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From the Maidan protests to Russia's invasion: Eight years of conflict in Ukraine

From the Maidan protests to Russia’s invasion: Eight years of conflict in Ukraine

Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine on February 24 placed the smaller eastern European country at the centre of international concern. FRANCE 24 traces the chronology of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv to the Maidan protests in Ukraine’s capital in late 2013.

After years of latent conflict between Russia and Ukraine and escalating tensions in recent months, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion on Thursday. Russian forces are aiming to capture major Ukrainian cities including the capital, Kyiv, while the West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia and direct talks between Moscow and Kyiv have begun.

FRANCE 24 traces the crisis to its roots: November 2013, during Ukraine’s Maidan protest movement, which led to the removal of pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovich and the beginning of today’s conflict.

2013: The Maidan protests and the break with Russia
November 21: After Ukraine’s long rapprochement with the European Union under president Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010) that began after the country’s Orange Revolution in 2004, Yushchenko’s successor Yanukovich decides to turn away from Europe. He renounces an association agreement proposed by the EU, which refused to grant him a €20 billion loan. Ukraine is divided between this European economic integration project and a competing Russian proposal for a customs union. Demonstrations break out in the country.

December 1: In Kyiv, protests take place in Independence Square, or “Maidan”, which will give its name to the movement. Pro-Europeans such as former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (then in detention) and current Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, as well as nationalists from the far-right Svoboda party, are among the opposition. Protesters build barricades on Independence Square and take control of city hall.

Putin worries about a movement that he says looks more like “a pogrom than a revolution” and “has little to do with the relationship between Ukraine and the European Union”. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounces foreign interference.

December 17: Despite the demonstrations, Yanukovich remains in favour of Moscow. Putin announces the lifting of customs barriers between the two countries, a reduction in the price of gas and a $15 billion loan.

2014: Yanukovich departs, and Donbas and Crimea are at the heart of the crisis
February: Clashes between demonstrators and security forces become deadly and Ukraine experiences its bloodiest month of violence. Nearly 90 people are killed in Kyiv between February 18 and 21, according to authorities.

Faced with the crisis in Ukraine, officials from several Western nations arrive in the country and negotiate an early presidential election.

February 22: Ukraine’s parliament deposes Yanukovich, who leaves Kyiv. An interim government is established. Putin denounces a coup d’état and declares that “Russia reserves the right to use all available options, including force as a last resort”.

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March: Pro- and anti-Russian activists clash in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine whose population mostly speaks Russian. With a naval base in Sevastopol and military airports in Kacha and Simferopol, the peninsula is a strategic territory for Moscow, which deploys troops there.

March 16: Voters in Crimea overwhelmingly favour its unification with Russia in a referendum the US and EU called “illegal”. Putin signs a bill to annex the peninsula and Moscow gains control of Ukrainian military bases. Washington, Brussels and Ottawa ban Russian politicians and their Crimean counterparts from entering their territories in response.

April 7: The war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine begins. Pro-Russian separatists declare the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Moscow supports and arms the rebels and many Russians join them, but the Russian Federation is not officially involved in the conflict. Kyiv launches an “anti-terrorist” operation and deploys its army. It also deploys militias that are often linked to the far right or even the ultra right, such as Pravy Sektor.

May 11: Two independence referendums are held in Donetsk and Luhansk, another area in eastern Ukraine on the Russian border, and “yes” wins massively. Ukraine and Western countries do not recognise the results, while Russia does.

May 25: Ukrainians elect Petro Poroshenko as president with 56 percent of the vote in the first round. The West and Moscow recognise the result. Poroshenko announces that he is working on a peace plan and decrees a unilateral ceasefire on June 20, which will have very little effect in the combat zones.

June 6: Then French president François Hollande, former German chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin and Poroshenko meet in France’s Normandy on the sidelines of the seventieth anniversary of the Allied landings. It is the first meeting between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart since the conflict began in eastern Ukraine, and it initiates the occasional “Normandy format” four-way talks between Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Kyiv.

June 27: The EU signs an Association Agreement with Ukraine, which includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Russia will take steps to protect its economy if the new partnership has a negative impact.

September 5: The two camps sign a ceasefire in the Belarusian capital, an accord known as the “Minsk protocol” or “Minsk 1”. It is a semi-failure: the fighting in eastern Ukraine decreases in intensity but continues.

November 2: The separatist self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk hold presidential elections. Alexander Zakhartchenko is elected in Donetsk, and Igor Plotniski in Luhansk. Ukraine denounces a violation of the Minsk accords, while Russia views the polls as respecting the protocol.

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December 23: Ukraine’s parliament votes in favour of joining NATO, much to Moscow’s displeasure. Lavrov speaks of a “counterproductive” move that “creates the illusion that it will solve the deep internal crisis in Ukraine” and will only “exacerbate the climate of confrontation”.

2015-2018: Stalemate in the conflict
February 2015: As fighting and bombing have resumed in eastern Ukraine since January, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France meet again in Belarus to impose a new ceasefire.

In addition to the ceasefire, the agreement reached on February 12 includes measures such as the withdrawal of heavy weapons on both sides, the restoration of Ukraine’s borders and the withdrawal of foreign troops. “Minsk 2” also has a political component that provides for the recognition of a certain autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk and the organisation of elections within a Ukrainian framework.

Periods of truce begin after outbreaks of fighting in the months and years that follow, with further ceasefires regularly signed and broken.

An October 2015 summit between European, Russian and Ukrainian leaders in Paris is followed by an October 2016 summit in Berlin, without any concrete progress.

November 24, 2017: Plotniski, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, resigns after taking refuge in Moscow. Leonid Pasetchnik replaces him.

August 31, 2018: Pasetchnik’s counterpart in Donetsk, Alexander Zakhartchenko, is assassinated. Denis Pushilin replaces him.

Analysts interpret both events as evidence of a takeover by Moscow.

November 25, 2018: Russian forces board three small Ukrainian navy ships attempting to pass under the Crimean bridge, which Russia inaugurated with great fanfare the same year, and arrest the vessels’ 24 crew members. The next day, Poroshenko decrees martial law for 30 days in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions.

2019: Hopes for a détente, and an agreement on gas
May 20: Volodymyr Zelensky triumphs over Poroshenko to become the new president of Ukraine. Zelensky is an actor and comedian who campaigned against corruption and for a détente with Moscow. He spent much of his career in Russia and also speaks Russian.

August 18: French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Putin at his summer residence at the fort of Brégançon in southern France, following the leaders’ first meeting at Versailles Palace shortly after Macron’s election in 2017. The French president hopes to build “a new architecture of trust and security in Europe”, inclusive of Russia.

September 7: Russia releases the 24 detained Ukrainian sailors and 10 more Ukrainian citizens, including filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, in a prisoner exchange. Moscow will also hand over Ukraine’s three ships to Kyiv a few months later.

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October 1: Ukrainian and Russian representatives meeting in Minsk under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe reach an agreement on the organisation of elections in the separatist areas of Donbas and on granting them special status. Protests erupt in Kyiv accusing Zelensky of capitulating to Moscow.

December 9: Putin and Zelensky meet for the first time at a Normandy format summit in Paris. The parties involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine agree to implement the ceasefire reached under the Minsk accords before the end of the year, and to exchange prisoners.

December 31: Moscow and Kyiv finalise a new five-year agreement on the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine. The agreement guarantees gas supplies to Europe, which were threatened by a previous crisis in 2009. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea appears set to facilitate the export of Russian gas by other routes.

2020-2022: From conflict to war
June 12, 2020: NATO grants Ukraine “enhanced opportunities” allowing cooperation between NATO forces and Kyiv’s army. NATO says this “does not presuppose decisions on NATO membership”. But Zelensky is pushing for the alliance to propose a membership plan.

April 1, 2021: Zelensky accuses Russia of massing troops on Ukraine’s borders. Russia says the exercise is a response to Ukrainian “provocations”.

April 6, 2021: Zelensky openly declares that joining NATO is the only way to put an end to the war in Donbas. He also declares himself in favour of Ukraine joining the EU.

December 2021: Western countries fear escalation after Russia conducts another large-scale military exercise near the Ukrainian border in November. Putin announces security demands including a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO and the withdrawal of NATO forces from the former Soviet Union.

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US President Joe Biden threatens sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying that Nord Stream 2 could be used as “leverage”. The EU is also ready to sanction Moscow.

January and February 2022: A period of intense diplomacy produces no immediate results. NATO refuses to budge on its policy of allowing countries to decide if they want to join, while Moscow continues to demand a guarantee that Ukraine never will.

February 20: The Élysée Palace issues a statement that Putin and Biden have accepted, in principle, a summit on Ukraine, but the Kremlin later deems the announcement “premature”. In a televised evening address, Putin announces recognition for the independence of the separatist self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine and orders Russian “peacekeepers” to enter them.

February 24: Russian forces invade Ukrainian territory on several fronts.