The crisis in Ukraine began in November 2013 when a crackdown on students protesting against the government’s decision not to sign an agreement linking the country more closely with the EU led to huge street protests, ending with the overthrow of the president. Russia then occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula, and supported unrest in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. This chapter introduces the concept of the negative-sum game as a metaphor for the conflict, and explores some alternative explanations.

Western readers of the morning’s headlines in 2014 realised to their surprise and dismay that post-Cold War Europe was at war. The local conflagrations triggered by the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s were bloodier, but the Ukraine crisis occurred long afterwards and revived fears of a clash between major world powers. The United States and the member states of the European Union (EU) adopted positions diametrically opposed to those followed by post-Soviet Russia. Ukraine and its people were caught in between. Today, Europe is divided once again, although the divisions lie farther east than they did before the fall of the Berlin Wall. These new demarcation lines are unstable and reflect neither local affinities nor great-power consensus. There is talk in world capitals of a new cold war, a protracted period of tensions when destabilising and even catastrophic conflict is an ever-present danger.

The troubles in Ukraine began as an essentially internal affair. In November 2013 a crackdown on students demonstrating against the government’s decision not to sign an agreement to link the country more closely with the EU led to a mammoth street protest in the capital city, Kyiv. Several months of clashes between the authorities and the protesters produced, unexpectedly for all, the violent overthrow in February 2014 of a harsh and erratic but democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, in what came to be known as the Maidan Revolution. The domestic imbroglio blew up into an international confrontation in March when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered measures taken to occupy and then annex the Crimean peninsula, situated on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. 

Samuel Charap is Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, IISS.

Timothy J. Colton is Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, Harvard University.

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Russia and Eurasia Programme

The IISS Russia and Eurasia Programme focuses on the politics, political economy, and international relations of Russia and the other states of post-Soviet Eurasia.


The US and Russia in the Asia-Pacific

The product of over two years of Track II dialogue between Asia-Pacific experts, this report discusses how the US and Russia both depend on developments in the Asia-Pacific region for their future prosperity and security.

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