Crisis in Ukraine

Kiev Defiant at Russian Aggression

Putin’s Crimea power grab has served to stoke nationalist fervor in Western Ukraine, with ordinary citizens vowing to mobilize to oppose the Russian threat.

03.05.14 10:45 AM ET

Thousands of flowers for the fallen heroes of Ukraine’s revolution still garland Kiev’s Independence Square, but the mood has quickly turned from one of quiet triumph to anger at Russia’s overtures in the Crimea. As thousands of Russian troops marched into the Crimea last weekend, taking over key government buildings and closing off the peninsula from the Ukrainian mainland, the protestors on Maidan held a large rally on Sunday denouncing Russia’s aggression. Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector, which had been at the forefront of the violent struggle against the riot police, threatened to send his own partisan troops to the Crimea to fight the Russians.

Elsewhere in Kiev, common Ukrainians reacted with a mixture of shock and anger at Russia’s war mongering, and at its vast propaganda machine, which labeled the protestors on the Maidan as ‘fascists’ and ‘terrorists’.

“All Russians are my enemies now,” declared a Ukrainian business colleague, who often visited Moscow for business—and pleasure—in the past.

“I’ve even called them to discuss the situation but they support Putin. How can they believe that everyone in Kiev is a ‘fascist’? Have they turned into zombies?” he asked.

Other friends have expressed similar feelings, with some even considering joining the Ukrainian government’s call for a general mobilization of citizens to fight the Russian threat.

“If they march against Donetsk or other parts of Eastern Ukraine, we’re going to take the war into Russia,” declared another friend. “What do they think? That we’re going to let them walk all over us?”

As Russian TV smears the revolution as a ‘fascist coup’ and demands that former President Victor Yanukovych be reinstated, Ukrainian TV has responded with its own fervent calls for national unity. The top television stations now all feature a flag of the Ukraine on the top left with the banner ‘One Ukraine’ under it. They have also been running interviews with common Ukrainians from various backgrounds—including Crimean Tatars and Russian-speakers from the Crimean capital of Simferopol—who proclaim their love for Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian celebrities have also gone on television to declare their abiding love for a united Ukraine. Syvatoslav Vakarchuk, the lead singer of popular Ukrainian band Okean Elzy, which played the Maidan during the height of the protest movement last December, made a fervent appeal to Ukrainians on Sunday night. “When we’ve played in Donetsk, and other parts of eastern Ukraine, I’ve seen your love for this country in your eyes. Whether you speak Ukrainian or Russian, there is only one Ukraine,” he declared. Meanwhile, the Russians have cancelled the band’s upcoming gig in St. Petersburg, citing their support for the ‘fascists’ on Maidan.

The Ukrainians have always viewed their belligerent neighbor, which ruled over them for a thousand years, through a prism of distrust and a history of oppression. The fragile trust that has built up between them over the last 20 years of independence has been quickly shattered by Russia’s naked aggression in the Crimea, and threats to partition the country. Friends now recall the Holodomor, or great hunger in the 1930s, when Stalin starved the Ukrainian countryside in order to enforce collectivization of farms. They are also reminded anew of the atrocities committed by the Red Army when it annexed Western Ukraine in the aftermath of WWII.

Predictably, Russia’s jingoistic rhetoric and its tarnishing of the protestors as ‘fascists’ has served the opposite effect of uniting Kievans against Russia. I have a good friend in Kiev from Sevastopol, the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea. A year ago, she was dating a Muscovite and considering moving there to advance her career as a fashion designer. The revolution, however, and the violent response from Russia, had alienated her from Moscow, and strengthened her love for Ukraine. Over drinks on Saturday night, she was in tears over the Russian invasion of Crimea. “Crimea’s a part of Ukraine, and has been so for as long as I remember. What does Putin want with Crimea? It’s cut off from Russia completely. This is insane.”

She also feared for her family, who were still down in the Crimea. Unfortunately, her mother, who was born and brought up in Russia during the Soviet times, supports the Russian invasion and also believes that those fighting for freedom on the Maidan were ‘fascists’.

“I’ve told her that I’ve volunteered to clean up the Maidan, and they are normal people fighting for a free Ukraine, not fascists,” she cried. “But she’s hysterical, and doesn’t want to listen.”

My friend now fears that the crisis in Crimea might also create a deep rift with her parents, who were brought up in Russia and remain loyal to the Soviet idea.

It’s true that many people in the Crimea are ethnic Russians with fond memories of the Soviet Union who will most likely support a union with Russia during the upcoming referendum on March 30th. The Crimean Tatars, however, who were shipped away to Kazakhastan by Stalin after WWII, have no desire to join a resurgent Russia. However, the Crimean scenario does play out, Putin’s war games have turned most Ukrainians—especially those in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev—against him. He’s lost the bulk of the Ukraine for another generation at least. And were he to foray further into eastern Ukraine and try to grab the industrial regions of Donetsk and Kharkhiv, the Ukrainians are certain to fight back.

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Despite the vast military and financial superiority of Russia, most Ukrainians have not been tempted to go over to the other side. Even Ukrainian marines on Crimean bases, who were offered Russian passports and stable jobs in return for going over to the other side, refused and sang the Ukrainian anthem instead. The strong support of the international community, and the presence of Western journalists on the ground, has also helped shore up morale during these difficult times. The head of an Ukrainian naval base in the Crimea that was being besieged by Russian troops Monday invited Western journalists to spend the night there. He said that it was the only way to ensure that the Russians didn’t play dirty.

Putin’s bellicose rhetoric is only serving to strengthen Ukrainian identity and national pride at this critical moment in this history. A historian friend of mine summarized the mood in Kiev over dinner last night.

“Previously, people were a bit ashamed to be Ukrainian. They talked about moving elsewhere, or going abroad. Now that we’ve fought for our freedom, we’re even ready to die for our country. Putin has massively underestimated our patriotic spirit.”

He shook his head and wagged his finger. “He’ll soon realize what a grave mistake he made to fight with us.”