Ukraine Crisis

What Are Ukrainians Fighting For? 5 Things to Know About Unrest

Riot police beat an anti-government protester during clashes in Kiev Feb. 18, 2014. STRINGER / Reuters

Having become the latest battleground for a fight between Russia and the West, protests have been simmering for almost three months in Ukraine — but fiery mayham has erupted in Kiev, and was spreading to other cities.

With at least 25 dead and scores injured, Tuesday marked the deadliest day in a conflict that began in November when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade deal with the European Union in favor of pursuing an economic deal with Russia.

The unrest highlights growing tensions between Russia, the United States and the European Union on a variety of issues with the spotlight of the Winter Olympics not far from the fight.


But why, after weeks of tenuous calm, did the Ukrainian situation deteriorate into deadly brutality so quickly?

Here are five things to know about the demonstrations:

Why the violence escalated on Tuesday:

Tuesday's bloodshed came just days after opposition leaders reached a deal with authorities to vacate Kiev’s city hall in exchange for the release of jailed protesters.

But any progress between the two sides quickly fell apart on Monday when Russia announced it would renew financial support to Ukraine while opposition leaders were meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


Protesters took it as a sign that President Yanukovych was set on further aligning the country with Russia and shunning Europe and the U.S., despite recent concessions from Yanukovych aimed at appeasing protestors.

Making matters worse, the Ukrainian government on Tuesday delayed a session that would have dealt with constitutional reforms to limit presidential powers.

A brief history of the conflict:

Tensions spiked in late November when Yanukovych accepted a $15 billion loan from Russia and rejected a trade deal with the European Union. That move that infuriated the country's opposition leadership, who had been pushing for a closer alignment with Europe.

Russia has sought to maintain its geopolitical and economic influence by keeping the former Soviet republic closely aligned with it. That has led to clashed between European leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who talked Yanukovych out of the long-planned treaty with the EU.

The protests had remained relatively calm, and late last month the government offered the resignation of the pro-Russia prime minister and the repeal of anti-dissent laws passed earlier this year.

And after an initial payment, Russia suspended funding to Ukraine following the violence and the resignation of the pro-Russian prime minister.

But Monday’s announcement by Russia that it would resume payments was viewed as an indication the Ukrainian government has no plans to ease its relationship with the largest country in the world.

The battles taking place in Ukraine go back much farther than November though, and underscore the tensions between Russia's struggle to maintain its regional influence and Europe and America’s attempts to get former Soviet Republics to more closely embrace Western politics.

What’s at stake:

Russia threatened crippling sanctions against Ukraine if they entered into the EU agreement. And Ukraine, already on the brink of economic collapse, desperately needed the influx of cash and greatly discounted cost of gas imports promised by Putin.

For Russia, retaining its influence over a former a former Soviet republic with 46 million people is nearly essential for the country to maintain its geopolitical influence.

The European Union launched an ambitious program four years ago that would align former Soviet republics closer to Western countries and away from Russia’s scope. But Moscow has countered with harsh sanctions against who it believes chooses Europe over Russia.

Politics is thought to also have played a role. Yanukovych, up for re-election in 2015, is largely popular with the eastern and southern parts of the country that favor a tighter relationship with Russia.

What does the U.S. think about the clashes:

U.S. officials have so far been measured when talking about the protests, denouncing the violence but not announcing support for either side. Vice President Joe Biden did call Yanukovych on Tuesday and urged the government “to address protesters' legitimate grievances and to put forward serious proposals for political reform,” according to a readout of the call.

And a spokesperson for Secretary of State John Kerry says the department calls on “ … President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government to de-escalate the situation immediately, and resume dialogue with the opposition on a peaceful path forward.”

U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey R. Payatt threatened both sides with sanctions.

"We believe Ukraine's crisis can still be solved via dialogue, but those on both sides who fuel violence will open themselves to sanctions," Payatt tweeted.

Celebrity attention focused on Ukraine:

The conflict has its own star power as former boxing heavyweight champion Vitaly Klitschko is a leader of the opposition forces — and his brother Wladimir is engaged to “Nashville” star Hayden Panettiere.

Panettiere recently traveled to Ukraine where she urged on a crowd of protesters to continue the fight.

And George Clooney has made a Youtube video “to send a message to all of you brave citizens of Ukraine, who are struggling to look forward and not back.”


Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.