A Downward Spiral of Violence and Sanctions Cannot Produce a Good Result

January 23, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

The crisis in Ukraine has reached a point of danger unprecedented in Ukraine’s independent history. With the first deaths, a Rubicon has been crossed. Now the question is, will Ukraine follow down the path to civil war – which some, notably the so-called “Right Sector” (Pravy Sektor) are openly calling for – and the potential breakup of the country? Or will leaders on both sides step back from the brink?

Few hold out much hope for a negotiated solution to the crisis – not least because the main opposition leaders in Batkivshchina and UDAR have effectively lost control of “their side” of the street. While legitimate questions can be raised about the timing of the January 16 legislation –when the number of protesters was dwindling– it is hard to say the content of that legislation is solely responsible for the escalation of violence. (By comparison, if protesters armed with clubs were to seek to occupy government buildings in Washington or any other Western capital, they would be facing many years in jail on felony charges and use of deadly force to subdue them.)

At this point, the opposition seems to have only one strategy: keep to their maximalist demands that the government resign (or agree to call snap elections not provided for under the constitution, under Klitschko’s threat to “attack” after a 24-hour deadline!), and that Western countries slap sanctions on Ukrainian officials and supportive oligarchs until they comply. Meanwhile, it is difficult to avoid the sense that even if the January 16 laws had not been passed, the Right Sector and like-minded groups would have seized on some other pretext to turn up the heat to create conditions “justifying” sanctions.

This strategy – if it can be called that – can only have one outcome: to force the government into a corner where its only option is to use even more force to restore public order, resulting in more deaths and (it is hoped) more and stronger sanctions.

But to what end? There may indeed some tightening of sanctions, already starting with some visa revocations and the dis-invitation to Prime Minister Azarov’s participation at the Davos Forum. Still, any likely measures won’t produce the outcome the opposition demands.

The limits to the Western response may reflect the fact that even the opposition’s strongest supporters are repelled by the actions of those who are far from “peaceful demonstrators.” For example, even the U.S. Department of State notes: “The aggressive actions of members of extreme-right group Pravy Sektor are not acceptable and are inflaming conditions on the streets and undermining the efforts of peaceful protestors. We likewise deplore violence by unofficial groups known as ‘titushki.’”

By elevating the stakes to a struggle for total state power to be decided violently in the street rather than by ballots in accordance with scheduled elections, the opposition inevitably will plunge Ukraine into a vortex of violence with no predictable outcome. If this downward spiral is not curbed it cannot lead to anything good.