Don’t Underestimate Ukraine!

Posted January 29th, 2014 at 7:45 pm (UTC+0)

With nighttime temperatures falling to -20C, wood fires provide some warmth for protesters. VOA Photo: James Brooke

With nighttime temperatures falling to -20C, wood fires provide some warmth for protesters. VOA Photo: James Brooke

the late 1940s, the mortality rate for Soviet troops fighting Ukrainian insurgents in Western Ukraine was higher than the mortality rate for Soviet troops fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

This little known fact, long suppressed by Soviet censors, helps to explain why, after two months of harsh winter weather, Ukrainians are still manning barricades against their government.

Beneath the amiable, and sometimes jovial, exterior of many Ukrainians is a hidden self-discipline, nerves of steel, and an impressive ability to cooperate under duress for a common cause.

Many Westerners, myself included, assumed that the pro-Europe protests of late November would blow over after a week or two. Protesters would fold their tents and redirect their political energies toward the March 2015 Presidential election.

Two months later, in face of riot police clubbings, sniper fire from rooftops, and drenchings by fire hoses in Arctic weather, Ukrainians still stand tall. In fact, there are more protesters than ever. President Yanukovych is tossing concession after concession, hoping to avoid an early, South American-style departure from a back door of the Presidential Palace.

Volunteer "fighters" prepare to leave the Maidan for a mission. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Volunteer “fighters” prepare to leave the Maidan for a mission. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Yanukovych, a 63-year-old Soviet man, faces a new, post-Soviet generation of Ukrainians. They think of themselves as Europeans. And, little understood outside of Ukraine, much of this generation grew up worshipping the feats of the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Study photos of the demonstrations: increasingly, you will see the red and black flag of the UPA. Listen for the ritual chant: “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to her Heroes.” That is the old UPA greeting from the 1940s.

What also drives the protesters? Sharp knowledge of the neighborhood.

To the North is Belarus, and to the East is Russia. Belarus is run by a healthy 59-year-old dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Russia is run by a healthy, 61-year-old, authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. It may only be biology that will stop these two men from running their countries for another 15 years. With both countries locked in the political deep freeze, Ukrainians can clearly see their future in this Slavic troika — and they don’t want it.

In the Kremlin’s worldview, Ukrainians are falling victim to the eternal anti-Russian alliance of Poland-Lithuania-Sweden. Once again, these historic enemies of Russia are thrusting down where they do not belong, threatening Russia’s Black Sea underbelly.

On a tent in Kyiv's Maidan Square, the symbol, alluding to Moscow, reads: "Stop Slavery." VOA Photo: James Brooke

On a tent in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, the symbol, alluding to Moscow, reads: “Stop Slavery.” A favorite chant on the Maidan is: “No to Moscow Imperialism.” VOA Photo: James Brooke

Putin’s attempt to export his economic and political model to Ukraine seems doomed to failure.

Russia, the Saudi Arabia of the North, floats on a sea of oil and gas. Putin can spend $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics, allow half of the money to be stolen, and no one will raise a peep. Why? Because there is money left over to pay salaries and pensions on time.

But Ukraine is a normal country. Like France or Brazil, it is forced to make products other people want to buy and to live largely within its means. The Russian model does not work in Ukraine which exports corn and steel.

In a tight economy, unchecked corruption is a driver of protest. On the Maidan protest square, there is a widespread conviction that one of the President’s sons Oleksandr, a trained dentist, has worked hard during his father’s first 1,000 days in office. His business empire is believed to be now worth nearly half a billion dollars.

Protesters say the politically connected steal businesses. Entrepreneurs are wary of starting new companies. In this environment, the best option for young people is to emigrate to Western Europe to work as second class citizens.

"Revolutsiya 2014" -- complete with mask and Molotov cocktail -- reads fresh graffiti near the Maidan. In 1939, Finnish soldiers named their gasoline bottle bombs after Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister who signed a secret protocol with the Nazis to allow a Soviet attack on Finland. VOA Photo: James Brooke

“Revolutsiya 2014” — complete with mask and Molotov cocktail — reads fresh graffiti near the Maidan. In 1939, Finnish soldiers named their gasoline bottle bombs after Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister who signed a secret protocol with the Nazis to allow a Soviet attack on Finland. VOA Photo: James Brooke

This explains why Ukrainian protesters say they fight for “European values.” This is shorthand for courts, judges and prosecutors that crack-down on corruption and the theft of businesses by powerful politicians. This is the crucial software of a modern market economy.

Modern Russia lacks the above. As a result, Putin has lost Ukrainians’ hearts and minds. And $15 billion in Russian credits are not turning Ukrainians around.

Further driving the protests is President Yanukovych’s surprisingly inept handling of the demonstrations.

He played the geopolitical game well, walking the European Union to the altar last November, and putting Putin into fits. By doing this fake move to the west, Yanukovych was able to shake the Kremlin down for the $15 billion in aid.

But on the domestic front, time and time again, his security forces overreacted. Each time the protest spirit was lagging, a smart phone video would capture his riot police committing a new atrocity. In response, the EuroMaidan protest square would pop back up again, from 2,000 people to 200,000.

In the latest video to go viral, riot police can be seen stripping a man of his traditional Cossack uniform, then making him stand naked in the snow while policemen kick and taunt him.

Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has said this Cossack symbolizes Ukraine: naked, tortured but holding his head high and not surrendering to brutal force.

Soot from burning tires mixes with water from riot police fire hoses to create a front line landscape of black ice. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Soot from burning tires mixes with water from riot police fire hoses to create a front line landscape of black ice. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The quality and proximity of the naked Cossack video suggests that it was taken by a policeman, then leaked to the public.

Indeed, some people think Yanukovych is dealing with the opposition because his government is running out of bodyguards. Hundreds of riot policemen have been injured, and several units in the western part of the country have switched sides. The Ukrainian Army leadership has made it clear that it will not move out of the barracks in this political battle. Equally important, Yanukovych’s oligarch supporters may be calculating that it is best to reform now than to face a revolutionary government that might nationalize their assets.

The emergence of a pro-European, anti-corruption government in Ukraine could prove to be an existential challenge to Putin. With pro-Russian groups in Crimea toying with secession, Russia’s President might be tempted to send Russian “peacekeepers” to Ukraine, a la Prague 1968. But he will have to wait one month. Acting now would spoil his long awaited $50 billion coming out party for “The New Russia” — the Sochi Winter Olympics, just across the Black Sea from Ukraine.

So, for now, the red and black UPA flags proliferate at demonstrations, waving over the coffins of martyred protesters. The flags signal no compromise, no retreat. The colors stand for “Ukrainian red blood spilled on Ukrainian black earth.” As it looks now, the only thing that will melt the snow and ice barricades in Kyiv may be general elections in May.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

35 responses to “Don’t Underestimate Ukraine!”

  1. vic kowalenko says:

    Excellent observation and great research James..! Well done

  2. Halyn says:

    Excellent article, well researched !! Thank You James. I hope it gets published everywhere!!

    • Nadia Banchik says:

      Thank you James for this thoughtful observation. Just one your statement is doubtful or even misunderstood: “President Yanukovych is tossing concession after concession, hoping to avoid an early, South American-style departure from a back door of the Presidential Palace.”
      What “concession after concession” Yanukovych “tossed”? So far, not a tiny real concession was offered to resolve the crisis. Premier Azarov resigned after two and half months of such harsh and massive popular protest, but even now Yanukovych does not hurry to form a new government. He seems rather is waiting for the Olympics end that will untie Putin’s cruel hand to aid Yanukovych’s in dealing with the protesters. Even that trumpeted-up “amnesty” has nothing in common with real amnesty, as peaceful protesters who were caught in the streets, tortured and accused of “mass riots” aren’t criminals who would be amnestied. Also, I should add some very important details showing that the riot units “Berkut” use outright bandits’ methods and are tying up with criminals nicknamed “titushkas” who were raised especially for contracting with corrupt police force. These “titushkas” are covered-up under auspice of sports clubs and are being secretly sponsored by the most influential pro-Kremlin politician Victor Medvedchuk.
      Anyway, thank you a lot for this article.

  3. moysaenko says:

    Its interesting that WSJ, NY Times and other major papers do not capture the real reason for the protests. They blandly tout the protests as the Ukrainians as being disappointed in Yanokovych’s decision to trade preferentially with Russia. Actually, Ukrainians are seeking freedom from an oppressive, corrupt, vicious oligarchy that is enriching itself on the labors of the Ukrainian people.

  4. Finally, an American of non-Ukrainian descent got it right. Why can’t our US government use people like James Brooke as an advisor on how to deal with the Russian government?

  5. […] James Brooke January 29th, 2014 Voice of America Source: // […]

  6. Marc Shwec says:

    Excellent analysis. Right on. This should be mailed to every government and media outlet.

  7. Shannon Matthews says:

    Слава Україні – Слава її героїв. Стоп Рабство, сказати “ні” в Москві імперіалізму ”

    From Group I, Ukraine (L’viv/Kyiv), US Peace Corps Volunteer

  8. Jan says:

    Great research! A naked truth and no bias, unfortunately so rare in contemporary media. Thank you very much for your article

  9. Jan says:

    Great research! A naked truth and no bias.

  10. Halyna says:

    Excellent article – he definitely understands exactly what is happening in Ukraine. We should circulate this through the internet as much as possible. Maybe it will get noticed by BBC or CNN….

  11. Andrij W. Chornodolsky says:

    James Brooke in a succinct presentation has captured the most important essence of Maidan. The reasons that so many Ukrainians are committed to its ultimate success. Congratulations on such a well written article. maybe the voice of America should be heard by the president of the United States, who felt that in his State of the Union speech Ukraine only warranted one sentence that was a generalization that could fit anyone.

  12. The first objective , well researched article , written by an intelligent journalist ,I have yet come across . But then small wonder , most of the so called journalists , get their information from news services mostly based in Moscow . Thank you , James Brooke , for giving a really important issue , the attention it deserves !

  13. My cousin from Philadelphia, Pa, Anne Hruskey de Vassal brought this to my attention on my Facebook page today. So the word does get around. I told her I had the pleasure of meeting you the not all that long ago. Great work! As one comment says: “I hope it gets published everywhere!!”

  14. P.S. I’ve reposted it on my Facebook page although most of my friends read Russian.

  15. Taras Petrynec says:

    If you’re going to read just one article about this struggle, then this is the one.

  16. Zenia Brozyna says:

    Ukraine, it’s history and people, have endlessly been misunderstood. Rarely is the political and historical analysis of scholars, pundits, observers and critics, portrayed accurately. It was therefore gratifying to have read James Brooke’s overview of the current uprising in Ukraine. He seems to understand the dedication and endurance of the people of the Maidan, their fight for freedom from tyranny and oppression.

  17. Dzvinka says:

    Send this everywhere! Ukraine has suffered for centuries.

  18. Stefan Czurma says:

    Mr. Brooke, thank you for observations and writings that come across honest and not showing a favorites slant. Also thank you for never have used the word fascists when speaking of my countrymen (as is constantly being done by writers with Russian leanings). Your impartial reporting is a breath of fresh air, no where close to that of Seumas Milne of The Guardian. The trashy article he penned 29 Jan.2014 under the heading “In Ukraine, fascists, oligarchs and
    Western expansion are at the heart of the crises”. I invite you to take a glance.

  19. J.G. Kurys says:

    may I take the opportunity and express my cordial thanks to James Brooke for his excellent article on the situation in Ukraine. the prorogation of Ukrainian Parliament is seen as analogous to the former Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhael Gorbatshov, who took sick leave,and subsequently was deposed as a Leader of the Soviet Union.
    It is hope that it is an end to an end.

  20. Lesya Savka says:

    Outstanding peace of reporting! Deeply insightful, brave analysis of our past history & true reasons behind this uprising. Absolutely agree with above comments: where are other examples of honest Western journalism?

  21. James Brooke James Brooke says:

    Here are something to look out for — Russia’s state TV whipping up anti-Ukrainian hysteria (I saw that in Georgia in early August 2008, coincidentally prior to Putin’s Summer Olympics military move into Georgia)
    Two options: Kremlin may try to engineer a pro-Russian coup in Kiev; Kremlin may try to make a move to ‘restore’ Crimea to Russia.
    Stay tuned,

    • JLNancy says:

      Yes, Mr. Brooke – (per your post ^^ ) — It is very intriguing and jarring >

      “…The possibility of the opposition succeeding in altering the balance of power in Kyiv has been causing a hysterical reaction in Moscow…

      …The pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda has called one Russian independent-media channel (Dozhd) “a liberal outpost of Jews, homosexuals, and *insects*”…and… that other Russia liberal news outlets are *leaders of a fifth-column that is preparing a *Kyiv-style Maidan revolution* in Moscow…

      …Russian revisionists, who want to restore a Russian or Soviet empire, and Russian nationalists, as well as anti-gay, anti-Western and anti-liberal reactionaries… have formed Putin’s main ideological, political powerhouse and are putting increased pressure on Putin…and pressing him to carve out and annex [parts of what they believe] to be a divided nation of Ukraine …”

      From >
      Clamp down on free speech in Russia as fall-out from Ukrainian crisis >

      IMHO don’t know if it’s Putin’s cleverly horrible shell game or just grandstanding while playing typically dreadful communist hardball.

      Unfortunately, perhaps your post is not a *Futile Alert* – since Putin did learn some of his management style from Stalin.

  22. James Brooke James Brooke says:

    Another reality check for Russian media seeking to whip up hysteria over political events in Ukraine: WWII ended in Ukraine 70 years ago
    In July 1944, Soviet soldiers expelled Nazi soldiers from Lviv.
    After that, fighting continued for a decade between Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet security forces.
    Instead of falling back on old labels and name calling, Russia should calmly assess the mood and wishes of Ukrainian people today, and then build on that for a healthy Russia-Ukraine relationship in the 21st Century.

    • JLNancy says:

      …a healthy Russia-Ukraine relationship? Good.

      But, Mr. Brooke – Russian media’s track record for the truth is unimpressive


  23. Elaine says:

    Putin is trying to build up Russia’s power again. He is still the ruthless KGB agent. If the Ukrainian’s choose to ally themselves with an authoritarian Communist, their future isn’t going to be very bright.

  24. Lidia Wolanskyj says:

    You have joined the ranks of Timothy Snyder and Anders Aslund as individuals who can look objectively at a situation and correctly–and fairly–assess what is going on. Those who thrive on distortion, lies, outmoded stereotypes, double standards, and short memories would do well to learn from these three.


  25. Ihor says:

    Thank you for enlightening the public with the truth.

  26. Irene kodac says:

    The battle is about the 510 billion that the Yanukovych family stole fromt the country’s people many of whom are not ethnically Ukrainian.

  27. Lesia Leskiw says:

    Thank you so very much Mr. Brooks for your correct and objective article. Ukraine and it’s people have suffered through the centuries and mostly by the hands of the soviet regime who in this day and age is led by ruthless KGB agent Putin. He underestimates the strength and will of all Ukrainian people. Forget it Putin, the demonstrators will not pack up and go away until they accomplish what they set out to do.

    Слава Українії Героям Слава!! Slawa Ukraini, Heroyam Slava!

  28. Ihor says:

    Thank you Mr. Brookes!! Two months ago the people of Ukraine were committed to a completely peacceful change of government. However, according to some journalists on Kanal 5 & Radio Svoboda, the people & opposition now are getting tired of the flim-flam from Yanucovich and are becoming less & less afraid of an armed conflict. It seems that they are mentally preparing and accepting this possibilty.

  29. JLNancy says:

    Борітеся – Поборете !!!!!

    –Words of Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) eminent Ukrainian poet, artist, humanist

    (Loosely translated > FIGHT – OVERCOME!!!!!)

    Ukraine: Rising of Hobbits (short inspirational vid in memory of lives lost and suffering endured whilst *not being underestimated*) >

  30. […] Brooke, James, “Don’t Underestimate Ukraine,” Voice of America, //, 29 January […]

  31. […] Meet the Ukrainian Insurgent Army The UPA emerged in 1942 as one of several partisan armies in German-occupied Ukraine. At its peak, the faction claimed nearly a quarter of a million followers.[1] Fiercely nationalist, the group’s raison d’être was to establish a free and independent Ukrainian homeland. While it directed much of its energy to combatting the Axis invaders, the UPA always kept its eye on what it considered the real enemy: the communists. And as the fortunes of war on the Eastern Front shifted in favour of the Soviets, the faction suspended hostilities against the Germans entirely to fight off the encroaching Red Army. The movement also orchestrated a fearsome campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting western Ukraine’s Polish minority whom they considered also to be among their people’s historic enemies. After the war, the UPA would be one of the last European resistance groups to lay down its weapons. In fact, it continued its struggle against the Soviets well into the 1950s. The Ukrainian insurrection would eventually claim more than 35,000 Soviet lives, making it more than twice as costly to the U.S.S.R. than the 1980s Afghanistan War. [2] […]



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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