Earlier this month, a district court in Kiev announced its findings in a case that had dragged on since 2015, handing down sentences to five former officers of the long-dissolved ‘Berkut’ police unit. The ex-police grouping become internationally known during the 2013/14 protests which culminated with the violent ‘Maidan.’
Charged with involvement in the shooting of anti-government protesters by snipers in the center of the Ukrainian capital on February 20, 2014, four of the accused – three of them in absentia – were found guilty and sentenced to terms between five years and life. One was acquitted.
Politically, this was, or should have been, Ukraine’s single most important trial since independence in 1991. The judges closed – at least for now as appeals have already been announced – the country’s attempt to come to terms judicially with the darkest moment of what has been called a “revolution,” as well as a “coup”: the fall of the government of former President Viktor Yanukovich under pressure from initially peaceful – then violent – street protests and Western meddling. The events producing regime change and geopolitical re-orientation unfolded over three months, but the killing of almost 50 protesters that February was a crucial tipping point.
The case quickly became known as the “snipers’ massacre” or the “Maidan massacre.” The shootings were squarely blamed on Yanukovich and his administration and seemed to rule out domestic compromise and confirm Western and Ukrainian pro-insurgent narratives, casting the crisis as a national and democratic freedom struggle against a corrupt and oppressive regime beholden to Moscow. Neither the disproportionate role of an aggressive and manipulative Ukrainian far right nor the ruthless geopolitics of the West had a place in this framing. Within days after the killings, a last attempt to stop the spiral of escalation by an internationally mediated agreement failed, Yanukovych fled to Russia, and Moscow’s troops were on the move in Crimea.