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The Crisis in Ukraine: Transatlantic Relations and The Crisis of The International System

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Crisis
    Conflict Actors
    The Oligarchs
    The Maidan Activists
    Ukrainian Supporters of Russia
    The European Union and the USA, aka the West
  3. Conclusion
  4. Bibliography


When on 21 November 2013 Victor Yanukovych, former President of Ukraine, decided to postpone the EU Association Agreement, few would have predicted that it would lead to a prolonged conflict in Europe’s borderland. The somewhat peaceful demonstration of support for Ukraine’s pro-European course, realized by thousands of people in Maidan Square in Kyiv quickly developed into a vicious confrontation, one that would soon start to divide families, communities, and the Ukrainian nation.

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Over time, the crisis in Ukraine became a tragedy, one that has the potential of altering the future of the state, and possibly Europe’s. The public’s response to the authority’s policies and their actions, quickly spreading across the country, was transforming the conflict into a civil war and humanitarian and economic crisis. An important question, asked by most, is what events have happened before closed doors, in order to result in such a intense and turbulent conflict?

The Crisis in Ukraine represents a perfect example of how internal tensions can easily become internationalized, and even transform into a violent conflict.

The Crisis

The Ukrainian crisis that started with the Euromaidan protests in November 2013 and has culminated thus far in Russia’s annexation of Crimea represents the biggest geopolitical shock to the European security system since the end of the Cold War. Russia, under the umbrella of protecting its citizens, was ready not only to use military force but also to reach as far as annexing territory.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Ukrainian crisis has forced Western powers to seek a new equilibrium between balancing Russia through forceful countermeasures or accommodating mutual security interests in an East-West dialogue. Basically incompatible ways of thinking about security are complicating the management of state relations in the spirit of a cooperative and inclusive Euro-Atlantic space. This calls for a qualitative assessment of the political purpose underlying the Western attempt to promote political-economic integration in Eastern Europe, concentrating on how this clashes with Russia’s determination to contain this aim.

On the looks of it, this new period is broadly reminiscent of the Cold War, but it differs from it in important ways. The new situation has slightly shifted its focus on ideology, rather than the conflict between communism and liberal democracy. The current crisis has global implications, but it is not a central ‘threat’ to the global system. An important characteristic is that, unlike the Cold War, the Ukrainian crisis is not the result of either world politics or even the foreign policies of the conflict’s main contestants, particularly that of the United States. The severity of the crisis came as a surprise to many, including Ukraine itself, Russia, the European Union (EU), and the United States.

The Ukraine crisis was followed by competition between the European Union and Russia for the geoeconomic orientation of Ukraine. The roots of the crisis are found in the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, a war that ended the prospect of enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for both Georgia and Ukraine, and in the beginning of the global financial crisis, which seemed to give more credence to regional economic arrangements. Then, the EU and Russia drew different conclusions from the war and the crisis. The Europeans, through the Eastern Partnership program the EU launched in 2009, looked to associate Ukraine, along with five other former Soviet republics, economically and politically with the EU. Rather than a step toward future EU enlargement, however, this initiative was an attempt to constitute a “zone of comfort” to the east of the union’s border and enhance these countries’ Western orientation Ukraine itself, ruled from 2010 to 2014 by the then president Viktor Yanukovych and his supporters from the eastern region of Donetsk, was habitually maneuvering between the EU and Russia, always in search of a better deal. Yanukovych, for domestic political reasons, raised high hopes for the EU link, on which he was ostensibly working. However, the Ukrainian president was never able to secure reasonable financial relief from Brussels to compensate for the severe blow to Ukrainian industry that would have resulted from closer economic association with the EU.

At the same time, Yanukovych had to factor in the pressure exercised by Russia. Moscow first showed Ukraine, in the form of trade barriers, what it would lose from choosing the EU over Russia and, later, in the form of an aid package, what it would gain if it made the “right” choice. As a result, Yanukovych in November 2013 suddenly suspended a political and economic association agreement that Kyiv had been due to sign with the EU. The following month, he instead accepted a generous financial and economic package from Russia’s Putin.

Conflict Actors

The events in Ukraine shifted from the Euromaidan protests, to an unprecedented event since the Cold War: the annexation of a part of a sovereign state by another state. The crisis raised complicated issues, both diplomatic and geopolitical.  By focusing on the context (social, political, economic), the root causes and the actors one can achieve a better understanding of the situation and can assess windows of opportunity and potential outcomes.


The conflict’s origins are found between the borders of this state; it started as a contradiction inside the state, afterwards reaching an international level, with Ukraine being one of the main actors.

The starting point of the crisis was the 21st of November when the suspension of the  Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union was announced. Several factors have influenced this decision, such as historical, geopolitical and economic.

Putin declared that the Agreement would have been a great threat to Russian economy, revealing how much influence the soviet state still had over Ukraine. Therefore the impulses from Russia made it harder for Ukraine to turn their heads towards Western Europe. Moreover, he argues that Crimea is a historical part with great importance to Russia, where most citizens are ethnically Russians, and their protection, rights and wishes need to be cared for, by no other but the ‘Mother state’.

For a better understanding, Ukraine, as today, can actually be described as divided in two: Pro-West or Pro-Russia. The North-West part of the state is characterized by the pro-western citizens, the ethnic Ukrainians, that wish to grow closer to the west, and hopes to join the EU. The other half of the state is represented by the pro-Russians, people who regard themselves as ethnic Russians and could not imagine a ‘relationship’ with the west.

The Oligarchs

Ukraine is currently fighting on two fronts: of course the first one is territorial and political in the Eastern region, against separatists and Russian backed militia, but there is another perspective: Ukraine is trying to save itself from the total collapse of the economy in the same time and the oligarchs, controlling more than 70% of the economy are important actors on this front.

There is a whole other fight for control when speaking about the Ukrainian oligarchs. Who are they? In general terms, an oligarchy is a system where the power is concentrated in the hands of a very small circle of people. The Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs gained their wealth after the breakup of the Soviet Union; and not just wealth, but power.

The Ukrainian political system is financially backed by them; they are not always mentioned in terms of the Ukrainian conflict, but have the political influence to change course of actions. One of the Maidan requirements was to end the oligarchic system in Ukraine and under this flag was Yanukovych accused of abuse of power. However, the current president of the country, Petro Poroshenko is also an oligarch.

The Maidan Activists

Euromaidan was a three months protest in the main square of Kiev, supported by more or less 50% of the Ukrainians which led to Yanukovich and other officials flee of the country. The purpose of the protest was to end corruption, loosen ties with Russia and form a new way of politics closer to the West, form a European identity.

Russia condemned the protests saying that the protesters are fascist, however the EU denies any presence of any groups embracing the Nazi ideology and using it to argue against Russian influence: two extremes, completely denying and exaggerating. However the presence of right-wing citizens and extremists is important to consider, since, as always, right-wing ideology is easy to embrace when hard times arrive. Therefore, the more Russians enter Ukraine and protect the separatist regions’ “independence”, the more civilians turn to extremism and this means a new type of propaganda for Russia: troops entering the region in order to protect the ethnic Russians from these extremists.

Ukrainian Supporters of Russia

Then there are those citizens of Ukraine who genuinely reject the conditions imposed by the European Union and the IMF and rely on the support Russia has given to Ukraine for decades. These civilians see that some conditions are imposed for the EU help, whereas the Russian help is already there but can disappear in the minute the country turns its head to EU. Also, most of them are Russian-speakers, therefore the decision of the new government to abolish the law allowing the Ukrainian regions to impose Russian as their second official language found a lack of support among these people.


By discussing the separatists as actors in the conflict we switch to the current events. The timeline of the conflict is vague and hard to interpret, but the status and position of these fighters is clear: distance from Ukraine. There are different attitudes and plans on how to achieve this: some of them want even closer ties with Russia, and annexation to Russia, others, the federalists want a hardly visible central government. According to Igor Strelkov, one of the leaders of the separatists there are two types of fighters: ones with military experience, the veterans, and others, a newly formed militia with lack of experience who are mostly trying to keep “order” in the occupied cities. As he said, two thirds of the separatists are not Ukrainian citizens, the rest are ethnic Russians from Ukraine.


By discussing the Ukrainian discrepancies both the Eastern and Western influences and interests were mentioned. Russia is mainly interested in keeping things as they were before and blocking Ukraine from changing the system and facing modernization and EU influence. In geopolitical terms therefore it is easy to identify Russia’s interests, while also taking into consideration that circa 1/5 of Ukrainians is ethnically Russian. Ukraine, as previously mentioned is economically subordinate to Russia.

Russia’s position is that there is a need to protect the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, while Russia’s interest is to keep its influence in the country, to create sort of a buffer zone between the East and the West. The foreign minister of Russia declared that Ukraine needs to keep its neutrality in order to prevent further secessions. He also mentioned that the promises of the NATO towards Russia regarding the lack of expansion towards East remained a lie and that the strategy “be with us or without us” that the EU has been imposing to the Eastern countries practically forces them to interrupt their historical relations with Russia. In 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea, and started supporting the dissidents of Ukraine.

The European Union and the USA, aka the West

“You keep reforming, we keep supporting”- could be the motto of the relations between Ukraine and the West. Russia’s support was already present in Ukraine, while the EU promised changes in return for decentralization of governance, modernization policies, breaking up monopolization of goods and services, and instead enforcing competition and of course, as previously mention ending the regime of the Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs.

Similarly to the Russians, the West also considers Ukraine geopolitically important and besides altruism (helping Ukraine achieve its goals, etc.) The US is involved because it is a NATO ally but has a lot at stake: preserve the superpower as long as it is possible; avoid Russian expansion militarily or geopolitically.

The European Union noticed Ukraine after their Orange Revolution in 2004, resulting in a more West-friendly government. This resulted in a new wave of cooperation between the parties and could represent somehow an example to the other ex-Soviet states, currently called states of the Eastern Partnership. Of course, besides the ideological reasons, there are economic reasons as well; a new partnership is always important and Ukraine has quality arable land ready for investment and 45 million consumers.


The Ukrainian situation, despite the country’s May 2014 presidential elections, is far from stable and has a potential for social unrest, political upheaval, and territorial fragmentation. It will be years before Ukraine acquires a modicum of stability. Russia’s tactics with regard to the country will change, but the goal will remain: at minimum, to keep Ukraine as neutral ground, a buffer, between Russia to the east and the EU and NATO to the west.

The crisis in Ukraine has become over time a tragedy, altering the future of the state. The public’s response to the authorities policies and their actions, quickly spreading across the country, was transforming the conflict into a civil war and a humanitarian and economic crisis.

The crisis has had many effects, both domestic and international. There are still conflicts arising and tension is always present, but not as much as in the first years of the crisis.

Although for Ukraine it is not only about choosing between Russia and the EU, but changing the whole post-Soviet political system, the situation demonstrates the need for better dialogue between the EU and Russia, both of which have interests in Ukraine, and both were in a way or another, responsible for triggering the crisis. If Ukraine were to move closer to the EU, it would mean access to the European market, encouraging further investment. The EU is among Ukraine’s most important commercial partners and accounts for approximately one-third of its external trade. The Moscow-led Customs Union, however, depends largely on whether Ukraine signs up. Putin has said the trade agreement with the EU would be ‘a big threat’ to Russia’s economy.

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Even though the crisis sparked several consequences, such as the ethical division of Ukraine, an economic crisis and tensions between the EU and Russia, a grim consequence is that between 2014 and 2018, the military conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people.


  • ‘The geopolitical crisis in Ukraine’-Constantin MANOLACHE
  • ‘The Ukraine Crisis And The Resumption Of Great-Power Rivalry’-Dmitri Trenin
  • Henrik Boesen Lindbo Larsen et al., Nato, EU and Russia after 2014: great power politics and the Ukrainian crisis
  • ‘Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives’- Series Editors: Stephen McGlinchey, Marianna Karakoulaki, and Robert Oprisko
  • ‘The Ukrainian Crisis: A Disputed Past and Present’- Anthony Ramicone, Chair Peter Della Rocca Spencer Gisser Jeffrey Metzger

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