Ukraine

Ukraine’s Protesters See Hand of Russia in Kiev Crackdown

Ukrainian riot police stand in front of a fire ring around Independence Square during the continuing protest in downtown Kiev, on Feb. 19, 2014.
Ukrainian riot police stand in front of a fire ring around Independence Square during the continuing protest in downtown Kiev, on Feb. 19, 2014. Sergey Dolzhenkos—EPA

With the death toll from clashes in Kiev now at 25, Ukraine's battered but resilient protest movement vents its fury at Russia—the Big Brother next door they believe is calling the shots

On Tuesday night, as riot troops began their violent assault on the revolutionary encampment in Kiev, Ukraine’s President was on the phone with Vladimir Putin. By morning, news of the call had leaked to the Ukrainian press, even though neither the Kremlin nor the office of President Viktor Yanukovych mentioned it in any of their daily press announcements. The reports set off a wave of rumors in Ukraine that Russia was either coordinating the violence that took dozens of lives that night or, at the very least, had failed to stop it. Putin’s spokesman denied them all, but admitted the call took place. “The President of Russia has never given and does not give advice to his Ukrainian colleague about what he needs to do and how he needs to do it,” said the spokesman, Dmitri Peskov.

That wasn’t exactly true. On Jan. 31, Putin’s closest adviser on integration with Ukraine, Sergei Glazev, said that Yanukovych must crush the rebellion as soon as possible. “The President has a choice,” Glazev said in a rare interview with the corporate journal of Gazprom, the Russian state energy company that provides Ukraine with most of its natural gas. “Either he defends Ukrainian statehood and puts down the insurrection…or he risks losing power, in which case Ukraine faces growing chaos and internal conflict with no escape to be seen.”

This was a pretty clear piece of advice to Yanukovych, and it was backed up by economic sanctions put in place that same week, cutting off trade and financial support to Ukraine until its leaders resolve the crisis. The order to freeze a Russian loan to Ukraine worth $15 billion came directly from Putin at the end of January, right after Yanukovych began granting a series of concessions to appease the protesters, including the dismissal of his Prime Minister and the entire cabinet. But on Monday, the day before the violence erupted in Kiev, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov announced that Russia would disburse the next $2 billion payout of that loan after all.

So it is no surprise that the revolutionaries on the square condemned Putin on Tuesday night no less harshly than they did Yanukovych. “The slaves of Putin want to turn us all into slaves,” Yuri Lutsenko, an opposition leader and former Minister of Interior, shouted from the stage as the protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails to fight off police surrounding their barricaded camp. Taking the microphone, another protester implored the ranks of security forces nearby, “Do not obey the Kremlin’s orders! There are peaceful people here!”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Ukrainian military, which has so far stayed out of the fight, threatened the protests with an “escalation” after a violent mob stormed the Central House of Officers, a gathering place for military brass. But the President resisted their calls in January to “immediately restore order,” and his allies have said time and again that they have no intention of sending in military troops to put down the rebellion. Yanukovych again signaled his distrust for the army on Wednesday evening when he reportedly fired the chief of the general staff and promoted the head of the navy to replace him. For the purposes of suppressing the uprising, the forces of the Interior Ministry are in any case larger and more effective, and after months of heated street battles with protesters, the police have more of a personal score to settle with the revolution than the army rank and file. That much was clear from the viciousness of their assault on the protest camp on Tuesday night.

By morning, the national Ministry of Health announced that 25 people had been killed in the violence. Hospitals had filled up, the ministry said, with 241 others who were gravely wounded, including 79 police officers, 5 journalists, one member of parliament and three children. But the riot troops still failed to clear the central square, known as the Maidan, in the center of Kiev. While on a visit to Moscow, Oleg Tsarev, a senior member of Ukraine’s ruling party, explained the resilience of the encampment this way: “The Maidan would have been cleaned out if there had been an order to clean it out,” he told Russia’s leading state-run television network, Channel One. “But no command came to clean out the Maidan yesterday.”

Asked who was calling the shots in Kiev, he said it was only one man – President Yanukovych – but immediately suggested that western powers were also deeply involved. “Ukraine doesn’t have its own statehood. It doesn’t have real independence,” he said. But while Russia was serving as a protector, he added, the West was instigating the violence. “They couldn’t make war with Ukraine, because Russia would have covered Ukraine with its umbrella and not allowed foreign forces to invade Ukraine’s territory. That is why they used other means, creating a civil war.”

Such talk of a Russian “umbrella” has led to widespread speculation on the streets of Ukraine and in western press that Russia could send troops to rescue Yanukovych. But Russian officials have been batting away such suggestions for weeks. “We act on the assumption that it is up to the Ukraine. It is its domestic issue,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month.

At the same time, Lavrov and other Russian officials have been pushing the narrative that the West is behind the violence. On Tuesday, hours before Putin got on the phone with Yanukovych and the brutal clashes in Kiev began, the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the escalation on “connivance by Western politicians and European structures.”

But that argument did not seem convincing even among some of Yanukovych’s allies. On Wednesday morning, another lawmaker announced that he is quitting the ranks of the President’s ruling Party of Regions. Yuri Blagodir, from the western region of Lviv, was the third member of parliament to do so since the uprising against Yanukovych began in late November.

Outside the halls of power, the revolution meanwhile continued to spread. In the cities of Lutsk, Uzhgorod and Vinnitsa, livid mobs of protesters seized government buildings and forced police to surrender. The authorities have responded by denouncing the protestors as terrorists, and in Kiev on Tuesday night, police warned the demonstrators to clear the square or face a “counter-terrorism operation.” Even in the eastern half of the country, the pro-Russian heartland that forms Yanukovych’s base of support, clashes have spread like brush fire. In the industrial city of Kharkiv, for instance, a mob of young protesters confronted a column of police on their way to reinforce the troops in Kiev, and a brawl broke out between them, local media reported.

So if the Ukraine’s President was hoping to crush the rebellion by force on Tuesday, as the Kremlin adviser had urged him to do three weeks ago, he has so far failed. Riot troops only managed to take back part of the revolutionary camp in Kiev, enraging the protestors in the process and swelling their ranks across the country. What advice Putin will offer his embattled colleague in the days ahead will likely remain a mystery. But now more than ever, the blame on the streets of Kiev is being direct toward Moscow.

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