As I talk to friends about the crisis in Ukraine, I am frustrated by the misunderstandings I hear. I am neither Ukrainian nor a geopolitical expert, but 13 years of traveling to Ukraine has given me a deep respect and love for the Ukrainian people, causing me to follow the crisis daily since November. I believe the simplicity of this crisis has been lost, resulting in unnecessary confusion. The simple facts are these: the Maidan revolution was about Ukrainians working together to reform a government rated the most corrupt in Europe, and all subsequent violence has been the attempt of Russia to undermine Ukrainian unity, often by fueling the violence of a small minority of Ukrainians.
The most common misperception about the Maidan revolution is that it was about Ukraine joining the European Union. It’s true that was the initial impetus for the protests, but they only gained momentum after November 30, when Yanukovych sent the Berkut (riot police) to brutally beat the peaceful protesters. After that, people came out by the tens and hundreds of thousands. Then on January 16, the government imposed a set of anti-protest laws that made it apparent that Ukraine would drift back into the repressive culture of Soviet Union times unless the people continued to stand strong.
Maidan has been called the “Revolution of Dignity”—the dignity of Ukrainians who’d had enough of a government that beat or robbed them (Yanukovych is estimated to have stolen approximately $70 billion); people who’d had enough of a corrupt police force (which I’ve personally experienced), corrupt judges and rigged elections.
Many Ukrainians want to join the EU, but many do not. Maidan was not about that. It was about hope—hope for a future and a government with western values of justice.
At the end of February, Ukraine’s future looked hopeful. The protesters had won and Yanukovych had fled the country. Apparently, that hope was not shared by Vladimir Putin who supported Yanukovych, did not recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty, and perhaps feared a Maidan revolution in Russia.
First, Russia annexed Crimea. The misperception continues that Crimea was so pro-Russian that the majority supported this. It’s true Russia has a naval base in Crimea and a significant number of Crimeans did want to join Russia. March’s illegal referendum supposedly claimed 97 percent of Crimeans welcomed Russian annexation. But on May 4, the President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights released the actual results of the referendum—just 15 percent actually voted to join Russia.
The current violence in eastern Ukraine is often misrepresented as Russian speakers against Ukrainian speakers; that Ukrainian Russian-speakers feel persecuted and want to rejoin Mother Russia. The reality is that Russian is commonly used throughout the country and Russian-language newspapers and TV programs outnumber those in Ukrainian.
Ukrainians in the east may speak Russian, but they do not want to be part of Russia. A recent poll showed that more than three-fourths of Ukrainians want Ukraine to remain united, including 70 percent of the Russian-speaking east. Those who call themselves “separatists” and held illegal referendums on May 11, often using threats to elicit votes, and who call for secession from Ukraine are merely a loud and brutal minority, organized and incited by Russia. They are not “rebels” nor “activists,” but simply terrorists.
Despite calling this crisis simple, I recognize the underlying complexities. Some eastern Ukrainians distrust the post-Maidan government in Kyiv. Their jobs may depend on exports to Russia. Their cultural heritage may be more Russian than Ukrainian. There is not universal consensus within Ukraine about joining the EU or whether they should consider joining NATO.
But those nuances do not change the core facts: Ukrainians want and have earned the right to have a government based on justice and democracy. Ukrainians want to stay united as a country (including the currently occupied Crimea.) The current violence did not occur on its own, but through a stealthy Russian invasion.