Ukraine Explained

Political scientist Oxana Shevel talks about the protests that led to the overthrow of the president and what might be in the cards now

On Nov. 21, President Viktor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would abandon its plans to sign an association and free trade agreement with the European Union, and instead seek closer cooperation with Moscow. That announcement set off protests that resulted in violent confrontations with police, the takeover of Kiev City Hall and the deaths of some 100 demonstrators.

Yanukovych fled the city on Feb. 21, and the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from office and hold new elections in May of this year. In response, on March 1, Russian troops took over government buildings, and surrounded Ukrainian military installations in Crimea, a peninsula in southeast Ukraine that is strategically important to the Russian navy and where nearly 60 percent of residents are ethnic Russians.

Oxana Shevel, an associate professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences, grew up in Ukraine. She is also an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. Shevel was in Ukraine in December before much of the violence occurred, and plans to return in May, when new elections are scheduled. She has a personal interest in the events unfolding there: some of her relatives were active in the protest movement.

She talked about the situation in Ukraine with Tufts Now.

Tufts Now: Why were people so unhappy about breaking the agreement with the European Union?

Oxana Shevel: The unhappiness goes back to 2010, when Yanukovych came into power. He was legitimately elected, but then he manipulated the political process in Ukraine, by, for example, orchestrating constitutional changes to increase his powers through the controlled judiciary, and creating a pro-presidential majority in the parliament through dubious legal methods.

There was great dissatisfaction with the regime. The government and the police were corrupt; private businesses were taken over by supporters of the president from his region and members of the president’s “family.” Those people affected had no recourse, because the judiciary was subservient to the executive, and there was no way to address grievances.

The agreement with the EU was the last hope to create rule of law and order in the country. Many people felt that if Ukraine signed this agreement, even though it did not promise eventual membership in the EU, the Ukrainian government would be obliged to abide by European standards of conduct, such as an independent judiciary and free elections.  So the agreement was associated with expectations. When Yanukovych wouldn’t sign, people came out in protest.

What led to the massive escalation of the protests?

The first protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square were young people with no clear organization and no connection to any political party. There were large protests, but not super large. But less than two weeks later, on Nov. 30, when there were a couple of hundred people in Independence Square, riot police came and beat them up.

It was a mistake on the part of the government, because these initial protests wouldn’t have brought down the president. It was shocking to people in Ukraine who had not seen large-scale violence before. They were outraged: the police were beating their children, and it was broadcast live in Kiev and beyond.

“Issuing strong proclamations will do nothing; something more than talk must transpire for there to be leverage,” says Oxana Shevel.“Issuing strong proclamations will do nothing; something more than talk must transpire for there to be leverage,” says Oxana Shevel.
The next day there was a huge protest in which a half a million people took part, by some accounts. Yanykovych responded with more brutality. Then the demands shifted, and protestors wanted those accountable for the violence to be punished. Again, the government made a mistake, because instead of punishing a few police officers, which would have quieted the protests, they escalated the violence, and eventually dozens of people were shot by snipers.

International mediators stepped in, and Yanukovych agreed to the demands of protestors to reduce presidential powers, but it was too late. Now he was associated with the deaths of more than 100 people in the center of Kiev. The pro-presidential majority in the parliament cracked and canceled the “antiterrorist operation” that Yanukovych said he was conducting. The security services melted away from the streets, and Yanukovych fled.

Was your family involved in the protests?

I have cousins and aunts and uncles living there, and everyone participated. One of my cousins runs a small business, and he experienced the problems firsthand when strangers tried to take over his business. He had billboards on the street with advertising, and one day unidentified people came to his business and said, "These are our property," and they cut down one of his billboards. He went to court and ended up being beaten up by thugs on the street. He joined the protests after students were beaten up by the riot police, and after that, he was on the street protesting all the time.

He was part of a group called AutoMaidan—“maidan” is Ukrainian for “square,” and Independence Square, where people were protesting, is known as Maidan in Ukraine. AutoMaidan was a very important part of the protest movement. They acted as a mobile group; if police were coming or roads were closed, they would organize and drive to that location and try to pressure the police.

They drove to the residences of government officials and led rallies. My aunts and uncles, who are older people—pensioners—donated money and food and brought medicine to the protestors. Everybody helped. I kept receiving text messages from my cousin about the protests. It was very scary and felt very personal, especially when he texted me that he was dodging bullets while delivering supplies to the front line during the final days of the protests.

What do you think will happen in Crimea?

It’s very uncertain and very worrying. Ukraine doesn’t have the capacity to take on Russia militarily. There is the danger that the takeover might not end in Crimea, because Russian President Vladimir Putin might try to annex or at least control some parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, where there is a Russian minority.

But there are several factors that will make it harder for Russia to establish control over Crimea. One is the presence of the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim group that Stalin deported en masse from Crimea in 1944. They have been coming back in droves since 1989, and are a highly mobilized and unified constituency that has consistently been pro-Ukrainian and opposed to pro-Russian separatism. They are known for a history of nonviolent resistance. It has been reported by their leaders that they are organizing self-defense units and that if diplomacy fails, they would be willing to come under Ukrainian command.

What do you think Putin hopes to gain by sending Russian troops into Crimea?

His intentions are not fully clear, but likely include several objectives: to ensure control of the port of Sevastopol, which is the Russian navy’s only warm-water port; to control Crimea, which is strategically and historically important for Russia; to destabilize the new pro-Western government of Ukraine, with the goal of preventing Ukraine from turning decisively towards Europe and away from Russia. That’s because Ukraine’s turn to the West means that Russia’s Eurasian geopolitical project is not going forward.

What can the United States and other governments do?

Issuing strong proclamations will do nothing; something more than talk must transpire for there to be leverage. Russian businesses use Western banks; elites travel to the West, have homes there and send their children to schools there. So travel and visa sanctions could target the upper echelons of the Russian population—that could become unpleasant very quickly.

The Russian economy has already been affected, and because of the confrontation, the ruble is at an all-time low. Russia could be excluded from the G8 talks, the annual meeting among leaders of eight of the most powerful countries in the world. [The next G8 summit is scheduled for June in Sochi, Russia, which just hosted the Winter Olympics.]

In addition, Russia wants to build pipelines to transport gas. Some of the pipelines would go through Europe, and those countries could choose not to support this. So there are many economic measures.

I don’t see the Western world getting involved militarily. That said, even patrolling Ukrainian airspace or sending ships to the Black Sea would have a major impact.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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