Yes, “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” is a documentary largely about the patriotic spirit of the Ukrainian people and their unwillingness to give up in the face of oppression by their own government and infiltration by a neighboring country. But as an American, I can’t help but focus primarily on the chilling portrayal of Putin and how his violence in Ukraine is a cautionary tale for the U.S.
The documentary, by Academy Award winning director Mark Jonathan Harris and acclaimed Ukrainian director Oles Sanin, was largely shot by Ukrainians, including volunteer soldiers, during the police attacks and battles of the last few years.
The film follows a children’s theater director and a rabbi who became soldiers, a doctor, an investigative reporter who was run off the road and badly beaten by then Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s people, and others who got involved in the tumult in an effort to save their country.
In 2013, Yanukovych did Vladimir Putin’s bidding and refused to sign a treaty with the European Union. A Facebook post encouraged people to resist, and before long, thousands had barricaded themselves in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan) in protest.
The standoff, which ultimately lasted three months, culminated in Yanukovych’s government passing laws that made the right to assembly illegal, as well as the possession of “extremist literature.” He then ordered his militia to fight the protesters, and 123 citizens were murdered, while others disappeared. The film includes footage of this brutality, and we see the bodies of some of those who were killed. In one instance, we see a protester being dragged away, leaving a trail of blood on the pavement.
After this, in February 2014, Yanukovych was forced to flee the country, and the people infiltrated his compound, shocked to see the opulence he was living within. He stole an estimated $10 billion from the Ukrainian people in the four years he was in power, and he remains in exile in Russia but continues to offer his opinion to the media.
Paul Manafort, by the way, who worked for Donald Trump and whose name has been in the news with regard to the Mueller investigation, is known to have worked for Yanukovych.
With Yanukovych gone in 2014, Putin saw his chance and easily seized Crimea. He then moved his troops into Eastern Ukraine, but he clothed them in uniforms without insignia so that he could pretend they weren’t Russian. His propaganda campaign put out that the soldiers were Ukrainians of different groups fighting each other. He even went so far as to create fake political parties and slogans. According to one expert in the film, these actions are straight from the Soviet playbook.
Many in the west believed this misinformation. It wasn’t until the Malaysia Airlines crash, in which Europeans and Australians were killed, that some in the west began to come to terms with Putin’s activities in the region.
Expert interviewees in the film give us a hint of the extent of Russia’s propaganda campaigns, including proof that one actress pretended to be a local in at least three different instances. One interviewee in the documentary says that this disinformation war on the part of Russia was a key factor in Ukraine’s destabilization.
Ukraine’s independence was won in 1994, when it voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons in return for that independence, with guarantees of security from Russia, the U.S., China, and France. Those guarantees have been violated, and Russia continues to kill Ukrainian soldiers daily despite a ceasefire signed with Ukraine in January 2015. Russia also works in various ways to sabotage the country’s economy.
Just today, reports say that Ukraine has had to close schools to save gas because Russia has closed pipelines. To date, more than 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed, and nearly two million have been displaced as refugees.
As sobering and disturbing as “Breaking Point” may be, it’s also a testament to the people of Ukraine, who have been doing everything they can to maintain their independence. Many have readily given up their lives. As one doctor turned soldier says in the film, “No army in the world ever had such spirit…. We believed that we would win, and it worked miracles. The people saved the country.” Still, another soldier says, “The war took away our soft parts. Only the hard parts remain.” And, despite the successes they have had against the Russians, their fight is far from over.
The documentary sends home the reality that democracy is a lot more fragile than we’d liked to believe. The fact that Ukraine won its independence once and is at risk of losing it now because of a corrupt and incompetent government should give every American pause. Anne Applebaum, author of “Gulag: A History,” says in the film, “Ukraine is really the first step in a Russian attempt and effort to undermine and destroy the west. And this is said openly in Russia. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to think that.”
“Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” opens in theaters Mar. 2, 2018 in New York and Mar. 9 in Los Angeles and Chicago, with other cities to follow.