Long-term Ukrainian-Russian relations may depend on clearing up the sniper mystery. Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Long-term Ukrainian-Russian relations may depend on clearing up the sniper mystery. Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The downfall of President Viktor Yanukovych was a victory to many Ukrainians, but it came at a high price: the death of 98 people, according to the Ukrainian health ministry. Who exactly killed most of them is a mystery that has given rise to a propaganda war between Russia and the new Ukrainian government.

Ukrainians call the victims of the street violence the Heavenly Hundred, in reference to the people's self-defense "hundreds" who fought off riot police on the barricades. The Ukrainian-language list includes dozens of peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders -- a university professor, some retirees who were too old to fight, two heart attack victims. All are equally venerated. Last weekend in Kiev, people were still placing flowers on the spots where members of the Heavenly Hundred died and weeping openly as they recalled the traumatic events that preceded Yanukovych's flight from the capital.

Standoff in Ukraine

The Heavenly Hundred list does not include the 11 police officers who also died during the clashes, though they are mentioned in the Russian-language Wikipedia article on the revolution's casualties.

It would be natural to assume that it was the police who killed the protesters, and vice-versa. Most of the police and many of the protesters, however, appear to have been shot by snipers who picked them off from atop buildings in downtown Kiev. It is unclear whose side the cold-blooded sharpshooters were on: They inflicted damage on both sides, causing panic and grief each time they fired.

On March 4, Ukraine's acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that a foreign power was involved in the killings. "A third force was the key factor in these clashes that became a bloody massacre in Kiev and turned the whole country upside down," Avakov said. "And that force was not Ukrainian."

Avakov's words could only be interpreted as a strong hint that the snipers were Russian. He went on to talk about Russian goons stirring up trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities.

At his own March 4 press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Avakov's political allies for the deaths. "Do you know there exists the opinion -- and among the erstwhile protesters, too -- that these were provocateurs from one of the opposition parties?" Putin responded to a reporter who had asked him whether Yanukovych had ordered his forces to shoot at protesters. "Well, check out those materials. They are open source."

No "materials" as such existed until Wednesday, although I had heard the rumors Putin referred to: That the Batkivshina Party, to which Avakov and interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk both belong, caused the bloodshed to spur on protesters for the final push against Yanukovych.

On Wednesday, Russia's English-language propaganda channel, Russia Today, published what it claimed to be a recording of a telephone conversation between chief European Union diplomat Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. In the English-language conversation a man identified as Paet tells Ashton about his recent trip to Kiev, saying the protesters had little trust in the Batkivshina-led provisional government and recounting the rumors about the snipers. Citing a conversation with Olga Bogomolets, who ran the protesters' volunteer medical service and later refused to serve as health minister in the interim cabinet, the man says: "The same Olga told that all evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers, from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that there were the same snipers killing people from both sides. She showed me some photos, she said as a medical doctor she can say that this is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it's really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don't want to investigate what exactly happened. So there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers it was not Yanukovych but it was somebody from the new coalition."

No official confirmations or denials of the recording were available from Paet or Ashton, but Bogomolets said she had not told the Estonian minister that both protesters and cops were killed in the same way or by someone "from the new coalition."

With an unbadged Russian occupying force controlling the Crimea, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is more strained than ever. It is still salvageable if a compromise is found: If, for example, Russia-leaning eastern regions of Ukraine get more autonomy and the new government pledges not to infringe on the right of people there to conduct business in Russian.

Chances of a peaceful solution will become slim, however, if most Ukrainians become convinced that the snipers who killed the Heavenly Hundred were Russian. The victims are heroes to Ukrainians. There are plans for a memorial, and to name a Kiev street after them. Many already believe Russia had a hand in the killings, and consider the neighboring country their eternal enemy. If persuasive proof is presented, such people will number in the millions, and Moscow can forget about rebuilding any kind of ties with Ukraine in the foreseeable future. Besides, the West will need to work out an appropriate reaction to this kind of Russian involvement, much more reprehensible than the bloodless standoff in the Crimea.

For all his bravado, Putin understands the stakes and the need to build up an alternative version of events. The acute phase of the current conflict will end someday, and then Putin, and all of Russia, will have to live with the consequences. They may include Ukrainians' permanent aversion to all things Russian, something no one in Moscow or Kiev could have foreseen as the protests started.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.