Just as Ukraine’s months-long protests came to the end and lawmakers began crafting a new government and plans for painful reforms, Russia stepped in. On Feb. 28, unidentified armed men blockaded two airports in Ukraine’s southern resort destination of Crimea. By March 2, Russian troops had control of the entire peninsula, with reports of 16,000 soldiers in the region.
The semi-autonomous region of Crimea is home to the Russian Black Sea Naval Fleet, and ethnic Russians comprise a little more than half of the population. One quarter are ethnic Ukrainians and the rest are Ukrainian Tatars (who became staunchly anti-Russian after being deported by Stalin in 1944). The parliament in Moscow gave Russian President Vladimir Putin permission to use military force in Crimea to defend Russian nationals and interests against what they claim are threats from the new regime in Kiev. “This is not a threat. This is actually the declaration of war to my country,” said interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The crisis began last fall when former President Victor Yanukovych backed out of a long-anticipated trade deal with the European Union and weeks later accepted a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Ukrainians viewed this as a move away from Europe and back into the Russian orbit. Hundreds of students gathered in Independence Square to protest the president’s actions, and in late November, an elite group of riot police arrived on the scene and beat the student protesters. This aroused anger among Ukrainians already upset with government corruption, and they arrived by the tens of thousands to join the growing protest movement. The Maidan, Kiev’s city center, eventually transformed into a full-scale revolution with barricades, makeshift weapons, and army tents.
The lawless violence of the riot police continued into February and culminated with clashes that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 people, primarily protesters. The streets of Kiev burned for days, and some activists were kidnapped from hospitals while others were tortured or hosed with water and left in the woods to die.
Opposition leaders attempted to cut a deal with the Kremlin-backed government, but the protesters were not interested in finding middle ground after witnessing the violence in the streets. The anger spread: After Ukrainians toppled more than 50 iconic Lenin statues across the country and volunteers mobilized checkpoints to stop government thugs, or titushkis, from terrorizing protesters, Yanukovych finally got the message that he was no longer welcome and fled to Russia. From there he still claims to be Ukraine’s legitimate president.
As soon as Yanukovych’s exodus was confirmed, journalists and protesters flocked to his 350-acre presidential compound and discovered far more than “the golden toilet” long rumored as a fixture in his residences.
The estate quickly became the most popular tourist attraction in Ukraine. Jonathan Eide, a church planter with Mission to the World, walked an hour with his family to make it through the cars full of people lining up to see the palatial estate. Once inside, they toured the grounds for hours and still didn’t have a chance to see the petting zoo, the Spanish galleon, or the nine-hole golf course.
Eide said the people there were both giddy and relieved: “Many were commenting that this was ‘our’ money that built this, and the disgust was tangible. It seemed cathartic for people to come and see what has come to represent the center of corruption, and it felt like on Sunday all of Ukraine breathed a sigh of relief.”
RELIEF TURNED TO FEAR, though, after the Russian invasion of Crimea on Feb. 28 and the following days. Russian propaganda is painting a picture of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as endangered by Kiev’s new government. Ukrainians say this is far from the truth and that Russians are a source of violence. A disturbing video from a Feb. 28 demonstration in Kharkiv shows a mob of pro-Russian demonstrators beating a group of Ukrainians. Dozens were badly wounded. In Donestk, a similar mob waving Russian flags beat a photographer. There are some reports of Moscow paying Russians to go to Ukraine and riot.
Kostya Farkovets, a 40-year-old Ukrainian who lives in the eastern city of Gorlovka with his wife and three boys, told me that life is “turning pretty lousy” in his town and in nearby Donetsk. “Some pro-Russian radicals have mounted the Russian flag on top of the governor’s building yesterday instead of Ukraine’s national flag. Here in Gorlovka, the Russian flag is sitting right next to Ukraine’s flag over our city council building. I can’t believe it.”
But Ukrainians also say the notion in the West of a “divided” Ukraine is oversimplified. Ukrainians say talk of a “civil war” in Ukraine based on an east-west divide is misleading, and they fear this false notion could be used by Moscow to justify land grabs in a country some are saying is destined to split.
Generally, Ukrainian is spoken more often in the west and Russian is preferred in the east. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t find speakers of both throughout the country, and many Ukrainians speak both languages. One-sixth of Ukraine’s citizens are Russian by ethnicity, and many of them live in the eastern and southern parts of the country—with high concentrations in Crimea—but not all of them want to live under Russian rule.
Ukrainians turned out in full force in early March to make this point clear: In the southern city of Odessa, 10,000 people demonstrated, yelling, “Odessa isn’t Russian!” and “Out with Putin!” Thousands of people in Dnipropetrovsk, in the “Russian-speaking” east, poured into the streets to sing the Ukrainian national anthem. This was one day after pro-Russian protesters raised the Russian flag over government buildings.
“Many Ukrainians are saying people have confused divided with diverse,” said Rosylynn Prough, an orphanage worker in the western city of Zhytomyr. “Yes, different regions have different cultures including which language they prefer, but they are still Ukraine.”
UKRAINIANS, MEANWHILE, face the daunting possibility of facing Putin alone. Russia has been actively building up its military during the past decade and has amassed about 750,000 troops. Ukraine has around 150,000.
Putin has high hopes of reviving part of the old Soviet order by bringing former Soviet republics into his Eurasian Union, due to be launched in January 2015. With its strategic location, agricultural resources, and highly educated workers, Ukraine would be Moscow’s greatest prize.
Military help from the West doesn’t seem forthcoming. The joke in Ukraine right now, according to Eide: “The West will act only when they run out of strong adjectives. So far they’re finding new ones every day.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Putin to retreat from “an incredible act of aggression,” and President Obama warned Moscow that Russian intervention in Ukraine would represent “a profound interference.”
Putin has signaled that he will use force in the region only as a last resort, but will use any means necessary to protect ethnic Russians. Crimea’s new pro-Russian premier has scheduled a status referendum for March 30, and Moscow could use the results as a pretext for annexing Crimea.
World leaders are scrambling to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and the United States, France, and Britain have discussed boycotting the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi. Kerry, who arrived in Kiev on March 4 to meet with members of the new interim government and visit the site of Ukraine’s deadly protests, has also mentioned the possibility of visa bans, asset freezes, and economic sanctions against Russia.
“Beyond diplomatic and public condemnation, there is little that the U.S. can do. President Obama has no particularly useful credibility to move the Russians,” said Steven Bucci of The Heritage Foundation. “We are likely to be an impotent bystander in the tragedy that could be unfolding.”
Ukrainian adoption usually involves at least a handful of hurdles to cross, but Lisa and Dave Bundy’s adoption experience was more than the typical tale of delayed paperwork and frigid temperatures. It included gunfire and explosions.
The couple hadn’t considered adopting older children until last summer when they met Alla, Max, Karina, and Nastia—ages 9, 11, 14, and 16—during a Bridges of Faith program that brings Ukrainian children to the United States for a summer abroad experience. A deep bond grew between the Bundys and the children, and they decided to adopt the children.
The couple traveled to Kiev on Nov. 22, during the beginning of student-led protests that received scant attention in the West. When they arrived for their appointment with Ukraine’s State Department of Adoptions (SDA) on Nov. 26, tens of thousands of protesters had flooded the Maidan, Kiev’s city center.
Two months later, they found themselves in the thick of deadly clashes and a full-scale revolutionary movement that sent bullets flying past their apartment balcony in downtown Kiev and eventually sent the country’s former president and his political allies packing. With four scared kids in tow who spoke limited English, the family holed up in an apartment during the worst days of the conflict, but engaged in daily “recon” missions for food and the occasional photo.
The Bundys were at Nastia’s court appointment when the most intense violence erupted on Feb. 18.
The day after Kiev’s violence came to a halt, the Bundy family walked through Independence Square, strolled past the charred Trade Unions building that had served as headquarters for the protest movement, and ventured unintentionally into a memorial procession for the “heavenly hundred” who died in the clashes.
As they walked, Nastia Bundy paused to take pictures, sensing the significance of the moment. A Maidan guard, concerned about thugs still at large, escorted them to a restaurant and gave the kids a memento: a mismatched pair of gloves, covered in soot.
Dave—a 47-year-old freelance photographer—is now settling into a new life with the three younger kids back home in Montgomery, Ala., as Lisa—a 40-year-old emergency physician—wraps up the final stages in Kiev of adopting their oldest child.
Lisa hopes to fly home with Nastia in early March, and when they land, she will be the final Bundy child to be declared a U.S. citizen. But the family says Ukraine will always be in their hearts.
“The kids got to see the history of their country’s fight for democracy and freedom,” Lisa Bundy said. “It’s part of their heritage and their Ukrainian history as well as part of our history now as a family.” —J.N.