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Ukraine: As a crackdown fails, a protest is reinvigorated

An attempt to break up protests in Ukraine’s capital appears simply to have rejuvenated the demonstrations.

KYIV, Ukraine — By Wednesday afternoon, Myroslav Tereshchuk was tired, cold and hungry.

But oddly, the affable 47-year-old from western Ukraine was brimming with enthusiasm as he proudly displayed his orange hardhat — a “souvenir,” he said, from a failed police raid earlier in the day on Kyiv’s occupied city hall.

There, and on nearby Independence Square — the nerve center of the ongoing anti-government protests here — demonstrators had succeeded that day in fending off an apparent crackdown by security forces they feared would finally mark the end of the protests. For the protesters who have remained dug in for more than two weeks, the symbolic victory provided a boost of renewed energy in what’s become a protracted political crisis with no end in sight.

“Yesterday, there was only a feeling, but today we see the results,” said Tereshchuk, a private business owner. “We have turned our emotions into deeds.”

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Only two days earlier, the masses in Independence Square had thinned out considerably amid freezing temperatures and rising tensions as columns of security forces tightened their grip downtown and began choking some central streets.

On Wednesday, the nervously anticipated crackdown seemed finally to arrive: In the early morning hours, police moved in on the square, demolishing makeshift barricades and tents, pressing together groups of protesters and shifting them out.

They kept their batons at their side, but their sudden raid was no less frightening.

As the sweep dragged on, speakers on stage — who included Ukrainian pop star Ruslana — rallied supporters, appealed to police to stand down, and called out to Ukrainians across the country to join the protest.

Then, the tide seemed to turn.

Facing resistance in some areas — several clashes were reported, but none serious — the police drew down. In front of city hall, eyewitnesses reported that demonstrators deterred anti-riot forces by spraying them with freezing water.

By midday Wednesday, it was clear that protesters had fully reclaimed their besieged territory. In the dull afternoon glow they flocked into the square in droves, rebuilding shattered barricades — this time larger and stronger — and sweeping the pavement of snow and debris.

A jovial atmosphere seemed to have returned, as had the broad smiles that once looked in danger of dissipating. As if in celebration, singers on stage led the growing crowd in heartfelt renditions of the national anthem every hour.

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“Last night we were praying to god because all our boys are here, but look how it turned out,” said Halyna Yurievna, a 62-year-old retiree who was busy preparing food and warm beverages as the activity picked up.

“We’re standing here and everything is wonderful.”

More from GlobalPost: What next for Ukraine’s ‘revolution’?

Sensing an opportunity to pick up momentum, opposition leaders wasted no time in rallying supporters against the police sweep as it unfolded.

“We will not forgive [President Viktor Yanukovych] this,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the opposition Fatherland Party, told journalists. “Tomorrow there will be a million people here and his regime will fall.”

Later, they rejected Yanukovych’s calls for roundtable talks until their demands — chiefly the government’s dismissal over its failure last month to follow through on key accords that would’ve pulled Ukraine closer to the European Union — were met. They also said they needed consent from protesters, local media reported.

The increasing pressure on the home front was met with intense international criticism of Yanukovych and his government.

Amid the dispersal, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued perhaps the strongest condemnation yet by any major Western player, expressing “disgust” at the crackdown.

“This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy,” he said in a statement.

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State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later hinted to reporters that the United States might consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government to register its disapproval of the protesters’ treatment.

In Kyiv, meanwhile, Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko said Wednesday the police movements were merely an attempt to clear the streets for traffic. But later in the day, his deputy said the minister didn’t exclude the possibility of another sweep if a court order was secured, news agency Interfax reported.

While the mood on Independence Square appeared transformed, protesters nevertheless remained on their toes.

“Of course we’re afraid,” said Maria Butyrina, a 28-year-old from Kyiv.

But that didn’t stop her helping to guard the freshly won turf. On Wednesday afternoon, Butyrina — a slight brunette dressed in a pink parka — methodically chipped away at the thick crust of snow and ice that covered the square’s concrete, piling the debris into sandbags she said would help reinforce the new and improved barricades.

“Plus,” she said, smiling, “it helps me warm up.”

Butyrina added that, after hearing news of the crackdown, many of her friends across Ukraine headed to Kyiv in support.

“From both the western and eastern regions — everyone’s coming here,” she said.

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More from GlobalPost: 14 stunning photos from the protests in Kyiv

Meanwhile, a political solution to the crisis that has dogged Ukraine for more than two weeks still seems far off.

While Yanukovych floated the idea in a televised discussion Tuesday of freeing protesters jailed during a previous crackdown and kickstarting plans to sign the sweeping EU political and trade agreements next spring, few here saw that as a compromise.

It also didn’t help that he sought to blame both sides for a November 30 crackdown in which riot police raided Independence Square and violently beat mostly sleeping students.

And while Yanukovych reportedly reassured Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top diplomat, during her visit to Kyiv this week that he was prepared for open dialogue, most protesters — satisfied with nothing less than a wholesale change of power — took a dimmer view.

It’s why demonstrators like Tolik Tkach, a 29-year-old musician who was sweeping snow off the steps of city hall on Wednesday morning, are well aware that they’ll have to be prepared to stick it out for the long haul.

But, recalling Wednesday night’s failed police raid with a smirk, he seems sure of one thing.

“I think the authorities will think twice before they try something like that again.”