As the Ukrainian crisis makes its seemingly inevitable pivot from internal struggle to global geopolitical standoff, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what’s going on. That’s ironic – we’re living in age where, if you’re fortunate enough, information is available with breathtaking immediacy and in staggering amounts. And, therein lies the problem – when you have millions of voices shouting at once, often saying contradictory things, how do you make sense of things?
Certain things, of course, are clear – President Viktor Yanukovych has fled Kiev, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from prison, and Russian president Vladimir Putin has secured authorization from that country’s parliament to use force in the Crimea region, if deemed necessary. Official state actions – what the major players, like Putin, Obama, Merkel, Tymoshenko, and EU HRVP Catherine Ashton do and say – are clear enough. The problem is, that’s only shedding light on the grand game of geopolitics being played out, as Russia tries to assert its power in the region while the West tries to preserve its economic interests in Ukraine, like the gas pipelines and wheat exports that have often been alluded to since the current phase of the crisis began. The struggle to see under whose sphere of influence Ukraine will fall is clear enough, even if the backdoor deals and frantic diplomacy that drive events go on largely out of sight and mind.
But, shockingly enough, you might actually care about the people of Ukraine themselves. High politics tends to relegate lesser powers to assets to be coveted, rather than equals to be courted. But, there are real people living in the Ukraine (sometimes, the reminder is necessary), and those same people brought the Ukraine into the spotlight when a not insignificant part of the population rose up against a government identified as corrupt and subservient to the interests of Russia. It’s what’s going on in Ukraine itself that becomes so difficult to understand, especially concerning the breadth of information available.
Putin says Russian troops are needed to protect ethnic Russians in the Crimea from violence against right-wing extremist groups. Some say those extremist groups are seizing power in Kiev. Others are saying those groups were never a large part of the Ukrainian government, something that remains the case even after Yanukovych’s ouster. You hear about Ukraine being divided, between a Ukrainian West and a Russian East. You hear about Ukraine being united, with a small Russophile minority. It’s a lot to take in, and when taken together, it’s like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle using pieces from multiple sets.
But, that information, largely coming from sources like Twitter, can make sense, depending on how you choose to analyze the information. Ultimately, Twitter isn’t about getting hard news and facts – you can maybe pick some hard facts out here and there, but generally speaking, it’s hard to take anything at face value. That goes for major news outlets, too, where the pressure to publish fast has opened up the possibility for more misinformation and unsubstantiated claims. What really makes Twitter great is the access it gives you to perceptions, which are no less important than facts. In fact, they can be more important – perceptions widely held drive action, regardless of how well supported those perceptions are.
Twitter helps you understand the debate – what people in the Ukraine think about themselves, fellow Ukrainians, and the world at large, and what sort of debates are being held. You get incredible access to what people on the ground think and feel, in incredible abundance and from a wide range of viewpoints. The feelings and ideas of the people on the ground, before Twitter, were always filtered through major media outlets. Twitter gives you those raw feelings unfiltered.
Will you come away knowing who’s right and who’s wrong? Probably not. But, if you take a step back and accept what Twitter offers as a broad landscape of conflicting thoughts, feelings, and claims that come together to define both Ukraine and the present crisis, you might come away with a better understanding of something that tends to get forgotten about during geopolitical games – the people themselves.