Over the past decade, Ukraine has found itself in the middle of a serious game of tug-of-war between the European Union (EU) and its former master, Russia. Kiev’s recent Euromaidan protests (Euro is short for “Europe” and maidan refers to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, “Independence Square,” the capital’s main square where protestors gathered) have their immediate genesis in Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s abandonment of a free trade agreement with the EU, one that would have forged much closer ties to the West. Yanukovych, heavily supported by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the country’s eastern half, is decidedly pro-Russian (his first language is Russian, and he still makes occasional errors when speaking Ukrainian). For him, the trade agreement and the expected further integration into Europe were a bridge too far in terms of decoupling from Moscow.
By December 1, 2013, in response to police crackdowns on protestors, the number of pro-EU activists in Independence Square had grown to about 300,000, and they soon seized City Hall. The government reacted in the new year by passing anti-protest laws criminalizing all of the Euromaidan activities, including such draconian penalties as ten-year sentences for blockading a government building, heavy fines and imprisonment for activists wearing a mask and/or helmet, two-year jail terms for using social media to defame authorities, and revocation of driving privileges if caught in a convoy exceeding five cars. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, promised to prosecute each offense harshly.
Not long thereafter, on January 21 and 22, the first deaths of protestors occurred, with three dying during the Hrushevskoho Street riots, as they are now called. Police shot two of these, and the third fell from a forty-foot colonnade, apparently trying to flee after confronting police. On the same day, two prominent activists were abducted from a hospital. Their beaten, murdered bodies were later found outside the city.
The two sides engaged in determined negotiations, but though little was actually resolved, the government appeared to be in retreat. In less than a week, facing a no-win no-confidence vote, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned and fled to Austria, and Yanukovych dismissed his Cabinet, taking sick leave himself for a respiratory illness. At the same time, parliament repealed the anti-protest laws that had escalated the demonstrations in the first place. Despite promising to honor earlier agreements with Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin compounded problems by implementing tight border controls on Ukrainian goods, raising duties on them by five to forty percent.
However, the clashes were not over. On February 18, street battles killed eighteen and injured a hundred, and a few nights later, seventy fell to government snipers firing from rooftops. The mounting death toll proved too much for all sides, and they agreed to form a new government and scheduled new elections for May 25.
Knowing he would not fare well under the new regime, Yanukovych fled the capital, later surfacing in southern Russia, where he received official refuge. Without a head of state, Ukraine’s parliament assigned presidential powers to its new speaker, Oleksandr Turchinov, an ally of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a successful businesswoman in the natural gas industry and a Ukrainian nationalist who supports closer ties with Europe.
The instability in Kiev received an immediate and negative reaction in the Ukrainian east, particularly in Crimea, where pro-Russian sentiments run high (Russians make up nearly 60% of its population). Russian troops moved to the Ukrainian border. Anti-government rallies continued for several days until armed men in unmarked fatigues seized government buildings in Crimea and the international airport and a military airfield in Sevastopol. Despite international criticism, Moscow maintained that its military movements in Crimea aligned with previous agreements to protect its Black Sea fleet.
On the first day of March, Russia’s upper house of parliament approved Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine to protect Russians in eastern Ukraine. Formalizing Moscow’s first border expansion since World War II, Putin signed an annexation treaty on March 18 that absorbed Crimea into Russia. By March 23, nearly 200 military sites in Crimea flew the Russian flag and about 40,000 troops had flooded areas adjacent to Crimea.
Since then, Western political objections, particularly from American President Barack Obama, have been weak and ineffective. Despite the United Nations General Assembly declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to be illegal, Putin has not backed down except for drawing down troop levels in southern Russia. In fact, he recently sent Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Crimea to promise funds to its government and pay raises to its workers. It appears that Russia intends to keep its new territory.
Vladimir Putin is a shrewd and cunning politician. To add Crimea and perhaps Sevastopol in particular to Mother Russia was too ripe an opportunity to pass up. Clearly, he manipulated matters to ratchet up tensions and create weakness in Ukraine, making Russian intervention inevitable. In one stroke, he brings millions of Russians back into the fold, secures greater access to and control of the Black Sea, and strengthens a soft spot in his southern defenses. It is a genius geopolitical maneuver.
The move signals that something significant has changed: Russia is once again truly a power to be reckoned with. We cannot know if Putin’s show of strength and aggression fulfills or will even lead to fulfilling end-time prophecy, but a “prince of Rosh” taking such initiative brings Ezekiel 38 to mind. The situation in Russia bears close observation.
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