Internet allows for disturbing look into conflict in Ukraine

By Johnny McCabe

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The precarious situation in Ukraine recently took a sharp nosedive off the deep end. This Saturday, just as the series of bloody riots and open, lethal conflict between Ukrainian protesters and their government seemed to be dying down, the Russian government publicly approved President Vladimir Putin’s request for Russian military intervention on the ground in Ukraine. Playing the role of a stabilizing mediator “until the normalization of the political situation in the country,” Putin’s request follows a complex geopolitical dance between the European Union, Russia and the Ukraine that, up until this most explosive recent development, received very little mainstream media coverage.

The protests gained early ground predominantly through social media sites like Reddit and Twitter, with protestors giving people around the world a window into the martial law and police brutality that led to an escalation of violence. In the 21st century, the Internet and social media have become forces not only for social interaction, but also for political change and public discourse. However, as Ukraine’s fledgling interim government prepares to meet Russia’s invading forces, this new and incredible phenomenon comes into conflict with Russia’s traditionalist style of power politics and parallels larger challenges facing individuality and neutrality in a networked global society.

The Ukrainian protests began in mid-November and have since evolved into a bafflingly complex situation that seems far estranged from the original grievances of the movement. The protests, mostly confined to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, initially erupted over the now-deposed President Yanukovych’s controversial decision to forego free trade negotiations with the rest of the European Union in favor of increased economic ties with Russia. The decision was bound to be uproarious either way. Deep divisions exist in Ukraine between Russian language speakers and ethnic Ukrainians, splitting the country very nearly in half, both geographically and ethnically. This volatile ethnic mixture, combined with Ukraine’s long history of conflict, its occupation throughout European history and a government widely acknowledged as rampantly corrupt, make it a lit powder keg of fierce and violent confrontation.

Even a simple Google search yields immediate evidence of the violence and brutality of these protests. Protesters post “Ask Me Anything” threads on Reddit explaining the martial laws meant to restrict their ability to meet in public and photo galleries on Imgur documenting bloody combat between armor-clad riot police and civilians. Aerial-angle live-streams provide a bird’s eye view of the opposition base in Kiev’s Independence Square – a makeshift barricade of refuse – and videos have been posted of police snipers opening fire on protesters armed with petroleum bombs and makeshift weapons.

The violence is real, it is happening right now and it can all be seen by anyone with an Internet connection. Protestors coordinate and organize through hashtags on Twitter and Facebook. A cause that otherwise might have never left its own borders is, through the Internet, being observed and discussed by a global audience. And a global audience is the last thing that Russia wants.

It is no secret that Putin emphasizes a position of strength and aggression in both his foreign and domestic policy, as opposed to the dramatic transparency and public participation demanded by the Ukrainian protestors. Force and militaristic pride have long been fixtures of Russia’s national identity, as has been the country’s desire for a warm-water port in order to better facilitate economic competition with the rest of Europe. These tendencies are blatantly obvious in light of Russia’s specific actions in response to the Ukrainian situation, namely, the dramatic surge of military activity into the port city Sevastopol and the surrounding region of Crimea – the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The Ukrainian protests provide exemplary pretense for Russia to move in and seize one of its most sought-after resources. It comes as no surprise, then, that President Obama’s assertion of the “costs” of Russia’s Ukrainian intervention fall on undaunted ears.

The state of the situation in Ukraine has escalated exponentially over the past few days. What began as a peaceful demonstration has spiraled into a multinational time bomb, with far larger implications than could have ever been originally anticipated. Social media outlets like Reddit and Twitter have given outside observers a look into a multifaceted political standoff in its infancy. We have seen videos of a squadron of Russian attack helicopters flying over the Ukrainian border; it’s up to us to decide what to do with this knowledge and how we will respond to the situation as it develops.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]