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Twelve stories that help explain the crisis in Ukraine Add to ...

The Globe and Mail's foreign correspondents have covered the crisis in Ukraine from the beginning. On the eve of general elections in that country, we've selected 12 feature stories that collectively retell much of what you need to know to understand Ukraine today.

For more coverage of the May 25 Presidential election vote, follow Mark MacKinnon at globeandmail.com and @markmackinnon

Ukraine elected a new president on Sunday, a new milestone in a crisis that has divided this country of 46 million people and unleashed a freshly aggressive Russia.

Brother vs. brother



Mark MacKinnon reports on a family torn apart by the crisis in Ukraine, where brothers find themselves on opposite sides of Europe's new Cold War.

Follow Mark MacKinnon's coverage of the Ukraine elections May 25 at Globeandmail.com and @markmackinnon

At every step of the way in the Ukraine crisis, The Globe and Mail’s foreign correspondents have been chronicling events on the ground – and criss-crossing Ukraine, Crimea, Russia, Abkhazia, Poland and Latvia – as a people’s revolution in Kiev upended the post-Cold War order in Eastern Europe and sparked confrontation between the West and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon, European bureau chief (now Editor of Report on Business) Paul Waldie and international affairs columnist Doug Saunders were there as protests swelled in the snowy Maidan in Kiev in November and when protesters were killed in the streets in February before the sudden ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. They reported on the rise of right-wing nationalists in the capital and the growing separatist sentiment in Russian-speaking regions that saw Russia’s shock annexation of Crimea in March, the massing of Russian troops on the Ukraine border and separatist votes earlier this month in eastern Ukraine.

Interior Ministry personnel leave Independence Square as pro-European integration protesters gesture in central Kiev December 11, 2013. (GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)

1. Dec. 10 2013

Riot police move in as Ukraine protesters vow to stand their ground

Ukraine’s political crisis was on the verge of turning violent as riot police moved in on anti-government protesters in the centre of Kiev who were vowing to stand their ground early Wednesday.

Thousands of demonstrators - some who had spent the first part of the night sleeping on Independence Square, plus others who rushed in as news of the police move spread – sang the national anthem and chanted “Glory to Ukraine” as the black- helmeted police slowly closed in on the concert stage at the centre of the three-week-old protest.

The police were successful in seizing and dismantling makeshift barricades the opposition had built from park benches and sheet metal to block the roads around Independence Square. However, they paused when confronted by a thick line of protesters wearing orange hard hats and apparently prepared to do battle.

Members of the radical group Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) practise street fighting in central Kiev on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014. (Darko Bandic/AP)

2. Feb. 07, 2014

Have Ukraine's protests been taken over by this ultra-right-wing group?

For the thousands of protesters camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square, there is a commonly understood rule: stay away from the fifth floor.

Inside the Soviet-era office building that has been seized as a barracks for protest organizers and guards, the fifth floor is blocked, from the moment you attempt to step off the elevator, by a phalanx of grim-faced men in camouflage fatigues, brush cuts and Mohawks, many of them holding iron bars or other improvised weapons. They don’t want visitors.

This is the headquarters of Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, the ultra-right-wing movement, described by some as fascist, whose hundreds of soldiers (they call themselves an army) have become the sharp edge of the two-month-old protest movement that has upturned the politics of Ukraine, cost several lives and forced President Viktor Yanukovych to dismiss the government and promise to reform the constitution.

Anti-government protesters listen to speeches by their leaders in Kiev's Independence Square, early February 21, 2014. (YANNIS BEHRAKIS/REUTERS)

3. Feb. 20, 2014

Yanukovych regime’s hold is shaken after a deadly day

As Kiev endured the bloodiest day in a popular uprising that has spread across the country, there are growing indications the government of embattled President Viktor Yanukovych is buckling.

The violence began shortly after 9 a.m., barely 12 hours after Mr.Yanukovych announced a truce in the protest movement against him that has been under way for months. Protesters moved out from Independence Square in central Kiev and clashed with police along a road next to the Hotel Ukraine, which became a makeshift hospital. As groups of police retreated up the street, several stopped and opened fire.

It wasn’t clear at first if they were firing rubber or real bullets but within an hour wounded protesters were taken into the hotel to be treated. Some protesters had guns as well and at least one could be seen taking aim at officers. A group of protesters, some carrying guns, also rushed into the hotel in the morning to get a better vantage point to attack police across the street. At least 37 people died, with some reports putting the figure as high as 70. Several hundred were also wounded.

Members of a civilian defense group patrol the streets in Lviv, Ukraine, Feb. 21. (URIEL SINAI/NYT)

4. Feb. 23, 2014

Welcome to Lviv, the ‘free’ Ukrainian city protesters are dying for

For this week, at least, Andriy Sadovyy is one of the world’s most powerful mayors. The head of this elegant city in the far west of Ukraine, he commands his own security force, and sees himself as having no one to report to in the national government.

Long a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism, Lviv this week declared itself autonomous from the government in Kiev after security forces in the capital used deadly force against anti-government demonstrators, many of whom hail from this part of Ukraine.

As the violence in Kiev escalated, rioters here smashed their way into the city’s police stations and the prosecutor’s office, as well as part of an army base in the city. As security forces evaporated, unknown protesters lit the buildings ablaze in a show of anger against anything associated with the regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

A Ukrainian serviceman (L) sits on a gate as an armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands on guard inside a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean town of Yevpatoria, March 5, 2014. (DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/REUTERS)

5. Mar. 05, 2014

The strange view from inside a surrounded Ukrainian army base

Lieutenant Colonel Sergej Matsjuk smiles at the suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country has no soldiers in Crimea.

“You can see with your own eyes,” Lt. Col. Matsjuk says as he waves his hand toward the gates of this anti-aircraft base northwest of Simferopol, where he is deputy commander.

We are sitting in a small canteen in an office building on the base. The walls are decorated with military paintings, some floral plates and a small picture of Jesus. A small television sits on a table in one corner of the room, showing what looks like a detective drama, and a kettle has been brought in by a soldier to make tea.

Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)

6: Mar. 07 2014

How the West lost Putin: It didn’t have to be this way

It’s a narrative that’s growing in popularity in the West: Vladimir Putin as a 21st-century Adolf Hitler, an unhinged dictator bent on collecting lost Russian lands.

It was floated first on CNN last week, where former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili – who fought and lost a war with Russia six years ago over a place called South Ossetia – compared Mr. Putin’s stealth takeover of the Crimean Peninsula to the Nazi annexation of Sudetenland in 1938. The Canadian government has since embraced the storyline, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird using the Sudetenland comparison while denouncing Russian military moves in the Ukraine.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made similar remarks, and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a fundraiser in California: “If this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s.”

A pro-Russian protester wears a soviet flag in front of Crimea's regional parliament building in Simferopol, Ukraine, March 14, 2014. (URIEL SINAI/NYT)

7. Mar. 14, 2014

In Crimea, the only ‘truth’ is from Kremlin-controlled media

Mila Bogach really wants me to understand what’s been happening in her country.

She has a friend, she says – well, a friend of a friend – who went to Kiev to take part in the protests that brought down Viktor Yanukovych last month. Her friend’s friend stood on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, for two months and was paid 27,000 hryvnia (about $3,000) for her time.

“We don’t know who paid them,” Ms. Bogach, a middle-aged mother of one, whispers fiercely when we meet in this Russian-speaking city that is deeply divided about what’s happening in the country. “Maybe it was [protest leader Vitali] Klitschko, maybe it was [interim prime minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk. I think it was NATO.”

Pro-Russian people celebrate in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

8. Mar. 16, 2014

Crimea vote will deepen chasm between Moscow and West

With alcohol flowing and nationalism running high, thousands of Crimeans gathered under a massive statue of Vladimir Lenin on Sunday to celebrate the fact they will likely soon be Russians.

The consequences of Crimea's referendum - in which upwards of 95 per cent of voters backed union with Russia, according to official figures - are massive, deepening the long and violent crisis in Ukraine and pushing relations between Moscow and the West further toward the lows of the Cold War.

But for many of those celebrating in downtown Simferopol, it was a simple matter of righting a historic mistake.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Areseniy Yatsenyuk in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Cabinet of Ministers in Kiev, March 22, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

9. Mar. 23, 2014

Yatsenyuk’s precarious balancing act

He has been Ukraine’s Prime Minister for barely a month, but already Arseniy Yatsenyuk doubts anyone will vote for him again.

That’s not surprising, given that his agenda includes raising taxes, slashing spending, cutting subsidies, stamping out corruption, and transforming nearly every government institution. And all while the economy stagnates and the country faces a possible military confrontation with Russia.

“Who is to vote for me after this?” Mr. Yatsenyuk said with a smile during an interview Friday. “Not sure about my wife, even.”

Pro-Russian activists guard their own checkpoint outside Sloviansk, a militant stronghold. , and the Interior Ministry said fighting around checkpoints had turned deadly. (Reuters)

10. Apr. 24 2014

Diplomats running out of ways to stop slide toward war in Eastern Europe

Western diplomats are running out of ways to say that they’re angry with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and want him to change his threatening behaviour towards Ukraine. Their words seem to have no effect, and, meanwhile, Eastern Europe continues to drift closer to the kind of conflict it thought it had left behind in the 20th century.

As Russia began surprise military drills along the Ukrainian border Thursday – a move Moscow said it was “forced” to undertake in response to a Ukrainian military crackdown on pro-Russian separatists – Foreign Minister John Baird and his Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski, searched for new descriptions of the situation.

“Getting worse, not better,” was how Mr. Baird put it after the two men discussed the Ukrainian crisis at a meeting here in the Polish capital. “Exacerbating,” was the word Mr. Sikorski applied to Russia’s latest actions.

The Baltic states are the only three of the 14 ex-Soviet republics who have been admitted to NATO, but they are often cited by the Kremlin as proof the Western military alliance is trying to encircle Russia. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

11. Apr. 25, 2014

When Putin growls, Baltics quiver

The vast parks and bicycle lanes of this city feel too Scandinavian to have ever been part of the Soviet Union. But it’s the language you often hear first in Riga’s restaurants and taxicabs – Russian – that reminds you this was indeed once part of Moscow’s empire. And that’s where the worries begin.

When Vladimir Putin growls about sending his army into eastern Ukraine to protect the Russian- speaking population there, the whole of the ex-USSR quivers a little. But no former Soviet republic, other than Ukraine, gets quite so nervous as little Latvia, where relations are strained between the country’s ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians: Close to 27 per cent of the country’s two million residents are ethnically Russia and fully 40 per cent speak Russian at home.

Many here believe that Latvia, along with Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, might be in the same situation as Ukraine had the three Baltic states not been admitted to the NATO military alliance 10 years ago. And so many here breathed a sigh of relief this week when 150 U.S. paratroopers began arriving in each of the Baltic states.

Pro-Russian gunmen and activists react while listening to a speaker as they declare independence for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine on Monday, May 12, 2014. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo)

12. May. 12, 2014

In Ukraine, Donetsk People’s Republic lurches to life

The Donetsk People’s Republic lurched to life Monday, with separatist leaders vowing to drive the Ukrainian military off their territory and appealing to join neighbouring Russia.

They also said they would prevent national elections from taking place here on May 25, a move certain to spur further confrontation inside a disintegrating Ukraine. Kiev and its allies in the West say the vote – the first since a February revolution that toppled the Moscow-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych – must be held no matter what.

Further escalating tensions, Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom said it would cut off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine on the morning of June 3 if Kiev didn’t pay a $3.5-billion debt. Most of Ukraine’s battered economy is reliant on Russian-supplied natural gas.

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