Ukraine’s political crisis has dragged on for nearly three months, but February 17 offered some slim grounds for optimism. Demonstrators vacated government buildings, and those protestors who had been arrested were amnestied. These actions improved the atmosphere for a possible political dialogue between President Yanukovych and the opposition to seek a peaceful settlement.
But everything came undone on February 18. A morning protest march to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) turned violent. While the government and opposition each blamed the other, one thing was absolutely clear: the Berkut riot police eagerly responded and escalated with disproportionate force, using stun grenades, rubber bullets and, it appears, real ammunition. They drove the demonstrators back and, in the evening, launched an assault on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)—which since November had been a tacitly recognized safe zone.
Overnight on the Maidan, 20,000 demonstrators faced off against the police, who employed armored personnel carriers and water cannon, and fire-bombed protest tents. Opposition leaders Vitaliy Klytchko and Arseniy Yatseniuk met briefly with Yanukovych; Klytchko reported afterwards that the president had offered no path toward a settlement, merely a demand that the demonstrators go home.
The images of the Maidan that emerged on the morning of February 19 show a war zone. Clashes continued throughout the day, and demonstrators have occupied government buildings elsewhere in Ukraine.
The Security Service of Ukraine—the country’s barely reformed KGB—announced a nationwide “anti-terrorist operation.” What that means and who will be defined as a “terrorist” remain to be seen. There are reports that the military—which wisely and correctly stood aside during the 2004 Orange Revolution—has sent an airborne unit to Kyiv. The situation is close to spinning out of control.
While one cannot condone violence by the protestors, Yanukovych and his government bear overwhelming responsibility. The authorities launched a major and bloody crackdown but could have behaved in a very different manner. Ukraine has seen massive demonstrations before, most notably during the Orange Revolution. No blood was shed then; under Yanukovych’s tenure, dozens now have died and hundreds have been injured.
Yanukovych became president in 2010 following an election judged by Ukrainian and international observers to have been free and fair. But his authoritarian actions over the past four years and the increasingly brutal repression of the protests are fast eroding any claim that he has to democratic legitimacy.
Yanukovych’s actions will only harden the opposition and may well prompt a broader public backlash against the government for its ugly resort to force. His actions have come close to destroying any prospect for a political dialogue, a prospect that now appears vanishingly small. But it still offers the best way out of the crisis.
No easy alternatives are evident. Do the demonstrators have the wherewithal to beat back police and the other “guys with guns” and throw Yanukovych out of office? Does Yanukovych have the wherewithal and support among the elite to continue a brutal repression that could see the number of dead rise into the hundreds, earning himself one of the darkest pages in Ukrainian history?
The United States and European Union have tried to encourage a dialogue between the different sides. They should continue to do so. But they must back that effort by applying all of their limited leverage.
Washington and Brussels should immediately announce targeted visa and financial sanctions against individual Ukrainians with two objectives. First, to make clear that those responsible for violence, particularly those in government, will be held accountable for their actions by being denied the ability to travel to the West or bank their money there. Second, to pressure those in the inner circle around Yanukovych in the hopes that they will push him to end the violence and seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The inner circle should understand that, if it is not part of the solution, it also will not be allowed to travel or bank in the West.
These steps, if applied in parallel by the United States and European Union, would affect those around Yanukovych. They in turn might push him to adopt a different course or move away from him, weakening his support. That could help change the game in Kyiv.
Western influence can only help resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Sanctions offer no magic bullet. The main responsibility for finding a solution rests with Ukrainians, first and foremost Yanukovych. But if the West does not put its leverage in play now, the situation may quickly deteriorate to the point where the West has no ability to affect the crisis.