Ukraine gained its independence from Russia in 1991, and over a decade later, in the people’s “Revolution of Dignity” of 2014, saw an end to the corrupt regime of President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych. He would flee Kiev in the early morning hours of February 22nd, 2014—given asylum by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

How did the Revolution of Dignity happen?

A brief history of revolution

The people of Ukraine grew increasingly tired of paper independence and the increasing corruption of the Yanukovych regime, as well as his close ties to Russia. The final straw was a broken promise made by the president to improve relations with the EU and a stalled trade agreement. Frustration would boil over into full-blown revolution when peaceful protests in Maidan (Independence Square) were met with brutal retaliation against the unarmed protesters, many of them students.

The result backfired against Yanukovych, and thousands more would gather in Maidan in protest from all parts of Ukraine. The protests would last months, turning extremely violent at times. However, the people wold prevail, and mounting pressure resulted in the president’s unofficial resignation in February of 2014. President Viktor Yanukovych was finally out of power, and paper independence gave way to something more substantial. 

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Top and above: Maidan Square during the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. Courtesy BBC.

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Top: Maidan in late October, 2015. above: Looking east from Maidan toward the memorial-lined street. Photos taken by SOFREP. All rights reserved.

The former president’s lavish countryside home was abandoned by security, and is now nicknamed “The Museum of Corruption” by locals. The house contained a private zoo, golf course, lakes, and gold-plated golf clubs. 

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Photo: Victor Yanukovych’s toilet in his countryside mansion nicknamed “Museum of Corruption” (Twitter/@JF991).

Over 100 people would lose their lives in the revolution—ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I spoke with a local Kiev resident over coffee and he explained that during the revolution, the phrase “Glory to Ukraine” was a commonplace saying, with the appropriate response being, “Glory to the heroes.” 

Suggested viewing: “Winter on Fire” is available on Netflix and we’ve included a very insightful video trailer and interview with the director below. 

Post-revolution

The country still remains a mix of pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia, with many families divided by both loyalty and geography. I’ve found that most of the pro-Russian Ukrainians are much older, apparently grown accustomed to the old post-Soviet ways. Most Ukrainians I’ve spoken with are convinced that a free Ukraine, with close ties to the EU, would invite a much brighter future. 

I spent four days touring the streets of the 1500-year-old city in the last week of October, and it was clear to me that the spirit of democracy is alive and well in the capital. However, some people I spoke with still fear that a third revolution is coming and that it would be a bad thing. A young professional I spoke with, working in Kiev for a logistics company, said this was mostly because of the continued culture of political corruption. 

Walking the streets at night, I could feel an uneasy energy lurking just below the surface. Emotions still run high when it comes to  Putin’s Russia and the continued conflict in Donbass to the east. Frustration boiled over in front of me while shopping with my friends in Kiev’s local Roshen chocolate shop. As we were checking out, a burly man became enraged at the register next to us, yelling at employees of the store, visibly angered that employees were speaking only in Russian to him. “Speak Ukrainian!” the man yelled as he threw his purchased chocolates at the young female behind the register. The violent outburst left the man awaiting arrest, held by the main entrance by security as customers scurried out to avoid confrontation. 

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Law in Ukraine is not black and white; it is shades of gray. An example of this: billionaire Ukrainian president, Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko, who under existing Ukrainian law is not permitted to own a private business. He owns several, including the Roshen chocolate company. I was told that some laws people ignore because they are not practical, and unfortunately, many impractical laws still plague Ukraine.  

Many things do seem to be shifting in the right direction. For example, Ukraine has a new police force, only several months old, and trained to U.S. standards. Camouflage police uniforms and old ways have been traded for sharp blue uniforms closely resembling their American and European police counterparts.

“This is a good thing; the people will come to appreciate the new police, but it will take time,” said the same young professional I spoke with during my visit. “The old police were looking for bribes only. The new ones are only enforcing the law.”

On a guided tour, I walked by a newly erected monument outside of the old Russian KGB headquarters. It featured a Ukrainian warrior on horseback, stabbing the head of a two-headed dragon with his spear, repelling the beast (clearly Russia) to the eastern border on a map of Ukraine. The message was clear: Russia continues to be a very real threat to a democratic Ukraine, but the people are ready to fight to keep their independence. 

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Old KGB HQ in Kiev. SOFREP, all rights reserved.
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Ukrainian warrior repelling the two-headed dragon of Russia on the eastern border of Ukraine. SOFREP, all rights reserved.

Conclusion

My last day in Kiev, my friends and I wanted to take a walk past the protests in front of the presidential headquarters, where many had set up camp to strike on various issues including political corruption. I stopped briefly at one of the tents and warmed myself by a striker’s fire—a welcome break from the freezing temperatures. The strikers appeared to be an odd mix of paid proxies and authentic political activists. 

As I stared into the flames of the barrel fire and breathed in the wood smoke, I thought about what freedom really means, and how many Ukrainians had paid for it with their lives in the revolution of 2014, on this very same street. I thought about the importance of the Dignity Revolution that ended in November, 2014, and what it meant to the future of the Ukrainian people, and the rest of the free world. I reflected on my own freedom, and how so many back home in America still take it for granted. 

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Outside the presidential headquarters. Strikers with various political agendas lined the streets in peaceful protest.

So what next?

If we’ve learned anything during 14 years of war and flawed American foreign policy, it’s that we need solid diplomatic strategies, not half-baked ones. Poor strategic planning has contributed to the current instability in North Africa, and left Iraq fractured and in chaos with large parts in the clutches of ISIS. We need a clear plan to put radical Islamic terrorism out of vogue, and eliminate it at its root core. American SOF are part of the puzzle, but they do not, by themselves, complete the picture, social and economic tactics should also be considered. 

And what of Ukraine? 

If any country deserves American support, Ukraine does. Their people have fought hard for it, and we would be smart to go “all in” with our support, providing mentorship where needed, economic relief, military training, and weapons. The U.S. is doing some of this now, but we need to get serious about it soon; the possibility of a third people’s revolution becomes more real by the day. A third uprising could further fracture a free Ukraine and shore up Putin’s very real goals of Russian expansionism.

One thing is clear, the heroes of Ukraine deserve better.

(Featured image: Street Art in old Kiev depicting a young, fragile, and free Ukraine. SOFREP, all rights reserved.)