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The Kremlin, the Russian Liberals, and the West All See What They Want to See in Ukraine


By the time the bullets start flying, no one ever remembers how they got within their range. The only thought is to move forward, or backward. To run, to take cover, to stop the bleeding. It doesn't matter that all this started back in November as a protest against Yanukovich not signing an agreement with the European Union. No one in the besieged streets of Kiev is thinking about the economic consequences of the scrapped agreement, or even about its terms. They are thinking about surviving and, maybe, winning. 

And yet the battle unfolding in the streets of Kiev today is proving to be yet another geopolitical blank slate, projected onto the shields and helmets and backs of the scurrying warriors on both sides. The storming of the Maidan of Independence, the rapidly mounting casualties, the guns, the bullets—all are subject to highly politicized debate. Because the details matter, and, flipped this way or that, plucked this way or that, totally change the story, and the message. And through the people on the streets, everyone else, near and far, is fighting their own fight.

The Russian Government: Most of the coverage coming from Kremlin-controlled media in Russia is about the mounting casualties ... among police officers. The protesters are called only "radicals"; the fighting in the streets is referred to as "pogroms"; civilians are generally portrayed as apolitical innocents trapped between the radicals and the police fighting them. The police are conducting "counterterrorist operations," and the parliamentary opposition that's been trying to negotiate with Yanukovich as insincere and weak: The evening news that interrupted tonight's broadcast of the figure skating competition in Sochi showed Dmitro Yarosh, an ultra-nationalist leader who said that the parliamentary opposition does nothing without consulting with him. And one of the opposition deputies, the report said, was found with a sniper's gun in his trunk. 

The West is portrayed as meddling and shadowy, attempting to insert itself into the chaos and take advantage. The reason for the fighting? "We cannot characterise what is happening in Ukraine as anything except a violent attempt to seize power," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday. "Many western countries, who have tried to interfere in events and played games with insurgents, are also to blame. The west has solidly, repeatedly and shamefully avoided criticism of the actions of extremists, including Nazi elements."

Putin has not seemed interested in any nuance either. "The president believes that all responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine now lies with the extremists," his spokesman said yesterday. Dmirty Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, said that the goal of Yanukovich now should be "to protect the people, to protect the law enforcement agencies who are defending the interests of the state and defending those same people." He advised Yanukovich and his government  to make sure "that people aren't wiping their feet on them, like on a rag."

This is the world view of Putin and Medvedev: The government is only for the people who agree with it. Those that disagree are radicals. The security structures—the police, the courts, the army—are, like Medvedev so artlessly said, there "to protect the interests of the government," which supercede individuals' interests because it is seen to be a wiser, more moral force. Russian state response to events in Kiev are very similar to their response to the peaceful anti-Kremlin protests in the winter of 2011-2012: A small and vocal minority trying to impose its views on a satisfied but silent majority, represented by the Kremlin. Those that came out demanding free and fair elections were supported, organized, and paid for by the State Department in a bid to destabilize Russia and oust Vladimir Putin from power. The security structures are seen as needing to be protected from the protesters: Thus, when Moscow protests turned violent in May 2012, and special forces police went gonzo on unarmed protesters, it was the protesters who were arrested and tomorrow will get massive prison sentences, while the cops were rewarded for their (minor) injuries with apartments in the center of Moscow.

The Russian Liberals: Given their own failed experiment protesting a corrupt and authoritarian leader, Moscow liberals are watching with a mix of horror, admiration, and jealousy. They focus not on the very real radicals on the front lines of the battle—ultra-nationalists from Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine—but on the motley mix of people that's been occupying the Maidan since November: middle class, middle age, university students, pensioners. They marvel at the camaraderie and selfless spirit of the medical volunteers, and at the bravery of the Ukrainians for not getting scared and going home when the president started cracking down. They focus on the corruption and authoritarianism of their president, in ways where if you swapped in "Putin" for "Yanukovich," the text would read about the same.

"When your zombie box starts telling you about 'radicals armed with firearms,' remember this video [above] and the list of the dead," opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote on his blog. "What 'radicals and extremists' are they talking about? These are normal people, workers. The insanity of Yanukovich, shooting his people in order to save the money his sons stole, becoming billionaires during his presidential term, has become apparent even to his fellow party members." (A dozen parliamentarians from Yanukovich's party, including the mayor of Kiev, defected today.)

And it's not just Yanukovich who is the enemy, but the "titushki," the working-class men from the Russian-speaking east of the country that are bused in to fight the nationalist ruffians from the West, as well as the middle-class folks in whom Russian liberals understandably see themselves. And, just like when they were out in the streets of Moscow, the Russian opposition continues to blast Facebook and Twitter with incremental news developments and emotion, having little understanding or vision of where this could or should go.

The West: The Europeans, threatening economic sanctions, are still under the impression that this is an economic dilemma. (The Russians have accused the Europeans of "blackmail," though they themselves are withholding tranches of their promised loan to Yanukovich until he, in Medvedev's words, gets his house in order.) The Americans are fighting Syria in Ukraine, a similar slate of Western and Russian fears. "Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make the decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power," Barack Obama said while in Mexico. "I do think it is worth noting that you have, in this situation, one country that has clearly been a client state of Russia, another whose government is currently being supported by Russia." 

Both the Europeans and the Americans, reflecting their ultra-Western, modern understanding of government, lay the blame for the escalating violence solely at the feet of the Ukrainian government. "We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement released today. "We urge President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kyiv and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully." All of which, you know, is still very much up for debate in Kiev. 

Meanwhile, as darkness gathers in Kiev, the wounded are tended to, the bodies counted and carried out of hotel lobbies. There is no time to think. Those on the outside will do it for you.