KIEV, UKRAINE — While the residents of Crimea were voting Sunday under the barrel of Russian guns, Oleg Vorontsov was heeding a national call to arms. Outraged by what he called a “rigged referendum” that will probably result in the peninsula being absorbed by Moscow, the 40-year-old approached a recruiting stand in central Kiev for Ukraine’s newly created national guard.
And yet, as with so many others who gathered here at the epicenter of this nation’s pro-Western revolution Sunday, his anger was not solely directed at Moscow. He had plenty left for the Western powers that he said had courted Ukraine only to dither and demur when the going got tough.
“Sanctions against a few people? How is that going to help us against Russia?” laughed Vorontsov, owner of a small Internet cafe, who signed up to join a new force of 60,000 reservists that Kiev hopes will bolster Ukrainian defenses in the event of a full-blown war with Russia. “The Russians are taking a piece of our country, and where is the West? Europe and the United States have abandoned us.”
At its core, the popular uprising that ousted the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last month was a battle over national direction — whether Ukraine should hitch its wagon to Moscow or the West. And yet, while many here continue to push for a new future in the West, they are also grappling with a deep sense of disappointment, even betrayal, over the response to their plight.
Even here, few see a military option. Barring a significant new Russian incursion into eastern or southern Ukraine, a major fight is considered unlikely. On Sunday, many Ukrainians watched the orchestrated referendum unfold in Crimea with a sense of helplessness, knowing full well that Moscow’s military hopelessly outclasses their own.
Yet many here also seem to think that U.S. and European leaders could do far more than they have. Western powers are set to adopt economic sanctions as soon as Monday, targeting dozens of Russians with asset freezes and travel bans. But on Sunday, many in Kiev’s Independence Square seemed convinced that such measures would be too little, too late.
Many here are citing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Britain and Russia reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in which Kiev agreed to surrender its nuclear stockpile.
Russia has broken its part of the bargain, Kiev says, and the interim government here has sought to invoke the memorandum in appeals for Western aid. In the West, however, officials have made clear that the document is not a binding treaty of mutual defense but more of a general commitment for unspecified support.
“We do not want to go to war, but if the Russians knew that the West would stand behind us, they would not have taken Crimea,” said Oleksandr Kress, a 29-year-old engineer who was also in line to sign up for the national guard. The government is taking men as young as 15 and as old as 45. The first training sessions for the new force began last week.
“But we know now that they don’t stand behind us,” Kress said. “We know now that we must help ourselves.”
Near Independence Square, where the hundreds of activists who challenged Yanukovych are still living in a makeshift tent city, walls were adorned Sunday with posters and signs calling for peace, as well as several railing against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Accountants Irina Prischepa, 28, and Svetlana Chernykh, 34, stood in the square holding a sign that said: “Putin, hands off our Motherland.”
Both women thanked the West for its support thus far and praised the cool heads that have avoided a military clash.
“We want things to move faster, but this can only be solved diplomatically,” Prischepa said. “There is no other way.”
Yet there was no denying a general feeling here that the West has treaded too lightly with Moscow and that the Europeans in particular have erred too much on the side of protecting their lucrative economic relationships with Russia.
“The Russians are very aggressive,” said Vladimir Lebedev, a 32-year-old father of two who works for a Kiev advertising firm. On Sunday, his 4-year-old son, David, sat on his shoulders, waving a Ukrainian flag, as they listened to calls for national unity and vows of defiance on a stage set up in Independence Square.
“The only thing they understand is a strong response,” Lebedev continued. “And so far, we haven’t seen one.”