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'Desperate struggle' in Ukraine: What you need to know about the crisis

Thomas Peter / Reuters

An anti-government protester waves the Ukrainian flag as he stands on fortifications against riot police in Kiev on Tuesday.

The government of Ukraine offered two big concessions Tuesday in hopes of calming a violent uprising that has gripped the capital city and begun to spread through the rest of the country.

But it didn’t seem likely to work. Crowds of demonstrators broke into cheers but vowed that the struggle would continue, and they repeated their calls for the president to resign.

The Prime Minister of Ukraine has resigned hours before a planned vote of no confidence by Parliament that could have stripped him of his powers. NBC  News' Ian Williams has the latest from Kiev. 

“We have not yet settled everything,” said former boxer Vitaly Klitschko, now a leader of the opposition.

If that name rings a bell, it should: Klitschko was a heavyweight boxing champion before he became a Ukrainian politician. He’s only one of the interesting figures in the crisis, which is roiling a country of 46 million people.

Here’s a guide.

The background: It’s Europe vs. Russia

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is caught — geographically and politically — between Europe and Russia. Each side has accused the other of sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.

The trigger point for the crisis came in November, when Russian President Vladimir Putin talked the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, into walking away from a trade deal with the European Union.

Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych at a summit in December.

Russia, seeking greater geopolitical and economic influence in Ukraine, was more than happy to help. Putin agreed to loan Ukraine $15 billion and cut the price of the Russian natural gas that Ukraine’s economy depends on.

“Russia clearly wants Ukraine to stay within its broad sphere of influence,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director for the Kennan Institute, a Russia-focused group at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy organization in Washington.

As Putin prepares for the Sochi Olympics, his country’s moment on the world stage, European leaders have increasingly clashed with him, not just over Ukraine but over Russia’s human rights record and its treatment of gays.

Opposition leaders want Ukraine to be more aligned with Europe, and they took to the streets of Kiev, the capital city, for around-the clock demonstrations in November centered at Independence Square.

Those protests turned violent last week. At least six people have been killed in clashes between police and protesters. A body was found hanging earlier this week from the so-called New Year Tree, a steel structure that has become a symbol of the opposition.

The president: Figure of intrigue

Yanukovych was a candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election of 2004, which was tarnished by widespread charges of corruption and got attention because another candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, was mysteriously poisoned two months before the vote.

Yushchenko was ultimately declared the winner in a relatively clean runoff vote, but only after Ukrainians massed in demonstrations that became known as the Orange Revolution.

He later became prime minster, ran again for president in 2010 and won. Yanukovych beat Yulia Tymoshenko, the first woman prime minister of Ukraine — and jailed her the following year on what her supporters say are trumped-up political charges.

Tymoshenko remains in jail, and is such a figure of inspiration for the opposition that her picture appears on a poster on the New Year Tree.

What’s next: Defusing the crisis

Sergei Supinsky / AFP

Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011.

The two concessions offered Tuesday by the Yanukovych government were the resignation of the pro-Russian prime minister and the repeal of anti-dissent laws that were rammed through parliament earlier this month.

The demonstrators were unsatisfied.

“The authorities are afraid and making concessions,” one of them, Oleg Rudakov, told The Associated Press in Kiev. “We should use this moment and continue our fight to achieve a change of power in Ukraine.”

As the protests rage on, the president is left with ever fewer options.

If he resigns, he risks being prosecuted by a future government for rampant corruption during his presidency, and for the jailing of Tymoshenko. Striking a deal and ordering her release would make her even more of a political hero.

“He’s facing a desperate choice. He’s had to backtrack. He’s shown weakness. He’s shown disloyalty,” Pomeranz said. “I think he is in a very desperate struggle to find some sort of compromise and to keep his position as president.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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