The Ukraine Crisis

A look back at the key events that have led Ukraine and Russia to the brink of war in 2021

Months-long protests in Kyiv led to a crisis that would continue for many years.

Months-long protests in Kyiv led to a crisis that would continue for many years. /Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

Months-long protests in Kyiv led to a crisis that would continue for many years. /Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

Tensions are escalating once more as the conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine is reigniting a crisis in the country that dates back to 2013 and involves several factions.

With both sides looking like they are gearing up for war, and the U.S. and Europe appealing for de-escalation while maintaining their support for Ukraine, the world watches on for the potential fallout.

Here's a timeline looking back at the key events in the crisis.

Video editor: Sam Cordell

Video editor: Sam Cordell

November 2013

'EuroMaidan' protests ignite

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv in protest at then-president Viktor Yanukovych's announcement to turn his back on strengthening ties with the European Union.

On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under Russian pressure, suddenly announced the suspension of trade and association talks with the EU after years of careful negotiations. He announced that Ukraine would not sign the association agreement at an upcoming EU-Ukraine summit in Lithuania, but instead accepted a $15 billion bailout from Moscow, and said that Ukraine would resume dialogue with Russia about joining the Eurasian Customs Union. 

Three months of street protests ensued, with protesters taking over Kyiv's main Independence Square, also known as Maidan. The protests turned violent after a government crackdown killed more than one hundred people.

The protests in Maidan square against President Yanukovych turning his back on the European Union. /Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo

The protests in Maidan square against President Yanukovych turning his back on the European Union. /Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo

Pro-Europe protests quickly turned into protests against President Yanukovych. /Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo

Pro-Europe protests quickly turned into protests against President Yanukovych. /Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo

Protesters against Yanukovych were angered by his closeness to Russia's President Vladimir Putin. /Sergei Karpukhin/Pool/AP Photo

Protesters against Yanukovych were angered by his closeness to Russia's President Vladimir Putin. /Sergei Karpukhin/Pool/AP Photo

February 2014

Yanukovych flees to Russia

On February 21, 2014, in a bid to calm growing protests that had turned from pro-Europe rallies to all-out protests against Yanukovych and his government, Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed an EU-mediated peace pact that included plans for presidential elections before the end of the year. 

A day later, Yanukovych fled Kyiv, denouncing what he said was a coup, after Ukraine's parliament voted to remove him. In the following days, he was indicted for "mass murder" over demonstrator deaths. Moscow said it would not deal with leaders of "armed mutiny" against Yanukovych, while Ukraine's acting president and acting prime minister made it clear that a top priority would be to bring Ukraine closer to Europe.

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

March 2014

Russian troops seize control of Crimea

During the end of February to the beginning of March 2014, Russian forces seized control of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula where the majority of residents are ethnically Russian, leading to condemnation from the U.S. and Europe. 

Soon after, Crimea's pro-Russian authorities held a disputed referendum in which Crimean voters chose to secede and join Russia. Brussels called the referendum "illegal and illegitimate," and Washington promised never to accept it.

Russia claimed the reunification of Crimea on March 21, sparking the biggest east-west crisis since the Cold War. The UN General Assembly voted 100 –11 against recognizing the referendum result and Russia was expelled from the Group of Eight (G8). Putin later admitted that Russian soldiers were involved and justified it as a way to protect ethnic Russians allegedly threatened by violence from Kyiv.

Russia's reunification of Crimea is still considered illegal by the international community. /Andrew Lubimov/AP Photo

Russia's reunification of Crimea is still considered illegal by the international community. /Andrew Lubimov/AP Photo

Crimea lies on a peninsula stretching out from the south of Ukraine between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is separated from Russia to the east by the narrow Kerch Strait. /Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Crimea lies on a peninsula stretching out from the south of Ukraine between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is separated from Russia to the east by the narrow Kerch Strait. /Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Pro-Russian separatists took over the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine's Donbas, creating self-proclaimed republics. /Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo

Pro-Russian separatists took over the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine's Donbas, creating self-proclaimed republics. /Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo

The violence and fighting in Donbas has killed at least 14,000 people since 2014 and internally displaced more than a million Ukrainians. /Mstislav Chernov/AP Photo

The violence and fighting in Donbas has killed at least 14,000 people since 2014 and internally displaced more than a million Ukrainians. /Mstislav Chernov/AP Photo

April 2014

Pro-Russia separatists seize Donbas

In April 2014, pro-Russian separatist armed groups seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, including in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the Russian border, and declared themselves to be independent republics. 

The Donbas region is home to giant steel smelters and heavy plants that produce up to a third of Ukraine's industrial output.

Ukrainian forces resisted, but with Russian troop buildups reported along the border, they were wary of sparking a much wider war. The West imposed sanctions on Russia. 

As of 2021, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed at least 14,000 people since 2014, according to the UN, roughly a quarter of them civilians, and has internally displaced an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainians. 


May 2014

Poroshenko Elected President

To the surprise of many, in spring 2014 Petro Poroshenko, a pro-West businessman and oligarch, won an outright majority in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election. Poroshenko promised to fix the economy by aligning Ukraine with Europe, to end the "war" with separatists in the Russian-speaking east, and to negotiate a stable new relationship with Moscow, in which Crimea is returned.

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama's administration signaled that it would help Poroshenko battle corruption and assigned Vice President Joe Biden as its chief envoy for Ukraine.

Poroshenko, also known as the "chocolate king" due to his chocolate business, vowed to restore peace following the dark events in Maidan. /Mykola Lazarenko/Pool/AP Photo

Poroshenko, also known as the "chocolate king" due to his chocolate business, vowed to restore peace following the dark events in Maidan. /Mykola Lazarenko/Pool/AP Photo

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

The plane crashed after being hit by a Russian-made Buk missile over eastern Ukraine, a 15-month investigation by the Dutch Safety Board declared in October 2015. /Lai Seng Sin/AP Photo

The plane crashed after being hit by a Russian-made Buk missile over eastern Ukraine, a 15-month investigation by the Dutch Safety Board declared in October 2015. /Lai Seng Sin/AP Photo

July 2014

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shot down

On July 17, 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels during fighting with Ukrainian government troops. All 298 people on board were killed, two-thirds of them Dutch nationals.

After years of collecting evidence, a Dutch-led international investigation team in 2019 said the missile launcher used to hit the civilian airplane came from a Russian army base just across the border, but Russia denied responsibility.

September 2014

First Minsk Agreement concludes

In early September 2014, Russian troops and heavy military equipment entered Ukraine to push back Ukrainian forces that were on the verge of regaining control of Donbas. Shortly after, negotiators concluded the first Minsk Agreement, signed in Belarus, aimed at ending the fighting. However, its terms were not implemented, and while there was evidence of a short-lived ceasefire, fighting continued along the line of contact.

A month later, parliamentary elections produced a convincing majority for pro-Western parties.

Also known as the Minsk Protocol, it was an agreement to halt the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, signed by representatives of that country, the Russian Federation, the Donetsk People's Republic, the Luhansk People's Republic, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. /Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo

Also known as the Minsk Protocol, it was an agreement to halt the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, signed by representatives of that country, the Russian Federation, the Donetsk People's Republic, the Luhansk People's Republic, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. /Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo

Angela Merkel and others brokered an agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

Angela Merkel and others brokered an agreement between Russia and Ukraine. /Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

Angela Merkel and others brokered an agreement between Russia and Ukraine. /Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

February 2015

Signing of Second Minsk Agreement

In early 2015, Putin and Poroshenko met in Minsk to negotiate another ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. They reached an agreement, brokered by France's President Francois Hollande and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, that outlined 13 steps to end the war, including an immediate ceasefire in Donetsk and Luhansk, the withdrawal of all heavy weaponry in order to create a "security zone," and for local elections to be held in Donbas. 

Fighting and shelling along the line of contact still flared up from time to time. Both sides swapped accusations on violations of the deal, but international observers placed more blame on Russian and Russian proxy forces, while some said the agreement itself had been more favorable for Russia.

By 2016, the economy returned to fragile growth after two years of turmoil.

July 2017

Ukraine-EU association agreement ratified

On July 11 2017, Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union was ratified by all signatories, promoting deeper political ties, stronger economic links, and respect for common values between the two.

The deep and comprehensive free trade area was the economic part of the agreement. It offered a framework for modernizing Ukraine's economy and trade relations.

The association agreement entered into force on September 1, 2017.

Ukraine and the European Union sign their association agreement under Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko. /Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

Ukraine and the European Union sign their association agreement under Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko. /Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

Officials confirmed that the U.S. State Department approved a commercial license authorizing the export of sniper systems, ammunition and associated parts and accessories to Ukraine. /Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Officials confirmed that the U.S. State Department approved a commercial license authorizing the export of sniper systems, ammunition and associated parts and accessories to Ukraine. /Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

December 2017

Lethal U.S. arms sales allowed

In December 2017, the U.S. under then-President Donald Trump approved lethal arms sales to Ukraine, moving beyond the non-lethal military assistance that the Obama administration had allowed. 

ABC News reported that the sale consisted of sniper rifles, ammunition and other associated parts and materials, and was estimated to be worth $41.5 million, according to two U.S. congressional sources.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin said in September that any decision by the U.S. to supply defensive weapons to Ukraine would fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine and possibly prompt the separatists to expand their campaign there.

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

May 2018

Russia to Crimea bridge opened

On May 15, 2018, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, driving a truck, unveiled the auto section of a new road-and-rail bridge linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula, defying Ukraine which said the move showed cynical disregard for international law.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said: "The illegal construction of the Kerch bridge is the latest evidence of the Kremlin's disregard for international law. It is particularly cynical that its opening is happening on the eve of the latest anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean-Tatar people by the Stalin regime."

The bridge also drew strong condemnation from the West.

The bridge complex provides for both road and rail traffic, and has a length of 19 kilometers, making it not just the longest bridge Russia has ever built but also the longest bridge in Europe.

The bridge complex provides for both road and rail traffic, and has a length of 19 kilometers, making it not just the longest bridge Russia has ever built but also the longest bridge in Europe. /AP Photo

The bridge complex provides for both road and rail traffic, and has a length of 19 kilometers, making it not just the longest bridge Russia has ever built but also the longest bridge in Europe. /AP Photo

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church's split from the Russian Orthodox church angered the Kremlin. /Emrah Gurel/AP Photo

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church's split from the Russian Orthodox church angered the Kremlin. /Emrah Gurel/AP Photo

January 2019

Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized

On January 5, 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the leading authority for Orthodox Christianity, recognized the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formally severing it from the Russian Orthodox Church, which had close reported ties to the Kremlin and had overseen the Ukrainian church for more than four centuries. 

The issue played a key role in Ukraine's upcoming presidential elections on March 31, with incumbent President Poroshenko making independence from the Russian Orthodox Church a key issue while he planned a re-election bid.

Russia strongly opposed the split and accused the U.S. of encouraging the break in order to weaken Moscow.

April - July 2019

President Zelensky takes office

On April 21, 2019, television comedian and millionaire Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidential election run-off in a landslide victory, with more than 70 percent of the vote, over incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who trailed far behind on 24 percent.

Zelensky took office in May, and his Servant of the People party won a majority of seats in early parliamentary elections in July, marking the first time since independence that Ukraine's president had a majority party in the parliament. 

Zelensky campaigned against corruption and poverty, and pledged to "reboot" peace talks with the separatists fighting Ukrainian forces in the east; many saw the vote as a rejection of Poroshenko and his failure to root out corruption.

The new president was a TV comedian and actor, and once played the role of President of Ukraine in TV comedy show Servant of the People.

The new president was a TV comedian and actor, and once played the role of President of Ukraine in TV comedy show Servant of the People. /Sergei Grits/AP Photo

The new president was a TV comedian and actor, and once played the role of President of Ukraine in TV comedy show Servant of the People. /Sergei Grits/AP Photo

The prisoners freed included 24 Ukrainian sailors and – controversially – a person suspected of involvement in the downing of flight MH17 which killed 298 people.

The prisoners freed included 24 Ukrainian sailors and – controversially – a person suspected of involvement in the downing of flight MH17 which killed 298 people. /Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

The prisoners freed included 24 Ukrainian sailors and – controversially – a person suspected of involvement in the downing of flight MH17 which killed 298 people. /Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

September 2019

Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap

On September 7, 2019, Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners captured in the wake of Moscow's seizure of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas.

The carefully-negotiated rapprochement brought Western praise and was seen as potentially thawing a freeze in relations since 2014, but full normalization between the two countries was still a long way off.

Among those handed to Moscow was Volodymyr Tsemakh, suspected of involvement in downing a Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 that killed all 298 aboard.

October 2019

Trump-Ukraine impeachment scandal

In September 2019, Ukraine became embroiled in a U.S. impeachment row over allegations that then-President Trump attempted to put pressure on the country to investigate Joe Biden, a leading Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election. 

It emerged that Trump and Zelensky had a phone conversation on July 25, 2019, in which Trump had urged Zelensky to investigate former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian energy company. The call came shortly after Trump blocked the release of military aid to Ukraine. 

In November, several former and current U.S. officials testified before lawmakers that the Trump administration postponed a Trump-Zelensky meeting and held up congressionally approved military assistance to get Kyiv to investigate Biden. The White House denied this.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump was impeached over allegations he improperly sought help from Ukraine to boost his chances of re-election. /Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump was impeached over allegations he improperly sought help from Ukraine to boost his chances of re-election. /Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Video editor: Nuri Moseinco

Ukraine's military carried out defensive drills near the border after Russia amassed troops there. /Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

Ukraine's military carried out defensive drills near the border after Russia amassed troops there. /Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo

April 2021

Tensions escalate

An uptick in fighting since the start of the year has seen Moscow and Kiev blame each other for the rise in violence between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine, and increase tensions in the region as well as with the West.

At the beginning of April, Kyiv warned that 28,000 separatist fighters and more than 2,000 Russian military instructors and advisers were currently stationed in eastern Ukraine, while nearly 33,000 soldiers were deployed in Crimea.

Russia's defense ministry responded that those troops were merely responding to "threatening" NATO actions by participating in military drills that would conclude in three weeks, and that it was not looking to start a war.

NATO, the U.S. and the EU all condemned Russia's troop buildup on the border, calling it "provocative" and urged Moscow to withdraw its forces, expressing strong support for Ukraine. 

U.S. president Joe Biden invited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to a summit during a phone call between the leaders in order to ease the mounting tensions. Putin has yet to agree to a meeting, but Finland has offered to host it in the future. 

Tensions remain the highest they've been as Ukraine carries out defensive military drills and Russia warns the U.S. and NATO against military interference in Crimea and the Black Sea coast.