Putin's War: Kiev Protests Reflect Frustration With War Strategy

Ukraine protest
Demonstrators, who are against a constitutional amendment on decentralization, clash with police outside the parliament building in Kiev, Ukraine, August 31. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

One Ukrainian National Guard soldier died and more than 100 law enforcement personnel and civilians were injured, several critically, after violent protests erupted outside Ukraine's parliament on Monday, August 31.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said a demonstrator threw fragmentation grenades into a line of Ukrainian National Guard soldiers and law enforcement personnel guarding the entrance to the parliament building in central Kiev. Shrapnel killed Igor Debrin, a 25-year-old National Guard soldier. Avakov said 122 people were hospitalized, including two French TV journalists, and 11 people were in "very critical condition."

Monday's protests were over a constitutional amendment, which grants separatist-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine more autonomy. The measure passed a preliminary vote amid a tumultuous parliamentary session Monday.

More than 30 protesters were arrested, Avakov said, including the attacker, identified as Igor Gumenyuk. Avakov said Gumenyuk is a member of the nationalist Svoboda Party and was caught carrying several grenades. He was also a volunteer fighter for the Svoboda Party's Sich Battalion and was on leave from the war zone in east Ukraine—set to return to the front within days.

In a televised national address Monday evening, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blamed nationalist groups involved in Monday's protests, which included the Svoboda Party and Right Sector, for the violence.

"It was an anti-Ukrainian protest, for which all of its organizers, without exception, all representatives of political forces must be held strictly liable," Poroshenko said.

Both the Svoboda Party and Right Sector also have paramilitary arms, which have fought in the Ukraine war. Monday's violence will likely escalate an increasingly volatile relationship between Kiev and volunteer groups that have played a key role in Ukraine's war effort.

The current cease-fire—known as "Minsk II"—calls for Kiev to grant separatist-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine more autonomy by the end of the year. Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as German and French leaders approved the deal, which was signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on February 12, 2015.

Pushback

Many in Ukraine oppose decentralization and other concessions to the combined Russian-separatist forces. Opponents claim it is a capitulation to Russia, which has supported the separatist territories with weapons and troops, and nullifies the sacrifices suffered by the Ukrainian military after more than a year of war.

"They say that we should negotiate, but in my humble opinion, as a citizen, negotiating with Russia is the same as negotiating with an alligator," said Julia Minaeva, 26, a university assistant professor in Kiev and a volunteer who collects supplies for Ukrainian troops in the war zone.

"Many soldiers feel betrayed by the state," said Marina Komarova, a 33-year-old volunteer from Crimea who has been collecting and delivering supplies to Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines for more than a year. "But it's much worse than betrayal," she added. "It's like spitting on the graves of our soldiers."

The U.S., however, has openly backed Kiev granting the separatist territories—the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic—more autonomy, calling the move a necessary step for peace. After a trip to Kiev in July, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland endorsed the decentralization measure.

"My country is a country that is very decentralized, as you know," Nuland said July 15. "And we believe that people at the community level know best what is right for their people. That when government is close to citizens it is strongest."

Nuland added: "It will also bring Ukraine into compliance with its Minsk obligations with regard to decentralization and special status. And that is very, very important."

Monday's decentralization vote came one day before a fresh truce was set to go in effect in eastern Ukraine. On August 26, the trilateral contact group—a group comprising representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the separatist territories, under OSCE oversight—agreed on a full cease-fire to go in effect on September 1, to coincide with Ukrainian students returning to school.

Catch-22

Monday's deadly protests reflect Kiev's unwinnable pickle—securing a domestically acceptable outcome in the war balanced against the need to move forward on post-revolution reforms.

The war has consumed most of the political oxygen in Ukraine, and there is a growing sense of national frustration due to the lethargic pace of anti-corruption and pro-democracy reforms for which the 2014 revolution was launched.

In a Pew Research Center poll published June 10, 32 percent of Ukrainian respondents said the Kiev government was having a positive impact—a 15 percent drop in one year—and 59 percent of respondents said the central government was negatively affecting the country.

There is also a growing sense of national frustration with Kiev's prosecution of the war effort. Many civilians and soldiers say that Ukrainian troops have had to weather combined Russian-separatist heavy weapons attacks for months without adequate means to protect themselves due to terms of the February 12 cease-fire.

"They soldiers are demoralized because they're not getting what they need," Komarova said. "They are demoralized because they are not allowed to respond to the fire; they can't shoot back."

"If the shelling is an hour or two hours long, and the commanders actually fire back with the artillery they are not allowed to have, they are punished for breaking the Minsk agreement," she added. "They're not allowed to attack or defend themselves."

Protests have slowly ratcheted up nationwide due to growing frustration with the war. In the front-line city of Mariupol, residents are skeptical over a pullback of volunteer battalions from the front lines and a proposal to demilitarize the town of Shyrokyne, over which Ukrainian troops and combined Russian-separatist forces have fought for more than six months.

The war has also battered Ukraine's economy, sending the country's currency, the Hryvnia, into free fall, sparking inflation and deterring foreign investment. Therefore, Kiev is hard pressed to take measures to end the war, including domestically unpopular ones pushed by the West, such as decentralization. Yet, the very measures necessary to end the war have also spurred a domestic backlash, as Monday's protests demonstrate.

"Losing the war is not even an option," Komarova said. "Many soldiers have died for this victory. Their sacrifice won't be useless."

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is The Daily Signal's foreign correspondent based in Ukraine.

Putin's War: Kiev Protests Reflect Frustration With War Strategy | World