Though protests had been raging in the capital city of Kyiv and cities across Ukraine since November, the eyes of the world turned sharply toward the former Soviet republic at the end of February when then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to directly insert himself in his neighbor’s internal turmoil. Citing an imminent danger to Russians living in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, Putin sought permission from Russia’s parliament to send military forces into Ukraine. As of Monday, Ukrainian officials said 16,000 Russian troops were in Ukraine and in a Tuesday press conference from his Moscow home, Putin said they “reserve the right to use all means to protect” Russian citizens in Ukraine, but denied having sent Russian forces there.
With all of the speculation regarding Russia’s motives and endless posturing over what’s in Ukraine’s best interest, the perspectives of those that matter most, actual Ukrainians, seem to get lost along the way. “The radical voices are always the loudest,” said Olga, a native of Sevastopol, Crimea who moved to the U.S. in 2007. “I wish there were some moderate voices in between that would be heard.”
In order to understand what’s happening now, Olga said you need to first accept that “Crimea is really different from the rest of the country.” (For safety concerns, all of the Ukrainians quoted in this article will be identified by first name only). The region was part of the Russian empire since the end of the 18th century and only recently became part of Ukraine when then-Soviet Union leader Nikita Kruschev gifted it in 1954, “but it was really only a formality.” When the Soviet Union collapsed and borders were drawn, Crimea became part of Ukraine “to the dismay of a lot of people there.” Most of the population is Russian speaking and even the ethnic Ukrainians that do live there are Russian speakers for the most part, she explains. And as home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the city of Sevastopol in particular has many people who are Russian citizens. “In general, the sentiment is way more pro-Russian than pro-Ukrainian.”
Olga said her family, living in Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol, watched cautiously as the last four months of protests escalated — though she’s clear that their unease was not due to an affinity for the ousted president. “Nobody had any illusions about who Yanukovych really is,” she said emphatically. “He is disliked all over the country — south, east, west, regardless — disliked and distrusted.”
When the opposition took over in Kyiv, Olga said that people in Crimea were very distrustful of the new leaders and felt they didn’t have any representation in the new government or choice in who would lead it. With most of their information coming from pro-Russian websites and TV channels, she says “they do get a one-sided perspective for sure.” Initially, she believes they were supportive of Russian involvement — their fears were very great and Russian support perhaps felt like a last resort. However, as the events of the past week unfolded, “it’s looking now like its not just protection … It’s a full-blown invasion. As time goes on, that’s becoming more and more apparent.”
The distrust felt by her friends and family toward the interim government stems in part from who comprises the coalition. Oleh Tyahnybok in particular “has been a very vocal anti-Russian voice” and “his Svoboda Party has gone from a marginalized extreme right group with little support to a mainstream political force gaining more seats in the government.” She explains that most ethnic Russians in Ukraine want to remain in an independent Ukraine, while maintaining their linguistic and cultural traditions.
Olga has been talking to her parents every day and they described the atmosphere in Sevastopol as peaceful but very tense “because nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.” She emphasizes that her parents, “as pro-Russian as they are, they do not want separation. They do not want Crimea to become part of Russia. They basically want to have a say — they want Crimea to have that autonomous status and to elect their own authorities.”
Bogdan and Viktor
Like Crimea, eastern Ukraine has close historical, ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia. Many have speculated that Putin’s next move after Crimea would be to spread the occupation into eastern Ukraine. And Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations claimed on Tuesday that ousted president Yanukovych, who hails from the eastern city of Donetsk, asked Russia to send troops across the border. But Bogdan, a 45-year-old teacher living near Kharkiv, said that despite having close ties with the Russian Federation, he believes the majority of Ukrainians living in the east have the same simple goal as Ukrainians elsewhere — independence. “I think that all people in Ukraine understand that we live in independent country,” he said. “The name of this country is Ukraine and it will never be part of any other country.”
Located near the Russian border and containing the second largest city in Ukraine, the sharp contrasts of eastern Ukraine are clearly seen in the Kharkiv region — with a large student population in the city surrounded by areas of Russian supporters. While the atmosphere where he lives is peaceful, “people are worrying about the future,” Bogdan said. “It’s only 40 kilometers from the Russian border and it will take only ten minutes for military forces to occupy.”
Another resident of the Kharkiv region, Viktor, said via email that while “life is mostly calm and stable outside of the major city centers” for now, “one question bothers the whole country — should we wait for the war?”
A veteran of the Soviet Army, Bogdan said the situation in Crimea reminds him of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when Soviet propaganda sought to convince people that the invasion was necessary to protect Soviet citizens and interests. Ultimately, however, “Ukraine wants to be free and that’s why we are fighting against it.”
“I am against war and I don’t want my country to be invaded,” said Viktor. “War has never brought happiness, only losses.”
“I never thought that after the Orange Revolution in 2004, people will once again gather and protest,” said Ruslana, a 23-year-old living in Kyiv, via email. “As the protests began, I was afraid they would quickly run out and people did not achieve their goal! But after Berkut [riot police] beat protesters then gathered on Independence Square … then I realized what we have strong people.”
After months of enduring sub-zero temperatures on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the protest movement, and Ukrainians around the country, were stunned when police turned their weapons on the crowd in February. “When snipers began to kill ordinary people, Ukrainians were shocked,” Ruslana said. “Almost a week we had a mourning.”
“After these events, life in Ukraine has changed dramatically,” she continued. Yanukovych was stripped of his presidential powers, a move that was met with great happiness — though she notes the price at which that aim was achieved.
Their happiness was short-lived, however. “No one expected” Russia would send troops to Crimea, said Ruslana. While she understands that in Crimea, “they speak Russian, they have Russian TV,” she believes that “not everyone in the Crimea and the east support Russia.”
“Now in Kyiv and throughout the country, the tense situation … people are preparing for war,” said Ruslana. “Near military offices queue young guys! This is very scary.” Ultimately she believes that if Putin decides to send forces further into Ukraine, “people are going to fight! They will not give a piece of their country, I’m sure.”
A Common Goal
After the Orange Revolution of 2004, Bogdan said “nothing changed for ordinary people.” But the things he’s seeing from the new leadership in Kyiv is giving him hope. And his aspirations for Ukraine are quite simple: “My idea is to live in the independent country which is economically developed.”
While she “can see why people in the south are worried about their future,” Olga still maintains that “the majority of Crimeans don’t want separation. It would be economical and political disaster for Crimea.”
“Ukrainian people want justice, live without corruption, without stealing,” said Ruslana. “People want independence.”
A good politician will always be thinking of the people who elected them, Viktor writes. “His or her own profit must stand in the last place and the people the first.”
He added, “politicians come and go, but the people remain.”
The author met both Olga and Ruslana while living in Ukraine from 2005 to 2007.