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OPINION

The square of no return. How the Revolution of Dignity changed Ukraine and Russia

Ten years ago, Ukraine saw the conclusion of a bloody standoff between anti-corruption, pro-European protesters and the corrupt, pro-Kremlin regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. On Feb. 20, 2014, after a months-long popular movement had turned Kyiv’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, into a protest encampment, police used firearms in a failed attempt to disperse the crowd. Dozens of people were killed, but the Yanukovych regime crumbled nonetheless. It was the moment when the paths of Russia and Ukraine irrevocably diverged. While the Ukrainians set their minds on building a Western-style democracy, the regime in the Kremlin made Ukrainophobia the heart of its new justification for remaining in power in Moscow.

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“Family matters”

In the spring of 2014, after Russia had already seized Crimea and was set to establish control over yet more breakaway “republics” in the east and south of Ukraine, a mid-level political strategist in Kyiv was busy selling construction equipment. He would arrive at every business meeting and press event with a bulky wire detector and, in a faux casual tone, inquire whether his interlocutor or someone they knew might be looking to purchase such a device.

“You realize I wouldn't have gone into politics if I hadn’t had to. I used to run a renovation company. We were in the luxury apartment business, and the money was flowing. At some point, Sasha ‘The Dentist’ got his eyes on us. He went ahead and grabbed my firm, along with the team and the client base. I was left with what I could fit in the trunk. I’m selling it to pay my office rent dues,” the spin doctor would offer in explanation of his side hustle. Although the situation may sound strange for anyone unfamiliar with Ukraine’s political landscape of the early 2010s, the strategist’s interlocutors certainly understood.

Viktor Yanukovych's eldest son Alexander (Sasha), nicknamed “The Dentist,” was notorious for his hostile takeovers of businesses during his father's rule. Sasha was the second man in The Family, a mob-like oligarchic structure that included close relatives of the then-president and the heads of several government agencies.

Using falsified criminal cases and blackmail, senior law enforcement and tax officers working in the service of f The Family could force any entrepreneur to sell their company for peanuts to anyone of The Family's choosing. Everyone was fair game, from shareholders of oil and agribusiness giants to owners of niche companies like the one that was seized from the Kyiv entrepreneur-turned-politician.

Using falsified criminal cases and blackmail, The Family could force any entrepreneur to sell their company for peanuts to anyone of its choosing

The business empire built on hostile takeovers turned out to be so lucrative that by the time Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, his eldest son was among Ukraine’s richest people, with a fortune of at least $500 million. Other corrupt officials — along with Sasha’s friends, whom he helped seize profitable businesses of their “own” — held millions, even tens of millions of dollars worth of assets.

In other words, corruption was the backbone of the Ukrainian state under Yanukovych, with its senior tax officials, law enforcement officers, and dignitaries preoccupied almost exclusively with enriching themselves and their entourage. Connections trumped the law, and knowing how to “bargain” with an official could get you far.

A convenient candidate

None of this could have happened without Russia's direct involvement. It was Russian money, Russian political technologists, and Vladimir Putin personally that promoted an unsympathetic, boorish candidate with a criminal past in both the 2004 election (which Yanukovych lost after a different protest movement convinced Ukraine’s Supreme Court to annul falsified results that had initially declared the Kremlin’s candidate the winner), and in the 2010 election (which Yanukovich really did win at the ballot box with the help of a team of consultants that included Paul Manafort, who would go on to head Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign until scrutiny over the American’s Kremlin ties led to his resignation).

The Kremlin's bet on Yanukovych as a dependent and pliable candidate was a predictable move. The candidate was a man of minimal intelligence, was unburdened by any values or ideals, and could be blackmailed with tons of dirt and bribed with Russia's then-countless petrodollars. He fit the Kremlin’s bill perfectly.

Viktor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin
Viktor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin

It is now clear that Putin saw Ukrainian independence as a temporary accident of history, and that his worldview had probably been formed even before Boris Yeltsin's entourage decided to mold the ex-KGB officer into the term-limited Russian president’s “democratic” successor. But twenty years ago, Putin had yet to reach his current levels of brashness and insanity – and the Russian nation had yet to undergo two decades of anti-Ukrainian brainwashing. When Putin came to power, the time was not yet ripe to “right the historical wrong” by force.

As president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych allowed Putin to influence events in Kyiv without the need for direct military aggression or annexation of anyone’s territory. Yanukovych was given the green light to stuff his pockets with money so long as he and his gangster “Family” remained Putin's loyal geopolitical vassals, accepting the will of their master in the Kremlin in all affairs.

As president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych allowed Putin to influence events in Kyiv without the need for direct military aggression

Consequently, Putin perceived the protests against Viktor Yanukovych that began in 2013 as an attempt against his unofficial power in Ukraine. And like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, he was not mistaken.

Not just another protest

In the winter of 2013-2014, Kyiv’s central square was a sight to behold. Some of the objects carried by protesters then would be unthinkable now, including banners that read “We love Russia, we despise Putin” and a Russian tricolor flag captioned “Russians for Maidan.” At the time, making a distinction between Russians and the Russian regime was a natural reaction to the pervasive Kremlin propaganda narrative that the Maidan revolution was not a revolution at all, but a gathering of power-hungry, Russophobic neo-Nazis. In early 2014, Russian television and print media were still readily accessible throughout Ukraine, and so the inclusion of Russia-tolerant symbols on the square might have worked to persuade skeptical Ukrainian citizens that the movement was not, in fact, the “Russophobic” horror show Kremlin TV claimed it was.

The blue-and-yellow banner reads: "We love Russians / We despise Putin"
The blue-and-yellow banner reads: "We love Russians / We despise Putin"

The multinational, multilingual Maidan tried its best to counter the slander, but to no avail. The Kremlin was bent on keeping Yanukovych in power at any cost. At the time, he still commanded the loyalty of Ukraine’s security forces, and so on Feb. 20, 2014, when protesters physically resisted law enforcement’s attempts to clear the square by force, Yanukovych authorized his riot police to open fire. Around fifty protesters were killed that day. By the time Yanukovych fled Kyiv on the night of February 21-22, bullets had taken the lives of 98 people, who went down in Ukraine's modern history as the “Heavenly Hundred.”

Both Yanukovych and Putin displayed extreme arrogance and short-sightedness. The former thought Ukraine was his for the taking, that he could turn its state budget into a free-for-all for his cronies, and that handing out free buckwheat and calendars on the eve of elections was enough to buy him popular support (to give you an idea of the scale of Yanukovych's corruption, he kept a $500,000 music box in his bedroom). The latter was sure he could force an entire foreign country to live by the Kremlin’s rules.

The Euromaidan was more than an anti-corruption protest or a rally of those angered by Yanukovych's decision to reject an association agreement on offer from the European Union. That said, his rejection of the European path indeed triggered the unrest that ultimately led to Yanukovych’s downfall, as it demonstrated that the regime was averse to even a semblance of change and that the Ukrainian president was paying more attention to orders shouted from the Kremlin than to the aspirations of his people.

Under the circumstances, regime change in Ukraine was inevitable. The nation’s most important decisions were not being made by its parliament or president — greedy and brainless as he might have been — but by a foreign power. The arrangement was contrary to the Ukrainian constitution, to the will of its people, and to decency itself. The Maidan was rightfully called The Revolution of Dignity.

The nation’s most important decisions were not being made by its parliament or president — greedy and brainless as he might have been — but by a foreign power

February 2014 destroyed a Ukrainian state apparatus founded on corruption and obedient to Moscow, replacing it with a government that aspired to develop genuinely transparent, democratic institutions. Although Russia attempted to restore the old order by financing Kremlin-friendly politicians like Viktor Medvedchuk or Yevhen Muraiev, after the subsequent events of 2014, which saw Russia occupy Crimea and start the war in Donbas, it became a sign of arrogance to even imagine that Ukrainians would ever again let the Kremlin's puppets run their country. Almost unique in his level of misconception, Putin was arrogant enough to keep trying to reverse this reality for eight years. Finally, he launched a full-scale war against Ukraine.

The revolution, the war, tens of thousands of deaths — all of these could have been avoided if the Russian leadership had seen the Ukrainians as a separate and independent people, rather than simply as Russians who had learned a few Polish words and were misled by the Austrian top brass over a century ago. But Russia is ruled by frail Soviet-era conspiracy theorists, who are indulging in an imperial game of pacifying their “rebellious provinces.” Regrettably, this war was inevitable, and its first battle was between the law enforcement officers who killed the Heavenly Hundred and the tens of thousands of protesters who wanted a different future for their country. Yes, the men with the guns on Maidan ten years ago may have been wearing Ukrainian uniforms, but they were fighting to defend the interests of the Kremlin, which sought to bring Ukraine back into the fold at all costs.

The first battle in the war between Russia and Ukraine was the shooting of the Heavenly Hundred

10 years later

February 2014 changed both Ukrainians and Russians forever. The former took the difficult and long road to building a modern Western-style democracy. Even without the big war, this presented a major challenge. Pro-Kremlin reactionaries like Medvedchuk threw wrenches in the gears, corruption turned out to be even more entrenched than it had seemed, and political elites continued to be torn apart by jealousy and grudges. Yet the nation was making progress, as slow and painstaking as it may have been.

In Russia, for the first time since the collapse of Communism, the Euromaidan also inspired the government to come up with a national idea: Ukrainophobia. Starting in the early winter of 2014, Kremlin propaganda began portraying Ukrainians as a flagrantly stupid yet somehow extremely dangerous enemy from which the Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine had to be rescued. The majority of Russians accepted this presentation as genuine, as was evidenced by the so-called “Crimean Consensus”: a sharp increase in public support for the authorities after the seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula.

For the most part, Russians supported this act of armed aggression against a neighboring state even though it violated many of their domestic laws and international agreements. Even opposition-minded intellectuals complained mostly about the lack of foreign observers at the “referendum” organized by Moscow to self-legitimize the occupation — rarely did they object to the occupation itself.

Ever since the Euromaidan, hardly a single newscast on Russia’s national television channels has failed to mention Ukraine – naturally showing it in a negative light. On Russian TV, Ukrainians are painted as sectarians, traitors, and Nazis, their leaders as unfit, corrupt, infected with Russophobia, and corrupted by their “curators” in the West.

Ever since the Euromaidan, hardly a single newscast on Russia’s national television channels has failed to show Ukraine in a negative light

The pseudo-republics of Donbas, which are openly thuggish and cannot exist without Russian money and Russian mercenaries, were glorified as the main bulwark of resistance to Ukraine and to the “Collective West” (which Russian propagandists associate, for some reason, almost exclusively with gay pride marches and transgender toilets). Degenerate sadistic warlords like Givi and Motorola became heroes of the illegal breakaway republics, and then they became heroes of Russia.

Even before February 24, 2022, “patriotic” Russian journalists and political analysts seriously discussed the need to liquidate Ukrainian statehood and to ban the Ukrainian language. The feeling that a big war was inevitable, that the nation needed, as the state-run news agency RIA Novosti put it, “a final solution to the Ukrainian question,” was growing stronger by the day. By the time Russian rockets started raining down on Ukrainian cities, this narrative had penetrated so deeply into the brains of millions of Russians that they wholeheartedly supported a full-scale war against Ukraine.

Around the same time, a common catchphrase emerged in Ukraine: “In 2014, we realized they [the Russians] are not our brothers, and now we know they aren’t human either.» The process of accepting Russia as an enemy was long and complicated. In Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian soldiers and officers did not open fire on the occupiers because they truly saw the Russians as brothers and could not shoot at them.

When Donbas was partially occupied, Ukrainian media and even many members of parliament called to abandon the fight for its liberation, to separate from the occupied territories, and to restore all previous economic and cultural ties with Russia. Russian performers still toured in Ukraine, and the Russian language was still heard on national radio and television. Contrary to what Russian propagandists were claiming, the Russian language was not — and is not — banned in Ukraine.

In early 2024, Ukrainian filmmaker Oksana Karpovich released the documentary Intercepted — an hour and a half of footage filmed in cities and towns destroyed or looted by Russian occupiers. As a soundtrack, the film uses recordings of telephone conversations between Russian troops and their families intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence.

One conversation notes that people in Ukraine have a better life than Russians do, and the soldier’s relatives tell him that it must be all that Western money, paid to Ukrainians as an incentive to hate Russia. Another brags to his wife about the branded sneakers he stole from an abandoned house, and she asks him to steal a laptop for their daughter. The third soldier complains to his mother that he doesn't understand why he has to kill unarmed Ukrainians, but she yells at him, saying that Ukrainians shouldn't exist at all and that her son is doing everything right. The fourth recounts how he shot a family with a child out of a car window simply because they were Ukrainian.

It becomes clear to anyone who has seen the movie why many Ukrainians no longer see Russians as people. But the Russian authorities don't see their citizens as human beings either. For the Kremlin, they are nothing but expendable material to be used up in the pursuit of their geriatric geopolitical ambitions. Ukrainians will be happy to leave their monstrous neighbors alone if only they would remove themselves from Ukrainian soil. But the Kremlin will keep drinking their blood until there is none left — or until Russia sees its own “February 2014.”

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