In English, we preface names with the article “the” when referring to countries whose names represent geographical features (such as the Philippines, the Netherlands, etc.). Since “Ukrayina" literally means "borderlands", the rule in English is that it must be preceded by "the". About 30 years ago, "the Ukraine" was the vastly more popular term. While "Ukraine" is now the prevalent moniker, "the Ukraine" is still 100% grammatically correct based on English rules of grammar. The use of "Ukraine" is a political - not a grammatical or semantic - shift.
So, for those who don’t know, this is the Ukraine:
It’s a small country on the Black Sea that borders Russia. A large portion of the Ukraine speaks (and some culturally identify as) Russian. Most other Ukrainian citizens speak - you guessed it - Ukrainian.
As you might imagine, this language/cultural barrier divides the country sometimes. Here’s a chart from the BBC that compares election results in provinces (left) against the native language in those provinces (right):
It’s a pretty clear divide along the Dnieper River - the East is closer to Russia, speaks more Russian, and its industry is heavily supported by Russia. By contrast, the West half of the country tends to speak Ukrainian, and mostly favor increased relations with (and hopeful inclusion into) the European Union.
Going back to that chart above, you’ll notice that the Eastern, Russia-friendly side of the country is where the current president, Victor Yanukovych, got most of his support. So it might come as little surprise that Yanukovych is pretty buddy-buddy with President Vladimir Putin, Russian leader and official ruiner of Winter Olympics. In fact, Yanukovych was directly (financially and publicly) backed by Russia in 2004 - what some might call ‘buying foreign politicians’.
Why is all this important? Well, in recent years, there have been several talks between the Ukraine and the European Union, most notably the free-trade pact offered to President Yanukovych in 2012 by the EU.
This would be a big deal for the Ukraine, generating an estimated $658 million per year in new revenue for the almost-bankrupt country, and hugely improving its credit standing internationally. However, Putin is kind of a jealous boyfriend - he doesn’t want you talking to other countries.
With this in mind, Yanukovych rejected the EU’s offer in November
because Putin told him to in favor of stronger Russian relations and money (which include plenty of illegal and/or bribe-driven activity). Naturally, the Ukrainian people aren’t too thrilled about Putin having Yanukovych by the balls Yanukovych’s decision, especially in the Western part of the country. Massive protests ensue in Kiev, the nation’s capitol.
Over the next few months, relations between the Ukranian government and citizens worsen as government frustration becomes violence, including police attacks on unarmed student protesters, the abduction and beating of citizens (one of whom was later found dead, his body dumped in the woods), and the passage of rights-restricting laws that ban peaceful protest, among others.
This violence comes to a head on February 18-20, 2014, when government snipers fire into the crowd of protesters, wounding nearly 600 people and killing 77 more.
On February 22, parliament votes to oust President Yanukovych, and announces that early elections will be held in May to replace him, and an interim government is established. Later that day, Yanukovych disappears. It is suspected that he is hiding out in Moscow, and confirmed days later when he attends a press conference there and insists he is still in charge (or maybe in Egypt ‘cause dude is in DE NILE).
In the following days the interim government does a political 180, calling for Yanukovych’s arrest and appointing Oleksandr Turchynov - a co-founder of the very Pro-European (and anti-Russian) Fatherland Party - as acting president. This is
bad-news bears a nightmare for Putin, since Turchynov won’t play ball with Russia.
This also outrages pro-Russian citizens in the East half of the Ukraine, who want stronger ties with Russia - which already supports most of their (admittedly poor) industry. Protests and riots break out, especially in Crimea, the Southernmost region of the Ukraine. Let’s go back to the map from before:
While Crimea is officially part of the Ukraine, it runs more like a colony. It’s bound by Ukrainian laws and votes in Ukrainian elections, but it’s a semi-autonomous republic - meaning Crimea mostly governs itself. It also dangles precariously between the Ukrainian mainland and Russia. Though it has a sizeable Tartar population who are pro-Ukraine, Crimea is the ‘most Russian’ part of the country - more than 70% of people there speak Russian as their native language, and many Russian citizens live and work there. Support is highest in Simferopol and especially Sevastopol, where there’s a Russian naval base - Russia’s only warm-water base and key access to the Mediterranean (not to knock the importance of the Strait of Kerch, part of the direct waterway to Moscow and other cities).
Long story short, Putin may have lost political sway in the Ukrainian government, but he doesn’t want to lose Crimea. Lucky for him, Crimea is pretty pro-Russian, and Putin is a dick.
After Turchynov is appointed interim President, Alexei Chaly, a Russian bussinessman, becomes the “de-fact mayor” of Sevatstopol, and rallies pro-Russian support against Tartars and other pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists, vowing to ‘defend’ Russia’s naval base there. Many of the people of Crimea threaten secession from the Ukraine to Russia
(proving that they obviously didn’t see the #SochiProblems tag a few weeks ago). I’m assuming Chaly was chosen as de-facto mayor because he already had the megaphone:
On February 27, pro-Russian forces seize buildings in the Crimean capitol of Simferopol at gunpoint. During this time, Putin is
being his usual dickish self increasing tension in much the same way Russia did leading up to its war with Georgia - ordering massive ‘military exercises’ on the Ukrainian border, and telling Russian troops in Crimea to be ‘on alert’ to ‘protect their citizens’.
Sergey Aksyonov, a Russian citizen, is elected “Prime Minister of Crimea”, and immediately asks Putin for Russian soldiers’ help keeping the peace’, in direct violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
On February 28, unmarked gunmen (most likely Russian) seize Simferopol International Airport and a military airfield in Sevestopol. The international community reacts - the United Nations hold an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the EU reiterates its former trade deal, and President Obama
threatens warns Putin not to take further military action against the Ukraine, while other countries voice their condemnation. Unfortunately, like most prima donnas, being told not to do something only makes Putin want to do it more. Russia recalls their ambassador in the U.S., and approves the use of military force in the Ukraine.
On March 1, Russia invades the Ukraine to ‘save Russian lives’ (I always invade countries to protect people who aren’t in danger or being attacked, don’t you?). Russia claims the troops will remain until "the constitutional order is restored in Ukraine," - aka until another pro-Russian President can be put in place or Crimea can be annexed.
Ukrainian forces are put on full alert in anticipation of full-scale war.
The G8 Summit is suspended, and the other 7 members (the 8th being Russia) announce
We, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and the President of the European Council and President of the European Commission, join together today to condemn the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Unfortunately, given Russia’s extensive military presence in and around Crimea, NATO, G8, and the U.S. are unable to do much to drive back the Russian forces without Putin officially declaring war - which he won’t do. However, this will probably drive NATO to accept Georgia’s bid for membership, strengthening their already expansive hold on the area surrounding the Black Sea.
John Kerry is set to fly to the Ukraine on Tuesday to speak with leaders. President Obama again warns Putin to pull back his forces or “there will be costs”.
Most likely, one of two things will happen:
1) Putin will pull back in the face of international condemnation and sanctions, and the vast unpopularity of the invasion at home (only 15% of Russians polled supported the action).
2) Russia will annex Crimea, further driving the Ukraine to integrate with the European union, and leaving Crimea torn between Russian supporters and anti-Russian Tartars. Russia would eventually lose Crimea again (it gave it up in the first place because it’s so hard to govern and provide for a land mass you’re not attached to), at great cost both financially and in its economic standing in the world.