Since hearing that there'd been 47 protesters killed in one day on the Maidan in Ukraine, shortly before President Yanukovych was forced from office, I'd idly wondered how it happened. Then, a couple of years ago (this blog is seldom timely), I ran across the video compiled by Evelina Nefertari which takes video clips taken by wide variety of people on that day and combines them into a single time-synchronized video stream showing many clips simultaneously.

The killings are commonly described as a massacre, but watching the video (and viewing maps and summaries of the action), a very different phrase seems much more apt: an infantry assault -- and not an assault on the protesters; an assault by the protesters.

Of course this wasn't the sort of infantry assault that a professional army would do, with machine guns laying down covering fire to keep their opponents' heads down while small groups of attackers darted forward from one place of cover to another. But nevertheless it was an assault in the sense of men pushing forward against an enemy and trying to make them flee. (Yes, the dead were almost all male.) And in large part it was a successful assault: the police were pushed from a position where they could overwatch the Maidan, back to one barricade, then back to another. At that final position, they decided that they wouldn't be pushed back any more, and weren't.

They could easily make that decision, since militarily it was a very uneven combat. The protesters had more men, but the police were armed with military rifles (AK-47 or similar). If they'd been in the mood to commit a real massacre, they could have killed thousands. The protesters had shields, some improvised and some taken from the police, but even the latter were well short of being able to stop a pistol bullet, let alone a rifle bullet. The way the attackers huddled in groups behind those shields was almost pitiable. Yet they continued to press forward, even as they saw their comrades being shot and carried back on stretchers. I spotted only one shield that looked like it might have been able to stop rifle bullets: a contraption that rested on the ground, with what looked like a steel framework supporting a steel plate tilted at about 45 degrees. Moving it required more than one man; and it provided only enough space for perhaps three men to hide behind it. And it was the exception; the rest of the shields I saw were good only against rubber bullets and tear gas grenades, which the police had been using earlier but weren't much in evidence during this assault. Many of those shields acquired bullet holes, and some acquired bloodstains, yet they stayed in use.

As for armament, for the most part the protesters were armed only with hand-thrown stones and Molotov cocktails. I noticed two or three video clips showing a protester with a rifle, and two video clips of a policeman being dragged away by his comrades seemingly after being shot; but for the most part it was stones and Molotovs and flimsy shields against assault rifles. On the Maidan itself they also had a wall of burning tires whose smoke shielded them from aimed fire, but the police could still easily have swept that smoke with bullets and killed everyone behind it. (They tried to make such a wall of burning tires in front of the last police barricade, but only got as far as making a heap of burning tires before deciding to retreat.)

There is a phrase that some people in the military use for people who deliberately engage in such uneven combats: "play stupid games, win stupid prizes". Yet in this case it is generally considered that the protesters won their country back, a prize which is not at all stupid. But did they? Did they really win any sort of power for people like themselves, or did the assault just leave them in their graves and the real power transferred from one corrupt oligarch to another? It's hard to tell from this distance, and the real answer is probably somewhere between the two. It is suspicious, though, to see them honored as victims of a massacre, not as warriors who fell in combat. Honored warriors, when they survive, are often given higher leadership; honored victims aren't.

In any case, one can easily imagine the thoughts of the police:

  1. Those maniacs kept coming at us. We killed a lot of them, and they still kept coming.

  2. They're going to be back, and they'll find real weapons somewhere.

  3. The government is pretty much bankrupt. We don't know who will be paying our salaries in the near future.

Little surprise that many of them chose to flee to Russia, as did Yanukovych himself.

Russian propaganda, though, has been unimaginative here. It could have told those policemen's stories and painted them in a sympathetic light, as people faced with a tough job of trying to keep a protest under control while under assault and even occasionally being shot at. It could have argued that although they shot protesters, they picked their shots and targeted only people who were advancing on them with hostile intent; they didn't just let loose on full-auto. (In the video, several policemen are seen shooting, and each time it does indeed seem to be an aimed shot. There are also a couple of video clips in which a policeman with a scoped rifle sights on the opposition, but then picks up his rifle and moves on without shooting.) The massacre from the Mandalay Bay Hotel shows the death toll which one shooter can inflict, spraying a crowd with full-auto fire; and the police here had hundreds of armed men. They could have surrounded the protesters and exterminated them, if they'd had a mind to.

Shooting those protesters did violate an informal code that police all over the world seem to have today, which is not to use a higher level of force on a riot than the rioters themselves are using. I am not quite sure how or when this code came into place; but under it, rather than shooting rioters, police have to take up batons and shields and fight them hand to hand, or use tear gas. Dealing with a riot this way usually requires hundreds of police in full riot gear. The old line "one riot, one Ranger" doesn't apply; nor does "reading them the riot act", something that (in Britain) the police literally would do, after which they could start shooting anyone who hadn't left. There doesn't seem to be anything hugely immoral about the older ways of proceeding; people were given fair warning.

Instead of making such defenses, Russian propaganda lazily echoes talk of a massacre, but talks about the massacre as being committed by far-right militias who shot protesters from behind. Now, the video does include one clip, filmed from the Hotel Ukrainia, where the commentator (speaking English) reports gunshots coming from the hotel itself, then about ten minutes later reports that armed men had come up into the hotel, found "Berkut" (police) snipers who had fired those shots, and captured them. Those shots from the hotel would indeed have come from the rear of the assaulting protestors, but they were only a few of the thousands of shots fired that day. To extend it to the whole, one would not only have to think of the "Berkut" identification as a mere cover story, and of the protesters as depraved monsters who would massacre their own men for propaganda purposes, but would have to suppose that the front line assaulters were too dumb to figure out where the bullets were coming from. Bullets in flight normally can't be seen, but there is still plenty of evidence as to where they are coming from, both in their sound and in the way they hit. And indeed, taking that video clip at face value, it seems that the shots from the rear were quickly detected.

Another area where Russian propaganda falls flat is in describing the whole affair as a "coup" rather than a revolution. I suppose this reflects the Communist-era mindset of coups being bad things and revolutions good ones: this being a bad thing from the Russian point of view, it has to be described as a coup. But in English, a coup is the sort of thing described in Luttwak's Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook: a military unit suddenly and without warning descends on the government and takes it over. This was nothing like that: it wasn't the military doing the overthrow, and it wasn't a short sharp shock but the culmination of a standoff that had been been dragging on for about a year. In English, this was a revolution, not a coup -- and in English, either one of those can be good or bad, depending on circumstances. In this case, my mental model of the Ukraine situation is that both sides (pro-Russian and Ukrainian nationalist) are mostly composed of mild, reasonable people who try to paint their opponents as absolute ogres in order to excuse their own corruption; and the above doesn't change that model. Whatever spirit animated the attacking protesters that day, though, wasn't a mild one.