As Russian troops move into Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine, spectators have tried to make sense of the chaos engulfing the former Soviet republic: Who supports Euromaidan and the pro-Western government in Kiev? Who in Ukraine would rather stay under Russia’s sphere of influence? And what about the Tatars?
Foreign journalists on social media have done their best to separate fact from fiction. This weekend, reports began pouring in about Ukrainian citizens unhappy with the Euro-loving interim government in Kiev. According to much of Twitter and state-run television channel Russia Today, frustrated Ukrainians were hoisting Russian flags across eastern and southern Ukraine, apparently signaling a groundswell of separatist sentiment. Not so fast: some of those flag-raisers turned out to be Russian nationals, not Ukrainians.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any actual Ukrainians who favor closer ties with Russia. About a third of the population consider Russian their native language. Officers in the Ukrainian riot police and even the head of the Ukrainian Navy have recently defected to Russia. And there are civilians who genuinely fear the government in Kiev, which they view as fascist.
One photo in particular emerged over the weekend that seemed to perfectly capture pro-Russian sentiment in eastern Ukraine: In Kharkiv, a daring young man had climbed a government building to plant the tricolor flag, with crowds of people on the ground cheering behind him. The image was tweeted over 5,000 times.
But like some of the weekend’s flag-raisers, this one wasn’t Ukrainian. His name is Mika Ronkainen, and he’s a Russian activist and citizen journalist. He agreed to chat with us over Skype Sunday night—the first non-Russian or Ukrainian outlet with which he’s spoken—and offer a
young Russian’s viewpoint of the crisis in Ukraine. (Note: some of Ronkainen’s answers were given in English; others have been translated from Russian.)
Q: Why did you travel to Ukraine?
A: I’m a journalist for Ridus.ru covering the event in Ukraine. [Ridus.ru is a Moscow-based agency of citizen journalists covering Ukraine from a pro-Russia angle.] I was actually shot at by the Ukrainian police while reporting on Euromaidan in Kiev.
Q: What’s the story behind the flag photo?
A: I left Kiev for Kharkiv, where militants who were trained for three months in Euromaidan took over the local administration, against the will of local residents. On Saturday [March 1], the local people gathered together and liberated the administration. I shot a video of the liberation. Afterwards I decided to symbolize this event to the rest of the people standing in the square. I went up to the roof via an external staircase and began waving the Russian flag. Seeing the enthusiastic response, I hung the flag and went back down to the square.
Q: Who took the photo?
A: It’s a selfie. [He attaches his camera to a stick—see other climbing photos on his Instagram where he uses the same method.]
Q: What have you learned on the ground with the protesters in Ukraine?
A: The vast majority of people in the Eastern part of Ukraine are Russians, who historically are more loyal to Russia than to their Western fellow citizens. But now the Western representatives took over the government in Kiev, and they are trying to impose their order across the country—including in the Eastern part, where people don’t like them. They are using force, just like the force that was used against them by [former Ukraine president] Yanukovych. They are taking over cities’ administrations illegally, meaning that they use the exact same methods they oppose.
Of course, it’s a dead-end road. If they have the support of governments in the West [Europe and the U.S.], the people in Eastern Ukraine will be strictly against them. It might lead to a bloodbath if they don’t stop using force.
Q: Since your flag photo went viral, your VK profile is getting a lot of attention—in particular, a photo of you wearing a Nazi uniform. Some news sites are suggesting you’re a neo-Nazi. What’s your response?
A: The answer is on my VK page. Sorry to disappoint those who jumped on my photo in a fascist uniform. I was using it to re-enact a painting called the “Defense of Sevastopol” [a famous painting depicting the Siege of Sevastopol, Ukraine's second largest port, during World War II]. I was playing the role of a dead German soldier. Actually the painting is very relevant at the moment.
Q: Are you headed back to Ukraine?
A: I’m not planning to return to Ukraine any time soon. Maybe when things calm down a bit.
Q: Do you think Russia will invade other parts of Ukraine?
A: I think that the bloodbath will be prevented, whether by Putin or the Ukrainian government.