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A 35-Step Guide To Understanding Why Russia Decided To Follow The Olympics With A War

After the Sochi Olympics, Putin invaded Ukraine. How months of anti-government protests led to the current standoff.

Posted on March 2, 2014, at 11:31 a.m. ET

1. Ukraine, population 45 million, is strategically located between Russia and Europe. The current crisis has reignited the divide between Ukrainians who identify more with Europe and those who identify with Russia.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Photos of some of those killed in recent violence at a makeshift memorial in Kiev.

2. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union from 1919 until 1991. Millions died from state-imposed famines in the 1930s and then war with Nazi Germany. In 1986, a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl exploded, causing widespread damage that Moscow tried to silence.

Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

3. In 1991, Ukraine declared its independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated, with 90% of Ukrainians voting for independence in a nationwide referendum. The country then struggled to rebuild its economy, end corruption, and develop its political system.

Joern Pollex / Getty Images

A note on terminology: Ukraine is the preferred name, as The Ukraine, for many Ukrainians, implies that it is a region (in this case, of Russia), rather than a sovereign state.

4. 2004 was a turning point. In November, Viktor Yanukovych, then prime minister, won the presidential election. Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who was more Western-leaning, accused Yanukovych of vote rigging and called on Ukrainians to protest.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

Yanukovych was the chosen successor of then-President Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma, a pro-Kremlin politician, was accused of numerous corruption scandals and reportedly ordered the beheading of a critical journalist, Georgy Gongadze.

5. The mass anti-government movement became known as the Orange Revolution. Ukraine’s top court eventually annulled the results and called a new election, which Yushchenko won.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

Yushchenko was poisoned in the midst of his campaign, leaving his face horribly disfigured. By the end of his presidency, however, he had lost significant public support, having failed to deliver on political promises.

6. Another prominent politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, became Yushchenko’s prime minister. Over the next few years, political infighting, failed policies, economic stagnation, and corruption charges would weaken the Orange Revolution coalition.

Baz Ratner / Reuters

Russia strongly opposed the Orange Revolution. It accused the U.S. of orchestrating it and founded a youth group called Nashi to ward off any such revolutions in Russia.

7. In a move widely seen as a means of punishing Ukraine for turning westward, Putin cut the flow of gas to the country in 2006 and 2009. In 2010, as the country suffered a deep economic crisis, Yanukovych was elected president.

Ria Novosti / Reuters

In the interlude, several vigilante groups, such as Automaidan and Pravy Sektor, formed as an alternative political forum outside of formal politics.

8. On Nov. 21, 2013, Yanukovych abruptly announced he would not sign an association agreement that would mean closer ties with the European Union, backtracking on previous statements. It was taken as a sign of Yanukovych’s move closer to Russia.

Ria Novosti / Reuters

Yanukovych blamed Moscow for his decision to cut talks with the EU, citing sustained economic pressure that amounted to “blackmail.” Many Ukrainians accused him of betraying the country, pandering to political interests for the 2015 presidential election.

9. In response, protesters took to Independence Square in Kiev, the Maidan — the site of the Orange Revolution. The second day of protests, Nov. 22, was the 2004 revolution’s ninth anniversary. That same day Yanukovych at an EU summit said the deal was dead.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

10. By Nov. 24, more than 100,000 peaceful protesters had gathered. They cheered, “Ukraine is Europe,” and called for Yanukovych's resignation. Shortly after, riot police abruptly raided the square and violently disrupted the demonstrations.

Stringer / Reuters

11. Over the following two weeks, protesters continued to fill Independence Square and clash with riot police as the political standoff deepened. Activists built tent camps and barricades, with intermittent attempts to storm government buildings.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

In a sign of Yanukovych’s dwindling control, protesters tore down a statue of Soviet Leader Vladimir Lenin and broke it to pieces.

12. They stole the dream. If this government does not want to fulfill the will of the people, then there will be no such government, there will be no such president,” Vitaly Klitschko, heavyweight boxer turned opposition politician, said at a Dec 1. rally.

Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

13. Meanwhile, Russian TV dismissed the amassing protesters as being funded and aided by the U.S. State Department. One channel called them “professional revolutionaries, for whom organizing riots is a job.”

Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters

14. On Dec. 10, thousands of riot police tried to clear the tent camps and barricades with bulldozers, but were held back by protesters. On Dec. 17, Putin offered to lend Ukraine $15 billion and cut gas costs by a third to drum up support for Yanukovych.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

15. The brutality continued to escalate. On Dec. 25, masked men dragged Ukrainian opposition journalist Tatyana Chornovol, 34, from her car and brutally beat her. Photos of a bludgeoned Chornovol quickly went viral.

Stringer / Reuters

The attack came hours after Chornovol published pictures of a luxury home allegedly belonging to a Ukrainian official.

16. Yanukovych wavered between outright force and mild restraint. Meanwhile, some EU and U.S. politicians, including EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Sen. John McCain, came to Kiev to support the opposition and criticize Putin and Yanukovych.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

17. On Jan. 16, the Ukrainian parliament passed a series of laws that essentially banned all forms of protest. Western countries roundly condemned the new legislation, which the Ukrainian opposition called a “coup d’état.”


Meanwhile, the three main opposition parties in Ukraine failed to come up with a plan of action, further frustrating protesters.

18. This sparked further outrage. Hundreds of anti-government protesters fought pitched battles with police officers, who reportedly retaliated with rubber bullets, sound and gas grenades, and water cannons in freezing cold weather that plunged below -8°C.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Protesters marched toward parliament and threw Molotov cocktails and flares. Some also lit empty buses on fire.

19. European officials called for sanctions against the Ukrainian government and sharply condemned the violence. After negotiations with the opposition, parliament overturned all but two of the laws. Prime minister Mykola Azarov also abruptly resigned.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Azarov stated that "the government did everything to solve the conflict peacefully throughout the clashes" and that he was resigning "to preserve the unity and integrity of Ukraine."

20. On Feb. 17, violence broke out yet again when protesters standing outside parliament started hurling projectiles, further complicating prospects for a truce between the government and opposition.

Konstantin Chernichkin / Reuters

21. Thirteen people (seven protesters, six policemen) died in the resulting brawls. The government responded with an ultimatum to the protesters: If attacks continued past 6 p.m. that day, the police would have to “resort to harsh measures.”

Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

22. The death toll continued to rise. On Feb. 19, Obama strongly condemned the Ukrainian government’s violent response. That same day Yanukovych and opposition leaders announced that they reached a “truce” and were in the beginnings of “negotiations.”

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Reuters

Obama stated that “[the U.S. holds] the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression.”

23. The deal called for early elections and limits to presidential power. The parliament also voted to fire Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko for the police’s violent attacks on civilians. By Feb. 20, 42 were dead (some from snipers) and hundreds injured.

Konstantin Chernichkin / Reuters

24. On Feb. 22, Ukraine’s parliament voted to remove Yanukovych, who had fled Kiev for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, where his support is stronger. Yanukovych gave a speech opposing his removal.

The Associated Press

“Everything that’s happening today is, for the most part, vandalism and banditism and a government coup,” said the ousted president about parliament's vote to remove him from power.

25. That same day, the government released former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, where she had been held for 2.5 years on corruption charges she denies. She spoke in Independence Square, a career politician before a divided people.

The Associated Press

Tymoshenko's imprisonment, which happened under Yanukovych's watch, was seen as a ploy for Yanukovych to consolidate further power.

26. In the days that followed Yanukovych's whereabouts remained unknown, though it was speculated that he was in Russia. A warrant for his arrest was issued for charges of mass murder.

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File

27. With Yanukovych gone, Ukrainians raided his residence, for the first time glimpsing his lavish lifestyle, including a zoo, funded by taxpayer money. Many also collected potentially incriminating documents from his home.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

28. On Feb. 23, Ukraine’s legislature voted to give the president’s powers to the parliament’s speaker, Oleksander Turchynov, a Tymoshenko ally.

Stringer / Reuters

29. The same day, the Winter Olympics in Sochi closed after two weeks during which the Kremlin tried to project an image of a new, revived Russia onto the world stage.

Phil Noble / Reuters

30. Yanukovych was rumored to be in Crimea, a pro-Russian region of Ukraine with a Russian fleet. On Feb. 27, pro-Russian protestors took the street, as armed men seized control of Crimea's parliament and raised Russian flags.

Stringer / Reuters

31. Today many in the semi-autonomous Crimea region identify more with Russia than Ukraine. Crimea, which is predominately Russian-speaking, houses Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Crimea has a majority ethnic Russian population with strong Russia ties. The minority Muslim Tatar population, however, is largely against the Russian intervention in Ukraine. Under Soviet rule, Stalin deported Crimea's Muslim Tatars in 1944 to Central Asia. They were not allowed to return until after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it retained Crimea, counter to Russian opposition.

32. Events continued to escalate. Armed men, reportedly in Russian uniforms, seized Crimea's airport on Feb. 28 as Yanukovych resurfaced in Russia near Ukraine's border. That same day Yanukovych gave a defiant speech saying he was still president.

Baz Ratner / Reuters

33. On March 1, Putin asked Russia’s parliament for permission to use Russian troops to defend Crimea and Ukraine. Parliament voted a unanimous "yes" less than two hours later. Obama condemned the move, which some Ukrainians called an "invasion."

Ria Novosti / Reuters

Early on March 2, President Obama and Vladimir Putin had a 90-minute-long dialogue over the phone about the conflict, with mixed reports from either party.

34. Putin's request for war powers extends to all of Ukraine, including the east, where pro-Russian sentiment runs high among the largely Russian-speaking population. Russian troops are now amassing, threatening to destabilize Ukraine's new government.

Baz Ratner / Reuters

35. Decades after the end of the Cold War, Ukraine remains politically and geographically divided. Putin, meanwhile, has been accused of failing to see Ukraine as a sovereign state, and has hoped to entice it to join his Eurasian Union.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.