When Ukrainian protestors overthrew president Viktor Yanukovych in February, their rally cry could have come from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Just as Americans gave Obama a mandate to change “politics as usual” in Washington six years ago, Ukrainians rallied behind the dreams of “hope” and “change” to remove a despotic kleptocrat from office.
Back to November 2013:
Tomasz Piechal, editor of the culture section on Eastbook.eu, shares his story of the attack on Maidan (29-30 November) with Hromadske TV
After four years of siphoning away public funds, Yanukovych crossed the line of unacceptable, breaking off negotiations for membership in the European Union and instead penning a new trade agreement with Russia. It was seen by many as a move to keep Ukraine subservient to its neighbor in the long-term, a return to the dark days of the Soviet Union.
What Yanukovych did not understand was that in his post-Soviet state, there was hope for meaningful change.
A small protest known as EuroMaidan began in Kyiv’s Independence Square on the night of November 21, 2013.
Over the next three months, protesters from around the country flocked to the capital with crowds swelling into the six figures on weekends. With ant-like industry, men assembled barricades, women cooked over makeshift stoves and even the elderly would form long lines, passing bricks to those defending the camp on the front lines.
Yanukovych did everything he could to quash the rebellion, from enacting the now-infamous “dictatorship laws” to ordering his Berkut secret police to fire live rounds on protestors in a massacre that killed at least 82 civilians on February 18 and 19. The people would ultimately prevail in realizing their desire for change as Yanukovych, after fleeing Kyiv to his eastern stronghold of Kharkiv, was ultimately forced to leave Ukraine altogether. The president was promptly impeached and removed from office, culminating a show of civil society that was previously unthinkable in the post-Soviet state.
A year later, the EuroMaidan movement has been all but forgotten in the West.
Ukraine in general has become an inconvenient topic for president Obama and EU leaders who, out of fear of financial repercussions and perhaps shame for having repeatedly been out-smarted by Russian president Vladimir Putin, have done the bare minimum to support the Ukrainian people in their attempt to step out of Russia’s shadow, shed itself of corruption and move towards European integration.
The significance of EuroMaidan has been lost in the the US and EU but not on Putin, who acted swiftly and decisively in an attempt to avoid a precedent for autocracy being overcome in the East Slavic world.
The Russian president did everything he could to contain the revolution, including giving Yanukovych a deadline to clear the square shortly before the massacre. After Yanukovych’s ouster, the Russian president set off on a slander campaign to paint the revolution first as a fascist, neo-Nazi coup and later the brainchild of Obama as part of an aggressive, NATO expansion strategy.
The “Nazi coup” narrative fell apart when Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok and Right Sector’s Dmytro Yarosh, candidates of Ukraine’s most right-leaning parties, earned less than 2% of the combined vote in May’s presidential elections. Neither party received enough votes to earn parliamentary representation in October’s elections, which resulted in the most pro-European coalition Ukraine has ever seen and simultaneously vindicated the revolution as one of the people. Putin has since switched to his theory of an American conspiracy to expand NATO, which is nonsensical considering President Obama’s reluctance to impose meaningful economic sanctions on Russia without support of a highly divided European Union as well as his continued refusal to offer lethal military aid despite repeated requests from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. In reality, EuroMaidan was a decisive attempt for Ukraine to seal its future as European. Obama’s 2008 campaign motto, “Yes, we can!” would have been popular on the barricades.
Nine months after the revolution, however, Ukrainians have little hope that the United States will ever take a strong enough stance to stop Putin.
Obama’s struggle to impose the changes he promised the United States and his failure to handle the Ukraine crisis have similar roots: In both cases, he has made the faulty assumption that if he makes concessions, the opposing party will compromise. But just as Republicans have categorically opposed such policies as Obamacare, Putin hasn’t shown the slightest interest in recognizing the sovereignty of Ukraine’s territory.
When Putin annexed Crimea in violation of the Budapest Memorandum, Obama was shocked as one of the fundamental principles of world order was overturned. When Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine in further violation of the 1994 agreement, his actions were met with more shock and outrage. The same followed when MH-17 was shot down by Russian proxies.
And now with NATO having confirmed a buildup of Russian forces in the Donetsk region in strict violation of September’s Minsk Protocol, Obama and EU leaders are preparing to be shocked by the predictable next offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
As Russia’s economy slowly approaches a crisis over inflation and plummeting energy prices, Putin needs enemies to distract the public. And with winter approaching and Crimea running short of essential resources like water and gas, he needs a land-bridge to the peninsula. That of course can be prevented if Obama takes a proactive stance and gives Putin a reason to back down.
Here in Ukraine, the public feels an all-too-familiar sense of political abandonment by a federal government that is powerless to take on Russia alone and a west that is too concerned with a possible Russian gas shutoff to act decisively. Those who spent a brutal winter camped on Maidan were willing to give their lives for so-called “European values” that European leaders have had little interest in defending. And now Ukraine stands more or less alone to fight a war it cannot win as its economy collapses—its currency, the Hryvnia, has lost approximately 50 percent of its value against the dollar this year.
Recent presidential and parliamentary election results have proven that after 23 years of post-Soviet limbo, Ukrainians are desperate to join the west, to embrace the same kind of change Obama promised Americans in 2008.
Civil society here is active like never before. But with the government facing an impossible task and the country as a whole still only starting to find its feet as a true democracy, it needs someone to show the way and give the people hope for real change. Whereas Obama has struggled to have that effect in the United States during his presidency, in Ukraine he can forge his legacy of change. That begins by recognizing Russia’s actions as they are, an invasion, and pledging to use the United States’ full range of financial and military instruments to deter Putin from further incursions against Ukraine’s sovereignty.