Euromaidan, Crimea, and Donbas: How Ukraine Has Changed Over Past 5 Years
21 February, 2019
Five years ago, the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred were shot on Kyiv’s Independence Square, Russia began its illegal annexation of Crimea and militants in the Donbas, with support from Russian soldiers, seized the region’s administrative buildings. On the fifth anniversary of the year that changed the course of Ukraine’s history forever, Hromadske takes a look at some of the most important events.

Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint patrolling the road towards militant-occupied Horlivka, Donetsk region, August 28, 2014. Photo: EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

February 26, 2014. Members of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea met in Simferopol for an extraordinary meeting, in which they planned to read out an appeal to the authorities of the Russian Federation. Pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists were waiting for them outside the building. Confrontations, which resulted in the deaths of two people and the injuries of dozens of others, led to the cancellation of the meeting.  That night, Russian soldiers without insignia – the “little green men” – seized the Crimean parliament and council of ministers. They also began blocking Ukraine’s military bases throughout the peninsula.

However, the occupation of Crimea actually began on February 20, 2014. This is the date indicated on the medals Russia awards “For the Return of Crimea.”

Clash between supporters of Ukrainian unity and pro-Russia activists near the Crimean Supreme Council in Simferopol, Ukraine, February 26, 2014. Photo: EPA/ARTUR SHVARTS

Armed Russian soldiers without insignia (“green men”) surrounding Ukrainian territory of the Ukrainian units in the village of Perevalne, near Simferopol, Crimea, March 2, 2014. Photo: EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN

March 1, 2014. The first big events of the “Russian spring” took place simultaneously in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Melitopol, Odesa, Mykolaiv and Kherson. Several thousand Russian-hired thugs, known as “titushky,” participated alongside the local separatists.

As well as the annexation of Crimea, Russians were also preparing to begin the invasion of eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the Federation Council for permission to use the Russian army on Ukrainian territory. This was granted unanimously. During the discussion, council member Andrei Klishas noted that fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych had requested Russian troops to be sent to Ukraine.  

Separatists raising a Russian flag of the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 1, 2014. Photo:EPA / PHOTOMIG

March 16, 2014. Russia held an illegal referendum and immediately announced the results. Almost everyone voted for the peninsula to become part of the Russian Federation. The next day, the Supreme Council of Crimea appealed to Russia with a request to join. The European Union, U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia introduced the first sanctions against Russia.

On the same day, President Putin signed an agreement on accepting Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Russia. On March 27, the UN General Assembly voted on recognizing the territorial integrity of Ukraine and rejecting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. The vote passed with 100 countries for and 11 against.  

A representative of the so-called electoral commission talking to an elderly women at her home with a ballot box during the sham referendum on the annexation of Crimea, Bilohirsk, a suburb of Simferopol, March 16, 2014. The vote was widely condemned by western governments and sanctions were imposed on Russia. Photo: EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

April 13, 2014. Acting president of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov announced the start of a wide-scale anti-terrorist operation (ATO) in Donbas involving the Armed Forces of Ukraine. A week before, the creation of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic was announced in the region, and militants assisted by Russian soldiers stormed the building of the Luhansk region security service building. However, they failed to seize the Kharkiv regional administration building. The creation of Luhansk People’s Republic was announced on April 27.

The day prior to Turchynov’s announcement, a group of Russian saboteurs led by Igor Girkin captured the police station in Slovyansk, Donetsk region, and essentially seized the city.

Then, the day of the ATO announcement, a new wave of enthusiasm hit Donbas cities and armed militants captured the Kramatorsk and Horlivka police departments, as well as the administrative buildings in Pokrovsk, Bakhmut and Lyman.

April 26, 2014. Ukraine closed the North Crimea canal, through which water from the Dnipro flows to Crimea. The official reason for this was that the occupying Russian government had been using the water for free, without agreement from the State Water Resources Agency, and therefore amassed an around $55,000 debt (1.5 million hryvnia). Before its closure, the canal supplied around 85% of the peninsula fresh water.

May 2, 2014. Clashes broke out between pro-Ukrainian activists and pro-Russian protesters in the center. During the mass riots, 48 people died and a further 200 were injured. Most of the victims died in a fire at the Trade Unions Building where anti-Maidan protesters were camped out. The investigation into the incident established that the disturbances in Odesa were organized and deliberately planned.

People attempting to help an injured pro-Russia activist during a fire at the Odesa Trade Unions’ building, May 2, 2014. Photo: EPA/SERGEY GUMENYUK

May 10, 2014. The Russian special forces in Simferopol arrested four Ukrainians: filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy. They were arrested for allegedly planning an act of terrorism, which was meant to happen on May 9, 2014, in several places in Simferopol.

In 2015, all four of the so-called “Crimean terrorists” received sentences. Chyrniy and Afanasyev received seven years (although the former was released in a prisoner exchange in 2016), Kolchenko received 10 years, and Sentsov – 20.

The European and American film communities have spoken out in support of Sentsov, having written letters to President Putin with requests for the filmmaker’s pardon, as well as nominating him for the Nobel prize. Sentsov announced a hunger strike in 2018, which lasted 145 days.

Sentsov, Kolchenko, Afanasyev and Chyrniy were the first Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Today, in Russia and the occupied territories, there are over 80 Ukrainian political prisoners.

June 6, 2014. At the commemorations for the  70th anniversary of the Normandy landings in at the Chateau de Benouville in France, a four-way meetings between French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders. The meetings of the Normandy Format did produce significant results. The Normandy Format went on to help form the Minsk Agreements.

June 13, 2014. Ukrainian forces liberated the coastal city of Mariupol from pro-Russian militants.

Ukrainian soldiers arresting pro-Russia activists in Mariupol, after which they re-took control of the city, Donetsk region, June 13, 2014. Photo: EPA/OSMAN KARIMOV

June 14, 2014. As the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ IL-76 transport aircraft was coming into land at Luhansk airport, which had been surrounded by militants for a whole month already, it was hit by two rockets. It was carrying 40 paratroopers, who all died in the attack, along with the nine crew members.

July 1, 2014. The Ukrainian Armed Forces began offensive operations. Throughout July, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, Rubizhne and several other settlements were liberated.

Ukrainian soldiers handing out bread to locals in Slovyansk, which was liberated from militants, Donetsk region, July 6, 2014. Photo: EPA/STR

July 12, 2014. A news segment about a crucified boy aired on Russia’s Channel One. It featured a women refugee from Donbas, who spoke about how Ukrainian soldiers in Slovyansk executed the son and wife of a pro-Russian fighter in Donbas. It was later proven by journalists – in particular, Russian journalists –  that the story was fake. This fabricated crucified boy became a symbol of disinformation, which pro-government Russian media have used repeatedly over the course of the war.

July 17, 2014. A Russian Buk missile shot down the Malaysian airline plane MH17 over Donbas. It was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur. 298 people died. Buk missiles had been transported across the Russian border into occupied territory several days before.

The European Union and U.S. introduced sectoral sanctions on certain sectors of the Russian economy. In response, Moscow introduced restrictions on the import of products from EU countries.  

Employees of the State Emergency Services searching the fields among the wreckage of MH17, which was shot down in Donbas by Russian Buk missiles. Photo: EPA / ANASTASIA VLASOVA

August 12, 2014. Units of Russian regular troops began a covert invasion. They captured strategic high points at Savur-Mohyla and the ton of Novoazovsk. They also attempted to enter Mariupol.

As a result of the invasion, Ukrainian forces ended up surrounded at Ilovaisk in the Donetsk region. According to the Ukrainian security service (SBU), there were 3,500 Russian troops present at the time. On the night of August 28 into August 29, Putin called on the militants to create a humanitarian corridor. In the morning, the Ukrainian soldiers began to move organized into two columns coordinated by the Russian side. Militants and Russian forces shot at both sides.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, 366 soldiers died during the Battle of Ilovaisk and a further 429 sustained injuries of varying degrees. Around 300 soldiers were captured.

Fighters from the Donbas volunteer battalion in a school yard surrounded by Russian soldiers in Ilovaisk, 50 km outside of Donetsk, August 26, 2014. Photo: EPA/IVAN BOBERSKYY

September 5, 2014. Agreements were reached over a temporary ceasefire in Minsk (known as Minsk I.) Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini signed the agreement, as well as leaders of the unrecognized DPR and LPR Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitskiy, who signed as private individuals.

Despite the agreement, the truce was broken soon after. Localized skirmishes broke out and several militant groups openly stated that they were not going to uphold the agreements, such as the so-called Don Cossacks.

November 2, 2014. Donetsk and Luhansk militants held illegal elections for the leaders and MPs of the unrecognized territories. In the preceding May, militants held a so-called referendum in the occupied territories, which, contrary to the Ukrainian constitution, raised the issue of “state independendence” for the DPR and LPR. Neither Ukraine, nor any other states or international organizations recognized the results of these referendums.

January 22, 2015. The remaining soldiers left the ruins of Donetsk airport’s new terminal, which they had been defending since April 17, 2014. On January 20, militants who were controlling the basement of the terminal blew up the building substructure, which partly collapsed, burying the soldiers defending it. The battle continued for a further five days and 100 Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers died.

January 24, 2015. Mariupol’s Skidniy neighbourhood was shelled by Grad and Uragan missiles. 30 civilians died and 128 were injured. At the same time, the leader of the so-called DPR Alexander Zakharchenko announced an offensive on Mariupol. Experts have ascertained the shells were fired from Oktyabrske and Zayinchenko, which were under the so-called DPR control at the time. The SBU later published audio recordings of the Russian officers who coordinated the attack.

The aftermath of militant shelling in the Skhidniy neighbourhood of Mariupol, January 24, 2015. Photo: EPA/SERGEY VAGANOV

February 12, 2015. The Normandy Format held talks in Minsk, known as the Minsk II agreements, which were supposed to have led to a deescalation and gradual end to the conflict in the Donbas. The two sides were supposed to stop firing, remove heavy weaponry and exchange prisoners. Ukraine committed to an amnesty for participants of the illegal units and passed a law on the special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The militants promised to restore Ukrainian control over the state border with Russia, after which local elections would be held in accordance with Ukrainian legislation.

At the same time, Russian militants intensified their attack on Debaltseve. On February 13, the ATO spokesperson Andriy Lysenko announced that, according to the Minsk agreements, Debaltseve must remain under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. However, despite the agreements, the militants continued to attack with great force and Ukrainian soldiers were forced out.

June 3, 2015. Armed pro-Russian units made their last attempt at an offensive. After mass artillery fire, 1,000 soldiers supported by 10 tanks attempted to take the city of Mariinka near Donetsk. However, having incurred great losses, the militants retreated. Since then, the demarcation line has not changed significantly.

September 18, 2015. Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov announced the start of a civilian blockade of Crimea. This began two days later in the village of Chonhar in the Kherson region, the administrative border to Crimea. The activists demanded an end to trade and electricity supply to the peninsula. On November 22, after explosions at several power lines in the Kherson region, 1.5 million people in occupied Crimea were left without electricity.

On December 16, the Cabinet of Ministers passed a decree limiting the supply of certain goods to Crimea. After 10 days, Ukraine’s state rail service Ukrzaliznytsia announced it was cutting connections with the occupied peninsula. On the penultimate day of 2015, Ukraine completely cut off electricity supply to Crimea by not signing the new contract.

Activists blocking cargo transport from entering Crimean territory in the village of Chonhar, Kherson, September 20, 2015. This was the first day of the transport blockade on the peninsula on the Ukrainian side. Photo: EPA/VITALIY NOSACH

April 26, 2016. The so-called Supreme Court of Crimea declared the Mejilis of the Crimean Tatar people an extremist organization and banned it from operating on Russian territory. Previously, in 2014, the occupying government in Crimea banned the head of the Mejilis Refat Chubarov and well-known Crimean figure Mustafa Dzhemilev from entering the peninsula. Generally speaking, over the course of Crimea’s occupation, Crimean Tatars have faced persecution.

August 31, 2018.  The head of the self-proclaimed DPR Alexander Zakharchenko died in an explosion at the Separ restaurant in Donetsk. The occupying government blamed Ukrainian saboteurs for the murder. Zakharchenko’s death was just one in a long line of deaths of leading Donetsk and Luhansk militants. Unknown assailants had killed commanders Oleksandr Bednova (Batman), Aleksey Mozgovoy, Pavel Dyormov, Arsen Pavov (Motorola), Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi), and former LPR head Valeriy Bolotov died of a sudden illness in Moscow.

Donetsk city center on August 31, at the Separ restaurant where the explosion that killed the leader of the self-proclaimed DPR Alexander Zakharcehnko, September 1, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO

November 25, 2018. Two Ukrainian ships and a tug were traveling from Odesa to Mariupol. Russian border guards did not permit them from passing through the Kerch Strait and the Ukrainian ships decided to return to Odesa. The Russian side fired at them and captured the ships and the crew. 24 Ukrainians, including two SBU officers, were taken into custody. They are charged with illegally crossing the Russian border. They were taken to a pre-trial detention center in Moscow on November 29.

In response, President Petro Poroshenko the introduction of martial law. This was supported by the Ukrainian parliament and was implemented in 10 Ukrainian regions for a 30-day period.

Ukrainian sailors behind the bulletproof glass of an FSB prison van near the Kyiv district Court in Simferopol, November 28, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/STRINGER