Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a post-communist country in transition, Ukraine started to undergo major political and economic changes that have severely affected the population with high social costs. Standing at the crossroads between east and west, the country has veered between seeking closer integration with western European countries and being drawn into the orbit of Russia, with which it shares historical ties. This ambivalence embodies Ukraine’s political, economic, cultural, social and linguistic spheres, including the question of identity – i.e. western regions seek more independence from Russia while eastern areas, where a large Russian minority lives, are prone to call on closer integration with Russia. Ukraine has faced significant challenges, including pressing need for changes and reforms, political instability and a vulnerable economy with endemic corruption and energy dependency from Russia.
Since winter 2013-14 Ukraine has experienced tensions and hostilities, particularly in its eastern regions. After the decision of former President Yanukovych to abandon the Association Agreement with the EU, tens of thousands protested in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv (November 2013), paving the way to the formation of a new government with Yanukovych leaving the country. As the scope of protests expanded and the unrest turned deadly in many Ukrainian cities, pro-Russian protesters rallied in Crimea against the new Kyiv administration and demanded independence through a referendum (16 March 2014), which rapidly lead to the bloodless annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation (21 March). The situation has spiralled into violence in the Donbass region (Eastern Ukraine), where armed groups began to seize buildings and engaged in an ongoing fighting with governmental forces. However, independence was proclaimed in Donetsk and Luhanks referenda (11 May) and separatists’ leaders were elected, developments not recognised by Kyiv and the West. In June 2014 Petro Poroshenko was sworn in as new Ukrainian President and the Verkhovna Rada voted in a new government (2 December) after pro-European parties won parliamentary elections (26 October). The Ukrainian crisis brought to the fore the Kremlin’s strategy to assert its interests in the Eastern Neighbourhood with the use of soft-power tools as well as coercive measures such as trade embargoes, gas price hikes, destabilization of the East including military forces, alleged backing of Donbass separatists, and the annexation of Crimea. Hostilities in Ukraine inflamed international tensions with the EU and the US unanimously condemning Russia’s approach in the crisis. The 2014 international endeavours to de-escalate tensions resulted in the Geneva Joint Statement (17 April), pledging full support for OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the Berlin Declaration of Foreign Ministers (2 July), sending an OSCE Observer Mission to monitor the Ukraine-Russian border, and the Minsk Protocol (5 September) announcing a cease-fire and a security zone. In February 2015 Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Russian President Putin, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Holland agreed to revive the Protocol with a new package of measures, “Minsk II”, to reduce hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2017 “Minsk II” is still far from being implemented and the truce is being regularly violated from both sides. The numbers of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are shocking. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the conflict has caused nearly 10,000 documented casualties, there are an estimated 3.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance as well as 1.6 million internally displaced persons.
The EU, the USA, together with other countries and international organizations, have imposed sanctions targeted to Russian citizens and companies allegedly involved in the annexation of Crimea and in the backing of separatists in Eastern Ukraine. As a response Russia applied retaliatory sanctions including a ban on food imports from the EU, United States, Norway, Canada and Australia. As a result, these set of measures are carrying severe economic effects and are exacerbating the downturn on both sides. On top of that, the unrelentingly biased and divisive media coverage of several outlets about the Ukrainian crisis have contributed to polarise societies across Europe, either depicting “a monolithic and fictitious picture of Ukraine threatened by fascist hordes” (Russian media), or have “almost routinely […] downplayed the Russian side of the story” (Western media). Indeed, one of the major casualty of the Ukrainian crisis is the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians that is continuously threatened, among other factors, by contrasting opinions about Russia’s role in the crisis. After three years of hostilities and an immense number of casualties and displaced persons, the Ukrainian conflict still represents one of the most significant challenge for the European continent.
 This paragraph is based on the paper Bonato S., “Restoring Dialogue As It Drifts Away. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum Initiative at the Nadir of EU-Russia Dialogue”, PECOB’s Papers Series, issue 49, February 2015, ISSN: 2038-632X.
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