The audacity of Ukraine’s youth

There’s a documentary about people’s power in Ukraine that is currently trending on Netflix. “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” deals with the events in the winter of 2013-2014 that led to the toppling of the pro-Russian government of then President Viktor F. Yanukovych. It shows why Vladimir Putin is bent on punishing the people of Ukraine, and why he will not succeed in subjugating them.

I first saw this documentary a couple of years ago, and I remember being awed by the resoluteness of the young people who gathered in Maidan (Independence Square in Kyiv) to protest the policies of their government. In the biting cold of a harsh winter, they stood their ground against the brutal and deadly assaults mounted by the police and their hired thugs over a period of 93 days. I wondered what would have happened at Edsa in February 1986 if guns had actually been fired into the peacefully assembled crowds. How long would the people have stayed?

Watching this film again the other day against the backdrop of Putin’s ongoing war against the Ukrainian people, I was stunned to note how I had glossed over the issues that first brought the students to Maidan. The protest was initially against the refusal of the Yanukovych government to sign the “association agreement” between Ukraine and the European Union. It then progressed into a call for the resignation of the incumbent president, eventually ending with his ignominious flight into exile.

On close viewing, I realized that — that early — there were already explicit references to a free Ukraine consciously deciding that its identity was European and not Russian, and to President Yanukovych being a puppet of Russia. These messages were rhythmically chanted by the demonstrators as slogans and were inscribed on the banners they carried. It dawned on me that the struggle they were waging was nothing less than to free their country from the remaining links that bound them to the former Soviet empire.

That it was the Ukrainian youth that was loudly articulating this call perfectly made sense. Almost all of those who were at Maidan in 2014 appeared to be in their 20s, born after or shortly before the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. They had grown in a world that was freer, far larger, and more connected to the modern world than their elders could ever imagine.

Their quest was nothing less than to freely participate in a new civilization. And they would not allow anyone to stop them from embracing it, certainly not a Putin pontificating about Russian identity and sovereignty, nor any of his timid minions among Ukraine’s traditional politicians.

This audacity of the young (and where would nations be without it?) goes against everything that politicians and diplomats believe to be the prudent way to proceed. It was they — not Ukraine’s young people — who made pledges about not allowing the West to recruit into its alliance countries that lie at Russia’s doorstep.

The 2014 Maidan people power revolution simply refused to be bound by these tacit understandings. To the young activists of Maidan in particular, the only valid principle that was applicable was that independent countries were free to enter into any alliance they chose for themselves, just as they were free to select those who would run their government.

We may take for granted, of course, that the United States and its allies will always find ways to nullify the assurances they give at summits by attempting to shape the political situation within nations. But to suppose that they can control the outcomes is to vest them with too much power. Some pivotal events in history simply happen too fast—well before anyone can calculate the consequences.

On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall which had kept East and West Germany apart fell just like that amid pressure from both sides of the wall to open the border. Political reforms initiated earlier by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union made Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe increasingly inconceivable. Even then, Moscow had sought assurances that German unification would not extend the US-led Nato alliance further east. But, by the summer of 1990, nothing was left of Soviet power in Eastern Europe as country after country—by popular demand—withdrew from the Warsaw Pact.

Nine years later, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s own disintegration in 1991, these former Eastern bloc countries joined Nato in rapid succession. The early assurances given by the United States and its Western European allies that Nato would not expand its reach came to nothing. Severely weakened by these events, Russia under Putin began to entertain thoughts that if it did not boldly draw the line, its own survival would be in peril.

And so, it has drawn the line on Ukraine. But the only way Putin could justify drawing such a line is to invent the myth that Ukraine is not a country but a part of Russia. Hence, he portrays the war in Ukraine not as an invasion of a sovereign nation but as a “special military operation” to remove “neo-Nazis” that allegedly seek to purge the Russian people out of Ukraine.

We don’t know how many Russians share Putin’s delusions and grievances against the West. But as Noam Chomsky puts it in a recent interview, one may offer an explanation, but not a justification. Some facts are simply incontestable, he said. “The most crucial one is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a major war crime, ranking alongside the US invasion of Iraq and the Hitler-Stalin invasion of Poland in September 1939 …” There is no justification for it, no way of lessening its gravity.