Maidan square, Kiev, the center of the 2014 protests and revolution.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
KIEV – On the Maidan Nezalezknosti, the central square of Kiev, one of the long buildings has been covered with a giant billboard that reads “Freedom is our religion.” This area was the scene of the mass protests that led to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, it was near here that dozens were killed in clashes and it was these protests that led to Ukraine’s current government and the conflict and political leanings of today.
Today the Maidan is full of young people dressed for summer. There’s a swagger in the step of the youth, a confidence that belies the difficult economic situation. The Ukrainian hryvnia trades at around 26 to the dollar, a huge devaluation from 2014 when it was about 8 to the US greenback. The World Bank estimates real GDP growth at around 2%, saying that “decisive reforms in the face of unprecedented shocks in 2014 and 2015 helped stabilize confidence.”
Everywhere in the capital city that confidence seems on display with stores packed with Western brands such as Zara, and people taking advantage of the warm summer air, around 31 degrees during the day, to party late into the night at flashy nightclubs, or to wander the large boulevards. They have slightly more reason to party this month as the US announced sanctions on Russia, which Ukraine views as a positive step against its eastern neighbor.
In meetings with local political reformers, journalists and activists, a picture emerges of what several termed Ukraine’s long and drawn out war of independence from the Soviet system. It may have been 26 years since Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, but many say that until the 2014 revolution and after, the long tentacles and decay of Soviet times held the country back. This was especially true of Russian influence in politics in Ukraine where many in the east who are Russian speakers tended to look toward Moscow for culture and inspiration, as opposed to the West. Locals who support the current government of Petro Poroshenko, who came into office in June 2014, say that today we are witnessing the “second stage of collapse of the Soviet Union.” They describe a Ukrainian economy that was previously deeply controlled by Russia, and trade that was hampered with the West.
The ability of Ukraine to wean itself from Moscow has been due to the war in the east that the government has described as an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian separatists. After the 2014 revolution, fighting erupted in the east of the country and in September 2014 representatives of Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic signed the Minsk Protocol, which was supposed to stabilize the front lines. A second summit in February 2015 called Minsk II was intended to provide for local elections under Ukrainian law and Ukrainian state control of the country’s borders.
“Two years after Minsk II was signed there is not the slightest indication that Moscow and the separatists intend to fulfill these elements of the accord,” Max Bader, a lecturer on Russia at the University of Leiden, wrote at Carnegie Europe, a foreign policy analysis website. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 from Ukraine; these actions have united Ukrainians against a common enemy.
Today Ukraine is increasingly trying to knit itself not only into the Western economy but to Western military reforms and NATO standards. It participated as a partner country in Exercise Noble Partner in Georgia that began on July 30 alongside 2,800 soldiers from five NATO member states and two other partner countries. The US appointed former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker as a special representative to Ukraine in July and there are discussions about arming Ukraine with US antitank weapons.
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Local experts say that the weapons are merely a symbolic deterrent against Russia, the important thing is wide-ranging reforms throughout the army, many inspired and built on the model of Western militaries, with a focus on such things as increasing the competence of NCOs to make the army more flexible. All this comes in the lead-up to continued discussions at Minsk that are taking place this month and will include a session of the “contact group” for the conflict on August 23.
With Vice President Mike Pence recently in the Baltic states speaking of US support against Russia, the picture that is painted is one of deeper ties between Ukraine and the West but an ongoing war in the east against Russian-supported separatists.
In a snazzy bar on the Maidan the slogan “Fight and you shall overcome,” from the 19th-century Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, is printed on the menus and used as “password” to enter the premises. In a small shop at the entrance, old helmets and grenade launchers have been decorated and painted, on sale for around $100. They symbolize the ark of history here, the current war, the past wars and the hope for peace and quiet as both may eventually fade into memory.
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