EuroMaidan Protesters: We Want U.S. Protection

The protesters who ousted Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych now say they fear Russia’s aggression and are looking to the West to make guarantees of military protection against Putin’s troops.

03.04.14 6:05 PM ET

KIEV—Stamping their feet and moving closer to barrels serving as braziers on this cold misty morning, the Maidan protesters on Kiev’s Independence Square say they have no intention of decamping from their canvas tents any time soon. They have two enemies to see off first: Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the country’s politicians, including those who have replaced the president they ousted, Viktor Yanukovych.

And they expect that process will take months. “The revolution is incomplete,” says Dima, a 32-year-old construction worker who has swapped his building-site clothes for camouflage and now serves on the self-defense units protecting the Maidan.

As Maidan protesters explained how they see the challenges ahead, a recording of Ukraine’s national anthem blared out from a nearby podium decked out in the country’s national colors of yellow and blue and decorated with religious icons. In front of the podium, votive candles and flowers surround photographs of dozens of those who died last month during a police crackdown. Every hour, the anthem is played, followed by Orthodox priests intoning prayers and beseeching God not to forsake Ukraine.

In this small tent city at the heart of Kiev, protected by barricades of tires, stones, wooden packing cases and motley debris, passions remain high. The signs of last month’s battle with the berkut (riot police) remain on show: looming over the square there is the burnt-out trade union building that had served as the revolutionaries’ headquarters.

In nearby buildings and on their cell phones, the Maidan revolutionaries follow the latest twists and turns in the saga being played out in far-off Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula taken over by Russia last week.

Rumors, misinformation and disinformation about what Russian troops are doing there since their incursion travel swiftly through the camp.

Hours after this morning’s deadline set by Moscow for the surrender of Ukrainian troops in Crimea passed without incident, a false report circulated quickly that Putin had ordered all Russian soldiers in the Peninsula to return to barracks. It was a misinterpretation of a Kremlin announcement that military exercises on the Russian side of the border—exercises used as cover to infiltrate reinforcements into Crimea—had ended and those troops were returning to their bases. 

Despite the threat of sanctions and international rebuke, Putin is standing firm, saying this morning there is no need to send more Russian troops to Ukraine, but warning that Russia reserves the right to intervene further, if there is “lawlessness” in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. Any lawlessness, Ukrainians say, will be provoked by Russian agent provocateurs, stirring up trouble to provide a pretext for further intervention, if that is what Putin wants.

For the Maidan revolutionaries the arrival today in Independence Square of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry represents a hope that America and the Europeans won’t desert them. “It is very moving,” Kerry told reporters as he visited one of the makeshift shrines to those killed in Kiev. Milling crowds turned out asking for U.S. help and there was praise for Kerry.

“It is a very strong signal about international support for Ukrainian independence,” Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister, told The Daily Beast. “We are ready for the worst scenario but I hope we can stop this aggression. Ukraine has done everything it can to find a peaceful solution and to head off any further encroachment by Russian soldiers and a full invasion.”

But the Maidan revolutionaries want more from the West and America than just offers of diplomatic support or a billion dollars to offset the loss of a Russian credit line—and more than the threat of economic sanctions on Russia and visa denials and asset freezing of members of Putin’s inner circle and others complicit in the land-grab in Crimea.

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Twenty-three-year-old student Katya, who has been on the Maidan since the start of the uprising against Yanukovych, said she was disappointed. “We want to hear about guarantees of military protection from the West to counter the threat from the east, from Russia,” she said. “We need protection. Without it we are alone. We are worried that Russia will move out from Crimea and endanger the whole country. We are really scared about this.”

But Putin and the tense stand-off in Crimea—where warning shoots were fired today by Russian soldiers over the heads of Ukrainians troops who were trying to enter an airbase occupied by the Russians—aren’t the only worries for those who want to see Ukraine change. Contempt is mounting on the Maidan for the country’s politicians. Suspicions mount that entrenched political and business elites, who have overseen the cronyism that has warped Ukraine’s post-Soviet development, are trying to protect their interests and to steer the revolution away from reform and to secure control of its politics once again.

“This was a revolution not led by the politicians,” says Brian Bonner, chief editor of the English-language Kiev Post. “The decisive moments were led by the people on the Maidan. You can’t lead what happens on the Maidan, you can only join it. What they are seeing is that the Yanukovych administration has gone but that most of the same old faces are still in parliament and that isn’t sitting well. There will be increasing pressure for parliamentary elections earlier than scheduled, perhaps coming right after the May 25 presidential elections.”

Maidan revolutionaries point to the move this week by the country’s acting leaders to appoint several Ukrainian oligarchs as governors of oblasts (administrative divisions).  The oligarchs own huge swathes of the country’s industrial base and its raw resources and have used their clout to shape the country’s politics, owning in effect political parties and politicians.

This week, acting President Olekandr Turchynov appointed Igor Kolomoisky, the billionaire owner of PrivatBank, to oversee the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and industrial magnate Serhiy Taruta was appointed as governor of the Donetsk Oblast in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. There have been discussions with other oligarchs to take up governorships or top government jobs in restive Russian-speaking regions in eastern and southern Ukraine. The country’s acting leaders say this is smart politics and will help unite Ukraine.

But one of the Maidan organizers, 32-year-old Pavol (he asked for his family name to be withheld) fears that the oligarch appointments are a retrograde step. “We don’t trust the politicians. I am disappointed. These oligarchs supported the regime and they now are being given the opportunity to corrupt this government and to shape what comes. This is a bad sign. They can use their power to help their business interests and to ensure that cartel power and cronyism continues just as before.”

The Maidan revolution is a beast that is hard to control. That was made clear on February 22 when the revolutionaries refused to accept a compromise deal that would have allowed Yanukovych to stay in power until December 2014 while returning the country to its 2004 constitution giving parliament more power than the president.

It is also a revolution that relishes the lack of overall leaders and while top organizers discuss and try to coordinate there is no central control. “When you have worked out who is charge and how it works, let me know,” says the Kyiv Post’s Brian Bonner. 

But with the Russian incursion in Crimea and the threat of more may come from Putin, if he feels that is the only way to stop Ukraine spinning away from Russia, then the country needs organization and that will be elusive while the Maidan revolutionaries and Ukraine’s politicians fail to connect.