Will U.S. and EU Help Pull Ukrainians from Possible Civil War, or Push Them into It?

February 20, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Will Western governments help bring Ukraine back from the drift to civil war or push the country into a bloody morass, the outcome of which cannot be predicted? That is now the central question as events move seemingly out of anyone’s control.

With predictable consistency, most Western officials have issued warnings against escalation of violence, directed pro forma against “both sides.” This included yesterday’s statement by U.S. President Barack Obama: “We also expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.”

But in practice, only the authorities are threatened with sanctions. (Obama: “We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way; that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression. . . . There will be consequences if people step over the line.”)

This disconnect between the West’s even-handed rhetoric and one-sided threats creates what amounts to an incentive for radical elements among the opposition to launch attacks on the police, confident that any response from the authorities will risk international condemnation for attacking “peaceful protesters.” That is the scenario that played out in over the past few days, with deadly results.

When the opposition earlier vacated Kiev’s city administration building, hopes had been raised for a political compromise. This was expected to include reversion to a mixed presidential-parliamentary constitutional system, on which there is wide consensus.

Those hopes evaporated on Tuesday, February 18 when protesters advancing on the parliament, ostensibly in support of the constitutional revision, attacked police. Even a posting by the opposition “YevroRevolyutsiya” betrays what really happened: “In the morning the Speaker of Ukraine parliament Rybak refused to register the opposition draft law on return to the 2004 Constitution, which caused rapid escalation of the situation in the street of Kyiv.” How does postponement of a bill for further revision “cause” violence – unless someone attacks someone else?

Video clearly shows police huddled under their shields trying to defend themselves while armored “protesters” assault them with clubs, rocks and other debris, and at one point, trying to run them down with a truck. (This writer consulted yesterday with U.S. federal law enforcement officers to ask how they would respond to such attacks in Washington. They answered without hesitation: with deadly and decisive force. They would shoot anyone even brandishing a club, rock, or Molotov cocktail at law enforcement officers, much less using it.) “Pro-Europe activists” also attacked an office of the ruling Party of Regions, beating a computer technician to death.

Later in the day, authorities responded forcefully against the main protest base in Maidan. As of this writing, over two dozen people have perished in the growing violence. A third of them are policemen, some from gunshot wounds – hardly evidence of an attack on “peaceful protesters.”

It’s difficult to see how an initiative for calm can come from the opposition. To start with, especially after the leaked Nuland-Pyatt conversation, “Yats” and “Klitch” at this point have little credibility with anyone. The only relevant question about them at this point is the extent to which they are complicit in the escalation of violence – or just running to stay ahead of a pack that doesn’t have much respect for them anyway. In either case, they seem committed to their maximalist demands – essentially, regime change. (Even as a truce was announced yesterday, Klitschko declared that Yanukovych “has to go.”) With the blame for violence placed exclusively on the government, calls for sanctions are growing on both sides of the Atlantic, with the hope of isolating President Yanukovych and his administration, and especially splitting off pro-Yaunkovuch oligarchs to force him to step down.

Initial indications of a split between American and European policymakers (and of splits among European governments) on whether to apply sanctions appear to have been superseded by a discussion of “which specific sanctions should be applied,” in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “But sanctions alone are not enough,” she said. “We have to get the political process going again,” including both side of the Ukrainian conflict.

What the West does next – and whether Washington will persist, and succeed, in pushing Europe towards a harsher response than prudence dictates – could have a critical impact. The agenda in some quarters remains trying to force a democratically elected government from office, with the almost certain result civil war and perhaps the breakup of the country. If, instead, Western governments (especially the Europeans, who have a far greater stake in Ukraine than does the United States) are committed to working for a de-escalation of violence, a resumption of negotiations for a political compromise between the legitimate government and genuinely peaceful opposition elements, and preparation for presidential elections early next year, perhaps there is still hope of averting the worst.