Ukraine is a country at war on multiple fronts. This past month marked six years since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which was formalized on 18 March, 2014. The invasion was the largest seizure of territory since World War II and the region remains under Russian control today, with no indication that Ukraine will be able to reclaim it in the foreseeable future. In addition, in the eastern region of Donbass, the ongoing war between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-allied separatists has resulted in the displacement of approximately 1.5 million people and over 13 000 dead.
Prior to his landslide victory last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky campaigned on the promise of ending the war in the Donbass region. The area borders Russia (unlike Crimea, which is only connected to Russia by way of a bridge that opened in 2018) and is currently under the control of Russia and its separatist clients. Although Moscow denies that it supplies militiamen to the front, Russian aid and control over the region enables the conflict to persist.
In an effort to keep his promise to end the war, which has been ongoing since the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, Zelensky recently announced a plan to seek out diplomatic peace strategies. In response, anti-Russian protests emerged in mid-March, despite school closures and a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. The protests erupted outside the Presidential Office in Kyiv, expressing outrage at the government’s decision to engage in negotiations with leaders of the seperatist movement — a move which some Ukrainians view as conceding to Russia. The protestors are especially opposed to the inclusion of separatist representatives from Luhansk and Donetsk, two industrial cities in Donbass, on the new committee tasked with advising the government regarding peace solutions. Some view this decision as Ukraine turning a blind eye to Russia’s aggressive involvement in the conflict.
Although the number of demonstrators fizzled as health concerns rose towards the end of March, a dozen or so remain near the Presidential Office, day and night. Like many other states, Ukraine is now in lockdown, but the most adamant protestors refuse to comply, for fear that the government will utilize this period of quarantine to pursue courses of action that would otherwise result in mass unrest. If the threat of a global pandemic is not enough to stymie the emergence of these protests, it is uncertain that anything, except conceding to their demand of withdrawing the plan, would.
Zelensky’s economic proposal for the country has also brought about other incidences of popular unrest, as it originally included the liberalization of employment laws. This aspect of the plan has since been withdrawn in light of mass protests asserting that the reform would negatively impact workers’ rights. The fact that Ukrainians ascribe so much importance to having a successful economic plan is no surprise, given a survey conducted last year which revealed that 55 per cent of respondents viewed mass emigration as the most critical threat to their country — despite ongoing war. The depopulation crisis has reached a critical point, given that an estimated 6.3 million Ukrainians left the country between 2002 and 2017 — a striking number which equates to roughly 14 per cent of the current population of 44.9 million.
If the past few weeks are any indication, Ukraine’s salient issues, such as the separatist war and economic reform, will not be put on the back burner, even during a global health crisis. It is clear that for some Ukrainians, the threat of the virus does not detract from the anticipated consequences of inaction in the face of governmental decisions perceived as detrimental to their interests.
Edited by Jillian Giberson.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.