April 29 2014
The Biggest Myths About the Crisis in Ukraine
Jillian Kay Melchior
On a cool evening, a 23-year-old girl approaches with a slight limp (the result of an injury at Maidan Square, she later says), asking for a light. When she realizes I’m American, she speaks passionately in very limited English, struggling for the right words. What she settles on is surprisingly apt, given Russia’s recent land grabs and building seizures: “I angry birds Russia,” she says with a terrifying fury.
She wasn’t the only one to approach me with an urgency far surpassing her vocabulary. Ukrainians know the West misunderstands their crisis with Russia, and they’re desperate to set the facts straight. On the Ploscha Kontraktova subway platform, one man enacted an elaborate pantomime that basically portrayed Russia ground-stomping his country. At a pub near Olympic Stadium, a young manager typed simple explanations into Google Translate on my iPhone; when I looked in her eyes, they were full of tears.
Ukrainians’ desperation is justified: Russian misinformation is rife, even in the United States. Here are a few widely circulated untruths about the crisis.
Ukrainians should have used the democratic process to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, who was democratically elected.
It was actually Yanukovych who undermined Ukrainian democracy, stealing from his people, restricting press freedoms and otherwise acting as a corrupt thug-dictator.
The demonstrators in Kiev chose to exercise their right of free speech and peaceful protest in Maidan Nezalezhnosti after he abandoned the popular trade deal with the European Union. Yanukovych responded violently, sending his riot police to brutally beat children as young as 15. From there, the violence escalated, peaking Feb. 19-22, when Yanukovych’s forces began shooting into the crowd, killing around 100 people.
If that weren’t justification enough, it’s become increasingly obvious that he had fundamentally acted as a traitor, furthering Vladimir Putin’s interests and priming his country for foreign invasion.
The Maidan protesters are fascists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and extremists; the government they support may also endorse such ideas.
Russian propaganda has managed to taint the Maidaners’ reputations, claiming they were racist, nationalist radicals. While in any crowd of tens of thousands will have a few wackos, most Maidaners’ political goals were simple and laudable: rule of law, an end to corruption and the establishment of a European-style liberal democracy.
Broad swaths of the eastern Ukrainian population want to secede and become a part of Russia.
Ukraine’s eastern regions have long felt politically neglected, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to join Russia. In fact, only 15 percent of eastern Ukrainians want to secede, according to an April survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, which is considered among the most credible pollsters in the country.
Ukraine is on the brink of civil war.
Putin himself advanced this idea in mid-April, but the country remains more united than Russia would have the West believe. In one of the quirkier displays of unity, even longtime soccer rivalries have been set aside, as opposing teams and fans tout pro-Ukrainian swag and sing the national anthem together.
Though tensions in the east have escalated all month, they’re led by a relatively small group of vocal, violent Russian-backed separatists who’ve made nonmilitants fearful of retribution if they voice pro-Ukrainian sentiment. The armed rebellion these separatists lead lacks the popular support to truly make it a civil war.
One key reason for the unrest is that Russian speakers face discrimination in Ukraine.
This claim is preposterous, given that the majority of Ukrainians are bilingual, and Russian is common even in Kiev. Many of the Maidaners I spoke with switched easily between the two languages.
Finally, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found that even in eastern Ukraine, 72 percent of citizens say their country has not violated the rights of the country’s Russian-speaking population.
We can’t know where the crisis in Ukraine will go next, but the American public needs to see through the Russian-backed lies that distract from Putin’s contemptible aggression.
Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a fellow for the Franklin Center and the Independent Women’s Forum.