The Russia-West relationship saw significant worsening as the Ukraine crisis unfolded in late 2013. After Ukraine’s President Yanukovych backed out of signing the EU Association Agreement, an agreement that was designed to put Ukraine on a path go greater Westernization and eventual EU accession, protests broke out in Ukraine’s capital Kiev. After months of protests, in February 2014, Mr. Yanukovych was ousted and forced to retreat to Russia, leaving Ukraine in deep financial and political crises. Just days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. The separatists were backed by covert Russian troops, otherwise known as the “little green men.” As Russia continuously denied any involvement in the separatist movements in Crimea, self-appointed pro-Russian officials held an illegal referendum for Crimea’s secession from Ukraine. The officials claimed that, according to the referendum’s results, 97% of the voters wished to join Russia. Thus in March 2014 Moscow annexed Crimea. This annexation was condemned by the West, and as the EU and the US prepared a sanctions package against Russia, a new force of pro-Russian separatists began to take over official government buildings in Ukraine’s east. By mid-April 2014, the eastern cities of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkiv, located close to the Russia-Ukraine border, were the scenes of a war between Ukraine’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists. This civil war would continue indefinitely, with occasional ceasefire agreements which would be continuously violated, with Russia’s formal denials of any involvement in the conflict, and with thousands of innocent victims losing their homes and lives every month.
On July 17th, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was downed by the separatists in Ukraine, killing 298 civilians. Moscow denied involvement despite clear evidence that the sophisticated surface-to-air missile used to shoot down the aircraft was supplied and possibly manned by Russians. In summer 2014, Ukraine elected a new government, one that promised to tame the widespread chaos and corruption in the country, and end the war. In September 2014, a ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk, Belarus, between Ukraine, the separatist forces, and Russia. Just one day after the agreement was signed, the fighting was renewed in Ukraine’s east. February 2015 brought the Minsk II agreement. This agreement was brokered by the leaders of France and Germany. Ukraine and Russia agreed to a package of measures that would help end the war. The provisions of Minsk II were due to be fully implemented by December 2015, but the terms of the deal remain mostly unfulfilled. As of today the conflict in Ukraine’s east remains ongoing. According to a recent report July was the deadliest month since August 2015, with 42 servicemen killed and 181 wounded.
The EU and the US saw Russian annexation of Crimea as a move to challenge the existing global order. Russia had previously fought a brief war with Georgia over the latter’s frozen conflict zone of South Ossetia. This war, which took place in August 2008, went mostly with no consequences for Russia. Moreover, Russia had continuously opposed the idea of EU expansion into Russia’s “backyard” and did not approve of Georgia’s, Moldova’s, and Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations. The 2014 events in Ukraine appeared to be a continuation of Putin’s narrative that, due to its historical experiences, Russia has certain rights over the former members of the USSR, and that it is entitled to a sphere of influence, which happens to a be majority of the Eurasian states. Thus, in order to moderate the Russian aggression, the EU and the US imposed diplomatic, economic, and political sanctions on Russia. First imposed in March 2014, the sanctions involved visa and travel bans for Putin’s inner circle, a list of oligarchs and strongmen that grew over time as Russian aggression failed to cease despite the sanctions. Moreover, on the economic end, the sanctions targeted the finance and energy sectors of Russia. Russian state-owned enterprises in the banking, energy, and defense sectors now have restricted access to Western financial markets and services. There is also an embargo on exports of high-technology oil exploration and production equipment to Russia, and on exports of military goods to Russia from the West. It was predicted that the sanctions would take some time to pay off in terms of stalling Russia’s economic growth. However, in mid-2014, oil and gas prices began to plummet globally. Due to the fact that Russia is a resource-rich state that relies on energy exports for its primary source of income and political leverage at home and abroad, the double-shock of the economic sanctions and the low energy prices sent the country into a recession. 2016 GDP growth projection for Russia is -1.2 per cent according to the World Bank.