The year of Ukrainian mess

In quite a few years since the start of this blog I had never before thought to write about my country here. I spend most time where I am comfortable — that is inside my head. The world around is decoration, nice and blurry like a background to a good photo.

Last year ago decoration in my country went foul. You probably seen things about it in news. This is not news. Neither a pretense of complete or fair description of it. This is about living through it and years before it.

Trust it as you would me sitting next to you and telling you a story. As much or as little. Keep in mind I am the cynical one — and when I talk about these things people tell me they understand why.

Backdrop

Country in between

Rich and messy history in this corner of Europe aside, Ukraine had acquired the current form when USSR fell apart in 1991. At the prime of Soviet Union it was a powerful region, combining historically bountiful agriculture with some serious industry (civil and military). We split away with large territory (largest country in Europe) and significant population.

Unfortunately we fared much less well on our own, experiencing decade of massive recession, followed by another of very slow economic recovery.

Location of Ukraine in Europe. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA

Location of Ukraine in Europe. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA.

What went wrong? We were still located at the horrible crossroads between Russia and Europe. This formed bipolar politics, fueled by siphoning money from one side or another. The presidency pinnacle of politics in Ukraine became primarily about siphoning from both sides at the same time.

As fish rots from the head this set the country up for off the charts corruption trends on all levels. Our economy was massively eroded, any strategic developments steadily sabotaged (Western by Russia and vice versa), and our reputation as place to do business with or in grew to be absolutely horrible.

The best description of Ukraine in such state I had read somewhere was:

Developed country. Just not well developed.

Gas lines on the map

Aside from being bridge between Europe and Russia metaphorically, we are also bridging them literally in some aspects. One of the most prominent connections through Ukraine had been transit of Russian natural gas to Europe.

Major russian gas pipelines to Europe. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA.

Major russian gas pipelines to Europe. Wikipedia CC–BY.

Modern Russian economy in large part hinges on selling its raw resources and that gas is important to Europe (something around third of import overall, but much higher shares in specific countries).

Technically it should have been a gold mine of a trade route for us. Practically it set us up for more corruption and scandals, as well as recession in making use of our own resources. As a supplier Russia had attempted and largely succeeded to shape gas–related deals into political leverage, usually by assigning unreasonable high prices and bringing them down via discounts, which can be taken away on a whim.

Understanding languages

The “issue” of language comes up in internal and external Ukrainian politics like no other. As shard of USSR Ukraine ended up with plenty of people speaking primarily Russian, but it went with Ukrainian language exclusively as sole official language of the country.

Anecdotally I come from Russian–speaking family. It is my first language, language I got education in, and the one I use exclusively in daily life. Never in my life had it been an issue for me.

I think the best illustration to the meagerness of it as a social problem in the country is that you can observe people having a dialog where sides use different languages. Comfortable in their choice of language to use, confident they are being understood, and perfectly fine with other side speaking in language of their choice.

I had never experienced something like this in other contexts, conversation seem to set on one language. In Ukraine you just talk to others in language you choose, Ukrainian or Russian either.

The stage is set

Bored yet? Disinterested? Slightly depressed over corruption thing?

So was the world with us, until year 2013.

And so it begins.

Autumn 2013

Trade & Association

To counter the (mostly) successful melting pot of European Union, Russia had been trying to engineer its own Eurasian Customs UnionCommonwealth of Independent States had existed for a while, yet hadn’t produced shred of interesting results for them.

The European Union Association Agreement for Ukraine, establishing trade zone in precisely opposite direction, was appointed more or less nemesis to that initiative.

While president Yanukovych came to power in pro–russian–corrupt flavor (replacing Yushchenko, to whom he lost his previous opportunity at presidency in Orange Revolution of 2004), he was seen as sufficiently balanced to see the Association treaty through.

Right until the week he was supposed to sign it (after two years of negotiations), when he refused to do so over “concerns” and other vague bullshit — surefire indication of Russia taking its turn at messing things up for us.

People at the square

The “nation’s” backlash against the deal falling apart resulted in first of Euromaidan protests, after Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in center of Kiev where it took place.

I use “nation” with great irony. If Ukrainian people had actively protested the every abysmal mess from our string of governments, we would have no time left for anything else. It wasn’t exactly lost on anyone that scenario closely mirrored that very same Orange Revolution Yanukovych lost to before.

In both cases it was painted by Russia as construction of evil West and sorely anti–russian event. Duh and duh? Of course pro–western–corrupt powers perched them up. Of course it was to counter Russia. The game was played as it always was. If Russia had an issue here it’s that it hadn’t had the influence in Kiev to perch its own significant protests, which is slight indicator of genuine western vector here.

My personal take on situation was that Orange Revolution scenario will play out again — some degree of political power will be wrestled away from president’s faction in a mild coup, leveraging the crowds.

Yet Yanukovych, likely having learned the lesson, seemed to have been managing it, carefully trying to let the protest fume out.

Autumn recap

  • president & ministers sabotage Association treaty with European Union
  • Euromaidan protests start in center of Kiev

Winter 2013

Slow cooker

Over the start of winter the protest gradually turned into stalemate, with political opposition and occasional violent incidents between protesters and police keeping them going. The exact blend of president, opposition, and their hands in incidents was first of many murky things to come.

I live the walking distance from said square. Mostly I stayed away from it and did not go outside as much. That’s just the kind of event that I know to produce groups of drunks wandering in my neighborhood, looking to “discuss your political views”.

News (local and international) showed the huge protest crowds gather. They tend to omit that crowd is fueled by it being a weekend day as well as protest being flavored with social entertainment (take a look what’s up, beer up while at it) and sweetened with things like free music concerts. Weekdays were much less impressive.

Square on fire

The slow unfruitiful and unresolvable process stretches through weeks, turning into months. This was no longer victorious Orange Revolution look alike, this was Orange Revolution about to deflate and pop.

And then unexpectedly it pivoted hard:

  1. Opposition gradually lost direct control of the protests
  2. That vaccum was overtaken by nationalist groups, soon combined into Right Sector umbrella organization
  3. The nature of protests quickly lost peaceful nature and turned much more confrontational

Center of the Kiev turned into that warzone–like nightmare. People clashed with police repeatedly and few central streets got gradually turned into charred hell of a place.

Protesters throwing Molotov Cocktails. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA.

Protesters throwing Molotov Cocktails. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA.

Protesters burned car tires to create protective smoke screens against police. Soon the situation for the day was as easy to gauge as weather — I had to only look outside the window to get quick idea from the volume of smoke.

Score for the coup

At the end of the Feburary president Yanukovych and his close political allies fled the country. There was a pure wondermet in people talking about it. We weren’t yet used to the things that unprecedented as routine occurence. The exact reasons for escape went on murky things list.

Politically this completely decimates pro–russian–corrupt faction. With parliament as only government branch left standing, opposition quickly moved in to pass a number of rather questionable laws appointing Turchynov as speaker of the parliament and acting president right after (among other things).

The actions were on one hand completely against the letter of the Ukrainian law and on other hand dealt with situation that law had not remotely accounted for. How do you deal with president balking on his country?

The handling of situation got hysterically condemned by Russia (of course) and rather readily supported by the West (of course).

Despite the shaky process of Euromaidan protests they seemingly served their original purpose to change the balance of political power. Served it rather too far even.

From this point on opposition regained the confidence and Maidan started to rapidly lose influence. The push to change the system predictably changed the people in control fo the system, but had left most of the system perfectly intact. Politicians quickly go from eagerly “reporting” to people on Maidan to largely ignoring such request.

It looked almost resolved.

The worst of it had not even started.

Propaganda corps

Russia threw a fit. No, Russia threw a fit of all fits. Their media went into overdrive, unanimously declaring the situation in Ukraine work of “bloody junta”, “neo–fascist” powers, and country itself as “failure that was never real”.

And we hadn’t ever been a real country to Russia. They never saw us as anything else than political fluke with delusions of independence. The slap of epic Yanukovych’s failure burnt a hole through their face.

Just as briefly spiked Right Sector started to rapidly lose its relevance, in portrayal of Russian media it turned into weapon of bloodthirsty illegal government against Russians in Ukraine.

TV explodes. Internet explodes. Any online resource on topic is drowned in shit by trolls (from usual ones to plain hired by Russian government), undermining and condemning everything Ukraine is or even was.

So wait, are Ukrainians actually crazed fascist warlords!? The easy sanity check is how much we had been at war and how much of our parliament consisted of far right political parties.

The answers are:

  • we had never been at war post 1991 separation from USSR (Russia got itself into nine wars in same period)
  • far right parties had typically got ~1-3% of votes in parliament elections

Winter recap

  • nationalist powers rise in influence through taking over protests
  • conflict around Euromaidan becomes more violent
  • president & his faction flee the country
  • opposition takes over the government
  • Russia opens anti–Ukrainian media campaign

Spring 2014

Slice of subtropics

When I mention subtropics in Ukraine people tend to think that I am joking. Yet it’s perfectly serious. Crimea is southern part of Ukraine on Crimean peninsula. Its southern edge dips into subtropics and had long been popular tourist destination.

Due to geography and relatively late transfer to Ukraine inside Soviet Union in 1954, it had been a bit of region on its own with population consisting of ethnic Russians and Crimean Tatars.

While Crimea might have been a little out of band from Ukraine ethnically, joining it logistically had been a boon. Outside of tourism it only has easy land transport routes through Ukraine. Bulk of electricity and water and provided from mainland as well, since peninsula can only generate fraction of them required.

After Soviet Union fell apart its Black Sea Fleet was split between Russia and Ukraine. Russia kept basing its share in Sevastopol city in a long term deal.

Going HOMELAND

That spring the spring season in Crimea had opened not with tourists, but with weirdness. While Kiev was barely done with turmoil, report started coming in about so called polite people showing up in Crimea to explain Ukrainian military and police that they better stay out of what’s about to happen.

Soon after the “green men” appear — militants in uniform without insignia, identifying themselves as Crimean self–defense force. Russian media helpfully explain that they are protecting Russians in Crime from being violently slaughtered by Right Sector under encouragement from government junta.

Reaction of Ukraine to said theory is pretty much “say what?”.

In following months green men proceed to occupy Crimean parliament (they have their own regional one) and have it rapidly pass decisions about Crimea declaring independence and joining Russia. The process is rushed and in conflict with letter of Ukrainian law on holding referendums (which can only be country–wide).

The referendum is held with claimed 83% turnout and 97% of Crimean population in favor of joining Russia. Said joining is immediately ratified by two sides.

Sanity check — was Crimea in the right to split from Ukraine?

The general pro–russian mood there is in favor.

Against:

  • extremely rushed referendum, illegal under Ukrainian law
  • Tatars pretty dead set against it
  • armed Russian military directing the process

Oh, right — the green men were (much later) admitted to have involved Russian military, just “helping out”. Mystery solved!

Joining Russia is publicly hailed by population (other than Tatars) and proclaimed returning to HOMELAND. Uppercase is the standard way for Crimeans to refer to it online to signify their high degree of happiness and loyalty (to Russia, not Ukraine).

While Internet and Russian news are full of happiness about, the region suffers status of occupied territory, transportation issues, failure of tourist season, massive loss of agricultural produce due do interruptions of water supply from Ukraine.

One of the less noticed aspects of the transfer is that Russia declares everyone in Crimea to lose Ukrainian citizenship and be assigned Russian instead, unless explicitly opted out (which they make bureaucratic and inconvenient). Considering Ukrainian citizenship is pretty hard to shed if you want to (requires presidential decree), the Russia presuming to do so at scale is nothing less than bizarre.

In a nutshell Crimea is happily and deeply geopolitically and economically screwed.

Eastern terror

The green men and their relatives are quickly exported to southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. There is a wave of pro–Russian demonstrations, taking over government buildings, and proclamations of independence. All to protect Russians in Ukraine from getting slaughtered. And such. It doesn’t need to make sense if you have a gun.

2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA.

2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine. Wikipedia CC–BY–SA.

Unlike Crimea there is significant push back. In most regions it is suppressed, taking hold only in most eastern (and bordering Russia) Donetsk and Luhansk territories. It escalated quickly too, from small arms to portable anti–air missiles mowing down Ukrainian military helicopters.

People in the army now

The first mobilization into army gets announced. My first reaction had been to freak and get somewhere very far away. In ex–USSR countries with mandatory military service (which was the case in Ukraine until very recently) dodging it is pretty much men’s most important rite of passage. The army has a reputation of place absolutely not to be in, much less for year and a half of your life. Mostly I proceed to calm down (I am unlikely to get involved due to eyesight issues and lack of military specialty).

The results of first mobilization are almost comical (if not grim circumstances) with stories of reserve soldiers getting shipped to training camps without any clear idea what to do with them whatsoever and typically proceeding to passing time by getting drunk. The later waves of additional mobilization seem to be more purposeful and organized, or at least reported as such.

The new president of Ukraine Poroshenko gets elected. He has more history as prominent businessman than politician and his election was seen as a wish for stability and resolution of crisis.

Cranking up the suppression of separatism in the East of Ukraine was pretty much first order of business.

Spring recap

  • Russia covertly invades and later annexes Crimea
  • Russia attempts to apply Crimean scenario to southern and eastern regions
  • separatists take hold in two eastern regions
  • military mounts operation against separatists
  • Poroshenko elected new president

Summer 2014

Country at war

The practice quickly showed that lightly armed separatist (even in quantity) is very poor match up against air strike. Ukraine surprised pretty much everyone (Ukraine itself included) by having mounted seemingly competent and steadily succeeding military operation (formally labeled ATO — anti–terrorist).

Russia settled on the strategy that if violence isn’t solving your issues then you are not using enough of it. The quantity of people and weaponry channeled to separatist is steadily increasing. Light arms turned into heavy arms. Portable anti–air launchers became so common that Ukrainian military plain run out of helicopters still in one piece in short time. The usage of Grad rocket launchers became very common on both sides. First tanks on separatist side appear, the news seem bizarre. Later the mere tanks don’t even turn heads. After a while Russia starts to directly fire at Ukrainian forces across the border where range of rockets and artillery allows.

Concerned for you

Officially Russia hadn’t ever been involved. They claim so with newly found discovery that there is no penalty for lying in politics.

European Union is concerned. And is concerned some more. And very concerned and deeply concerned. And so often concerned that the very word “concerned” turns into a sad Ukrainian joke.

They try to reason with Russia and desperately wish for a mess just to go away. What they don’t get about Russia is that this is Russia’s happy place. The support of Russian government by population just flew extremely high. They are kicking ass, dammit! Well they are not officially wink–wink and these newly appointed Ukrainian fascist had been appointed sibling nation, closest in the world for decades previously. Details! The Russia is screwing someone up! What else there is as good in life?

West proceeded to (slowly and meekly) apply sanctions against Russia. While the negative effects on Russian economy are inevitable, sanctions accomplished little to stop its military action.

MH17

And then separatists shot civilian Boeing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 out of the sky.

Later it became everyone’s darling conspiracy theory. That day however it was still pretty clear:

  1. separatists had announced means and intent to shoot down planes
  2. did so to Ukrainian military planes previously
  3. claimed to do so at the time and location (saying it’s military transport)
  4. discovered what had they actually shot down

Stupid damned slaughter.

Ukraine was pretty shaken. European Union was horribly shaken, no amount of Russians and Ukrainians killing each other could have prepared them for sudden and massive loss of European lives. European lives are what really counts over there emotionally and politically.

Russia had little time to be shaken, they were highly busy moping out how proud they were in weeks before about separatist having high altitude grade anti–air missiles from around.

European Union made sanctions against Russia heavier again. For as little result.

Humanitarian much

By the end of the summer nothing is left emotionally but stress. Military slowly advances, separatists slowly give out. The death count on both sides turn from tragedy into a steadily ticking number. The military hardware on both sides gets about maxed out, with Russia throwing latest and greatest into the mix, Ukraine scraping together everything it’s got and redirecting military export orders to the front.

In sudden surge of helpfulness Russia announces humanitarian mission and organizes column of trucks (strangely barely half–loaded). The hottest topic in news for a while what kind of evil plot is that. There is hardly anyone left around trusting Russia to just do something constructive for a change.

Ukraine insists on Red Cross managing the shipment and Ukrainian customs officers inspecting it. Russia urgently redirects it to part of border controlled by separatists and gets it in and out of the country through there. Some reports say they got equipment from Ukrainian military factories in the region on the way back. Some say they don’t. Yet another murky point.

ATO gets very closer to finishing separatist forces off. If violence isn’t solving your problems… Russia retorts with massive offensive, using army regulars. Officially they are getting lost in Ukraine or spending their vacation here. Officially they are dying from accidents and heart attacks.

Summer recap

  • anti–terrorist operation (de–facto war) goes on
  • Russia keeps increasing military aid to separatists
  • separatists shoot down civilian plane
  • European Union keeps increasing sanctions against Russia
  • Russia launches massive counter–offensive

Autumn 2014

Cease fire

The latest knock seems to take heavy toll. Maybe we are not actually winning this war, no matter how hard we try.

Cease fire is agreed upon and announced, Russia has to comically balance between negotiating it and insisting it’s not–a–participating–side. The effectiveness of cease fire is questionable (been there, done that, separatists just keep shooting), but politicians seem to squint and say it kind of holds.

Association treaty which started it all is signed (with a lot of trouble and in parts over two times) and is about to be ratified. It is rather suddenly announced that actual implementation of free trade zone in the treay is postponed until 2016.

Or else… Anyone wants Russia to screw something else up?

Sour future

By the time I am finishing up this post I am no longer sure what is it that I want to tell. Was there ever something I wanted to tell?

Soured — this is how life feels. Tom from England used the word about situation and I am still amazed how well it fits. Daily life goes on exactly as usual and at the same time hangs in uncertainty every day. Economy and currency got smashed. Taxes got increased.

People got killed, so many people.

We were not the country–at–war kind of a country, now we are. I almost type “forever”, but there is an end to it, right? One day I will read news in the morning and it will say that this is the end. I can barely imagine it anymore.

People are being optimistic. They say this will bring country together, this will make us stronger. In a way I understand optimism, there is little else left to keep your shit together. In other ways I cannot help but think that we did ourselves little good while starting from much less trouble than we are in now.

But so far…

Ukraine’s glory has not yet died, nor her freedom,
Upon us, fellow compatriots, fate shall smile once more.
Our enemies will vanish, like dew in the morning sun,
And we too shall rule, brothers, in a free land of our own.

Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom,
And we will show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!

(national anthem of Ukraine)

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4 Comments

  • Read it top to bottom, will have to read again, probably 2-3 times. Your writing is excellent, and just as Sarah said on Twitter the bullet lists do help a lot to stay on top of described events and their chronology.

    Still there’s something in all this that makes it hard for me to really grasp and comprehend. I guess war has never been so close, and that’s what it feels like by now—very close.

    Looking even more forward to see you happy and healthy in Sofia about a week from now!

    • Thank you, my blogging is rusty so I am glad it came out readable. :)

      Looking forward to Sofia very much (and desperately trying to get out of half–sick state before it :).

  • there is an end to it, yes!

    Soon you will read news in the morning and it says that the war is over!

    please never stop imagine this!

    me too imagine it
    with you
    for you
    with people from everywhere
    in this world.

    PS: i found your article in my google+-account, in germany, berlin.
    last time i had a young girl from ukrainia in my flat as a flatmate. she came here to learn german language and had to returned to her home.

    my very best wishes to you and all people suffering in war!

    • Thank you for good wishes. We will get through it, we’d better. And maybe I am a pessimist, but even pessimists don’t deny passable outcomes happen too. :)

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