Rising Up in the Ukraine
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 2)

The events in Kiev began as pro-European Union protests in late November 2013, after president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a closer association agreement with Brussels. The EU agreement offered benefits, prosperity and hope that Ukrainians embraced. However, when the promise of a bright European future was surprisingly dashed, protestors flocked to the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, and stayed, while the president fled.

This pro-EU demonstration turned into a revolutionary frontline occupation – complete with EU flags – and now into an anti-war demonstration. To the bewilderment the European Union, Russia, and indeed Ukrainians themselves, the revolutionaries of the Maidan placed Ukraine at the centre of European affairs and are driving events that Brussels and Moscow are racing to keep up with.

Walking through Maidan, the name of which has become the identity of the entire revolution, a visitor might think they had walked onto the set of a First World War film. The once imposing nationalist architecture of “Independence Square” has been transformed into a winding, maze-like series of tight alleys shaped by wooden planks, barbed wire, billowing canvas tents, and tires. Its marble pathways are now trench-like lanes lined with thick mud and burnt earth. The burnt-out Union building completes the scene as men in military kit move hastily through the thick and omnipresent fog, making it seem all the more melodramatic. The drastic change from a vibrant downtown gathering place to a ragged battlefield highlights the intensity of this transformation by revolution.

The protestors-turned-revolutionaries-turned-anti-Russian defenders confirm that the Maidan was the site of a battle that was won – but yet, the war continues. What began as a quest for better lives, has morphed into a war to save the country from itself, and from Russia.

On February 20-21, Yanukovych’s elite “Berkut” (eagle) riot police snipers opened fire on protestors who had been holding out against vicious, but previously non-lethal, attacks. The revolutionaries stood against the well-armed riot police – holding them back with a wall of fire and smoke from burning tires, Molotov cocktails and even a homemade catapult. It was a decisive and ingenious expression of people-power, and it performed magnificently against a regime that was as corrupt, corrosive and entitled as anything the ghosts of the USSR have produced since its collapse. Approximately 90 men and one woman were killed in several days of bloodletting. Although that number continues to rise even after Yanukovych fled for Russia, as the severely injured die in hospital from their wounds, it was in these bloody and smoky days that not only a country was changed, but all of Europe. However, if the men and women who now inhabit the Maidan have their way, it will be a war won without further shots being fired.
Between EU and Empire
While Russia played war games on the border, and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s head of Foreign Affairs and Security, regurgitated lines that seemed perfunctory when she first used them in Cairo in 2011, the revolutionaries in downtown Kiev felt they had to make a choice.

Looking west the saw indifference, looking east more corruption and oppression, so the Ukrainians did something they hadn’t before: they looked inwards. And that’s the very moment when Europe was altered. The moment Maidan protestors looked only to themselves, they forever changed the state of play that either Moscow or Brussels was trying to push. While neither had been cut out, both were demoted to observer status, forced to adapt to the landscape these men and women created through their actions.

The reaction from Moscow was to formally annex the Crimea on 21 March 2014, largely to assure it’s own citizens that Russia still has clout. The EU, on the other hand, imposed sanctions on Russian officials so meaningless that these actions only confirm that outside it’s own borders the EU never had any clout. Aside from dangerous ramifications and precedents coming from Crimea, it is the EU reaction that is, perhaps, the great shame resulting from the events in Kiev.

For the first time since the founding of the European Union, men and women fought and died under its blue and yellow shield, believing so strongly in the values that flag championed. And yet it simply looked on, finally issuing sanctions against Ukrainian leaders only after the body count started. The future success, image and reputation of the EU now lie firmly in Ukraine’s revolutionary hands.

Whether the EU expands or stagnates now revolves around the outcome of Kiev: the protestors who marched for closer ties with the EU have effectively changed the EU itself not from within, but from without. Any influence Brussels wielded was relinquished when it watched as men and women died for the first time while striving specifically for its own values. This is also precisely why few EU flags are now waived in the Maidan, where once they flew as the primary rallying symbol against Yanukovych.

The importance of this was not lost on Russia. The fact that Putin himself said he does not want Moscow to react in-kind to EU sanctions and to simply swallow the EU’s “punishment” shows how completely irrelevant he finds them and recognizes them as face-saving window dressing that doesn’t risk actually angering Russia to the point of cutting off precious oil and gas (some EU countries receive as much as 90% of their oil from Russia). The weakness of the response also tells Putin he can keep pushing. The EU should be the natural counterpoint to Russian incursions, but with only paltry sanctions to stand in the way, Russia sees no need to fear a military threat from the EU (or NATO) on the other side of Ukraine.

The same day Crimea was annexed by Russia, Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Yatsenyuk signed the association agreement with the EU, effectively righting the situation that had sparked the protests in November. But perhaps more important than the benefits this brings to Ukraine, the signing was carried out on vastly different ideological terms. Kiev is now using Brussels as a game piece rather than the other way around. Ukraine signed to shore up its European position in defiance of the Russian-dominated past and as an assertion of a new society still being built, not as a poor backward neighbour looking for assistance from advanced modern neighbours.

Simply put, Kiev signed the agreement with newfound pride and authority, while the EU could only shake hands with new Ukrainian leadership they had no part in bringing to power and were now racing to support and understand in equal measure.

The ideological difference between Brussels pulling Ukraine into its sphere of influence (as would have been the case had the document been signed in November) and Ukraine announcing its own arrival as a European state is extremely important. It speaks to the complete societal overhaul that the Maidan revolutionaries are striving for in a new Ukraine.

Cleaning House
The Maidan has become an independent and fully functioning settlement in central Kiev. Erected from wood, tires, barbed wire, and snow, its occupants are devoted to protecting the democratic ideals of the revolution. A town within a city.

Many citizen-led institutions have risen in the Maidan: City Hall, theatres and museums turned into free hospitals, food kitchens and sleeping quarters. Children’s programs, churches and even law offices are run from these tents. Most prominent among these citizen-led institutions are the security forces.

As the so-called ‘Euro-Maidan’ revolution pushed out a corrupt government, most of Kiev’s police forces abandoned their posts, refusing to patrol the streets. Not wanting looting and arson to spoil the success of their cause, these revolutionaries took it upon themselves to police the city as a Maidan “Self-Defence Force”. Wearing second hand military surplus, these civilians from many professional backgrounds and ages are now the de-facto police for Kiev’s 2.7 million inhabitants.

The Maidan Self-Defence Force was founded by current Ukrainian Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov to protect protestors from riot police. Now numbering 8,000 volunteers, these citizens-turned-police follow a charter that promotes “the European choice and unity of Ukraine”. Under the same charter, members are not officially allowed to mask themselves or carry weapons, such as guns or clubs. However, in practice, most flaunt these codes. Moreover, by night many of the men are drunk, despite a “strict” rule to keep the Maidan a dry area. One need only be escorted by one of the many camouflaged men (who insist on escorting foreigners around after sun down) to smell the alcohol on their breath.

Many groups, namely the extreme right wing of the “Right Sector”, independently guard Kiev’s streets without loyalty to Avakov’s Self-Defence forces. Despite insisting they hold no Nazi ideology, their open boasting that Ukraine can now be purged of homosexuals and all non-Ukrainians, suggests otherwise. Officially, the right wing “co-operates” with other self-defence groups, but because of its superior organization and specific revolutionary goals, the far right operates its own policing efforts. The future role of right wing groups in Kiev remains unclear, but their inclusion and influence in future Ukrainian governments (given their prominent roles in battling riot police and now policing Kiev) seems assured.

Chief among the priorities of Self-Defence groups is the pursuit of “Titushki”: men hired by the Yanukovych regime to provoke and attack protestors in the Maidan. Viewed as traitors to Ukraine, suspected Titushki are beaten with baseball bats in the street when found, and bloodily dragged away to “the police” wearing dog collars: a symbol of shame, if not of disturbing and indiscriminate violence. These incidents of identifying and punishing the Titushki highlights fears over how much control the new leadership really has over security and the witch-hunt atmosphere that is taking root as groups vie for power in a new Ukraine.

It begs the age-old question of what happens to men when they are suddenly wielding the balance of power?

The Alternatives
Generations of Ukrainians have grown up under successive regimes that have denied them rights, prosperity and dignity in favour of lining leaders’ pockets. As they watched their Slavic neighbours in Poland shake loose the USSR and join the EU to become an economic success, Ukraine languished under post-Soviet Russian hegemony. Effectively it was more of the same Communist nepotism, sub-standard goods and services, and corruption, except all made more extreme by the profiteering of capitalism.

It is inspiring to see young people for the first time – in not only years but generations – motivated, excited and enthralled to contribute to something, anything, and to be proud of their country and themselves. This hopeful feeling abounds as one watches the uniformed men and women strut through the streets of Kiev. However, without proper guidance and realized prosperity, that fiery invigoration in their eyes has the potential to turn frightening in a blink, especially with the threat of war hanging over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

The Gift of Crimea
If ever there was a land used as a symbol for imperial authority and strength, the Crimea would rank among the most (down) trodden. First under Byzantine rule, then Venetian, and then the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire from 1441-1783. Crimea was annexed (the first time) by Russia in 1783. It went on to become the site of a disastrous pan-European conflict where the British Light Brigade made their suicidal charge for empire. In 1921 it became part of the Soviet Union, was then conquered by the Nazi Third Reich, finally to be liberated by the Red Army. In 1954, the territory was “gifted” from Russia to Ukraine as part of Khrushchev’s bid to make Ukraine more Russian (understandable, given that he was himself born in Ukraine). He never could have imagined that 60 years later Ukrainians would rise up against the pro-Russian system with such success as in Maidan. But succeed they did, leaving Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which is still stationed there, precariously out of the firm grip of Moscow’s influence for the first time in generations.

 Ukraine is the birthplace of Russia itself and the Orthodox Church – legacies that many believe must always be kept within a Russian sphere if there is to be a Russia at all. Was this the justification for Putin to send in elite Russian forces, to blockade Ukraine’s fleet, and to orchestrate a “referendum” to give credence to his annexation of the Crimean peninsula?

But to be clear, none of that – not the navy, not the land, not the medieval origins, not the Russians citizens, and not the churches – matter to Vladimir Putin. He is not a sentimental man. History and religion and nationalism are useful tools to manipulate the masses, but for Putin they are a means to an end, the end being to wield as much power as possible over his own people. Achieving this may well mean attempts to recreate the borders of the Soviet Union to create a buffer against the West, but not for the sake of nostalgia.

Nothing is more dangerous to Putin than a popular uprising, which is to say his greatest threat is the very people he rules. It’s why the Russian opposition is systematically undermined, artists muffled and journalists silenced (sometimes violently). Next to Yanukovych, no one but Putin was likely more worried by seeing the walls of fire burn, and hold firm, in Kiev. Moscow’s drawing of a red line by a proxy action in Crimea becomes his safeguard action.

The annexation of Crimea offers Putin nothing he didn’t already have – such as power over corrupt officials. The “plight” of ethnic Russians needing protection is an excuse (and a ruse), protecting the Black Sea Fleet is little more than a farce. The fleet would have remained stationed in Ukraine as long as it was lucrative, not as long as Kiev remained pro-Russian. So, why do it? To show Russians in Russia, namely any opposition inspired by the events in Kiev, that no revolution will be tolerated under his watch. Putin will put down any threat to his own hegemony no matter where: there will be no changing of the old guard without full and open conflict.

The Birth of a Nation?
Standing over the Maidan is the prominent statue of “Berehynia”, the mother of Slavs and the matriarch of the Ukrainian nation. She now looks down on the scorched earth and tent settlement of Maidan. She need not wonder what she has given birth to: the aspirations of her children are overwhelmingly democratic, pluralistic and ­liberal. Indeed, Ukrainians seem adamant about not being dragged into a war, a most impressive national maturity for a country born anew only a few weeks ago. A war with Russia, which in turn will be a civil war between the languages of Ukraine, wouldn’t just tarnish the revolution, it would undo it as the nation splinters into a Balkanized mess, never to be physically reassembled as it is now.

At best, it seems that Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors will be brought in to oversee the borders between Russian and Ukrainian speaking regions. However, one need ask why Russia agreed to this. Foreign monitors or peacekeepers may keep events non-violent but they may also preside over a de-facto partition, much as they did in Croatia in the 1990s. Back then, the UN foolishly secured Slobodan Milosevic’s gains by their very presence as a “blue line”, which explains why he also backed a UN presence. For Russia, that solution offers short-term ­stability, which would surely seem favourable if not for the side effect of long-term political and economic stagnation (let alone creating a festering wound that still leads to war and ethnic cleansing, also the lesson of Croatia). Such is the Putin-appeasement that looks to be a likely alternative to war, which would surely suit Putin just fine, as it did Milosevic.

With Crimea now firmly Russian, the EU indifferent or powerless (or powerless due to indifference), Ukraine’s economy set to default, and the linguistic divide of Ukrainians threatening to either become a bloody East/West partition of the country or to create a frozen conflict that paralyzes prosperity, the statue of Mother Berehynia continues to watch her country. The horizon must look troubling from her vantage point, and the question surely haunting her is: will her new child be ripped from her arms before it has a chance to grow?

Christopher Bobyn, a Canadian photo-journalist working in Berlin, spent a week in Kiev’s Maidan interviewing revolutionaries.
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© FrontLine Magazine 2014