Wars and revolutions, regardless of their soundness, gain legitimacy when sprinkled with the blood of good people, a baptism of sorts. Think back to 2003 when the war makers celebrated the first American casualties in Iraq. Their youthful, smiling images appeared everywhere. What tragedy! How dare the enemy do this? In the name of fallen, we shall proceed ever more boldly!
As wars drag on, the dead and suffering put increasing pressure on the war makers to justify the cause. So, instead of being paraded as sanctifying relics, military remains are quietly dumped into landfills. But the soldiers’ role in propaganda is an issue I’ve covered before. Let’s talk about Ukraine, where I live.
On January 22 three Ukrainian protesters were killed by riot police, two by gunshot. It happened, strangely enough, on Unity Day. The holiday marks a proclamation of unity made in 1919 between the short-lived Western Ukrainian government, who was then battling Polish forces for control of Eastern Galicia, and the similarly short-lived government in Kyiv, which was soon overrun by Bolshevik forces. Tragedy has been the hallmark of Ukrainian history since the Mongols sacked Kyiv in 1240.
So we now have the blood of good people, but what exactly has it baptized? This remains up for grabs.
The current protests began on November 21st after Ukraine’s President Yanukovych announced he wouldn’t be signing an anticipated accession agreement, which would have begun a long process leading, theoretically, to Ukraine joining the EU. My early argument for self-reliance ahead of EU accession angered a few Ukrainian friends. Ukrainians generally blame their economic morass on corrupt and predatory politicians. The political class is known to raid successful businesses with assistance from the courts, and a blind eye from the police. Protesters consider accession to the EU the only remedy. I sympathize, but disagree in two ways. I’d put some of the blame on societal corruption down to the lowest levels, and I think gun ownership is a surer protector of property rights.
The protests escalated after a violent and unexpected pre-dawn raid by the “Berkut” riot police on November 30. The purpose of the raid was unclear. The protesters were stationary and unorganized. Some were sleeping. Reports circulated that some of the injured were kidnapped from the hospitals where they sought treatment, and others were detained immediately and denied medical care even for severe injuries. Three protesters remain missing.
Following outcry over the raid, between 300,000 and a million protesters flooded into the capital, many from the nationalistic western part of the country.
There was live music, free food, and distributions of winter clothes. There was much taunting of the police. Provocateurs among the protesters caused some (not all) of the physical confrontations. Protesters built barricades. They toppled the monument of Lenin near the city center. Soviet-Afghan war veterans organized camp security. They gained control of a few government buildings and camped out, waiting for change.
For almost two months, not much happened. The protesters dwindled but remained. During my visit to the capital the camps seemed to co-exist with Kyiv’s normal city life (my photos).
During the lull Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Yanukovych agreed that Russia would buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian debt, likely forestalling the consequences of the government’s insolvency. Both presidents insisted no other conditions were attached to the deal.
On January 20th the Ukrainian legislature, without following legislative procedures, criminalized virtually every conceivable form of protest. The flood of new legislation also requires future buyers of sim cards for cellphones to present passports. This triggered the violence taking place now.
The protesters are using stones, fireworks, Molotov cocktails and, famously, a catapult (which has its own Twitter account). In addition to clubs, the riot police have begun employing “flash-bang” grenades and rubber bullets. Eyes have been lost. Also, two protesters have been killed by live ammunition.
Thousands of additional Titushky (government sponsored hooligans) have arrived. Strangely, several hundred of them deployed to surround the US Embassy.
Injured protesters continue to disappear from hospitals. Protesters emerging from custody show signs of brutal beatings and report various tortures and humiliations. They report having seen others either dead or unconscious.
It seemed the EU was facing the perfect storm: unemployment the highest ever, governments teetering on the brink of insolvency, anti-EU sentiment rising everywhere, and numerous countries threatening to leave. Then Ukrainians burst onto the scene risking their very lives, seemingly, for a chance to join.
This will likely be the popular portrayal in the west. Western news stories lead with the “desire of Ukrainians to join the EU.” The west seeks to expand their sphere of influence and diminish Russia’s, and it is only to this extent that Ukraine’s civil unrest matters. Ukrainian news coverage no longer even mentions it.
The November 30 raid seemed a pivot point where the purpose of the protest switched from advocating EU accession to topping a hideously corrupt and abusive regime. Here is a picture of the construction of the President’s third residence. His son recently became one of Ukraine’s richest men.
Ukrainians are tired of feeling humiliated, as evidenced when they voice their desire to have a “normal” country. After the latest violence, any agreement which keeps the President and Party of Regions in power is intolerable.
To be honest, I somewhat like President Yanukovych. He strikes me as a bumbling hooligan of dim intelligence doing what he knows best: making himself rich. I prefer this type of politician to the ideologues in the west, because the hooligan only wants material wealth. If I stay out of his business and keep my own success inconspicuous, he’ll leave me alone. By contrast, the ideologue demands my heart and soul.
President Yanukovych had been flirting with both Moscow and Brussels, leading them on like a champion stripper, trying to finagle the best deal for himself. I think the protests in response to his latest stall caught him by surprise. The tragedy for him was that they revealed the brutality of the system.
Many protesters incorrectly regard Russia and the Yanukovych regime to be one big evil empire seeking to eliminate Ukraine. While it’s true that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has been massively supported by Moscow, the last thing the regime wants is supervision. They have a resource-rich country of their own, and they want to continue treating it like a gigantic ATM. Unfortunately for them, the government is bankrupt and ineffective, and riddled with the same myopic opportunism you find at its head.
They needed a bailout to keep the party going, and it seems like they just got it from Russia.
The dynamics between Russia and Ukraine are very complicated, and seeped in controversial interpretations of history. Here’s my take:
Protests like this do not happen in Russia, and the Kremlin wants to keep it that way. The state took tighter control of Russian media when violence first flared in Kyiv. Newsmen ridiculed the protests, even claiming that cold weather caused the unrest.
Russia wants to expand its empire. They are building dependency by buying Ukrainian debt, similar to how they do with subsidized gas deals. There is also a long-standing plan to divide Ukraine, and absorb parts of it into the Russian federation. WWII history is used to divide Ukrainians.
Lastly, there is much speculation that Russian agents are actively trying to escalate the situation to the point that Russian security forces have an excuse to intervene.
Eastern and Russian-Ukrainians
Some are supportive of the protesters rebelling against a corrupt regime. Others feel threatened by the nationalism of the protesters, which can take a pointedly anti-Russian tone. Still others are afraid to voice their opinions for fear of losing their jobs. That was the conclusion of a very affable friend of mine who regularly travels to Donetsk on business. He said he couldn’t even get anyone to express an opinion.
The Berkut riot police from Russified parts of Ukraine have been known to express anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian, and pro-Soviet views. It may be confusing for western observers to see Ukrainian police angrily tearing down Ukrainian flags.
The three opposition politicians are former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, lawyer turned politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and nationalist firebrand Oleh Tyahnybok. They called for a general strike in response to the latest violence. Earlier, they had appeared in plastic helmets in defiance of the anti-protest laws.
The protesters don’t trust any of them. Klitschko seems to be the least mistrusted, and he was sprayed in the face with a fire extinguisher when he spoke among the protesters. Despite the lack of trust, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else, so any solution of the sort the protesters are seeking will likely involve these men.
The official death count at the time of this writing is five. Judging by reports of protesters released from custody, and reports of missing people, it could be in the dozens.
Nevertheless, I do not yet consider this a war or a rebellion. It remains civil unrest, masses of riot police confronting masses of protesters. With such a density of people, a single armed person on either side could kill numerous opponents. It took my military mind quite a while to realize what each side was doing.
The protesters strive to create a spectacle and discredit the regime by demonstrating their powerlessness. They are also striving to win and maintain sympathy. The regime, through the riot police, is attempting to demonstrate that they are, in fact, in control, and that the protesters are outliers of public opinion.
The worst possible outcome for the protesters, with whom I’m sympathetic, is the establishment of a Belarus-style dictatorship.
The most realistic expectation is forcing a change of regime, perhaps through a snap election, though that would be difficult because the Party of Regions is very good at election fraud. A new regime would likely be just as corrupt, but power structures in Ukraine are very vertical. So, it really would be a new set of power brokers. More importantly, the fact that the people changed the ruling party would itself restrict the arrogance of future regimes.
Of course, a much sounder foundation for a free society with lasting property rights would rely on the principles of local autonomy through secession, sound money through competing currencies, and property rights through gun ownership. Sadly, these ideas aren’t yet popular enough in Ukraine, which is why the greatest dream of so many protesters is of European politicians protecting them from Russian ones. A sad state of affairs indeed.