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How to talk to your students about the Ukraine crisis

By Richard Vaughan

With the eyes of the world on the escalating tension in Ukraine, TES attempts to put the crisis in context for you and your students.

Q: When and why did this conflict start?

A: The tensions between Russia and Ukraine arose when the latter’s government was overthrown last month in a civil uprising. This was caused when the now-ousted government decided in November to abandon tighter trade links with the European Union and create closer ties with Russia, which included the Russian government buying $15 billion-worth (£9 billion) of Ukrainian debt. This led to increasingly violent protests in the largely Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, which eventually resulted in the deposing of the country’s president Viktor Yanukovych, who was most popular in the Russian-speaking east.

Q: Who is Viktor Yanukovych?

A: He is a Ukrainian politician who became president in 2010. His main political rival was the country’s then prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who backed better relations with the EU. After Mr Yanukovych’s election, she was arrested and imprisoned in what many believe was a politically motivated move. Mr Yanukovych quickly came to be seen as “Russia’s man” in Ukraine, suspicions that were strengthened when at the end of last year he cancelled closer links with the EU in favour of Russia. After being deposed, he fled the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, with an arrest warrant on his head. He is now believed to be in Moscow.

Q: Why is Ukraine pulling its troops out of Crimea?

The country’s interim leader, President Olexander Turchynov, has ordered the withdrawal of Ukraine’s armed forces from the region in a bid to avoid bloodshed after Russian soldiers seized most of Ukraine’s bases in the peninsula in what is the latest development in the ongoing crisis following the toppling of the Ukrainian government.

Q: Why have Russian troops seized Ukrainian bases?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sanctioned a referendum held in Crimea to ascertain whether the Crimean people wanted to become part of Russia after the Ukrainian government was overthrown following months of unrest. The people of Crimea voted in favour of joining Russia, which has paved the way for Putin to annex the region from the rest of the Ukraine, hence the presence of Russian armed forces. Putin said the decision was made to protect Russia’s “compatriots” from the “fascists” in mainland Ukraine.

Q: Does Russia have international support in its decision to send its army into Ukraine?

A: Pretty much, no. The decision is being opposed by most of the rest of the world, particularly countries in the West, which have condemned it as a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. The US described it as an invasion and said that Russia has violated the United Nations charter. Nato has also called for Russia to stand its troops down and is calling emergency meetings.

Q: Why might closer links to Russia be a problem for the Ukrainian people?

A: Ukraine used to be a part of the Soviet Union. The current tension with its Russian neighbour is an aftershock from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 when 90 per cent of Ukrainians voted in favour of independence. And although the west of the country is keen to be more European, the east is more closely aligned with Russia, with many identifying themselves as “ethnically Russian”, thus creating a friction within the country itself.

Q: Have there been similar “aftershocks” from the fall of the Soviet Union?

A: Yes. In 2008, Russia effectively invaded Georgia when it annexed the country’s South Ossetia region. This military action left scores of people dead and tensions between the two countries remain high. However, nothing has been seen on the scale of that between Ukraine and Russia.

Q: Will there be all-out war?

A: It is very difficult to say. Mr Putin showed in the case of Georgia that he was capable of taking military action. However, Crimea is already semi-autonomous: it has its own parliament and very close links to Russia. The situation would be likely to escalate only if Russian troops moved into other regions of Ukraine.

Q: What happens next?

The G7 group of industrialised countries will meet to discuss what the next steps should be.

Q: Does the rest of the world recognise the referendum?

In short, no. Certainly countries in the western world do not recognise the referendum as being legitimate, with the US describing it as being “illegal”. The move has led to a number of sanctions being imposed upon a number of Russian and Ukrainian individuals. At first those being sanctioned were politicians, but now it is being expanded to include businessmen. 

Q: What are these sanctions and what will they achieve?

After the referendum the US and EU froze the assets and slapped travel bans on dozens of Russians and Ukrainians in a bid to put pressure on the Kremlin. Both Visa and Mastercard are refusing to process payments from Russian individuals and Rossiya Bank.

Q: What will further sanctions involve?

The US and EU could impose bans on imports and exports with Russia, which could have serious implications for the country as the EU is its biggest trading partner. Specific companies could be targeted, such as the state-owned energy firm Gazprom, which could be prevented from winning new contracts. The US, Nato and EU could sever diplomatic links with the country isolating Russia. But of course, any ceasing in trade with Russia will also hurt the EU.

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. How might this political situation affect Ukrainian civilians and their everyday lives?
  2. Why is it important for us to pay attention to these events even though we are far away?
  3. Can you think of any similar events in history? What can we learn from them about this situation?
  4. Is there any way we can help people who find themselves in the middle of conflict?

Related resources

World rejects Crimea’s pro-Russia referendum
This article on the world's reaction to the vote from Crimea to leave Ukraine and join Russia explains the issues behind the news and includes activities and debating points. 

Ukraine discussions and debates
This printable worksheet from The Day contains a wealth of talking points and interesting activities to supplement a current affairs lesson on the situation in Ukraine.

The Ukraine protests in three minutes
In this video, Hip Hughes History gives a succinct and information-packed overview of the Ukrainian protests. 

Peace and conflict
Explore the role of the United Nations in international peacekeeping.

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