Euromaidan. Occupation of Crimea. Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine.
Euromaidan Protests – The Revolution of Dignity
In November 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine was suspending pursuit of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement for which the country had been preparing for since 2008. The announcement led to the largest peaceful protests seen at the Maidan in Kyiv since the Orange Revolution of 2004. On November 30, 2013, at 4:00 a.m., as the protests dwindled, the Berkut Special Police forcefully dispersed a few hundred student-aged protesters who remained at the square, beating some with truncheons. The reaction of the public in response to the attack was momentous. The public would not stand by passively as their children were beaten. 10,000 people occupied the Maidan later that day. Another ten thousand travelled from Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine to protest Kyiv. By December 1, 2013, approximately 800,000 people had gathered at the Maidan. The assembled were less focused on the EU Agreement and more on anti-corruption. The crowd demanded the resignation of president Yanukovych.
As the days went on, more people from all corners of the country arrived in Kyiv. There was no single leader organizing the protest. In all, upwards of forty grassroots groups spontaneously came together having identified with each other and rallying around a common goal: it was time for Ukraine to rid itself of corruption. A city of tents was erected in the Maidan and along the streets leading to it (see photos here). People organized themselves into subunits, mainly based on areas of Ukraine from where they came. A perimeter was established with barricades erected to keep the Berkut Police at bay. A self-defense patrol called Samo-borona was established, its rules and discipline were based upon the Kozak (“Cossack”) traditions of Ukraine. It was widely believed that at the time, there was no safer place in Ukraine than the Maidan. A large stage similar to one used at rock concerts was erected in its center. The stage was active 24 hours a day. Every day after work hours, people gathered to hear the speeches of community activists as well as politicians who supported the movement. Musical & cultural artists kept the crowd entertained and in good spirits day and night. The largest crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands gathered every Sunday afternoon.
In the early weeks of these protests, the government attempted to forcefully disperse the crowd but to no avail. The more the government pushed, the more people would show up to push back. The government paid street hooligans, called “titushkas”, to attack protesters, kidnap activists and journalists and create general chaos throughout Kyiv, while the corrupt police turned a blind eye to these hooligans.
In mid January, at Yanukovych’s demand, the corruption-laden parliament rammed through a series of anti-protest laws that came with severe penalties, making the country a de facto dictatorship. For example, the penalty for blocking the entrance to a government building during a protest was six years in jail. The laws were nearly identical to those introduced in Russia after the Bolotnyana Protests of 2012.
Three politicians emerged as the main interlocutors that negotiated on behalf of the protesters on the Maidan with President Yanukovych to end the standoff. They were: Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok. Their function in the crisis was unique. The crowd did not consider the trio their leaders. Instead, the three adopted the role of messengers between the Maidan and President Yanukovych. Each negotiation was considered fruitless, especially due to the fact that the foremost demand of the protesters was for Yanukovych to resign and he would not. Parallel negotiations between the Yanukovych government and European and US diplomats also took place with similar results.
The anti-protest laws infuriated the population, leading to a group of protesters to march out of the Maidan in the direction of the Parliament on 19 January 2014. These protesters were met on vul. Hrushevskoho street by the Berkut Police, transforming the peaceful Euromaidan protest into the infamous vul Hrushevskoho Riots. Following the killing of the first protesters by shots fired by the Berkut Police, negotiations continued and some of the anti-protest laws were rolled back. More negotiations and mass rallies continued through the month of February. But as before, what President Yanukovych offered was all but rejected by the Maidan. Protesters and activists continued to be kidnapped and murdered by government agents and Titushkas.
The stand-off grew increasingly tense as the world was preoccupied with the Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia. It was widely believed that Russia had a strong hand in whatever was occurring in Ukraine following its independence in 1991. For this reason, there was concern that once the Olympics were over, Russia would overtly intervene in the crisis.
In the third week in February, protesters began a peaceful march through the streets of Kyiv but were met by Berkut officers throwing stun grenades and firing at them from rooftops. Berkut officers and Titushkas beat protesters with truncheons. More protesters were killed. The bloodiest day of the protests occurred on February 20, 2013, when government snipers perched on rooftops shot and killed 67 protesters who were armed with wooden clubs and shields made from sheet metal or wood. The massacre was filmed by professional and amateur journalists and widely distributed on the Internet. In all, more than 100 protesters died at the hands of the government and thousands more were injured. President Poroshenko claims there is evidence that Putin’s aid, Vladislav Surkov organized and directed a team of foreign snipers that killed the protesters on the Maidan. By February 22, the shock created by that bloodshed had prompted a mass defection by the president’s allies in Parliament and prodded Yanukovych to join negotiations.
President Yanukovych, European diplomats and the interlocutors of the Maidan scrambled to draft an agreement that would put an end to the crisis. Instead of resignation, the agreement included a clause that would accelerate the date of the next presidential election. The agreement was angrily rejected by the crowd gathered at the Maidan mourning the lives of the “Heavenly Hundred,” as those who perished are now known. An ultimatum was declared giving Yanukovych until morning to resign. Meanwhile, his own security cameras recorded Yanukovych packing up his estate in preparation for fleeing the country. Once it was discovered that Yanukovych had fled, parliament was called into session and formally removed him from office. Parliament then meticulously proceeded to reorganize the cabinet, with votes being unanimous or nearly so. Parliament appointed Oleksandr Turchenov was as acting president while Arseniy Yatsenyuk was appointed prime minister. Parliament voted to revert to the 2004 constitution, with Ukraine as a parliamentary republic, in which the prime minister and the parliament had more power than the president. New presidential elections were called for May 25, 2014. The Euromaidan Protests are now known as the Revolution of Dignity as it was always about ridding the nation of corruption.