On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of following its own "geopolitical and state interests" by supporting pro-democracy Ukrainian protestors. This came as no surprise. Since at least 2000, when Putin first entered the Kremlin, Russia has consistently criticised the West for meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign states. What is most disappointing about the current situation in Ukraine, however, is the extent to which some Western commentators (see, for example, this piece) have followed the same line of argument.
These commentators argue that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was democratically elected in 2010, and if Ukrainians wanted to effect change in their country they should have waited until March 2015, when the next presidential elections are scheduled. They argue that those who see Ukraine as a battleground between freedom and tyranny overlook the fact that under tyrant, citizens do not take to the streets to protest against the government. In other words, in supporting the Maidan (Independence Square) protestors the West is supporting an armed insurrection in the country. Ultimately, they insist, the real aggressors are not in Moscow but Washington and Brussels.
This is profoundly misleading.
It is true that Viktor Yanukovych was democratically elected in 2010 in an election heralded by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe as "truly competitive". Since then, however, Yanukovych has gone about dismantling the democracy that elected him; centralising power, seizing independent media and cracking down on human rights.
Rather than serve the Ukrainian people, Yanukovych used his power to enrich himself and those closest to him. Credible estimates suggest that his so-called 'Family' - a select group of between five and fifteen individuals - embezzled between $8 billion and $10 billion in just over three and a half years. Oleksandr Yanukovych, his elder son and a dentist by training, rose to become one of Ukraine's wealthiest businessmen through his majority shareholding in MAKO Group, a London-based derivatives-trading firm.
After protests initially broke out in Kiev in November 2013, Yanukovych repeatedly refused to engage in dialogue with the protestors and, instead, did everything in his power to crush them. In November, he sent riot police to Maidan to violently disburse demonstrators while they slept. In mid-January 2014, without any public hearing or parliamentary debate, he signed a number of sweeping laws that restricted civil rights including the freedoms of speech, press, and association. In late January, Yanukovych again sent riot police to Maidan. Tens of protestors were kidnapped and beaten; others were tortured and killed by government forces. At least one, Dmytro Bulatov, was crucified and mutilated. And then, in mid-February, at least 88 people were killed as government forces, including snipers, attacked a group of peaceful protestors.
Faced with this situation, the West had no choice but to express its support for the protestors. Such an intervention was not about the country's international geopolitical orientation. It was not pro-European, nor was it anti-Russian. Rather, it was motivated by a desire to help a people who wanted rid of a rampantly corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy. It is no surprise that the Kremlin chooses to overlook this inconvenient truth in its acccount of the conflict, but it is shocking that the same line is being used by Kremlin apologists in the West.
If there is any reason to criticise the West for supporting the Maidan protestors, it is that its support did not come early enough.