For the demonstrators in Kiev’s Independence Square, the protest is no longer about the EU Association agreement that President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign on November 21. The precise benefits to be derived from greater economic ties with Brussels are not what is keeping several thousand Ukrainians encamped in the now renamed “Euro Square” in the dead cold of a Kiev December. Rather, the issue has become a more basic one—where is Ukraine headed?
Nikolai Vorobov, a journalist and anticorruption activist involved with the protests, told me that “people here haven’t read the Association agreement. It’s over 100 pages long and it’s almost certain that also Yanukovych himself hasn’t read it. The issue for the protesters is simple—they want to move closer towards Europe, towards civilization, and away from Russia.”
The problem for the Euro Square protesters is that the Yanukovych government and its supporters also understand the matter in these stark terms. And so does Moscow. For Russian president Vladimir Putin, the question is one of geopolitics and strategy. Ukraine possesses vast mineral resources and a population of 46 million. Geographically, it constitutes a buffer zone between Russia and EU countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, all of whom are also NATO members.
Putin sees Ukraine as a vital component of the Eurasian Union that the Russian president wants to build from the Pacific coast all the way to the edge of Central Europe. This projected alliance is intended to put Moscow at the center of a trade and strategic bloc that will rival the United States, China, and the EU, and thus herald the return of Russia to the global stage.
Putin is willing to reach deep into his pockets to make his vision reality. On December 17, Moscow pledged to purchase $15 billion of Ukrainian government debt. The Russians also promise to slash the price that Ukraine pays for Russian gas by a third. In exchange, Putin requires political acquiescence.
In other words, Ukraine’s two possible futures are in open confrontation on the frozen streets of Kiev. Behind the hastily assembled barricades at Euro Square is a coalition of mostly young civil society activists, anti-Russian nationalists, and ordinary citizens outraged by what they perceive as the brutal tactics of the government.
Yanukovych supporters rally on the other side of the police lines. Mostly bussed in from the president’s heartland in the Donbass region in the east, Yanukovych’s partisans, according to a rumor among Kievans, are paid about $50 a day for their presence. They are mostly tough young men, some of them coalminers from Donetsk. In the evenings, they congregate around the Arsenalna metro station by the park, smoking and drinking beer from the bottle, cheerfully impervious to the subzero temperatures.
The anti-Square, as Kievans call it, is presumably intended to remind Ukraine and the world that the president enjoys deep and real support in large sections of the country. It also illustrates what’s at stake in these protests. On one side, there’s the West—civil society and capitalist democracy, with all its inevitable imperfections, failures, and disappointments. On the other, there’s Putin’s revived Russia, a looming behemoth that even without communism manages to replicate a Soviet order where political technologists produce on demand a remote-controlled replica of civic protest, for a reasonable price.
These divisions, of course, pre-date the beginning of the protests in November. Indeed, they are written into the very nature of independent Ukraine, comprising the borderlands of two former empires, Russian and Austro-Hungarian. Just as Yanukovych can rely on his supporters from the Russian-speaking eastern regions, the protesters at Euro Square hail disproportionately from the Ukrainian-speaking west.
Nonetheless, Inna Korsun, an activist with the Democratic Alliance movement, said she rejects these geographic and cultural schematics. “There are easterners here with us at Euro Square. And there are pro-Euro Square groups also in the east, even in Donetsk.” But Korsun is herself from Khmelnytskyi, a town in the western heartland. And Euro Square’s liberal democratic impulses derive from the political culture of western Ukraine.
Of course, Euro Square isn’t just a movement of idealistic civil society activists. The banners on display include the blue and yellow emblems of the far-right Svoboda party, whose chief, Oleh Tyahnybok, has emerged as one of the leaders of the protest. There are also the red and black flags of a number of paramilitary associations, linked to the radically anti-Russian and anti-Semitic fringe of Ukrainian nationalism. Stas, a butcher from the city of Rivne and a member of the Ukrainian National Assembly, proudly showed me the collection of clubs that he and his comrades had assembled in their tent on the square. “For defense against the Berkut [special police] units,” he explained.
To delegitimize the Euro Square protest, the Yanukovych government seeks to portray it as fascist in its entirety. Rather, it is a gathering of all those forces in Ukraine who want to resist absorption into Putin’s geostrategic bloc. This coalition encompasses democrats, but also nationalists, including radical ones. And yet for all their courage and commitment, it is hard to see how the Euro Square protesters can succeed, at least in the short term.
Yanukovych and his supporters, hired or not, are affiliated with a camp that has a recognized leader, Putin, who has a clear vision and an ambitious project. In contrast, the Euro Square protesters have put their faith in the West at a moment when neither Europe nor the United States seem capable of grasping the nature of geopolitical threats, let alone responding to them effectively. Such are the battle lines in icy Kiev.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.