What's happening in Ukraine is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow for outsiders who don't know the history that led up to – and, in some crucial ways, explains – this crisis. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of Ukraine's story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.
1. What is Ukraine?
Ukraine – not "the Ukraine" – is a country in Eastern Europe, between Russia and Central Europe. It's big: about the area of Texas, with a little less than twice the population. Its history goes back thousands of years – the first domesticated horses were here – and has long been characterized by intersections between "east" and "west." That's continued right up to today's crisis.
Ukraine has a long history of being subjugated by foreign powers. This is even reflected in its name, which many scholars believe means "borderland" and is part of why it used to be called "the Ukraine." (Other scholars, though, believe it means "homeland.") It's only been independent since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and it broke away. The last time it was independent (for a few short years right after World War I; before that, briefly in the 1600s), it had different borders and very different demographics. That turns out to be really important.
2. Why are so many Ukrainians protesting?
The protests started, mostly in the capital of Kiev, when President Yanukovych rejected an expected deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. The deal was popular with Ukrainians, particularly in Kiev and that part of the country (although not as popular as you may have heard: about 42 or 43 percent support it).
But this is about much more than just a trade deal. Symbolically, Yanukovych's decision was seen as a turn away from Europe and toward Moscow, which rewarded Ukraine with a "stimulus" worth billions of dollars and a promise of cheaper gas exports. Moscow had subjugated or outright ruled Ukraine for generations, so you can see why this could hit a nerve.
But this is about more than just geopolitics. Yanukovych and his government, since taking power in 2010, have mismanaged the economy and have been increasingly seen as corrupt. In 2004, there had been mass protests against Yanukovych when he won the presidential election under widespread suspicions of fraud; those protests, which succeeded in blocking him from office, were called the "Orange Revolution" and considered a big deal at the time. But now he's back.
The protests had actually been dying down until Jan. 16, when Yanukovych signed an "anti-protest law" that also deeply restricts free speech, the media (especially from criticizing the government), driving in a group of more than five cars, even wearing a helmet. Protests kicked back up with a vengeance, not just in Kiev but in a number of regional capitals, outright seizing government administration buildings in some.
3. I heard this was about Ukrainians wanting ties with Europe and their government selling out to Moscow. Is it?
That's sort of true – lots of Ukrainians want their country to be "European" rather than linked with Russia, and Yanukovych is sure buddying up to Moscow – but it's also sort of wrong. Yes, about half of Ukrainians say they want the European Union deal. But another third say they'd prefer integrating with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. So it's more split than you'd think.
Here's the thing you have to understand: Ukraine is divided. Deeply, deeply divided by language, by history and by politics. One-third of the country speaks Russian as its native language, and in practice even more use it day-to-day. The Russian-speakers mostly live in one half of the country; the Ukrainian-speakers live in another. You can see that clear-as-day divide in the map at the top of this page.
It's not just that Ukraine has two halves that predominantly speak different languages. They have different politics – and different visions for their country. Check out this composite of four maps: the top two show the language and ethnic divide, the bottom two show the election results for the 2004 and 2010 presidential elections. The lines are identical!
The Russian-speaking, eastern half of Ukraine tends to be, big surprise, more pro-Russian. Yanukovych is from that part of the country, has most of his support there, and did not even speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s.
The pro-E.U.-deal protests have mostly been in the Ukrainian-speaking, western half. That's also the half that voted overwhelmingly against Yanukovych in 2010. (That has been changing since the anti-protest law, which inflamed nationwide anger with Yanukovych.)
This divide has been a challenge for Ukraine since it won independence in 1991. Elections have been near-evenly split between the two halves, pulling the country in opposite directions. As the Ukraine-focused political scientist Leonid Peisakhin put it, Ukraine "has never been and is not yet a coherent national unit with a common narrative or a set of more or less commonly shared political aspirations."
In some ways, this crisis is about popular anger against a president who mishandled the economy and whose attempts to quash protests have edged into authoritarianism. But it's also about Ukraine's long-unresolved national identity crisis. This story is often framed as Ukraine being pulled by Moscow on one end and Europe on the other. But Ukrainians themselves are doing a lot of the pulling: a 22-year tug-of-war between two halves and two identities.
4. Wow. How did Ukraine get so divided?
Ukraine was conquered and divided for centuries by neighboring powers: the Polish, the Austrians and most of all the Russians. But Russian rulers didn't just want to rule Ukraine, they wanted to make it Russian.
The Russification of Ukraine began 250 years ago with Catherine the Great, who oversaw Russia's "golden age" in the late 1700s. At first, she controlled only eastern Ukraine, where she developed vast coal and iron industries to feed Russia's expansion. Though she later took the west as well, she and subsequent Russian rulers focused overwhelmingly on the east, which also happens to be some of the most productive farmland in the world.
The director of Harvard's Ukrainian Research Institute, Serhii Plokhii, recently told National Geographic that the country is divided between a super-fertile steppe in the east and forestland in the west – an ecological split that lines up almost perfectly with the linguistic-political line in our maps above.
So many Russians swept in to Ukraine's southeast – a number of them troops, to fight the neighboring Ottoman Empire – that it became known as "Novorossiya," or "New Russia." Russian leaders, hoping to make the territory permanently Russian, banned the Ukrainian language.
Then came Joseph Stalin. In the 1930s, the Soviet leader "collectivized" peasants into state-run farms, which caused several million Ukrainians to die of starvation. The governments of Ukraine and the United States consider it a deliberate act of genocide, though historians are more divided. In either case, after the famine, Stalin repopulated the devastated eastern farmlands by shipping in ethnic Russians.
Today, Ukraine is only about one-sixth ethnic Russian. But the cultural imprint goes much deeper, and not just because so many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. When the Western-oriented, Ukrainian-nationalist politician Viktor Yushchenko became president, in 2005, "about 60 percent of TV programming was in Russian and 40 percent in Ukrainian," according to the Christian Science Monitor. By the time he left office in 2010, "that ratio [had] been roughly reversed." Most magazines and newspapers were still in Russian. This came after five years of "Ukrainianization" so aggressive that, even though he spoke fluent Russian, he would only converse with Russian President Vladimir Putin through an interpreter.
5. This is getting complicated. Can we take a music break?
Great idea. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folk and popular music, but let's listen to one of their many classical greats, Mykola Lysenko. A Ukrainian nationalist, and by his death in 1912 a major star, Lysenko loved to incorporate Ukrainian folk melodies into his compositions. Here's his simple but beautiful Second Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano, performed by his granddaughter Rada Lysenko:
Lysenko's life, more than a century ago, charted many of the same issues driving today's crisis. Ukraine was then a part of Imperial Russia, which pushed composers and musicians to use only the Russian language. Lysenko refused, composing two operas in Ukrainian (here's one), which he refused to translate into Russian, even though this meant they could never be performed in Moscow. Because an 1876 czarist decree banned the use of Ukrainian in print, Lysenko had to have his scores printed in secret abroad. He died a hero to Ukrainians, his music cherished by contemporaries such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, but recordings are criminally difficult to find today.
6. So I get that Russia used to rule Ukraine but doesn't anymore. Why do I hear so much about its role in all this?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been highly aggressive in pushing Ukraine to reject the European Union and, he hopes, instead join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union, which consists of a few other former Soviet states. That included threatening to impose economic sanctions on Ukraine. In 2004 and 2006, when the pro-Western Yushchenko was in power, Russia shut off natural gas exports to Ukraine over political disputes, doing serious damage to the economy.
But if Putin taketh away, he also giveth. A few weeks after Yanukovych rejected the E.U. deal, Putin offered Ukraine a stimulus package worth $15 billion and a 33 percent price cut for Russian natural gas. That will make it much tougher for Yanukovych to walk away from Putin's embrace, particularly given how much of the popular discontent is driven by the poor economy.
7. Why does Russia care so much about Ukraine?
There are the surface reasons. The cultural connections are indeed deep, and Putin can't not want to remain close to a country with so much shared history and so many Russians. The country, a source of food and a transit hub for Russian energy exports, is economically and strategically important to Russia. Putin is thought to personally care a great deal about the Eurasian Trade Union and sees it as his legacy.
And then there are the deeper reasons. Ukraine makes or breaks Russia's self-image as a great power, which has fared poorly since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Tufts political scientist Dan Drezner put it in Foreign Policy, "For all of Putin's Middle East diplomacy, Ukraine is far more important to his great power ambitions. One of the very first sentences you're taught to say in Foreign Policy Community College is, 'Russia without Ukraine is a country; Russia with Ukraine is an empire.' "
Even if Putin can't bring Ukraine in, he'd like to keep it out of the European Union, which he sees as an extension of a century-old Western conspiracy against Russia. There is a certain lingering suspicion in Moscow that the West wouldn't mind Russia's destruction, which is part of why it so opposes any Western intervention into another country, which it fears could be precedent for a similar attack on Russia some day. This is why, silly though it may sound, some security experts tend to emphasize Ukraine's importance to Russia as a defensive buffer.
8. Why haven't the U.S. or Europe fixed this?
Western countries could pressure Yanukovych to halt his authoritarian-tinged actions since the crisis began (the Ukrainian parliament rolled back most of the anti-protest law on Tuesday). But most of the power seems to be with Putin and with actual Ukrainians, so it's not clear what the West could do. A New York Times op-ed by four (four!) former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine mostly just called for the United States to issue statements, adding that it could follow those up with economic sanctions.
The danger, though, is that any Western action strong enough to make a difference risks triggering a backlash that would make things worse. If the West gets too aggressive about pushing Yanukovych, then the country's eastern, Russian-facing half might see it as foreign meddling not so different from Russia's involvement.
Ultimately, the deeper issues here are Ukraine's troubled economy and its unresolved national identity. Outside countries (including Russia) can certainly help with the former, but the latter can be solved by only Ukrainians.
9. I skipped to the bottom. What's going to happen next?
The parliament rolled back most of the anti-protest law that had so angered people; it also passed a blanket amnesty for protesters, provided they leave government buildings they've occupied.
Putin has put the $15 billion financial aid on hold, which could actually make it easier for Yanukovych to walk away from Putin and go back to the European Union deal.
Still, protests are spreading rapidly – including into the country's Russian-speaking eastern regions. Right now, the immediate crisis is about more than the E.U. deal or the cultural divide or even the anti-protest law, even if all those things brought Ukraine's crisis to this point. Yanukovych's not-terribly-adept handling of the two-month crisis has forced him into a very tight little corner.
There is chatter among analysts, in Moscow as well as Washington, that if Yanukovych panics and calls in the military to disperse protesters it could lead to a civil war. That looks like an extremely remote possibility at this point; probably more likely that the government and opposition leaders strike a deal, the government muddles through and Yanukovych is voted out overwhelmingly in the February 2015 election. But the fact that civil war is being discussed at all shows the degree of international concern and uncertainty about what comes next for Ukraine.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Rada Lysenko, granddaughter of the composer Mykola Lysenko as deceased. The post has been updated.