On the morning of February 18, 2014, all hell broke loose in Kiev. After 90 days of protesting, young activists who were tired of the corrupt government marched to the Presidential Administration to demand that President Viktor Yanukovych sign the association agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych answered — with brutality. His Berkut riot police attacked the protesters, driving them to their nearby encampments in Maidan Square.
It was the 90th day of protests, but it was the first day of the Euromaidan Revolution — and the day that changed Ukraine forever. It was the day the Ukrainian citizens said, in the loudest possible voice, that it was time for the country to become a fully-functioning 21st century democracy. It was a clear break with the past — its corruption, its repression, its brutal suppression of the will of the people.
Last year we remembered the Euromaidan Revolution and “a most violent year” that followed. We retraced the history of the events which led to the fall of the Yanukovych government. We called the revolution the birth of a nation. We reflected on the words on the Ukrainian national anthem and the spirit of Maidan.
We also reflected on what the revolution meant for the entire world. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted that the revolution, having succeeded, was quickly met by Russian aggression — an act which was a challenge to Ukrainian national sovereignty, but also to world peace. We argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was part of a worsening totalitarianism waged by the Russian president at home and abroad. We simultaneously published the words of a Ukrainian soldier while noting that “at every stage of this war truth has been strangled by its attendant bodyguard of lies.”
This year we are struck by how different things feel. Many of the promises of the revolution remain unfulfilled. Many of the dangers of Russian interference have only become more real.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Russia invaded Ukraine, a breach of international law and a clear violation of Russia’s oaths to the international community, the world is still largely in denial about Russia’s role in creating and continuing this crisis, and its penchant for destabilizing everything it touches. Not only this, but those with a short memory appear to be ready to leave Russia’s victims to their own fate. Ukraine is increasingly alone in its struggles to complete the promises of its revolution, as Europe is closer than ever to dropping support for the fledgling government. The Netherlands is even holding a referendum on whether Ukraine should be part of the EU, a move which could trample a central goal of the revolution that sparked Russia’s aggression. Ukraine’s government has still not defeated corruption, and internal political divisions in parliament have dealt the coalition a series of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. But Ukraine, admittedly late to adopt post-Soviet progress, is trying to accomplish in just two years what countries like Poland accomplished over the course of decades. And they are trying to simultaneously fight their own demons while literally fighting Russia’s military, its propaganda, and its trade wars — major obstacles that the rest of Eastern Europe did not have to contend with while trying to fix their economies.
While Ukraine is striving to become more European, the West is also changing. Europe is simultaneously increasingly willing to forget the sins of dictators while being more sympathetic to the anti-Europeanism fostered by the Kremlin. The Russian strategy at play in Europe, Ukraine, and Syria threatens to break the European Union, NATO, and the resolve of the West. The killers in Ukraine — former Yanukovych officials who fled to Russia, and the Russian government that has spilled so much blood — walk free. Not only that but they have now openly joined the slaughter in Syria where they previously only supplied the weapons and the diplomatic environment where such death could thrive.
There are those who argue that we are not in the middle of a second Cold War with Russia. Years ago this was true. The West has flourished in the last century in part because it has worked with its former adversaries to ensure every nation prospers. But the reality is that Vladimir Putin does not believe what we believe, he does not value what we value, and while many in the West clamber to work with Putin to resolve the world’s problems, Putin has made it clear that he is only interested in making Russia stronger at the expense of the rest of the world. He will not compromise, he will not allow opposing ideas to prosper, or even to exist, if it is within his power to snuff them. He is playing a dangerous zero-sum game that is the creation of Moscow’s policies, and the West is losing, largely by simply not even attempting to play.
We wonder, out loud, what the next anniversary of the Maidan Revolution will be like. Will Ukraine still be on track to join the European Union? Will the IMF pull Ukraine’s funding? How much of the country will still be in the hands of foreign invaders? Will the Ukrainian people feel that the memory of the “Heavenly Hundred,” who gave their lives for freedom and democracy, has been honored, or squandered?
Our fear is that the West has forgotten the values and lessons of the Maidan and has abandoned the mission that Ukrainian activists — and their pro-democracy compatriots in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, and beyond — paid for with their blood, sweat, and lives. One thing is clear, however — Russian president Vladimir Putin has not forgotten the power of devoted protesters who seek to break down the prison walls of dictatorship. The Kremlin will continue to hasten their campaign against pro-democracy movements, both at home and abroad. Will the world sit back and watch them do it, or worse, reward them for their efforts?