Conflict in Ukraine

Conflict in Ukraine

An intensification of fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed militia forces and Ukrainian security forces, with potential overt Russian military intervention


Recent developments 

The standing cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has been continuously violated. U.S. officials have warned that the year-end deadline for a peace deal signed in February 2015 will not be met. Although the conflict has calmed since it first erupted in early 2014, there was a significant increase in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels around Donetsk in late 2015. In November 2015, saboteurs destroyed power lines to Crimea leaving millions there without electricity for nearly two weeks as protests prevented their repair. 


The crisis in Ukraine began with protests in the capital city of Kiev in November 2013 against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. After a violent crackdown by state security forces had the unintended effect of drawing an even greater number of protesters and escalating the conflict, the President Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014. 

In March 2014, Russian troops took control of the Crimean region, before formally annexing the peninsula after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need for Crimea to be part of a “strong and stable sovereignty,” which he argued could only be Russia. The crisis heightened ethnic divisions across Ukraine, and two months later pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine held a referendum that declared independence from Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Violence between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military in the east has injured 21,000 and killed over 9,000. Although Moscow denies its involvement, Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have reported the buildup of Russian troops and military equipment near Donetsk and Russian cross-border shelling.

The situation in Ukraine escalated into an international crisis, putting the United States and the European Union (EU) at odds with Russia, in July 2014, when a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukrainian airspace, killing all 298 onboard, by what Dutch air accident investigators concluded was a Russian-built surface-to-air missile and which the Ukrainian authorities suspect was supplied by Russia to the separatists. Since February 2015, Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany have attempted to broker a cessation in violence through the Minsk Accords—which include provisions for a cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, and full Ukrainian government control throughout the conflict zone. However, efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement and satisfactory resolution have been unsuccessful. 


The conflict in Ukraine risks further deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations and greater escalation if Russia expands its presence in Ukraine or into NATO countries. While the United States and Europe have not committed military support to Ukraine beyond defensive weaponry, Russia’s actions have raised wider concerns about its intentions elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and a Russian incursion into a NATO country would solicit a response from the United States as a treaty ally. The conflict has heightened tensions in Russia’s relations with both the United States and Europe, complicating prospects for cooperation elsewhere including on issues of terrorism, arms control, and a political solution in Syria.

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