On February 18th the Ukrainian government announced an anti-terrorist operation in its capital, Kiev. Thousands of armed special forces went out on the streets with a clear task to ensure the safety of those whom they serve by any means necessary. Within the last couple of days, they have killed at least 24 and wounded hundreds of so-called “terrorists.”
This photo taken on the first day of the “anti-terrorist” operation is a striking illustration of the tragedy going on in the country: the special forces serve a kleptocratic authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovych, and the “terrorists” threatening it are nonviolent citizens. In the photo, the two men are a member of the Ukrainian National Academy of Science and his son.
Why have such upstanding citizens suddenly been radicalized? Why don’t they seek negotiations with the Yanukovych regime? Why are they and hundreds thousands of their countrymen willing to take on an unequal fight against the trained and heavily armed professional fighters?
The answer is as simple as it is bitter: the only thing they want at the moment is to be able to live their life in dignity as free people, and paying for this cause with their blood is the only choice they can currently see. Let us try to understand how they got to this point.
On November 21st 2013, about 100,000 people went out to the Kiev’s main square, Maidan, to protest against president Mr. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a long-awaited treaty with the European Union. The protest was remarkably peaceful. In fact, the most popular activity the people engaged in was signing Ukrainian songs, including the national anthem. Sadly, Mr. Yanukovych misinterpreted their patriotism for dissent. On the night of November 30, his subordinates ordered the special forces to “clean up” Maidan. The troopers obeyed, seriously beating and humiliating the protesters. This attack marked a fundamental turning point in the protests. The Maidan demonstrations suddenly shifted their attention from the EU to defending basic human rights and freedoms in Ukraine — foremost the right to peacefully exercise free speech without being harassed by thugs employed using your own tax dollars.
These demands were not acceptable to Mr. Yanukovych. Over the next several months until February 18th, at least three activists were killed in clashes with the police, two of whom were shot dead in the city center. Hundreds were wounded. Leaders of the protest movement were kidnapped and tortured in the woods around the capital by unknown men, at least one of whom did not survive. No one has been held accountable for any of these deaths. Most outrageously, the Ukrainian police even suggested the dead man, who was found with a plastic bag on his head and hands and legs tied, died due to an accident.
Despite these atrocities, the protest movement is gaining strength and spreading across the country. Ukrainian society is shocked. Since the end of the World War II, the country has not seen such mass violence. Even the countries’ independence from the Soviet Union was achieved without a single shot. No drop of blood was spilled during the Orange Revolution in 2004. But this winter, Ukrainians suddenly woke up in a country where they are forced to sponsor their own murderers, called the state police.