Q & A about Ukraine

During the developing situation in and around Ukraine the last days and hours, numerous allegations about the country have put forward. Not least by the Russian president. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee seeks to answer some of the most frequently repeated allegations about Ukraine, and hopefully stem the tide of disinformation from the Russian propaganda machine.

Question 1:

Did a pro-Russian coup d’état occur in Ukraine in 2014?

Answer:

The short answer is no. But in order to understand how the shift of power occurred in February 2014, we need to look at, and nuance, the preceding events.

Ukrainians had since November 2013 protested against incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych. The first protests were sparked when Yanukovych turned his back to an economic association agreement with the EU. It was not until the protesters were met by violence, however, that the protest movement grew in size. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested against police brutality, across the country – not only in the north and in the west, but also in the east, the south and on the Crimean peninsula. After a spiral of violence which ended with more than a hundred demonstrators were shot and killed in the centre of Kyiv, Yanukovych and a number of politicians fled to Russia.

In the power vacuum that was left a provisional government was created and an interim president elected.

According to the Britannica dictionary, a coup d’état can be defined as “a sudden attempt by a small group of people to take over the government usually through violence”. (The Britannica Dictionary)

Euromaidan was not driven from above. The formal parliamentarian opposition had very little influence over the protest movement which consisted of a large group of different people. For this reason, the Helsinki Committee considers revolution the correct term to use when describing the power shift.

 

Question 2:

Are the governing authorities in Kyiv fascist?

Answer:

Russian authorities have tried to delegitimise the Ukrainian authorities by calling them fascists and neo-Nazis. There are two main allegations that are used to argument for this point of view: 1) The power shift in 2014 was driven by ultranationalists, and 2) Kyiv is pursuing anti-Russian policies (see question 3).

The revolution led a broad group of people together in their opposition to Yanukovych. Next to pro-European youth, liberals, feminists, the LGBT-community, Afghanistan veterans and football supporters, were also people from groupings with ultranationalist and anti-Russian views. This does not mean that the whole movement was an ultranationalist or anti-Russian movement.

Sometimes, it is also pointed out that the opposition party Svoboda (Freedom), which pursues xenophobic policies, had a key role in 2014. The party, however, was the least of the three parties of the opposition and disappeared from politics after the first parliamentary elections in November 2014.

It is remarkable where these allegations of fascism come from.

Unlike Russia – which has only had one leader since 2000 – Volodymyr Zelenskyi is Ukraine’s sixth president. Unlike Russia – where election fraud is widespread – all elections in Ukraine since 2014 have been recognized as free and fair. Unlike Russia – where civil society is under constant pressure from the authorities, where journalists and the members of the opposition are abducted, imprisoned, poisoned and subjected to assassinations – opposition in Ukraine is legal and visible. Unlike Russia, there is no cult of personality of the sitting president of Ukraine.

It should also be noted that Zelenskyi is of Jewish heritage and that a number of prominent politicians, among others former prime minister Volodymyr Groisman, are Jewish.

 

Question 3:

Has Ukraine prohibited the Russian language?

Answer:

No, the Russian language is not prohibited in Ukraine.

One of the arguments the Kremlin made for justifying the occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, was that they wanted to protect the Russian speaking population from an imminent genocide. The reason for this statement was that the provisional government wanted to abolish the law on minority languages. This law gave the status of regional language to Russian and other minority languages. The proposition, however, was vetoed by interim president Oleksandr Turchynov and declared unconstitutional in 2018.

In 2019, a new version of the law was introduced by President Petro Poroshenko. This law demands that all official information shall be given in Ukrainian.

The Russian language is, nevertheless, not in danger of disappearing from Ukraine, which has close cultural ties to the Russian language. Most Ukrainians are bilingual and change between the two languages daily.

Ukrainians are also very clearly pointing out that the conflict with Russia is not about languages. Even though many have changed their language of preference to Ukrainian since 2014, one could still hear both languages being spoken in cities such as Lviv (West), Kyiv (Center), Kharkiv (East) and Odesa (South). Additionally, many of the killed demonstrators in Kyiv in 2014 and thousands of fallen soldiers in the War in Donbas were Russophone Ukrainians from the East.

 

Question 4:

Is Ukraine a highly divided country?

Answer:

No.

As every country of a certain size, there are internal disagreements and different opinions about how the country should develop. But way too often, Ukraine is presented as a country divided in two distinct, conflicting and geographically separated parts:

One often speaks about Ukrainian speaking, pro-European Ukrainians in the West and Russophone, pro-Russian Russians in the East.

This is a coarse simplification which does not tell us anything about the realities in Ukraine. The country is Europe’s second largest in area and the home of more than 44 million inhabitants. Neither the linguistic, political, economic, religious, or cultural dividing lines could be abstracted into a dichotomy.

Since 2014, however, the Russian aggression against Ukraine has united the Ukrainians. Today, therefore, there is much more agreement about which direction the country ought to take. In other words: Putin has to a large extent erased the East-West divide which has previously characterized the public discourse about the country’s foreign policy.

 

Question 5:

Did Ukraine exist before 1917?

Answer:

Yes.

Ukraine’s first formation as a state may be found all the way back to the ninth century. Long before Moscow and St. Petersburg were founded.

Kyiv was the historical capital of Kyivan Rus from c. 882 to 1240, and various state formations and identities have been prominent in Ukraine (Halych-Volhynia, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, among others). We find the word “Ukrainian” in sources from the twelfth century, and the idea of a distinct Ukrainian identity has existed to an ever-increasing degree since the 18th century.

In Putin’s aggressive speech of 22nd February 2022, he alleged that Ukraine was artificially created by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and that the country in reality is a part of Russia. This is not at all true.

 

Question 6:

Did the population on the Crimean Peninsula want to be part of Russia in 2014?

Answer:

Many people were satisfied with the situation they were in before 2014. Due to its distinct position as an autonomous republic in Ukraine, it had its own parliament, right of self-determination and special rights. Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean Tatar were allowed, and the peninsula was a favoured travel destination for Slavs from the whole of Eastern Europe. Due to the sanctions against Russia and the local occupying powers, the tourist industry has been greatly reduced.

The so-called referendum, which was organized in March 2014, was carried out 17 days after Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. There were no forms of open, public discourse before the referendum, the Organization for Safety and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared it illegitimate and did not send observers, and the whole farce was conducted while a foreign power controlled the polling stations. Many citizens refused to recognize the referendum and did not vote.

The referendum was also conducted in violation of the Ukrainian constitution.

For more information about Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, you can read NHC’s questions and answers from 2014.

 

Question 7:

Do the populations in the regions controlled by separatists want to be a part of Russia?

Answer:

Many of the inhabitants of the Donbas region (Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, in Eastern Ukraine) have since 2014 fled the region. Among the ones who are left, there are probably many who consider themselves Russian and wishes to either become a part of Russia or at least be closely associated with Russia. Then again, the population has since 2014 lived under military rule where only Russian propaganda is allowed, and they have very limited access to Western or Ukrainian media. Additionally, the widespread use of abductions, torture and murder against dissenters is well documented in the two breakaway republics.

Therefore, it is difficult to say anything about the real political stance of the population.

Most people probably want an end to the war, whether the region stays within Russian control or is reunited with Ukraine. What they would rather prefer, we do not know, due to the situation on the ground.

 

Question 8:

Has there been a genocide against Russians in Ukraine?

Answer:

There is no evidence for this.

A genocide is certain acts, such as systematic killing and deportations, meant to wholly or partially annihilate an ethnicity, nation or religious group.

During the past weeks, Russian media has repeatedly alleged that mass graves have been found in the Donbas region, supposedly proving Ukraine’s genocide against ethnic Russians.

There are, however, no independent sources confirming these allegations.

NHC’s partner in Ukraine, Truth Hounds, has examined the allegations and refers to the following (from an article in the Norwegian newspaper VG, 23rd February):

  • At only one of the four places where the alleged mass graves are located, we know of actual hard fighting during the last war.
  • The reported events happened back in 2014, which is too long ago to assess with certainty if the bodies were civilians or soldiers.
  • Several of the allegations are linked with places where the Ukrainian army never was, but where the separatists were in constant control.
  • No sources on the pro-Russian or Russian side reported these incidents in the time after they were supposed to have taken place.
  • Neither satellite images, cooperation with Russian human rights organizations, nor testimonies can support the allegations.

If there really had existed mass graves, it could justify the allegation of mass murder and crimes against humanity. However, it would remain to be proved that the killings took place as part of a plan to exterminate a group of Russians, in order to justify the use of the term “genocide”.

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