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Situation Update: The Ukrainian Revolution

By March 4, 2014 No Comments

After the deadly battle of January 22, 2014, the Maidan, the Kyiv City Freedom Square that was the epicenter of two months of protest, experienced a period of relative calm. Against a background of fiery speeches, the protesters on the Maidan began to expand their so-called Maidan Self-Defense Force. Despite a call by both Yuriy Lutsenko and Former Minister of Defense Anatoliy Hrytsenko [1] for citizens to bring their legally registered firearms to the Maidan, there was very little evidence of their actual presence.

The People’s Council on the Maidan had stopped short of creating a parallel government. It must be remembered that the Maidan protest was totally independent of the three opposition political parties and their leaders. In fact, a new leadership was emerging that was much more in tune with the tidal wave of public protest. This new reality made fools of anyone, including emissaries of the EU and the USA, who thought that negotiating with the trio of Klitchko, Tyahnybok and Yatseniuk meant negotiating with the Maidan.

Yuriy Lutsenko, the former Minister of the Interior under Yushchenko was becoming a fiery spokesman for the Maidan. Two years of incarceration under Yanukovych had given him time to read literature long banned in the USSR. An even more significant personality was the so-called commander of the Maidan, Andriy Parubiy [2], whose talent lay in his ability to coordinate the activities of the disparate groups and factions that formed this national microcosm called the Maidan. Lesia Orobets [3] a deputy to the Verkhovna Rada, who famously appeared there in body armour after taking beatings from both police and some parliamentary deputies of the Party of Regions, was the one best able to voice the constitutional demands of the protesters. She painted a picture of a minarchist, if not totally anarcho-libertarian, future for Ukraine.

Finally there was Dmytro Yarosh [4], the leader of the “Right Sector”. Labeled a right wing radical by many in the foreign press, he is a language and literature teacher from the eastern city of Dniprodzerzhinsk, a former member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group [5] and of Rukh [6], the movement for Ukrainian independence from the USSR. Yarosh views the Svoboda Party as “extremist” for having needlessly tacked on “socialist” to their nationalist agenda, and for having adopted racist overtones. He led the patriotic youth organization “Tryzub” before folding it into an alliance of groups under the label “Right Sector” after the  November 30, 2013 police beatings of the Maidan protesters. Formed to provide a defence against such beatings, fate had now turned the Right Sector into major players on the stage of history. With members of his Right Sector now having fought and died for the cause, Yarosh was demanding a seat at the negotiating table. He would not allow his heroism to be sold short.

By the end of January, the Maidan protest had an expanded Self Defense Force that included not only the Right Sector, but also Afghan War veterans and young volunteers from all over Ukraine. They were organized into “Sotni” (Centuries, or Companies) of a nominal 100 fighters. Reportedly there were 32 such Sotni, totaling over 2800 men. Each “Sotnia” (Century) was led by a Sotnyk (Centurion). Significantly, one such Sotnia was led by an Israeli veteran of the IDF [7]. He commanded a force that included four Israelis along with Georgians, Azerbaijani, Armenians, Russians, and Ukrainians. These units underwent rudimentary training right on the Maidan [8].

The Yanukovych regime began an operation of sowing chaos throughout Kyiv. The regime hired “titushky” (thugs for hire) to execute a wave of violence, robbery and vandalism throughout the city, often accompanied by police or traffic cops [9]. The territory within the barricades of the Maidan was the safest and most peaceful place to be in Kyiv. The Maidan’s response to this chaos, staged as an excuse for enacting martial law, was to commence Auto-Maidan car patrols throughout the city. The hunt for marauding titushky included one famous incident when Vitaliy Klitchko the ex-heavyweight boxing-champion-turned-presidential-candidate captured a titushko himself.

It was  January 22nd when one such member of Auto-Maidan was captured by persons unknown. Dmytro Bulatov was driven outside the city, held captive and tortured. With his hands nailed to a door, his cheek was slashed, and part of his ear was cut off [10]. He was then abandoned in the snow near the village of Vyshenky, approximately 35km outside of Kyiv. Dmytro reported that he was questioned by men speaking Russian about whether the American Embassy was financing the revolt, and whether he was an American spy. [11] They were particularly interested in his recent protest visit to Victor Medvedchuk (a well known agent of influence of the Kremlin whose child’s godfather is Vladimir Putin himself) [12].

On February 11th a pickpocket was captured by members of the 14th Self Defense Sotnia. Four members delivered the thief to the police. The police instead arrested the four men and, as it turned out, released the thief. The 14th Self Defense Sotnia marched to the police station demanding the release of their men [13]. The peaceful intimidation worked. The four were released.

Some 200 protesters or Self Defense members had been captured, arrested or otherwise held by the police all over the country during the two months of protests. After various negotiations, the Verkhovna Rada enacted an amnesty law on January 29. It was conditional on the unblocking of certain city streets and the withdrawal from the Kyiv City Hall building by  February 17. Again, the vast gulf between the Maidan and the various opposition politicians became apparent. There was much resistance to any compliance with the unblocking provision. Svoboda Party activists had to evacuate the City Hall by force, ostensibly handing the structure into the care of the OSCE and not the Ukrainian authorities. This still served to discredit Svoboda for many Ukrainians even outside the Maidan. However, by Monday morning 17 February, there was a narrow gauntlet passage opened for traffic on Hrushevsky St and others. Protesters that had been held prisoner throughout the country gained their freedom.

On Tuesday February18, a session of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) was scheduled to be held to enact a proposal to revert to the 2004 version of the Constitution. This change would have stripped President Yanukovych of most of his powers. This was a promise of real change. Thousands of protesters and citizens of Kyiv came to the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament Building) to show their support for the law that was being enacted. When they arrived they found the building to be surrounded by a cordon of Berkut troops and 2000 freshly hired titushky. [14]

Inside Parliament the opposition deputies found that they could not achieve quorum, as the ruling Party of Region members were nowhere to be found. At first it was reported that they were in committee, but later it became known that they had left by an underground passage [15] and that there had never been any intention to vote on constitutional change. The promise of this vote was part of an elaborate ruse that was about to play itself out on the streets. The peaceful demonstration outside of the Verkhovna Rada was attacked by the titushky. It was reported much later that these savages beheaded two members of the Self Defense Force and had scalped two others. [16] The Maidan Self Defense Force engaged in battle both around the Verkhovna Rada and on the intersection of Institutska St and Shovkovycha St. where the arrival of fresh Interior Troop forces was being blocked by demonstrators. Both sides took losses as the Self Defense fighters forced the Interior Troops back and actually entered the headquarters of the Party of Regions.

The Self Defense Forces were engaged in combat about 1.5km from the Maidan itself, which had been left at half strength. It was at that point that the Yanukovych regime struck back. Fresh Interior Troops poured in from behind the Dynamo soccer stadium and past dismantled barricades overwhelming the Maidan’s defences. By nightfall, the protesters on the Maidan were surrounded and compressed into an area of a couple of football fields [17]. In certain places, the Interior Troops stood on the territory of the city square itself. Their advance had finally been halted by hastily erected flaming barricades. All night the surrounded demonstrators passed lumber and anything that appeared flammable to the front lines. In a move of unbelievable brutality, some Special Forces troopers set fire to the Trade Unions building that bordered the Maidan itself. This building housed the last functioning field hospital not overrun and destroyed by the troops [18]. Despite valiant rescue efforts by the protesters there were casualties inside that would be discovered days later.

Wednesday 19 February was a day of relative calm as both sides regrouped. Unbeknownst to the protesters, Yanukovych was preparing an assault on the Maidan that would involve 22,000 army troops, and Special Forces snipers in addition to 2000 Berkut riot police [19]. In preparation for this illegal and unconstitutional move, Yanukovych had already replaced the Chief of General Staff Maj. Gen. Volodymyr Zaman by Yuriy Il’iin, a character more ready to obey such a directive. Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yuriy Dumanskyy resigned in protest [20]. Fortunately this part of Yanukovych’s nefarious plan was derailed as citizens far from the Capital stopped [21] or derailed trainloads of military troops heading for Kyiv.

On February 20th some members of the Maidan Self Defense that were manning the barricades on the right flank decided to chase away the Interior Troopers that were throwing Molotov cocktails at them all morning. The surprised Interior Troopers ran. As battlefield coordination and discipline on the Maidan was not the best, the Self Defense lads did not stop, and ran after these cops along Institutska Street. Interior Troopers standing on the hill by the October Palace started shooting live fire at them. Seeing this, the center and the left flank of the Maidan Self Defense charged rushing to their aid: the first – up the grade of Institutska St. and onto the stairs of the “October”, the second – along Khreshchatyk towards the European Plaza, right onto a company of fresh conscripts of Interior Troops, armed with clubs, gas and stun grenades and guns with rubber bullets. The Interior Troops retreated from the European Plaza, chased from there by sticks and Molotov cocktails right up to the Dynamo stadium. Those that had been manning the freshly constructed concrete barricade at the stadium had already scrambled out of there – and for good reason: the self-defense forces by now could walk down from the already captured “October” along the Museum alley and hit them in the rear. The Interior Troops occupied this emptied barricade, but soon realized that resistance was futile and requested negotiations. They were allowed to go free on the word of honour of their commanding Major.

The Maidan’s losses that morning  were approximately 45 killed: 15 on Institutska and 30 on the “October Palace” (this includes those that died later in hospital). It is clear that attacking with sticks and bats against automatic firearms is not necessarily the best way to go. But if you really need to, or “if it just happens” – and then the Self Defense Force proved that they could still win [22]. All that took just 15 minutes to regain all the positions that the protesters had held a week earlier.

In those 15 minutes Yanukovych’s plan collapsed. The Maidan Self Defense had shown that they would retake and hold their positions even without firearms. However, a day or so earlier in the distant city of Lviv the local Self Defense had taken a police station and captured a large cache of firearms. Fighters of this Lviv Self Defense Force arrived on the Maidan armed now with Kalashnikovs.

At this very time, Yanukovych was involved in negotiations with the three opposition political leaders that were being brokered by emissaries of the EU. Aware of Yanukovych’s planned crackdown, a terrified Radoslaw Sikorsky, the Polish representative, insisted the opposition agree to a December Presidential election (a mere two month shift from the constitutionally required one in February 2015). However this concession, signed that same evening, signaled to all the waning of Yanukovych’s power [23].

The Maidan would have none of such cheap compromise. The price in lives was already too high. (As of the time that this is being written the confirmed count of those killed since 18 February is 84 protesters and 16 police.) The Sotnyk that changed the course of history was 26-year-old Volodymyr Parasiuk [24] a video studio owner from Lviv. He went on stage that night and declared that if Yanukovych did not resign by 10:00am the next morning, his Sotnia, which was now fully armed, would hunt him down and kill him. Dmytro Yarosh echoed this sentiment. Near the Maidan stage, by the MacDonald’s fast food kiosk was a makeshift morgue with row upon row of bodies on display awaiting identification.

When Victor Yanukovych stepped out of the Presidential Administration that night he watched as his security guard detail turned and simply walked away. In that moment he knew that he had changed from President to fugitive. Security camera footage showed him leaving his opulent Mezhyhirya residence that night by helicopter, suitcases in hand.

Since that bloody and event filled Thursday much has occurred in Ukraine to put it back on the path to normalcy. Parliament is sitting. It has a quorum and a new majority thanks to defectors from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Presidential elections are set for May 25, 2014. The Maidan is still holding the politicians accountable. Berkut has been disbanded. Yanukovych is an international fugitive. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been released from prison, but when she spoke at the Maidan her reception was tepid at best. People had long realized that she could never be part of the solution.

Putin’s Russia is desperate. Black Sea Fleet troops moved to the outskirts of Sevastopol forming checkpoints for vehicles entering the city as a none too subtle challenge to Ukrainian sovereignty. The Russian military commenced snap readiness exercises. Ever mindful of the natural gas and oil reserves under the Black Sea shelf Russia is fomenting unrest in Crimea [25], a land ethnically cleansed of native Crimean Tatars by Stalin. The 225,000 Tatars that have returned to their homeland are opposing the Russian majority. Many having just returned from the Maidan, are quite prepared to fight.

On February 25 Canada’s Minister of External Affairs, John Baird announced that he was leading a delegation to Ukraine [26] on February 28th and that included MP Ted Opitz and Senator Reynell Andreychuk along with representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. This was happening at the same time that US Secretary of State John Kerry was warning Putin that it would be a grave mistake to interfere militarily in Ukraine. The prominent attention that Ukraine is getting from all western leaders may be a guarantee that these matters don’t spin out of control. It would still be wise to remember that the Maidan and the people of Ukraine will no longer be a bargaining chip of political deal making. The infective nature of the freedom that the protest stood for has been reflected in the image of the crowd at a Moscow hockey game [27] chanting the famous greeting of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists:

“Slava Ukrayini!” “Heroyam Slava!”

Glory to Ukraine! Hail the Heroes!