Ethics & Public Policy Center

Ukraine: Back from the Brink?

Published in National Review Online on February 20, 2014



In the aftermath of the bloodshed on Tuesday, Ukrainian civil reformers of the Maidan movement were deeply apprehensive throughout Wednesday that the government of President Viktor Yanukovych would strike again with even more lethal force, in an effort to end the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square and other key areas of the nation’s capital. As midnight (Kiev time) on Wednesday approached, those fears had abated somewhat. Sources in Kiev reported that the order to storm Independence Square had been revoked because of American pressure on the regime and some cracks opening up within Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Confirmation of those reports seemed to come a little while later, when one opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, announced late on Wednesday night that a truce agreement had been reached to allow negotiations between the government and the opposition to reopen.

Whether that agreement portends a serious dialogue between the Yanukovych regime and its opponents is unclear; calls for such a serious conversation, including appeals from the Ukrainian council of churches, have been treated with contempt by the government in recent days. But a pause of sorts seems to have been reached, which permits a review of some of the salient facts of the situation, including several new developments.

While Western media continue to portray the Maidan movement and the confrontation with the Yanukovych regime in almost exclusively Kiev-centered terms, one close observer of the situation said late Wednesday night that the opposition now controls nine of the country’s 25 regions. And by “control” is meant occupation of the region’s administrative center, its police headquarters, and in some cases the internal-security (Berkut) headquarters. Moreover, Yanukovych’s attempts to cordon off Kiev from the rest of the country, while complicating the reformers’ efforts, have not succeeded. People continue to come to Kiev to reinforce the protests there, breaking through the roadblocks that the regime has set up. Some of those attempts to run roadblocks have been met with gunfire, and there have been lethal shootings outside Kiev in addition to the 27 deaths now confirmed from Tuesday’s regime-initiated violence in the capital.

Regime provocations, almost certainly with Russian support, continue. It was widely reported in the Western press that policemen loyal to the regime had been shot on Tuesday. What was not reported so extensively (if at all) was that some security forces loyal to the regime disguised themselves in the dress of Maidan self-defense forces and began firing live ammunition at their putative comrades. Meanwhile, the regime’s security forces continue to use the titushki (gangs of thugs and hoodlums) for various sorts of dirty work and have even armed some of these gangs, in what is perhaps the clearest example of a state at war with its own citizens, using criminals as agents of repression. In one recent instance, a gang of titushki pulled an independent journalist out of a car and beat him to death with clubs and baseball bats. So questions remain as to the real identity of the ten people in uniform who were killed on Tuesday (in addition to 17 protesters).

During Tuesday’s lethal regime assault on civil society, two of the oligarchs who have been supportive of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Pinchuk, issued public appeals for an end to regime violence. A third oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, did the same on Wednesday. Whether this suggests effective pressure on these billionaires from EU governments and the U.S., a calculation by hard-eyed businessmen that Yanukovych’s days are numbered, or something else is unclear. But combined with the cracks that have appeared in the Party of Regions’ parliamentary caucus and the loss of regime control in nine regions, calls for restraint by the men who have bankrolled Yanukovych’s regime and profited by it suggest that something is shifting in the foundations of Yanukovych’s support. Yet the inner circle around Yanukovych remains hawkish, according to Kiev sources, and thus the danger of further spasms of regime-initiated violence is by no means completely abated.

Russian rhetoric about the situation continues to be harsh, and indeed became harsher on Wednesday. Russian media sources and officials continue to frame the contest as being between “the government” and “right-wing extremists,” a narrative convention (and a thoroughgoing falsehood) too often adopted by the left-leaning European press. The irony of Russians who speak openly of a final “solution to the Ukrainian question” and then complain of “right-wing extremists” will not be lost on some. Meanwhile, one Ukrainian source reports that, in a conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Vladimir Putin allowed that he was not interested in controlling rustbelt Ukraine if Yanukovych & Co. lost control of Kiev, the implication being that Putin would settle for Crimea and Russia’s Black Sea–fleet port at Sebastopol. Putin’s assurances are, of course, of no greater credibility than Yanukovych’s; but at the very least the Russian “managed democracy” czar would seem to be floating notions of an ultimate fallback position.

On Thursday, three European foreign ministers — Laurent Fabius of France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, and Radek Sikorski of Poland — are coming to Kiev, presumably to hold discussions with both Yanukovych and the opposition. Yanukovych is quite capable of using such a pause to prepare for further repression. But if EU and American sanctions are beginning to bite, and American calls for the Ukrainian military to avoid being dragooned into attacks on the Ukrainian people are being heeded by senior officers who value their relations with NATO and Western military leaders, then perhaps a new phase of this drama is opening up — although it remains entirely unclear whether that new phase involves soft or hard landings for Yanukovych and his cronies, further Russian machinations and provocations, or a newfound unity among opposition political leaders.

Meanwhile, as they prepare for their meetings in Kiev, the European foreign ministers might well heed a call issued today by one of Ukraine’s leading academics, Myroslav Marynovych — a veteran of the Gulag during the Soviet period — under the title “What Can Ukraine Expect from the West Now?”:

I write to you as a former prisoner of conscience of the Brezhnev era. All other titles are rapidly losing sense in the light of the bleeding Ukrainian Maidan.

All my life I admired Western civilization as the realm of values. Now I am close to rephrasing Byron’s words: “Frailty, thy name is Europe!” The strength of bitterness here is matched by the strength of our love for Europe.

If anyone in decision-making circles is interested, I may answer the question in my title as follows:

First and foremost, stop “expressing deep concern.” All protesters on the Maidan have an allergy by now to what, in these circumstances, is a senseless phrase, while the gangsters in the Ukrainian government enjoy mocking the helplessness of the EU.

Invoke sanctions. Don’t waste time in searching for their Achilles’ heel: It is the money deposited in your banks. Execute your own laws and stop money laundering. The Europe we want to be part of can never degrade the absolute value of human lives in favor of an absolute importance of money.

Cancel Western visas for all governmental gangsters and their families. It is a scandal that ordinary Ukrainians living their simple lives have to provide their ancestors’ family trees to obtain a visa to enter European countries, while ruling criminals guilty of murder, “disappearances,” and fraud in the eyes of the whole world enjoy virtually free-entry status in Europe. . . .

Do not listen to Yanukovych’s and Putin’s propagandistic sirens. Just put cotton in your ears. Be able to decode their lie; otherwise they will decode your ability to defend yourself.

Instead, listen to Ukrainian media sacrificing their journalists’ lives to provide truthful information. Do not rely so much upon the information provided by your special correspondents in other countries who come to Ukraine for a day or two. Hire Ukrainians who live in this country to translate the Ukrainian cry of pain. Secure money for that now, instead of waiting for funds from next year’s budget.

Come to Ukrainian hospitals and talk to so-called “extremists” who want to “subvert the legitimately elected government,” those who have “cruelly beaten” policemen and “deliberately” blasted explosives to wound themselves. Yes, the face of war is cruel. But, arriving at the Maidan, these people repeated almost literally what King George VI said to his people on September 3, 1939: “We have been forced into a conflict, for we are called . . . to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.”

Get out of your comfort zone! Remember the coddled ancient Romans who refused to do that in time. Cajoling Putin won’t bring you security. Letting him take control over Ukraine could make a third world war a future possibility. A Ukraine divided by force won’t bring the world peace, just as a Poland and Germany divided by force didn’t bring peace to the world.

Let us conclude in solidarity with the memory of King George VI and the Ukrainian people: “The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then with God’s help, we shall prevail.”

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

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