Photo Essay

  • A woman in front of a pro-Russian demonstration in Odessa, Ukraine, March 18, 2014.
  • Young students on Odessa Beach, Odessa, Ukraine, March 20, 2014.
  • Pedestrians walk by flowers for the two victims of a shootout on March 15 in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, near the border of Russia. March 20, 2014.
  • Police officers protect a government building from pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 22, 2014.
  • Regional government headquarters in Odessa, Ukraine, one of the cities where pro-Russian separatists staged rallies in the days leading up to Crimea's referendum to break away from Ukraine.
  • A woman cries after Sunday prayers at the Cathedral of Transfiguration of Jesus in Donetsk, Ukraine. March 23, 2014.
  • Two men stand outside the Odessa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. The theater closed its doors until the situation stabilizes in the city.
  • A man carries a piece of wood in Odessa, Ukraine, March 5, 2014.
  • A pro-Russian demonstration in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 23, 2014.
  • Referendum day in Sevastopol, Crimea. March 16, 2014
  • The Duke de Richelieu Monument at the top of Potemkin Stair, in Odessa, Ukraine, March 3, 2014. Duke de Richelieu was Odessa's first mayor.
  • Odessa train station. Trains are still very popular in Ukraine, where most of the roads are in very poor condition. March 20, 2014.
  • Crimeans go to the polls on March 16, 2014, for a referendum vote to break away from Ukraine, at a school on the outskirts of Sevastopol, Crimea.
  • A woman walks in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine's fifth-largest city and a hotbed for pro-Russian sentiment. March 21, 2014.
  • A Russian soldier patrols the streets of Simferopol, Crimea, one day before the referendum vote. March 15, 2014.
  • A man with an old Soviet flag in front of the regional administration building in Donestsk during a pro-Russian demonstration on March 23, 2014.
  • Pro-Russian demonstrators celebrate the results of Crimea's referendum for Russia's annexation of the peninsula, in Grafskaya Pristan, Sevastopol, Crimea. March 16, 2014.
  • A pro-Russian demonstrator smokes during a protest in front of the main police station in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 22, 2014.
  • Pro-European integration protestors outside the regional government headquarters in Odessa, Ukraine, March 3, 2014.
  • Tensions rise in Odessa, Ukraine, March 4, 2014.
  • People walk in the suburbs of Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 21, 2014. Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, and the site of pro-Russian rallies in the lead-up to the Crimean referendum for annexation to Russia.
  • A police officer stands in front of the Odessa Regional State Administration building in Kulikovo Pole square, Odessa, Ukraine, where pro-Russian demonstrations took place in Odessa. March 3, 2014.
  • A woman walks in Simferopol, Crimea, March 15, 2014.
  • Pro-Russian demonstrators request the release of two activists jailed in Donestsk, Ukraine. March 22, 2014.
  • Bristol Hotel Spa, Odessa, Ukraine. March 5, 2014.
  • A woman smokes in front of a coffee shop in downtown Odessa, Ukraine, March 5, 2014.
  • A bus passes by the Odessa train station, March 6, 2014.
  • A woman waits for a train at the Odessa train station, March 19, 2014.
  • A hunting shop in downtown Odessa, Ukraine, March 5, 2014. The port city is the third-largest city in Ukraine on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea.
  • Pro-Russia demonstrators in the Kulikovo Pole square outside Odessa's regional state administration building, March 3, 2014.
  • A woman walks out of a subway station in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The second-largest city in Ukraine is near the border of Russia, and the site of many pro-Russian demonstrations this month. March 21, 2014.
  • Cossacks rest in front of Lenin Square in Simferopol, Crimea, March 15, 2014.
  • A teenager sits on a bench in Tarasa Shevchenka Park in Odessa, Ukraine, March 20, 2014.
  • A woman walks past a shop with a green light in the port city of Odessa, Ukraine, March 6, 2014.
  • Children play on tanks at the war museum in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 22, 2014.
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Ukraine: Images of a nation in transition

Updated

Ukraine is a country in transition. What began as organized protests against a proposed trade deal with the European Union has devolved into a geopolitical standoff between Russia and the West. The Crimean crisis has revealed Ukraine as a nation struggling to overcome deep historical, cultural and ethnic divisisions.

There are currently an estimated 20,000 Russian troops – including infantry, airmen and special operation forces – amassed along the country’s eastern border with Russia. Ukraine’s government earlier this week ordered troops to withdraw from the Crimean peninsula. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia said his forces are prepared to respond if Russian troops decide to invade along the border where they are stationed.

Spanish photographer Guillermo Cervera recently spent more than two weeks in Ukraine. “It was my first time in Ukraine, and I decided to go for two main reasons: because of the ongoing problems, of course, and because I really like to photograph these old ex-Soviet Union countries, with amazing big monuments, buildings, and everything looking from Soviet times mixed with the new,” he told msnbc.

Cervera said he saw people who were more concerned with everyday life than political activism.

For Cervera, the reality on the ground is quite different from the intense conflict portrayed in the media. “The people don’t want to fight,” he told msnbc, “and everybody wants to keep going … They are brothers, and they are more concerned about their quality of life – soccer, beauty, normal life – than of being either Soviet or European.”

Crimea recently voted to join Russia and secede from Ukraine, but the Obama administration believes the vote was administered under threats of intimidation. U.S. senators have approved aid for Ukraine – $1 billion in loans and $100 million to foster security and independence.

Russian troops continued their moves to control Crimea throughout the weekend and early this week as President Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte jointly committed to imposing a cost on Russia for denying sovereignty to Crimea, ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography