Sergiy Parhomenko stood on Independence Square, aka ‘The Maidan’, on a cold and foggy autumnal afternoon in Kiev. Hotel Ukraine, a fifteen-story high Stalinist skyscraper, peered down from the back of the square, barely visible from the fog.
The founder of the Capitulation Resistance Movement was there to announce a peaceful protest on 21 November 2019 against Russian oppression.
“I am here today because we wish Ukraine could be a member of the EU and NATO,” he told the assembled press.
“We struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty and also for a European future with European values. If we could be in EU and NATO, Russia could never take us into its neo-Soviet empire.”
As the UK tears itself apart over Brexit, many Ukrainians have died to defend the ideals of EU membership.
Ukraine is not an EU member but in February the government made an important change to the constitution, proclaiming “the European identity of the Ukrainian people and the irreversibility of the European and Euro-Atlantic course of Ukraine”.
Legal pathways are now in place that could make Ukraine – a country that literally means ‘borderland’ – a member of the EU. But this comes at a cost.
The Euromaidan – revolution of dignity
A 200-foot tall column stands in the middle of Kiev’s Maidan, once home to a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin. A series of tall metal displays surround the grand column, each with photographs of the last time a peaceful protest at ‘Independence Square’ turned into a violent and raging revolution.
It has been over five years since Ukraine revolted against their president Viktor Yanukovych after he refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. In winter 2014, The Euromaidan, or the ‘revolution of dignity’, brought nearly a million protesters to Kiev. More than 100 people were killed and thousands injured by the government’s Berkut police force, since disbanded. The youngest killed was 17-year-old Nazar Voitovych, shot by a sniper from the rooftop of Hotel Ukraine.
Yanukovych’s government was toppled by the revolution and he fled in exile to Russia.
“I took part in the Euromaidan in 2014 as a volunteer and activist, but I didn’t take part in the violence,” said Parhomenko, “We protected Ukrainian activists from police and Berkut, we defended the protesters.”
Immediately after the toppling of Yanukovych, Pro-Russian mercenaries began a civil war in the east of Ukraine. Two major regions in Donbass formed pro-Russian proto-states called the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which are still recognised as terrorist organisations by the Ukrainian government.
In the south, Crimea was illegally annexed by the Russian military and Ukrainians had to fight back – with scant help from NATO, the UN, or the EU.
At the outbreak of civil war, Russia denied any involvement in the east of Ukraine. Then one year later, Putin admitted at a press conference in Moscow that “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks, including in the military sphere.”
Reuters reported that the Kremlin began acknowledging passports, birth certificates, diplomas, and vehicle registration plates issued in the proto-states as legal documents in 2017.
Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that Forensic Architecture, a London based research group, had collected evidence of Russian military involvement during the battle of Ilovaisk – a small city outside of Donetsk – in 2014.
But the Kremlin still denies direct military intervention in Donbass.
The EU has implemented sanctions against Russia over Crimea’s annexation, but the closest Ukraine got to a peace treaty over the area was the ‘Steinmeier Formula’, a potential solution drafted by German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It would declare Donbass and Crimea as areas with special status through a vote, but not officially Ukrainian or Russian.
Ukraine, Russia, and members of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have so far approved the plan. President Zelensky has said there will not be any elections in the Crimea or Donbass unless Russian troops are withdrawn and Ukraine gets complete control over its eastern border once again.
So far, the war has claimed the lives of over 13,000 people.
Despite attempts to legitimise the joining of the EU by Ukrainian leaders, the government under the new president, Petro Poroshenko, became unpopular. Many powerful oligarchs held great influence over Ukrainian politics and public trust in the president diminished.
In March 2019, the country elected comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president, an act of protest against Poroshenko. It was Zelensky’s conversations with Donald Trump which led to current impeachment efforts against the US president.
Back in Kiev, people are not talking about Trump. Ukrainians want a free country not ruled by Russian oligarchs and corrupt politicians. The majority want to be EU citizens, and many are dying on the frontlines against Russia-backed troops to fight for this cause.
But, as war wages in the east and political unrest grows throughout the country, could November’s protest turn into another Euromaidan?
“Maybe we will have another revolution. But for now, we are organising a peaceful protest,” insists Parhomenko.
“In 2014 the Euromaidan was so extreme because the government shot the protesters. But if Russian agents organise counter protests, then we will see. We will never capitulate, and we will not have a Russian government.
“This is a war and people are dying. We have a lot of displaced people from Dundas and Crimea. We struggle against capitulation by Russia again and again. This is a fight against Russian aggression and Russian agents.”
Parhomenko is concerned that President Zelensky is being manipulated by Russian interference to surrender Donbass and Crimea. Many in the country see him as yet another Ukrainian leader falling into Russian arms, and moving away from the ideals of EU membership that so many people risked their lives for in 2014.
Myroslav Hai is a Donbass war veteran. Standing beside Parhomenko in Kyiv’s central square, he took questions from journalists and the public.
“The war is shit, but people risked their lives before in 2014 and we will risk our lives again if this protest becomes a revolution,” he said.
“Zelensky was popular, but people don’t like his new proposition about Russia, Putin, and capitulation. Most people here don’t want peace, they want to fight to gain back Ukrainian territory.”
A poll by Ukrainian news agency Unain found 40 per cent of Ukrainians believe the conflict in Donbass and Crimea is a direct conflict between Ukraine and Russia, not a civil war.
Dr Lada Roslycky from the Anti-Corruption Committee in Ukraine believes the latest protest may attract bigger crowds than the Euromaidan, but believes that revolution is not yet likely.
Roslycky has over 15 years of experience in Euro-Atlantic integration, international law, and democracy building. She predicted the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
“Ukrainians are happy the European and Euro-Atlantic path is constitutionalised, but at the same time, it seems that they are watching with great scepticism what is going on in the EU, including Brexit and wary of the EU’s future.
“As for the war, the sanctions on Russia are a good step, but we are feeling a bit betrayed by the EU due to the fact that Ukrainians are fighting on the frontlines with minimal support. We are watching with grave concern.”
“I believe that on 21 November it is very possible that we will see larger crowds than in previous years. It is a 50-50 chance that violence will break out, but I do not expect anything really major, if all things remain the same.
“Should we have new developments pertaining to land reform, the frontlines, Trump or something else, it may turn into something more.”
The next revolution?
The paving stones and staircases of ‘Independence Square’ are crooked and uneven, still scarred from the running battles between protestors and police in 2014. Hundreds of demonstrators broke the slabs and stones to fire them at the attacking Berkut and snipers, using handmade catapults to defend themselves from the state force’s attacks.
The nearby roads are lined with memorials to the ‘heavenly hundred’; heroes of the revolution who gave their lives to protect Ukraine’s wish to one day be an EU member.
By the football stadium, artists have drawn body outlines on the ground in the very place where people were massacred by government sniper fire.
Blood soaked the snow back in winter 2014, and although many protests have come to the Maidan since, the Capitulation Resistance Movement demonstration on 21 November may be the largest since the revolution.
Header image thanks to Evgeny Feldman, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped)