Ukraine: Ancient rivalries are spurred by East-West conflict

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Just hours after a truce was declared in Kiev, clashes between Ukraine’s security forces and anti-government protesters turned deadly in the Ukrainian capital. Various media report that by late in the day on February 20, at least 21 civilians had been killed. These were added to the approximately 25 deaths reported earlier this week. In some reports, it has been noted that six security officers died in the fighting. Other reports suggest that as many as 10 officers have been killed. The wounded and dying are being taken to churches and other civilian structures near Kiev’s Maidan Square, where protesters have occupied for several months to voice their opposition to the government led by President Viktor Yanukovich. Live ammunition has been used this week by police and security forces on protesters. In some cases, protesters have been blinded by shots fired deliberately at eye-level.
 
Protesters have set up first-aid stations, soup kitchens, and even temporary chapels in Maidan Square. Food continued to be prepared and delivered while fires sparked by Molotov cocktails and tear-gas grenades raged. Catholic and Orthodox priests were evident during the protests while offering themselves as buffers between protesters and security forces. The various Christian churches have called for calm and reconciliation. Christian places of worship have been turned into sleeping quarters, shelters, and makeshift hospitals.
 
 
The death toll may be higher. Some reports suggest that dozens of people have been arrested and have “disappeared” at the hands of security forces. A CNN report contends that the protesters’ volunteer medical services fear that 100 died on Feb. 20 and another 500 were wounded. A report by Reuters put the death toll at 67.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry contends that 67 police officers are being held prisoner by the Kiev protesters. According to the BBC, a spokesman for the protesters said that only 30 officers are being held. Some of them had surrendered to the protesters. An AP wire services reporter witnessed snipers firing on protesters, while another reporter saw a sniper wearing police uniform.
 
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland have remained in Kiev to parley with both Ukrainian government officials and opposition figures to seek a compromise. will continue talks with Ukrainian officials and opposition leaders through the night, a Polish foreign ministry spokesman said." The United Kingdom has recalled its ambassador.
 
White House press spokesman Jay Carney told the press, "We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people." The Obama administration sent a strongly worded message to the Ukrainian government. "We urge President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw his security forces ... and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully. We urge the Ukrainian military not to get involved in a conflict that can and should be resolved by political means. ... The United States will work with our European allies to hold those responsible for violence accountable." The U.S. has cancelled visas for 20 Ukrainian government officials.
 
President Barack Obama has criticized Russia’s role in the crisis. Obama said on Feb. 19 that Russia views the world as a "Cold War chessboard". Instead, Obama said, Russia should support Ukrainians’ efforts to achieve basic freedoms. The president's critics were quick to pounce. Columnist George Will likened Obama's response to Ukraine to the chief executive's infamous 'red line' with regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons on civilians during the ongoing civil war. Writing in Commentary magazine, Peter Wehner - who served in the George W. Bush administration - wrote "Have more empty words ever been uttered by an American president?" He added, "In the aftermath of Mr. Obama telling the Syrian regime that using chemical weapons would cross a 'red line,' and then doing nothing serious in response to it, the president's latest threat is probably evoking belly laughs in Kiev."
 
 
 
(Ukrainian civilians killed in Maidan protests)
 
An American reporter on the scene described the "absolute chaos" at Maidan ‘Independence’ Square. The dead and wounded are being carried away on stretchers while detonations can be heard on the square and nearby streets. There are fears that there are government snipers on rooftops. Protesters have re-taken the October Palace, a historic building serving as a cultural center, from the police. Smoke is rising over the city as fires consume buildings put to the torch. There are reports that protesters entered police and Interior Ministry buildings and put files on protesters to the torch. Protesters can be seen bearing civilian weapons such as shotguns, bolstered by Molotov cocktails.
 
Even while protesters contend that the Yanukovych government and its supporters had never abided by the short-lived truce, the president's office says otherwise. "Radical protesters ... launched an offensive on the law enforcement officials using firearms despite the declared truce. Assurances of opposition leaders regarding the necessity of truce and restoration of dialogue turned out only a maneuver to play for time and mobilize arming of rebels. ..."
 
"All attempts of the government to establish dialogue and resolve the conflict peacefully were ignored by rebels. They launched an offensive. They act in organized armed groups, use firearms, including sniper rifles, they shoot to kill. ..."
 
Protesters are calling for the resignation of President Yanukovych. Protest were engaged because Yanukovych rejected an EU trade treaty while accepting more aid from Russia. Protesters  have also been denouncing government corruption. Ukraine is divided between the mostly Russophile east, and the west which is inclined towards Western Europe.  Many of the people protesting at Maidan Square are from Kiev or western Ukraine. Closer relations with the EU would allow Ukrainians to travel freely within the EU to look for work. Chronic unemployment and underemployment has plagued Ukraine despite its many university graduates and professionals.
 
Since Ukraine broke away from Soviet domination in the 1990s, relations with the United States had been improving. For example, numerous Ukrainian military officers have visited the U.S. and have developed personal ties. This is believed, according to some analysts, the reason why President Yanukovych recently demanded a loyalty oath from his officers.
 
 
Leftist critiques
 
This close relationship to the U.S. and a desire for closer relations with the EU has been met with criticism by leftists in the West as well as Russian media. For example, in an article entitled ‘Imperialists Out of Ukraine! Stop Supporting Neo-Nazis!’, Steven Argue wrote “ Chaos has erupted in Ukraine as largely neo-Nazi led protesters have attacked cops and taken over government buildings. Occupied buildings are filled with the white power flag and the red and black flag of Nazi occupation of Ukraine. Neo-Nazi protest leader Oleg Tyahnybok blames Ukraine’s problems on the supposed “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”
 
Argue correctly pointed out that there have been two violent attacks on Jews since the protests began. One of the victims was attacked while leaving a synagogue and was hospitalized following injuries received by attacks with knives thought to have been attached to attackers’ boots.  Dovber Glickman, a Jewish student, was stabbed and suffered massive blood loss. This followed a January 2014 on a Hebrew teacher who was followed home from synagogue by a gang and beaten. The World Jewish Congress has called for the Svoboda party to be banned for what it regards as a hardline anti-Semitic posture. Public Jewish religious events celebrating Hanukkah were cancelled out of fear of violence. Jews were urged to increase their security measures. 
 
Tyahnybok’s Svoboda party first registered as a party in 1995 and once used a ‘wolfsangel’ symbol that resembled a Nazi-style swastika. Its membership is restricted to ethnic Ukrainians. It once had a paramilitary wing called Patriots of Ukraine that has since split off. The two groups still protest together.  Svoboda’s critics say the waving of neo-Nazi and the red-and-black Ukrainian ‘insurgent army’ flags signal far-right influence in the Maidan movement. On January 1, the Svoboda party held a torch-lit march in honor of the controversial Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera who fought the Soviets during World War 2. The slogan of the Svoboda Party is "Ukraine for the Ukrainians," and was Bandera's battle cry during Ukrainian nationalists’ collaboration with Adolf Hitler following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Some of the worst atrocities committed against Jews during the war occurred in Ukraine. Christian Ukrainians were in some instances enslaved by the Nazi captors and sent to work camps and farms in Germany to support the war effort.
 
Argue describes the Svoboda ‘Freedom’ movement, a constituent of the tripartite Maidan Square protests, as a neo-Nazi party. He claims that the leaders of the other Maidan parties have not distanced themselves from Tyahnybok or Svoboda. He identified these parties as having “western imperialist backers” that have received vocal support from U.S. Senators John McCain (R) and Chris Murphy (D) – “bipartisan representatives of US imperialism.” It is with “western financial and political backing,” says Argue, that the Maidan movement is gaining ground.  Svoboda’s partners at Maidan Square are the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland Party), which Argue says is with “conservative and Christian Democratic parties of the west.”  There are reports, however, that autonomous nationalists - who have separated from Svoboda – are recruiting football hooligan groups who had been leaders in the violence. Similarly, during the protests in Egypt that brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood resorted to the use of football hooligans to do its dirty work. In Ukraine, the hooligans acting under the name Pravy Sektor have inserted 500 militants inside government buildings seized by the protesters.
 
“These parties are of course social conservative religious parties that are anti-socialist and strongly support capitalist austerity and exploitation. The third group in the coalition is the UDAR (Punch) which is led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and led by a Ukrainian émigré in Germany, Vitali Klitschko.” Svoboda is currently Ukraine's fourth biggest party: it has 36 seats in parliament. Svoboda is a member of the Alliance of European National Movements, along with the BNP and Hungary's Jobbik, both of which have been identified with anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
 
Argue says that Ukrainian president Yanukovych balked at signing onto EU membership because of “onerous conditions of austerity, trade restrictions, and privatization that would be imposed with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)."
 
While Russia has agreed to provide $15 billion in loans to Ukraine as well as discounts on natural gas, some observers fear that much of this may go into the pockets of President Yanukovych, who is widely regarded in Ukraine as corrupt.
 
In other leftist or Russian circles, criticism of the Ukrainian protesters was acute. “You just need to look at the television screen to understand that the EU is very hypocritical and that it indeed supports neo-Nazis without saying so openly,” said Dimitri Babich in a Press TV interview on Feb. 20. Press TV is a media outlet supported by the Russian government. He added, “So you have this indirect support from the European Union and from the United States. They shield these groups from any kind of government repression, from any kind of punishment from the government.” Babich said he fears that “extremist nationalist groups” are seeking to seize power. “They hope to come to power on the back of these extremists and one more terrible thing is the fact that the EU supports these nationalists,” said Babich.
 
 
 
Svoboda was registered in 1995 and initially used a swastika-style "wolfsangel" rune as its logo. It restricted membership to ethnic Ukrainians. Until 2004 it had a paramilitary wing called Patriots of Ukraine, and though it ended its link to the group in 2005, the two continue to be closely associated and to participate in protests together.
 
According to Channel 4 News of the UK, the Pravy Sektor nationalists are responsible for some of the worst violence. Sergey Kirichuk - a member of a Ukrainian group known as Borotba – told Channel 4 that “These people are separate from Svoboda, though they will have many links through activists - but they are not controlled by any one group." He added, "They are the ones throwing molotovs and trying to kill policemen, the most violent element fight at European Square.” 
 
"When left-wing groups tried to join the protests they were attacked and beaten by fascists. Svoboda are leading ideologically now. Fascism is like a fashion now, with more and more people getting involved."
 
Valentin Mandrasescu, a columnist for Voice of Russia, wrote an opinion column condemning what he perceives as Western support for the Maidan protesters. “The mainstream Western media has a bad habit of following its political agenda instead of facts, especially when the topic has important geopolitical implications. Just like Syrian terrorists and cannibals affiliated with al-Qaeda were described as "freedom fighters," Ukrainian neo-Nazis are now being presented as “democratic, peaceful protesters,” he wrote. Mandrasescu identified as lies, “supported by the mainstream media in the US and the UK,” that the Maidan protests are "pro-democracy."  He wrote that the protesters seek to overthrow a democratically elected government that came to power after the 2010 elections.
 
Moreover, wrote Mandrasescu, “The second lie spread by the mainstream media is that Russia is 'bullying' Ukraine or heavily interfering in Ukraine's internal political process. Actually, the interference and bullying comes only from the West. State Department's Victoria Nuland has been openly supporting the protesters and, together with numerous diplomats from EU countries, has visited their headquarters, holding rousing speeches in front of the raging crowds. Imagine what would have happened if a Russian diplomat came to support and coordinate the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US.”  Another “lie” identified by Mandrasescu is that the West identifies the Maidan protesters as “ordinary people” with “'pro-European political views.”  He contends that the “hard core of the protest movement is made up of neo-Nazi groups, characterized by vicious xenophobia, antisemitism and revisionism. The average 'protester' is not a pro-European hipster, but a violent, xenophobe who glorifies Ukrainian Nazis who fought in World War II. It is hard to understand how Victoria Nuland or John McCain can support, meet and fund such people. However, it is to be expected that people who supported al-Qaeda in Syria will not have any qualms in supporting violent neo-Nazi revisionists and Holocaust deniers, all in the name of democracy, of course.”
 
In line with the Russian perspective on a possible shift by Ukraine towards Europe, Mandrasescu said that an association treaty with the EU would turn the Ukraine into a “consumption annex” and that the IMF conditions for financing would amount to a “social catastrophe of epic proportions.” He added that while the U.S. and the EU do not want to finance Ukraine, “The only country willing and able to lend a hand to Ukraine is Russia, but the mainstream media want to present this situation as a political bribe. Actually, the big Ukrainian dilemma boils to a choice between a economic crash with the EU or economic growth with Russia.”
 
A Bleak Horizon
 
The immediate prospects for Ukraine are bleak. The Maidan movement is demanding nothing less than the resignation of President Yanukovych who, so far, has appeared reluctant to leave office.  Writing at the website of the Central European Policy Institute, Edward Lucas wrote that Europe's leaders are "eating the ashes of their failed policy in Ukraine. Anyone who six months ago said that the Yanokovych regime would use live ammunition against protestors would have been denounced as a scaremonger. Now it is happening on the streets of a European capital." Admitting that the violence, in which police and other security forces are using live ammunition on protesters, Lucas sees an impasse. "Stalemate – which seemed a bitterly disappointing outcome only days ago – is now the least bad. Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protestors, and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. But I think the likely scenarios are worse."
 
According to Lucas, a "top European policymaker" told him that "Yanukovych had done a deal with Putin," involving "cheap gas, soft loans, and an agreement to join the Eurasian Union."
 
"I confirmed this with another source and tweeted it—attracting a storm of incredulous criticism for my supposed irresponsibility. The gas and loans turned out to be true. The promise to join the Eurasian Union by 2015 looks more likely by the day. But there was one more element to the deal which I could confirm with only one source, and did not reveal. It was that Putin wanted Yanukovych to 'dip his hands in blood'. Only by forcing an irreversible breach with Europe and America could the Kremlin be sure that its Ukrainian satrap would behave."


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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