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What Really Happened in Ukraine in 2014—and Since Then

A close look at the lies and distortions from Russia apologists and propagandists about the roots of the Ukraine war.
April 13, 2022
What Really Happened in Ukraine in 2014—and Since Then
Protesters advancing toward new positions in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square) on February 20, 2014. (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP / Getty)

Pundits skeptical of or even hostile to Ukraine’s cause in its defensive war against Russia have different reasons, or rationalizations, for their views and hail from different points on the political spectrum. But there is one belief that unites nearly all of them: the conviction that Ukraine is not a democracy fighting for its survival but an American “Deep State” project, with a regime installed by a 2014 coup that was led by Ukrainian far-right extremists and backed or even engineered by the U.S. State Department. The corollary of this view is the belief that the pro-Kremlin enclaves in Eastern Ukraine, the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk—whose defense was the stated purpose of the Russian invasion—are genuine expressions of the will of the local populace which rejects the pro-Western, anti-Moscow regime in Kyiv.

This narrative is embraced by the progressive left (CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, the Nation’s Aaron Maté, etc.) and the populist right (the Claremont Institute’s David Reaboi, Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer, and many others) and gives both permission to disregard their ostensible values—anti-imperialism and liberation struggles for the left, commitment to national sovereignty for the right.

It has been echoed even by some people broadly sympathetic to the pro-freedom aspirations of the Maidan (Independence Square) protesters who rose against Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych in late 2013 and early 2014. Take, for instance, a piece by Branko Marcetic published in the left-wing magazine Jacobin this past February on the eve of the war and purporting to set the record straight on the “widely misunderstood” events of 2014 known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity. Marcetic acknowledges that the Yanukovych regime was not only corrupt but brutally authoritarian; while he believes that the United States exploited the Maidan uprising, he concedes that it’s an “overstatement” to say that the protests were “orchestrated” by Washington. Yet Marcetic concludes that the revolution was hijacked “to empower literal neo-Nazis” and enact the agenda of opportunistic Western backers, ultimately setting the stage for war with Russia.

Such accounts feature enough factual nuggets to lend them verisimilitude—notably, an infamous leaked 2014 phone call in which Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, were discussing the role of various opposition figures in Ukraine’s post-Maidan government. (That Nuland is currently the under secretary of state for political affairs—and the official who recently confirmed the existence of U.S.-assisted “biological research facilities” in Ukraine—just makes the conspiracy theories juicier.) But a closer look shows that, more often than not, this purportedly damning evidence is cherry-picked and snatched of context, while other key facts are omitted or glossed over.

The prehistory of the 2014 revolution includes the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05, in which massive protests on the Maidan against an (actual) stolen election that handed Yanukovych the victory over pro-Western rival Viktor Yushchenko ended with Ukraine’s Supreme Court throwing out the results and with Yushchenko winning the re-vote. (During the campaign, Yanukovych had been explicitly backed by Putin and had flown to Moscow for several meetings with his patron; meanwhile, Yushchenko had nearly died from dioxin poisoning in an apparent assassination attempt.) In 2010, an ostensibly new and improved Yanukovych, now advised by American political consultant Paul Manafort—yes, that Paul Manafort, later Donald Trump’s campaign chair and Russiagate star—prevailed over Yushchenko, whose popularity had been undercut by failed reforms and bickering with allies.

Yanukovych’s victory had been achieved by a clever rebranding as a modern liberal democratic leader who would ensure Ukraine’s integration into Europe while also preserving good relations with Russia. In particular, he promised to pursue a free trade agreement with the European Union, seen as putting Ukraine on the path to EU membership. Vladimir Putin responded with what Jacobin’s Marcetic aptly calls “a one-man good-cop, bad-cop routine,” wielding both the carrot of a no-strings loan and the stick of punitive trade measures to strong-arm Yanukovych into backing out of the agreement. In November 2013, Yanukovych reneged on the deal, sparking massive protests dominated by the slogan, “Ukraine is Europe.”

The spirit of these protests is finely captured in the 2017 book The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution by Marci Shore, an associate professor of intellectual history at Yale University who was living in Ukraine at the time and was an eyewitness to those events. To the young people who filled the Maidan, Shore writes, “Europe” was not just about trade or job opportunities but, in the words of one activist featured in the book, “a question of values: the value of freedom of choice, the value of dignity.” Shore asserts that, despite the participation of Ukrainian nationalists, the “Euromaidan” was an extraordinary example of interethnic and interreligious cooperation between different groups brought together by common liberal values.

Yanukovych’s violent response to the Maidan demonstrations—sending brutal riot cops to disperse the protesters and ramming through a package of repressive legislation—only spurred on the protests. The violence also, ironically, propelled far-right groups such as the ultranationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) party and the Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) militia to greater prominence in the Maidan movement. While it is estimated that “radical nationalists” made up about 1 percent of Euromaidan protesters, they accounted, according to Free University of Berlin scholar Volodymyr Ishchenko, for about one-fifth of those involved in conflicts with police and 30 percent of those involved in violent confrontations.

By the time Yanukovych had signed a Europe-brokered deal with opposition leaders agreeing to give more power to the parliament and hold new elections later in the year, nearly a hundred Maidan protesters were dead at the hands of the Berkut riot police—48 of them in a half-hour-long massacre by snipers on February 20—and many Maidan activists saw the deal as a betrayal. The crowd cheered nationalist speakers who demanded Yanukovych’s immediate removal and threatened violence. The parliament moved to impeach him, and on February 22 the beleaguered Yanukovych fled to Russia, where he has lived ever since. There is evidence that he had been preparing his flight and moving his property for days if not weeks before his departure.

(Naturally, Kremlin propagandists have pushed “false flag” narratives—endorsed by a few contrarian scholars such as the University of Ottawa political scientist Ivan Katchanovski—which claim that Yanukovych opponents either deliberately provoked the violence or even staged the sniper massacre in order to make events spin out of control and trigger regime change. The fact that no one has ever been convicted in the sniper killings has allowed these conspiracies to fester and made it very difficult to disprove them conclusively; but University of Alberta history professor David Marples contributed a solid debunking in October 2014, and in 2018 a virtual-model reconstruction, based on extensive video footage, by the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University concluded that the victims were indeed shot by Berkut members.)

In a particularly absurd twist, some skeptics of the “establishment” narrative on Ukraine, including Benjamin in Salon and Marcetic in Jacobin, have compared Yanukovych’s ouster to the Jan. 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump supporters seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Marcetic at least gives a basically accurate account of the events; Benjamin and her CodePink coauthor Nicholas Davies, on the other hand, make it sound as if Yanukovych fled for his life from a rampaging armed mob and omit the minor detail of the impeachment proceedings (which would make Yanukovych more like Trump than a victim of a pro-Trump mob). Those on the right side of the anti-Ukraine horseshoe, for obvious reasons, have not invoked this particular analogy.

The claims of nefarious plotting by American puppet masters revolve primarily around Nuland’s role. According to Sohrab Ahmari, “Nuland in 2013 went down to Maidan Square to personally supervise the velvet revolution.” American Conservative contributing editor James Carden elaborates:

She oversaw U.S. efforts to encourage a street coup in Kiev—going so far as to hand out cookies to anti-government protesters alongside the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. . . . After the coup, Nuland became an unwitting symbol of American heavy-handedness in the region when a call between her and Pyatt leaked in which they were heard to be hand-picking personnel for the new government in Ukraine. What would the EU think? “Fuck the EU,” exclaimed Nuland, a diplomat.

Nuland’s cookies—or sandwiches, in some versions—figure prominently in “U.S./Deep State coup” narratives of the Euromaidan revolution. (They have also provided, as it were, ample grist for the Kremlin propaganda mill: “State Department cookies” are a common sarcastic reference to the rewards supposedly bestowed on U.S.-friendly Russian dissidents and oppositionists.) But these narratives invariably leave out some important context, provided by American diplomat Christopher Smith in his book Ukraine’s Revolt, Russia’s Revenge. Nuland’s visit to the Maidan took place on December 13, 2013—the day after a violent clash between the protesters and the Berkut riot police trying to clear the square had left dozens injured. According to Smith:

Assistant Secretary Nuland felt she should go to the square as a way of acknowledging the night’s events. . . . In Eastern European culture, guests never arrive empty-handed. En route to the square, my colleague Eric Andersen quickly put together a plan for her visit, including that she hand out bread and cookies to the Ukrainians who had faced the overnight onslaught. It was a small but expressive gesture. Russian media immediately featured pictures of her handing out cookies in the square to assert that the United States was propping up the Maidan movement. Of course, they omitted mentioning that she had also handed out bread to black-helmeted Interior Ministry security troops that same day as an indication Washington was not taking sides. . . . No matter how many times the Russian propaganda machine uses those photos of Toria Nuland handing out cookies as some sort of talismanic evidence of something evil, I can’t help but look at the images and see what was a simple, compassionate, humane gesture. [Emphasis added.]

The intercepted Nuland-Pyatt conversation, too, lacks crucial context. While Carden wrongly places it “after the coup,” other Nuland detractors have claimed that it shows the two American diplomats talking about “regime change”—i.e., discussing which opposition leaders should join a post-Yanukovych government at a time when Yanukovych was still the lawful president of Ukraine. Yet Smith’s account makes clear that the conversation, which took place at some point before February 4, 2014 (when the recording was posted) actually concerned the makeup of the new cabinet that would be formed as a result of the agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition, then still in the negotiating stage. As for Nuland’s undiplomatically profane comment about the European Union (“Fuck the EU”), her point was not, as Carden implies, that the United States would do as it pleased whether the EU liked it or not; rather, it was that EU representatives were (in Nuland’s view) doing a poor job shepherding the negotiations and that it would be better for the United Nations to get the deal done—to “glue this thing.”

In a report three days after the leak of the recording, BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus noted that the disclosure was embarrassing because it showed that “the US is clearly much more involved in trying to broker a deal in Ukraine than it publicly lets on.” But that’s hardly the same as engineering a coup, a charge that not only paints the Americans as malignant puppeteers but denies agency to the Ukrainians who revolted.

Equally specious is the claim that the revolution empowered “literal neo-Nazis,” per Jacobin’s Marcetic. The far-right Svoboda, which had rebranded itself as a moderate nationalist party but had a troubling history of bigotry and extremism—its leader Oleh Tyahnybok had in the past blamed Ukraine’s woes on a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia”—did get four cabinet posts in the EU-brokered agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition. But the Svoboda-affiliated acting defense minister, Ihor Tenyukh, was sacked a month after Yanukovych’s downfall, in late March 2014, and replaced with a nonpartisan military officer. (That did not keep detractors of the Ukrainian revolution, such as Stephen F. Cohen, from mentioning the Svoboda-held defense ministry months later.) The other three Svoboda cabinet members, a deputy prime minister and the ministers for agriculture and environmental affairs, resigned in November 2014 after parliamentary elections in which the party got just 2 percent of the vote, down from 10 percent in 2012.

Some reports in spring 2014 also claimed that Dmitro Yarosh, head of the militant far-right group Right Sector, had been appointed deputy minister for national security in the new government. But that turned out to be a false rumor—and in fact, the new Ukrainian government soon moved to crack down on the Right Sector because of its involvement in street violence. The extent to which the group was “neo-Nazi” is also debatable: Yarosh not only explicitly disavowed racism and anti-Semitism and criticized Svoboda for condoning bigotry, but teamed up with the Israeli ambassador in Kyiv to prevent anti-Semitic “provocations” in March 2014. The next month, after the Holocaust memorial in Odessa was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti that mentioned the Right Sector, a representative of the group was dispatched to the city and was photographed assisting a rabbi in the cleanup. Even if these were mainly public-relations moves, it would seem to confirm that, as Ukrainian Jewish leader and Euromaidan activist Josef Zissels asserted in an appearance at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in April 2014, anti-Semitism had become unpalatable in the political mainstream of post-Euromaidan Ukraine.

This does not change the fact that, as I noted in an earlier Bulwark essay, far-right extremism in Ukraine is a real problem. But to link post-Euromaidan governments, which have been dominated by center-right politicians and in which a number of key posts have been held by Jews—including Volodymyr Groysman, the prime minister from 2016 to 2019, and Volodymyr Zelensky, the current president—to anything “neo-Nazi” is preposterous. There is a genuine controversy about the extent to which the Azov Regiment, a crack unit that has its origins in the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary force with far-right and even neo-Nazi ties, still has extremist links. But while Kremlin propagandists love to tout Azov as Exhibit A in the “Ukrainian Nazis” narrative, the irony is that the regiment owes its existence entirely to the war Russia unleashed in the Donbas region eight years ago: The Azov Battalion gained prominence, and was incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces, thanks to its role in fighting pro-Russian separatists in the region.

Of course, protecting the ethnic Russian populations of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” has been one of the Kremlin’s principal rationales for the invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s indifference to “14,000+ dead” (or, according to some, 14,000 dead civilians) in Donbas is a frequent theme on pro-Kremlin Twitter.

The emergence of the pro-Russian enclaves in Eastern Ukraine is another complicated piece of history. While the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” are without a question Kremlin puppets, pro-Moscow separatism in the region does have some history as a spontaneous movement, documented by Kimitaka Matsuzato of the Hokkaido University (Japan) Slavic Research Center in a chapter for the 2021 book, The War in Ukraine’s Donbas. This movement has its roots in pro-Soviet activism in the 1990s by a handful of people unwilling to accept the collapse of the USSR; later, after the Orange Revolution of 2004-05, it took on a more specific ethnic Russian character.

In The Ukrainian Night, Shore paints a striking and slightly surreal portrait of the Donbas as a place out of time, mired in both Soviet and Tsarist nostalgia and shaped by its unique history: In the Soviet era, it was both a center of heavy industry with a vanguard of super-dedicated “shock workers” (the so-called “Stakhanovites”) and a place where convicts often settled after being released from labor camps. The result is a subculture of violence intersecting with a subculture of atavistic Soviet patriotism, in a blighted land where, in the words of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksiy Radynski, “the clock of progress finally froze for good in the early 1990s, when the state largely shut down the region’s factories and mines and sold them off to new private owners for nearly nothing.” Or maybe Donbas’s clock is frozen even farther back in history: Ukrainian environmental activist Pavlo Khazan told Shore that the region was a pre-Enlightenment, pre-modern place “controlled by chieftains,” i.e., gangsters.

In this peculiar environment, separatist activism spiked after the Euromaidan revolution. During a March 1, 2014 rally in Donetsk, a group of activists bestowed the titled of “People’s Governor of Donetsk” on a local nationalist-socialist activist named Pavel Gubarev and proceeded to seize the Donetsk Regional State Administration Building. (If “nationalist-socialist” has a creepy ring to it, that’s for a good reason: Gubarev had been previously involved with the neo-fascist group Russian National Unity. In a June 2014 interview, he explained that he now espoused “spiritual” rather than ethnic Russian nationalism but also expressed gratitude to Russian National Unity for the high-quality military training.)

Gubarev, who was later sidelined by the new leadership of the “people’s republic,” conceded in a December 2020 interview that the insurgency would have gotten nowhere without an infusion of Russian support. Meanwhile, audio recordings of intercepted conversations between top-level Putin advisor Sergei Glazyev and various pro-Kremlin activists in southern and eastern Ukraine in late February and early March of 2014—widely regarded as authentic—show that the Kremlin was actively instigating and financing separatist unrest in cities across the region.

While the post-Euromaidan government in Kyiv was unpopular in the country’s east, where two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research Center poll in April 2014 thought the new leadership was having a “bad influence” on the way things were going in Ukraine, separatism had little appeal: Only 18 percent of the eastern population thought regions should be allowed to secede, and even among Russian speakers only 27 percent were in favor of allowing secession.

As for the validity of the “referendums” conducted in May 2014 in separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk, which showed secession winning by a huge margin, a single colorful anecdote tells the tale. On May 7, Ukrainian intelligence released the audio of an intercepted phone call between Donetsk insurgent leader Dmytro Boitsov and far-right Russian nationalist Aleksandr Barkashov (the head, as it happens, of the aforementioned Russian National Unity). In the obscenity-laden exchange, Boitsov complains that the rebels are “not ready” to hold the referendum on May 11 as planned. Barkashov responds testily: “Just put in whatever you want. Write 99 percent. What, you’re going to fucking walk around collecting papers? Shit, are you fucked in the head or something?” “Ah. All right, I got it, I got it,” replies an audibly relieved Boitsov as it dawns on him that he and his pals are not expected to hold an actual referendum, just to produce results. Barkashov continues: “Just write that 99 percent—no, let’s say 89 percent, fuck it, voted for the Donetsk Republic. And that’s it, shit, we’re fucking done.”

By amazing coincidence, on May 11, the separatist “election commission” of Donetsk announced that 89 percent of the voters had chosen self-rule. As I have noted earlier, the first prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, “political consultant” Aleksandr Borodai, was not only a citizen of Russia but a reputed officer in the FSB (the Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor) with a long history of involvement in far-right, ultranationalist circles. While leadership in the “people’s republic” later shifted to Donbas natives, Matsuzato reports (despite his belief that it’s too simplistic to see the separatists merely as Kremlin tools) that all high-level Donetsk leaders had to be vetted by “political technologists” working for powerful Putin aide and Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov: “If one of the top leaders declined his privilege to consult with Surkov’s political technologists, his position was endangered.”

The bungling insurgents of Donetsk would have been comical if their Russia-backed war games had not taken a huge toll in human lives—from the 298 passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, shot down by rebels who apparently mistook it for a Ukrainian fighter jet, to more than 14,000 people, including nearly 3,500 civilians, killed in clashes between the separatists and the Ukrainian army. (It is also worth remembering that the Russian military’s direct involvement in this war, fairly high-level in the fall of 2014, never stopped. When evidence of this involvement became too incontrovertible to deny, both Russian officials and separatist leaders claimed with a straight face that Russian soldiers had either accidentally crossed into Ukraine while patrolling the border or come over while on leave to fight for their fellow Russians in Donetsk on their own time.)

Kyiv’s hands in the war against the “people’s republics” were not entirely clean (as no hands in any war probably are). Concerns about possible “indiscriminate” and excessive use of force by the Ukrainian military in rebel-held areas were raised in 2014 by the U.N. and by human rights organizations. In the summer of 2016, a report from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized both sides in the conflict for prolonged, arbitrary secret detentions and mistreatment of people suspected of working for the other side. One man interviewed for the report said he had been detained and tortured first by Ukrainian security service members who thought he was working by the separatists, then, upon his return to Donetsk, by separatists who thought he had been recruited to spy for Ukraine during his imprisonment.

Four years later, in 2020, Human Rights Watch published an update: The Security Service of Ukraine had released all of its detainees by the end of 2016 and the Ukrainian Military Prosecutor’s Office had opened an investigation into the reported abuses, though this inquiry had “made little substantive progress.” While some short-term wrongful detentions after that had been documented by the U.N.’s human rights monitors, there appeared to be “no new cases of enforced disappearances and secret detention by Ukrainian security services since 2016.”

The picture in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk was very different. According to Human Rights Watch, no steps had been taken to investigate or curb the abductions and abuses:

The Russia-backed de facto authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have continued their practice of unlawful deprivation of liberty and torture and other ill-treatment of individuals. Details of such cases have continued to emerge, while documenting them has become considerably more difficult.

The human rights violations on the Ukrainian side simply cannot compare to the utterly lawless brutality of the gangster statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk, whose existence was marked from the start by abductions and murders of journalists, dissenters, and bystanders. Donetsk-born writer Stanislav Aseyev, who was kidnapped by the separatists in June 2017 and imprisoned in Donetsk for nearly three years, has described his harrowing experiences in a 2021 memoir whose title speaks for itself: The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

One may debate to what extent the civilians in the “people’s republics” who have been casualties of war in the last eight years—the dead, the wounded, the people who have lost loved ones—are victims of the Ukrainian armed forces, of the insurgent leadership, or of Moscow. Many of them, Shore notes, believe Kremlin propaganda about a fascist junta in Kyiv and see Russia as their savior; others are simply stuck and cannot imagine leaving the place where they have lived their entire lives.

In any case, the Kremlin’s claim that the protection of those civilians is its casus belli does not stand up even to rudimentary scrutiny. While the civilian toll from warfare in the Donbas was fairly high in 2014-15, with over 3,000 dead, these numbers dropped dramatically after the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreement—to just over a hundred a year in 2016-17, 55 in 2018, and around 25 a year in 2019-21. These figures can hardly justify Putin’s massive war, which has left untold thousands dead and forced millions to flee their homes.

What’s more, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, some 85 percent of the nearly 2,000 weapons-related ceasefire violations in the Donbas in 2021 were initiated by the Russia-backed separatists.

It’s just another way in which the pro-Russia narrative in Ukraine does not add up—whether it comes from actual Kremlin propagandists or from anti-establishment “dissidents” and “skeptics” in the West.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.