Early in the evening of February 18, Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church went to the tent-chapel in Kiev’s Independence Square, where he prayed with other clergymen and then read publicly a statement by his superior, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. The statement said that the government of president Viktor Yanukovych bore “total responsibility” for the violence that had broken out across Kiev hours before. It called on the government’s security forces to cease their attacks on unarmed civilian protesters, asked Ukraine’s Christians to pray and fast for a peaceful resolution of the situation, and summoned Kiev’s Greek Catholic churches to begin ringing their church bells in protest against the Ukrainian state’s war against the Ukrainian people — the ringing a gesture of solidarity with civil society in which many Ukrainian Orthodox churches participated as well.
Then — as the regime’s water cannons were rolled into the Maidan, concussion grenades were lobbed into the tens of thousands of protesters gathered there, the tent-chapel was burned, and unarmed and often elderly women begged the Berkut (the Ukrainian internal-security forces) to cease beating innocent people with truncheons — Bishop Gudziak was taken to the ophthalmology unit of a nearby hospital, at the insistence of a doctor, to visit and offer the sacrament of the sick to men who had had their eyes shot out by the regime’s rubber bullets. The doctor was planning to remain at the hospital in an effort to help prevent the in-hospital kidnappings and arrests that have become a signature tactic of the Yanukovych regime in previous violent spasms over the past three months. Others were taking no chances and had begun evacuating the Maidan wounded to Lviv, in western Ukraine, where the regional administration building had earlier been occupied by civil-society forces.
In 1984, George Orwell famously described totalitarianism as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” In Orwell’s dystopia, it didn’t matter what the ideology was, Nazi or Communist; the human effects of state power unrestrained by law or morality were the same. Yanukovych’s regime has no ideology, save the ideology of power and greed. But it has taken the human effects a step further. The thugs of the Berkut and their hired goons among the truncheon-wielders are not only beating people brutally, although they are doing that with evident relish. They are also shooting their eyes out, and the aim does not seem accidental.
No one knows how many have died in Kiev thus far today; recent news report have spoken of nine confirmed deaths, but those on the ground cannot imagine that the toll is not higher, not least because the riot police have been preventing ambulances from transporting the wounded to hospitals for medical care. Local activists fear that if the authorities (if the term may be permitted) try to clear the Maidan overnight, there will be hundreds of deaths and perhaps thousands of injured.
The leaders of the civil-reform movement in Ukraine are “not talking Putin tonight,” as one of them put it to me. Their immediate focus is the lawlessness, violence, and intransigence of their own president, Yanukovych, who has rebuffed every attempt at serious negotiation with the opposition while, it now seems, using the recent lull to prepare today’s assault on the central emplacements of the Maidan activists.
The beleaguered reform movement may not be “talking Putin tonight,” but knowledgeable Ukrainian reformers find it hard to believe that what has happened today has unfolded without Russian acquiescence, and it was probably with Russian logistical support as well. Some easily imagine that Putin has encouraged Yanukovych to prove he is a real leader in the Putinesque manner — by literally crushing his opponents. Meanwhile, Western diplomats in Kiev seem frustrated with the inability of their home offices, so to speak, to bring any effective pressure to bear on Yanukovych and his regime, either directly, or indirectly through the oligarchs who have traditionally bankrolled Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and who have clearly not been persuaded to help compel Yanukovych into serious negotiation.
Perhaps, though, it is time to put aside what now seems to have been the illusion that there is an effective oligarch-card to be played in Ukraine’s drama; there may be one later, but the card seems unavailable now. And if the only language that Yanukovych, his governmental cronies, and his financial backers understand is the language of power, then it falls to Western governments to apply effective force to those who have deliberately put a major European capital in flames while attacking unarmed people with impunity. At this point, talk is clearly insufficient. Senior U.S. government officials and European leaders have failed in their generally unimpressive efforts to persuade Yanukovych to see reason and parley seriously with the opposition. Today’s bloodshed and death is the result of that failure.
Thus, Ukrainian reformers say, there is no longer any reason not to apply stringent economic sanctions, to ratchet down visa restrictions, and to use the available financial levers and pressures to make it clear to the regime and its oligarch-allies that there is a severe price to be paid for outdoing Orwell.
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.