Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again: The situation in Ukraine as of 7 pm (Ukrainian time) 18 February 2014

On Saturday news came that the protestors on the Maidan were ending their occupation of the Kyiv City Council building and that even Pravyi Sektor was dismantling some of their barricades such that Hrushevsky Street would be passable.  All this was part of a deal that would lead to the release of activists who have been detained by the authorities since 30 November 2013.  For this observer sitting some 5000 miles away, it was a hard to believe.  On previous occasions when the opposition had brought back news that an amnesty had been arranged, they had been booed and the protestors on the Maidan had not gone along.  Why had they gone along now?  Was this part of a much larger back room deal being quietly brokered that would lead to more dramatic announcements in the days to come?  Or was this just another just ploy to throw the protestors off guard, and were they just too tired to say no? 

We got our answer today, and all optimism that there were serious divisions in the Party of Regions, and that moderates would lead Ukraine out of its crisis by breaking entirely with Yanukovych has been dashed. Perhaps such people really do exist, although I am doubtful, but if they do they have been outmaneuvered by hardliners and Putin who created conditions that led to today’s violence.  I am writing today before the dust has settled, and so I will not speculate on who escalated to violence first, but the reported deployment of snipers on the roofs of buildings in the government district does not fit with the spirit inherent in an amnesty agreement.  At the same time, with the report today that Russia has agreed to release an additional 2 billion dollars of loans he had offered Yanukovych in December, we see who is the real provocateur in the Ukrainian crisis.  

Were the negotiations that led to the amnesty agreement, a manipulation by Yanukovych, or were they real and was Putin just so overcome by his imperial ambitions that he decided to throw good money after bad?   Only they know right now, and it really doesn’t matter. what does is that the traditional Ukrainian opposition, the U.S., and the EU all look stupid today.  They, in the end will be forgiven, but the same cannot be said for Yanukovych or Putin.  

Putin, of course, does not need to worry right now about being removed from power, but  it is very hard to see this ending well for Yanukovych.  If, as has happened on all previous occasions, the internal forces and Berkut are unable to clear the Maidan, the additional 2 Billion dollar loans will do little to restore his authority. The negotiations between the government and the opposition will continue tomorrow as scheduled, except Yanukovych will look weaker than ever, and his chances of getting yet another infusion of cash from Putin will be diminished further.  If forces loyal to Yanukovych do succeed in clearing the Maidan, however, his future does not look much better.  The more violent the clearing is, the worse he will look in the eyes of Ukrainians, and as such the violence will feed more demonstrations, even in the East.  Moreover, clearing the Maidan is a very different thing from reasserting control of the country, especially in the West of the country where his authority has been totally rejected.

There has been increasing anxiety about a civil war, and today’s events have done nothing to allay the fear that Ukrainians see no other way out than the destructive all or nothing option of war.  That said, there are reasons to believe that the clearing of the Maidan, if successful, will not push the country into civil war.  Here we can all be thankful that the regular army has refused to take sides or given any sign that it would allow either side to gain access to its weapons.  That, along with the the salient fact that people in Western Ukraine are not advocating separatism means that the comparisons with Yugoslavia circa 1990 are limited.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the current situation will continue to obtain and prevent a civil war, especially if Yanukoych decides to reassert control of Western Ukraine, but he would be a fool or desperate to do so before he has a firmer grip on the rest of the country, and that seems unlikely in the short-term.  The Euromaidan protestors have shown themselves to be amazingly creative in finding ways to carry on their protests, and damaging as the loss of the Maidan would be, new kinds of protests will appear that will keep Yanukovych scrambling.  For now though, we will have to see how events unfold in Ukraine during the next few hours and days. 

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