Simon Crofts: Courage and discipline in Ukraine

We like to see revolutions as in Ukraine in terms of the good guys and the bad guys – who is pro-democracy, or pro-Europe, and who isn’t.

A woman kneels in front of Ukranian riot police. Picture: Reuters

But it’s not that easy. The Ukrainian national character is above all sensible. Most would like to get on with their neighbour to the East – Russia –but they would also like to be as close as possible to Europe.

The one thing that unites the protesters is not what they are for, but against: corrupt politicians. They trust politicians even less than everywhere else in the world.

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“Why brush off a mosquito that has filled itself with your blood, if it’ll be replaced by a hungry one,” as my Ukrainian ex-mother-in-law said. But the mosquito that was President Yanukovich tried to grab so much power that the people could stand no more.

A woman kneels in front of Ukranian riot police. Picture: Reuters

The revolt was unusual – there was no wide-scale looting. The protesters displayed not only remarkable courage, but also discipline, and even the Presidential Palace was not ransacked, just opened to show evidence of excess. Putin made the mistake of trying to prop up the Ukrainian president. He saw that as his best way to regain control of Ukraine, because that is the way politics works in Russia – an excessively powerful president, one who could in turn be brought under Putin’s thumb. But Putin’s policy has backfired and Russia’s influence over Ukraine is weakened.

The immediate risk of civil war has been avoided, but eastern Ukraine or Crimea still might try to split. Ukraine is mostly Russian-speaking in the East and Ukrainian-speaking in the West. One lady I spoke to in Crimea was exasperated when I referred to her as a Ukrainian: “I’m Russian!”

If the East did split, the border could be almost anywhere, and that could involve conflict.

Europe has for a long time made the terrible error of ignoring the vital importance of Ukraine, and this has caused disillusionment. No matter how politically difficult expansion further eastwards is for the EU, it needs to take real steps to satisfy Ukrainian desire for closer relations with Europe.

• Simon Crofts is an award-winning photographer who has lived and travelled widely in Russia and the Ukraine. His website features a serialised tour of Ukraine, its history, culture and anecdotes: