It’s Unity Day in Ukraine: 95 years ago today, Ukraine declared its independence from Czarist Russia. Due to insufficient support from foreign powers—Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—Ukraine fell to the Bolsheviks, and went on to experience one of the worst genocides in history and 70 years of brutal Soviet repression. Today, history risks repeating itself as the EU and the Obama administration sit by, releasing statements, as Ukraine’s government fires on protesters demanding democracy.
In the past 24-hours, five protesters have been killed. Four were shot to death. Activist Yuri Verbitsky has been found dead in the woods, signs of torture on his broken body; he had been kidnapped from a hospital where he was receiving treatment after a clash with riot police. Their deaths could have been avoided if the West had listened to pleas from protesters to enact sanctions against Ukraine's brutal regime.
Since the end of November, Ukrainians have been peacefully protesting in a movement called EuroMaidan, named after Kyiv’s main square known as “Maidan.” Their numbers sometimes grew to over 200,000 as they demanded their president sign the promised deal to move his country closer to the EU. Instead, President Yanukovych accepted a $15 billion aid package and cheap gas prices from his close ally Vladimir Putin. Last week, Yanukovych had his parliament push through dozens of laws eradicating free speech, investigative journalism, and the right to protest. This brazen move was directly ripped from Putin’s playbook. Protesters are now receiving Orwellian text-messages identifying them as being part of the demonstrations.
Last Sunday, tens of thousands gathered at Maidan. But the new totalitarian laws, lack of meaningful actions from the West, drove a handful of protesters to violence. The violence escalated. Now clouds of smoke fill the streets near Maidan, and central Kyiv resembles a war zone.
How many people have to die before the West enacts sanctions? President Yanukovych’s abuse of power is well-documented. His son, a dentist, lives in a $100 million home. He is blatantly more concerned about preserving his lifestyle than leading a democratic nation that he’s willing to push Ukraine back into the Soviet dark ages. Despite statements from Western governments calling for peace, Yanukovych continues to order violence against his people. Repeated statements from the West did not prevent what happened to Tetyana Chernovil. After publishing photographs of the massive private homes of some of Ukraine’s ruling oligarchs, Chernovil, an investigative journalist, was rammed off the road, pulled out of her car, and nearly beaten to death.
Money is clearly a sensitive issue with President Yanukovych and his regime. And it is where the West can exert control on the human rights crisis in Ukraine. The EU and the Obama administration must listen to the Ukrainian people and sanction members of the government responsible for the violence and totalitarian laws. Another statement, another call for peace will not work with criminals. President Yanukovych rose to power as a mafia thug and that is how he continues to rule. Mafia thugs don’t understand peace, but they do understand the freezing of money laundering bank accounts.
Sanctions must be the West’s next and immediate step, because Ukrainians will not stop fighting. They do not want to live in a prison like Belarus or see Ukraine turn into the next Chechnya. As Voltaire astutely observed: “Ukraine has always aspired to be free.”
This time, unlike 95 years ago on Ukraine's first Unity Day, Ukraine can go on to live free from Russia and its confederacy of thugs. But Ukrainians' dream of freedom depends on sanctions from the West and not another empty statement.