption undermines residents’ trust in their leaders. Now voters have set their hopes for a TV celebrity who is investing heavily in improving contacts with Russia, and he has more power than any former president in independent Ukraine.
The power shift in Kiev in early 2014 intensified a latent conflict between Ukrainian and Russian speakers and led to protests in the Russian-dominated peninsula of Crimea. The dissatisfaction there was exploited by the Russian government to stage a revolt against the elected local leaders and take control of the peninsula with the help of soldiers in anonymous uniforms. Despite protests by the Ukrainian government and Western powers, in March 2014, separatists conducted an illegal referendum that was said to show that a large majority of residents wanted to belong to Russia, after which the Moscow government “at the request of Crimea” annexed the peninsula.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Ukraine, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
This was the first time since World War II that a European state had conquered part of another country. The reaction from the outside world was strong. Russia was accused of violating international law and a number of international agreements.
The pattern was repeated in the Russian-dominated Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which since the Soviet era has been the country’s most important mining and industrial region. In a number of cities in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv counties, official buildings were occupied by armed pro-Russian activists, in some cases probably supported by Russian elite soldiers. The Ukrainian state managed to retain control of Kharkiv, but in Donetsk and Luhansk, separatists organized “referenda” on independence from Ukraine.
Immediately following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) decided to send an observer force to Ukraine. Reports from these observers, as well as other eyewitness data and satellite images, have since documented Russian direct involvement in the Donbas conflict. In retrospect, the Russian government has admitted its active actions in Crimea, saying that it “has not been able to prevent Russian volunteers” from participating in the Donbas fighting.
Russia’s support for the separatists had a devastating consequence in the summer of 2014 when a Malaysian airliner was shot down and all 298 on board were killed. The Dutch-led international commission that investigated the attack (the plane came from Amsterdam and the majority of the victims were Dutch) determined just over two years later that the plane was hit by a Russian-made robot, that the robot was fired from a village controlled by separatist militia and that the robot system was brought in from Russia. the same day and brought back there immediately afterwards.
The Ukrainian security service has also accused Russia of “cyber warfare” through computer intrusion and virus attacks against, for example, power networks and financial systems.
In May 2014, businessman Petro Poroshenko was elected president after the dismissed Viktor Yanukovych. He had been the only “oligarch” to stand on the EU-friendly side during the crisis. Poroshenko quickly signed an association agreement with the EU. A broad coalition had seized power after Yanukovych’s escape, but it exploded during the summer. After the recent elections, Ukraine was given a parliament which was strongly dominated by EU and NATO-friendly parties. High-extremity forces that made themselves relatively strong during the winter uprising lost almost all formal influence.
An initial serious attempt to reach a ceasefire in the war in eastern Ukraine was made in Minsk in Belarus in September 2014 through the OSCE mediation, but it had little effect. A new agreement, Minsk II, was concluded in February 2015. At that time, the leaders of Germany and France took an active part in the settlement, which was intended, among other things, to give the breaker areas local autonomy and the right to arrange elections within the framework of a revised Ukrainian constitution. The Ukrainian state would be given control over the border with Russia. This ceasefire also failed since the separatists organized elections according to their own rules and reported few new deliveries of heavy weapons from Russia. Since 2015, the fighting has flared up regularly around strategically important locations on the front, and Germany and France have made new attempts to support a peace process.
By the beginning of 2017, the war in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea had left around 1.7 million Ukrainians homeless and demanded around 10,000 lives. The Ukrainian state then sued Russia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for “support for terrorism”. In 2019, UN observers for German media reported that the total death toll had risen to nearly 13,000.
The relative political agreement on Ukraine’s path forward has not reduced tensions within the country. The state dignifies under the financial burden of the war and residents live in difficult conditions. Slow parliamentary work to drive above all economic reforms has caused irritation among the country’s lenders, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU, and it has not least eroded public confidence in politicians. Corruption is an overwhelming problem. The IMF slowed down payments from a support program totaling US $ 17.5 billion which was promised in 2015. A new agreement was negotiated until 2018, with demands from the IMF on Ukraine to implement, among other things, energy price increases to strengthen the Treasury.
In the winter of 2014–2015, President Poroshenko granted Ukrainian citizenship to several foreigners with good reputation and gave them heavy assignments. The idea was that they would be free from ties to local leaders and oligarchs that slowed the reform process, but the experiment only lasted a few years. Then everyone ended in disappointment or did not regain confidence when the government was reformed and Volodymyr Hrojsman took over as prime minister in 2016 after Arsenij Jatsenjuk, who had led the government since the rebellion against Yanukovych.
In 2016, Parliament passed several laws to strengthen the judiciary and its independence from political and economic forces. But just a month earlier, Parliament had agreed to appoint former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, who was close to President Poroshenko, to the state prosecutor, despite his lack of legal training. The EU had vainly appealed to a person with legal education and strong integrity who could effectively fight the corruption.
The publication in autumn 2016 of the financial assets of the authorities raised some doubt about their commitment to the efforts. Almost everyone at the highest level in the state apparatus acknowledged that they had millions in the home, out of reach of the tax authorities. In the spring of 2017, the central bank’s executive resigned in protest against the political pressure she was exposed to after trying to clean up the financial sector.
Despite the war in the east, economic exchange with the rest of the country continued fairly normally until winter 2017, when Ukrainian activists blocked transport routes to Donbas in protest against the state “funding the enemy warfare”. After a while, the activists were arrested but instead the state imposed a blockade on the outbreak areas, while the separatists began to confiscate privately owned companies in the east.
The corruption and the slow reform work in 2017 were close to leading to a new popular revolt. Protesters pressured Parliament to prepare a law allowing corrupt members to be prosecuted. President Poroshenko promised to create a special court. But activists who challenge batsmen have continued to live dangerously. In 2018, at least five murders of anti-corruption and environmental activists were reported. In 2019, the Constitutional Court rejected some of the legislative stricter measures to tackle corruption.
Russia, despite international sanctions, has tied Crimea ever closer, both practically and politically. A bridge has been built between the peninsula and the Russian mainland, with dire consequences for Ukrainian ship traffic. When Russia held presidential elections, the elections were also held in the annexed Crimea. At the end of 2018, the situation was sharpened by a confrontation at sea, when shots were fired and Ukrainian crews ended up in Russian captivity. Ukraine for a time introduced laws of war in border and sea regions.
Ukraine’s quest for independence has also sought ways on the religious plane. In 2018, the Kiev Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church was given a sign from a church meeting in Istanbul to break out of the old community of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the Russian Orthodox Church is close to the Russian state leadership, and had also been the superior of the church in Ukraine, the decision created new tensions between Kiev and Moscow.
Before the 2019 presidential election, Poroshenko set a patriotic tone with the slogan “Army, language, church”, but Volodymyr Zelenskyj, politically inexperienced but popular TV comedian, won the election with convincing numbers. Zelenskyj, raised in a Russian-speaking family, promised to try to achieve better relations with Russia but also to try to bring home the Ukrainians who have been detained in Russia since the confrontation in Crimea 2018; a prisoner exchange was also carried out in September 2019 (see Calendar). Zelenskyj has made it clear that he will continue the Minsk process to resolve the conflicts with separatists in eastern Ukraine. Shortly after the exchange of prisoners, Zelenskyj also signed an agreement with separatists from the Donbas, which could lead to their self-government. However, the conditions for a ceasefire and the prospect of stopping the fighting still appeared unclear.
The fact that Zelensky’s Jewish descent was not used as a bat in the electoral movement has been received with relief. There are openly anti-Semitic groups, but a study done by the American research center Pew suggests that anti-Semitic views have a weaker anchorage in the depths of people in Ukraine than in many of the neighboring countries.
The lawyer-educated TV entertainer Zelenskyj, who lacked political experience before running for president, is not only the country’s youngest president to date. As a result of the July 2019 parliamentary elections, he also has more power than any other president in post-Soviet Ukraine. He, with the party of the People’s Servants (formed before the election), redrawed the political landscape and founded a generational shift in the corridors of power. Most of his elected party comrades have not had political assignments before either.
They, especially the president, now have much to prove. Zelenskyj has declared that his main goal is to achieve peace and fight corruption. To succeed in peace, he must agree with separatists in the east and with Moscow, while the Crimean peninsula is occupied by Russia. As far as corruption is concerned, Zelenskyj’s intentions so far are not clear: He has built up his celebrity on an oligarch-controlled TV channel and partly hired old friends and TV staff in the presidential office.
Already in Parliament there are challenges. The second largest party is now the Opposition Platform – For Life, Moscow-friendly and led by Viktor Medvedtjuk, who is usually described as affiliated with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the Mayan Revolution in 2014, when Medvedchuk supported President Yanukovych, the United States imposed sanctions on him, but in the case of Crimea, he has said that he does not support Russian action, and that he considers the peninsula to be Ukrainian.
Opposition to Zelenskyj can also be expected from President Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko, although their parties (Poroshenko’s renamed European Solidarity and Tymoshenko’s Fatherland) have no more than about 8 percent support each.
But voter turnout also indicates that citizens have grown tired of the power players who have held important posts in recent years. It was the lowest since Ukraine gained independence: 49.8 percent.
READING! Read more about Ukraine in our online magazine Foreign magazine:
Making sense of Ukraine’s post election landscape (19-08-27)
The rebellious spirit of the Ukrainians (19-04-26)
Russian films about the conquered Crimea hide something (19-01-15)
FACTS – POLITICS
Republic of Ukraine / Republic of Ukraine
republic, unitary state
Head of State
Volodymyr Zelenskyj (2019–)
Head of government
Denys Sjmyhal (2020–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
People’s Servants 254, Opposition Platform 43, Fosterlands 26, European Solidarity 25, Vote 20, Opposition Block 6, Self-Confidence 1, Freedom 1, Others and Independence 48 (2019) 1
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Poroshenko’s Block 132, The Popular Front 82, Self-Confidence 33, Opposition Block 29, Radical Party 22, Fosterlands 19, Freedom 6, Others and Independence 100 (2014)
62% in the 2019 presidential elections, 49.8% in the 2019 parliamentary elections
parliamentary elections 2023, presidential elections 2024
- 26 places in the east and in the Crimea are vacant