Ukraine's agony and America's indifference
On a chilly April morning last year, a 19-year-old girl sat across from me in a booth in Kiev. She looked like an Urban Outfitters model - long red hair, red lipstick, short skirt, knee-high stockings, combat boots.
We sipped coffee and made small talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald. She loved him, she said, but wasn't it weird that such a beautiful writer could be a communist? And then we delved into the real reason we wanted to meet - to talk about Molotov cocktails, Sophia's new specialty.
Sophia had acquired this skill during Maidan, the 2013-2014 revolution where Ukrainians fought back against a corrupt and increasingly despotic leader, Viktor Yanukovych. And they succeeded in deposing him. But more than a year later, Ukrainians are still fighting for their country and their liberty, this time against an external force.
The threat of the Islamic State and instability in the Middle East have too often eclipsed the crisis in Ukraine in the news. But as a new generation struggles for their most fundamental liberties, America and the world should take note.
Torn and bitter Europe
As Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's new president, told the U.S. Congress last September: “The outcome of today's war will determine whether we will be forced to accept the reality of a dark, torn and bitter Europe as part of a new world order.”
Furthermore, how the United States responds to this crisis says much about our country's changing role in world affairs-and its consequences for people who share our values.
The story of the Ukraine crisis begins with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the sidelines, pulling the strings of his puppet Yanukovych, who became president in 2010.
Yanukovych reigned with a level of corruption that must be seen to be believed - and it can be literally seen, easily, on a 12-mile drive from downtown Kiev. A city of almost 3 million, its traffic is abhorrent even in times of stability. But Yanukovych never had to experience the jam.
When he wanted to drive, he simply ordered that selected roads in the city be shut down altogether, creating a commuters' nightmare in the already tangled traffic. On the highway to his mansion estate, Mezhgorye, Yanukovych designated the middle lane for his exclusive use, haughtily zipping past his citizens.
Monument to corruption
Mezhgorye stands today as a monument to corruption, the product of more than a billion dollars pilfered Russian-style from the Ukrainian people during Yanukovych's four-year tenure. It is objectively hideous, a testament to money not buying taste.
The autocrat began building his castle in a Greco-Roman style, then changed his mind and switched to a Victorian theme. Builders managed to finish the first floor before Yanukovych changed his mind again, finishing the rest of his house as a log cabin.
The rest of the estate sprawls equally dissonant and warped. Mezhegorye's menagerie included more than 2,000 exotic animals, many smuggled into Ukraine illegally, including African elands, mountain goats, a wild-boar-domesticated-pig hybrid and white ostriches.
No animal lover, Yanukovych kept these rare animals merely as a show of wealth: He'd butcher them and serve them to friends he wanted to impress, including, perhaps, Putin, who had a cabin of his own on Yanukovych's premises.
As Mezhegorye's decadent disorder deepened, Ukraine's house also grew more divided. Observing the corruption of Yanukovych and his oligarch cronies, Ukrainians pondered their own circumstances. Ukraine's per-capita GDP in 2013 was just $3,900 - less than 8 percent of ours here in America according to the World Bank. Youth unemployment rates hovered around 20 percent, and corruption kept qualified workers from landing jobs or gaining promotions.
Understandably, Ukrainians were fed up with this corrupt, Russian-centric system. They yearned for opportunities and growth. They thought that by building an economic relationship with Europe, they could maybe become more Western. But when the chance for that trade deal came around, Yanukovych vetoed it, kowtowing to Putin and favoring Russia instead.
So in late 2013, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest. The protesters were young, mostly college students and high schoolers who had caught word of the gathering on Facebook and headed to Maidan, the city center in downtown Kiev. They camped out with signs and blankets, and it was even fun for the first few days.
What Maidan was about
Then Yanukovych's troops showed up on Nov. 30. The Berkut, the riot police, carried tear gas and batons and they attacked these peaceful protesters. One man vividly recalled hunching over a teenage girl. He tried to shield her from the blows, more than he could count. Four, five police surrounded lone high-school protesters, beating each relentlessly.
A mile down the road, a priest in an old church got wind of the police assault on the students. He climbed up to the rooftop, grabbed the rope and began ringing the bell. In olden days, the church bell's unexpected peal warned of an attack on the city. Kiev's residents woke up to the clanging and got the message: Yanukovych had turned on his own people, committing violence even against teenagers. Ukraine was under attack.
Suddenly, Maidan was no longer about a trade deal - it was about the rejection of Putin and Russia, about a country sick of corruption and oppression, about the embrace of Western ideals and opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured into Maidan, building barricades to protect themselves and continuing their peaceful protest. Everyone wanted to help, bringing tires to melt for barricades, food, blankets and supplies.
As the winter continued, police often roughed up protesters. Gangs of thugs beat them up, too. Many Ukrainians think Yanukovych freed violent criminals from prison on the condition they'd terrorize the protesters. But the Maidaners persevered, remaining in Independence Square and protesting no matter what.
A famous Ukrainian artist recalled one uncanny moment where he and fellow Maidaners squared off against the Berkut. The protesters wore scavenged helmets, but each had been lovingly painted, transformed into works of art. Opposite them stood the riot police, replicas of each other, armed to the teeth. The artist was breath-taken: It was literally a picture of the individual standing up to faceless authoritarianism.
The dark days
That stand had fatal consequences. Among the first to die was Sergei Nigoyan, a 20-year-old Armenian from a small village near Dnipropetrovsk. He'd bought a train ticket, calling his parents to let them know his whereabouts only after he'd arrived in Maidan.
They were nervous, but Sergei had said he wanted to be there for the sake of his country and his future. Weeks later, riot police shot him four times in the head and neck on Hrushevsky Street, just on the outskirts of Maidan.
As the violence escalated, the Maidaners held their ground, camping out through what they now refer to as the “Dark Days,” which began on Feb. 18. Yanukovych and his troops knew the protesters weren't backing down, so they resorted to deadly violence.
The tragedy and courage that unfolded there can't be understood without first grasping the geography: Maidan is a sunken city center, surrounded by hills and bridges and tall buildings. Yanukovych's Berkut forces stood above, dropping grenades and firing tear gas down on the Maidaners. Then came the bullets from the sky, hitting and killing protesters.
Over the next few days, 100 men, many barely adults, perished. Despite their commitment to peace, the protesters understood that they had the choice to defend themselves, leave, or die on the spot.
That was when Sophia, the 19-year-old, volunteered to make Molotov cocktails, mixing jellied petrol, chemicals, stones and red pepper in bottles from the protesters' headquarters on the outskirts of Maidan. Yanukovych's troops knew roughly where the Molotov cocktails were being made, and they sent snipers to aim at Sophia and her friends.
“The bullets usually ricochet,” someone told her. “That's comforting,” she quipped, rolling her eyes. Despite the frigid weather, she wouldn't venture near the open bonfires to warm up, reeking of petrol and afraid she'd immolate by accident.
Another young woman, Galyna, 23, described volunteering to provide emergency care to protesters injured by Yanukovych's troops. The wounded couldn't go to the regular hospital - the Berkut would seize them. Some injured captives went to prison. Others simply disappeared, never to be heard of again.
Galyna and her friends set up secret hospitals in churches and homes, raising money for state-of-the-art equipment. Doctors and nurses volunteered to provide treatment. Private citizens and businesses chipped in for supplies. Ukraine's medical system has long been lacking, but these protesters managed to build makeshift hospitals even better than the real hospitals.
The protesters eventually won, with Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in late February 2014. At that moment, Ukraine had its best chance in a century for establishing a real democracy, a political order that would protect the rights of its citizens rather than violating them.
But at precisely that key juncture, Putin pounced. Russia attacked, seizing Crimea in the south and invading Eastern Ukraine. Yanukovych had cut the nation's already-outnumbered military forces severely, and the Ukrainians remain against tough odds as war continues.
I met a Ukrainian army officer named Dmitry, who had been based in Crimea when Russia invaded, transferring to Kiev after it was lost. His pretty blonde wife was beside him when we talked, their toddler dozing on her lap as he grimly discussed his country's odds.
At the start of the conflict, Russia had four times as many soldiers and a military budget up to 48 times bigger than Ukraine's. “Without military help from the [West], it would be very difficult for Ukraine to protect its independence in a war like this one,” Dmitry solemnly concluded.
Yet Western help remains meager. Despite repeated appeals from Kiev, both the United States and Europe have limited military support to non-lethal equipment. Even after Congress passed legislation authorizing the United States to provide armaments to Ukraine, the White House has refused to provide more than skimpy intelligence, non-lethal aid and sanctions against Russia.
This lack of support has continued despite the United States' prior commitments to Kiev. After the Cold War, when Ukraine was home to the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, it yielded those weapons on the basis of now-forgotten promises that America, Britain and Russia would guarantee its security.
Putin continues to chip away at Ukraine's territory, sending troops across the borders and arming pro-Russian rebels with the lethal weapons Kiev craves. As of March 2015, the death toll from the conflict had surpassed 6,000. Yet the West continues to respond with ineffective diplomatic efforts and insufficient aid.
Ukraine's patriots are trying to make up the difference. Young people repeatedly told me that all they wanted was “rule of law and freedom for our country”-a dream they've proven willing to sacrifice for. After the slaughter at Maidan, they understand the cost of freedom.
The Ukrainian military launched a text-message campaign where citizens could donate money by phone to pay for “logistics or military support.” In the first five days alone, it raised $2.3 million via 50-cent donations, an impressive sum for a country already in a deep economic rut.
Citizens have also led their own war-support efforts. Ilya Tymtchenko, a young man in Kiev, recently did an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for coagulants and bandages, an effort to stop soldiers and volunteers from bleeding to death. Other projects have raised money for food, helmets, body armor, and vehicles.
Learning to self-govern
These volunteer efforts do not only support the fight against Russian aggression. In the process, amidst grim adversity, Ukrainians are learning to self-govern. In partnering with strangers as they work toward a common goal, the people are rebuilding civic trust.That's a major development in a country that ranked 144th on Transparency International's 2013 corruption index. And as we know from Tocqueville, citizens who meet societal needs through private-sector initiatives and charitable associations are strengthening their own capacity to live in freedom.
Ukraine's ultimate fate has yet to be determined. Might has trumped right many times in history, and Kiev's undertrained, undersupplied forces form a rag-tag band against militants well-equipped by Putin.
But there is reason for hope in the commendable grit and valor Ukrainians have demonstrated in standing up to Putin's naked aggression. Would that America were doing even half as much.
Editor's note: Jillian Kay Melchior is a Wyoming native and a 2009 graduate of Hillsdale College. She writes for National Review, the Franklin Center and the Independent Women's Forum. She previously worked for Commentary, the Wall Street Journal Asia and News Corporation. Melchior gave this talk at Colorado Christian University April 8, 2015.
Melchior's speech is reprinted (with permission) from the May 2015 issue of the Centennial Review, a monthly publication of the Lakewood-based Centennial Institute. According to a statement in the Centennial Review, the institute "sponsors research, events and publications to enhance public understanding of the most important issues facing our state and nation. By proclaiming truth, we aim to foster faith, family and freedom, teach citizenship and renew the spirit of 1776." The Centennial Institute website is CentennialCCU.org.
(Posted 5/18/15; Opinion: General)
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