When fellow Clemson alumnus Tom Kapp and I agreed to meet in Kiev on Thursday, February 20, we had no idea that the events of the coming days would consume the entire country and possibly the region at large.
Two days prior, police snipers had begun targeting protestors in downtown Kiev. Some 90 people were killed as the protest reached a fever pitch. I was covering the events for The Daily Beast and had been covering the situation in Ukraine since late November, when now-fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych caved to pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin and walked away from a trade deal with the European Union that had come to signify Ukraine’s last chance for western European integration.
For months I had been writing about a new wave of pressure from Moscow, which also led to Armenia’s similar rejection of a EU trade deal. When we arrived in Ukraine, pro-EU demonstrators had been living out in the cold on Kiev’s Maidan Square — the name that would come to symbolize their EuroMaidan movement — for three months.
An Escalating Situation
On February 18, something changed: Snipers — by most accounts, police snipers — began to target protestors. The shots were not intended simply to stop the protestors’ advance or protect the police on the ground. These were kill shots to the head, neck and upper torso. Simultaneously, police under Yanukovych’s command blitzed the Maidan Square from four directions in an attempt to forcibly remove the protestors.
The protestors, armed with Molotov cocktails, truncheons and riot shields taken from police, began to set fire to everything they could, notably the large stacks of tires they had amassed — tires burn for a remarkably long time — in one final effort to hold onto the square. Protestors tossed tents, tires and debris into the flames creating a ring of fire around the square as police moved in with tear gas and flash grenades with nails taped to the outside to make them more deadly. Both sides resorted to extreme measures of violence. Downtown Kiev became a warzone. When we arrived two days later, the fires still burned, but most of the shooting had ceased.
I can only hope that such gunfire will never resume, though 500 miles to the south, Ukraine’s Crimea is about to explode. By the time this goes to print, Ukraine may again be a war zone. The longer we spent in Kiev, the more vigils, flowers and pictures of loved ones began to appear. The tiny glow from thousands of candles soon replaced the smoldering inferno of tires. Violence and mayhem were not the full story.
We also witnessed a different side of the EuroMaidan, one that was not represented in the nightly apocalyptic news clips. Paradoxically, there was also a peaceful and generous side to the movement.
As Tom pointed out, the first thing he received upon arrival at one of Maidan’s improvised checkpoints — a passageway in the walls of debris manned by Maidan’s own border guards — was a free sandwich and a smile. EuroMaidan had its own hospital and medical team, its own kitchens and serving tables, and its own security force — a force that became increasingly ominous and more organized in their hourly patrols marching through the camp.
At the Tbilisi airport, Headed for Kiev
In Tbilisi, where I’ve been living for several years, I checked my bullet-proof vest and helmet. The check-in lady wasn’t surprised. The security guard was.
“You say this is some kind of battle armor?” the security guy with the radio asked. “Bullet proof?” The check-in lady assured him in Georgian that it was fine. She’d been down this road. Turns out Western journalists are rather crotchety about their flak jackets being taken away and messed with.
“We’ve had many similar passengers with this equipment,” she explained reassuringly. I wanted to tell her that this was probably not a good sign for the airline, but I didn’t because she was being sweet, and it was god-awful thirty in the morning, and the process was going oddly swimmingly, especially for a Tbilisi airport.
When the shuttle bus got to the airplane, three Georgian police cars were parked on the tarmac beside the aircraft, their blue lights flashing. A twinge of reality — where I was headed — began to set in.
The Constant is Change
The biggest indicator that I was perhaps in over my head was the earth-shattering booms coming from “enhanced” fireworks which the protestors were testing out that morning in preparation for another possible night raid by riot police. The front doors of the hotel were locked and barricaded. To get inside via the only functioning side door, I had to enter the Maidan checkpoint, guarded by extremely serious characters in full armor comprised of random equipment like knee pads, Kevlar, face masks, second-hand fireproof military jackets and orange construction hats. The coming days would reveal every possible random variation of these uniforms.
I quickly learned that the only thing constant about EuroMaidan (and now it seems Ukraine at large) is change — change at an astonishing rate. By Saturday, the country’s president had fled, wanted for the murder of almost 90 people. That night we watched the freshly released Yulia Tymoshenko roll her wheelchair onto the EuroMaidan stage and address the crowd after three years in prison. Tymoshenko, who also has a questionable past, wasted no time. Representatives from her party, which was one of the central three EuroMaidan opposition parties, now held the top two positions in the country. Yet this wasn’t the Orange Revolution part two. Tymoshenko’s “Fatherland” party had not taken over the government. EuroMaiden, the movement, had, and protestors were quick to tell me that Tymoshenko was not their leader. Many didn’t support her at all.
The future of Ukraine remains uncertain, and the fate of Crimea looks more ominous by the hour. It will take more than competent leadership to unite Ukraine and simultaneously save its economy. All parties involved, especially Putin — but also the United States and Ukraine — are going to have to swallow their pride, or we may have a conflict on our hands far larger than the one brooding in Crimea.
Will Cathcart is a former media adviser to the president of the republic of Georgia and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper. A contributor to The Daily Beast, he works in media and business development in the Black Sea region.
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On Feb. 22, the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine resulted in a parliamentary vote to remove Viktor Yanukovych as President. The vote passed with 73 percent approval of Ukraine’s MPs. The Russian government responded three days later with a show of approximately 150,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s border. Within one week, the Russian military had put into motion a de facto occupation of Crimea that escalated in tone this past Monday, when Russia demanded the surrender of Ukraine’s defense forces in Crimea. The new government in Ukraine has not granted this wish from the Kremlin and it does not appear as if it will. This situation looks to only deteriorate within the coming days.