Violence in the Ukraine has seen a swift inception, and a swifter halt, as world leaders declare sanctions against government officials, leading to peace talks. With 26 dead and at least 800 wounded in the course of a two-day, violent clash, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyanhybok, as well officials from the administration and the parliament’s speaker, met Wednesday evening and announced a truce to halt the crisis. Both sides have agreed to resume negotiations, though their vast differences have yet to be resolved.
The Ukraine has seen regular political tumult over the last twenty years since the fall of the USSR. Now without a prime minister since Mykola Azarov’s removal from office last month, it has seen a consolidation of political power for Yanukovych, intensifying the opposition. Protests have been ongoing since last November when Yanukovych rejected a trade deal with the EU. The president elected to maintain a closer relationship with Russia in place of this association, angering many cities and factions in the west of the country. In response, citizens in Kiev began to peacefully occupy the Maidan in Independence Square. Protests spread across the country, many demanding the ouster of the president and parliament and immediate elections.
After months of peaceful assembly, however, more violent protests erupted on Tuesday when a march on the parliament building led to demands for changes to the Ukrainian constitution in order to limit the president’s powers. Riot police were called up in an attempt to retake the Maidan, and the violence began to spread. It added up to the bloodiest skirmish seen since the affair began, and the violence only began to die down when Western leaders demanded an end to Yanukovych’s threats to declare a state of emergency that would enable martial law.
Many leaders in the European Union as well as President Obama have expressed concern that this truce will fail to see an end to the struggle. Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister has said that Yanukovych has lost all credibility, indicating that both world leaders and opposition members are uncertain whether this new development can be taken seriously. The depth of the rift and the lack of trust between the two groups in the Ukraine can be seen in the wild disparity between quotes taken from both sides over the course of the last few days.
Mr. Yanukovych has made statements to the effect that the leaders of opposition groups should not have crossed the line to join more extremist factions, and that the more radical elements of the opposition must be removed before further violence could arise. He has demanded that the three main opposition groups separate themselves from the more militant groups.
It would be difficult, however, for the opposition to distance themselves from more hard-line factions like Pravy Sektor, who are often the most committed to their struggle; moreover it is unlikely that dividing the opposition into peaceful and militant segments would end the affair. In many Ukrainian cities, the protests carry a great deal of popularity with the citizenry, making it unlikely that the removal of opposition leaders would end the groundswell of public support for the protests.
Protestors cite the president’s own extremism for inspiring this public backing. According to opposition leader Yatsenyuk, in talks on Tuesday the president had offered only one course of action for his detractors: surrender. Previous to Wednesday evening’s meeting, some opposition groups have gone so far as to state that though they too condemn the bloodshed, the protests will only halt with the announcement of Mr. Yanukovych’s resignation.
Wednesday’s call to halt the violence is seen by many to be simply a response to outside pressures, including the declarations of sanctions from the U.S. and the leaders of many nations in the EU and the wider world.
EU members including Poland, Sweden and Germany have expressed disappointment with Yanukovych’s handling of the protests. Russia, on the other hand, has expressed condemnation of the opposition groups, opining that Ukraine is not beset by an uprising of its citizenry, but rather a coup attempt backed by foreign extremists. Yanukovych has appeared to agree, claiming to be beleaguered by violent radicals in the Maidan. Sikorski of Poland discounts this interpretation, citing actions by Yanukovych which may have sparked the conflict.
Though the protests were largely peaceful over the last few months, opposition members have had occasion to become armed. In Lviv near the Polish border, protesters had occupied the offices of the state security service, several police stations, and those of a regional governor appointed by the president. In the process, the protestors appropriated over a hundred guns from a police weapons store. Other firearms have been seized over the course of the last three months–some government officials offer numbers exceeding 1,500 weapons, prompting the Ukrainian security service to announce the launch of an operation to combat terrorism.
Such an operation is presumed to give the security service the power to act without court orders and to seize property and people with impunity. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has said that the armed forces of the country might join such an operation. Yanukovych’s head of military, Gen. Volodymyr Zamana, who had previously stated that Ukraine’s armed forces ought never be used against civilians, was mysteriously removed from office just prior to the antiterrorism announcement. His ouster clears the way for Yanukovych to declare a state of emergency, which would allow him to instate martial law.
These events brought out swift responses from Western leaders, including President Obama. Officials from the U.S. State Department point out that they have been attempting to contact Ukraine’s military leaders for months to warn against such an action, without significant response. Obama has since criticized Ukraine’s president for his part in the violence, and states that the White House will be keeping a close eye on the situation in hopes that, with the eyes of the world on him, Yanukovych will show moderation with regard to peaceful protestors. Obama also stated the expectation that the protestors will return to peaceful action in return, and opined that the Ukrainian military had no place in a civilian matter that can be resolved by Ukraine’s citizenry.
The U.S. has also stated a willingness to back the EU with further sanctions against parties culpable of violence, including fiscal penalties and restrictions on travel, though there has been a concerted effort to assure the world that no broader sanctions would be considered against Ukraine as a whole. These “targeted” sanctions have been backed by members of both U.S. political parties, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The U.S. State Department has already declared a bar against travel to the United States for 20 civilians, all senior members of Ukraine’s government.
Still, the U.S. seems to be trying to strike a middle ground, condemning the violence from both sides of the struggle while keeping talks open with Yanukovych, who has wavered between the West and Russia for some time. Yanukovych’s administration has responded by denying that any armored units were advancing on Kiev, and that battalions of paratroopers known to have deployed recently did so only to guard sites important to the Ministry of Defense and not to attack civilians.
Still, the threat of sanctions from the EU likely played a greater part in Yanukovych’s turnaround, as Ukraine does a great deal more direct business with Europe and needs to maintain freedom of travel and financial assets within the EU. Thus Jose Barroso, President of the EU Commission, likely carried more weight when he mentioned that “targeted measures” were expected against those culpable of violence in the country.
Equally likely to have played a part was the announcement that foreign ministers from France, Germany, and Poland are en route to emergency talks in Kiev on Thursday, after which they will return to Brussels to discuss with other EU members whether or not to impose targeted sanctions against officials of the Ukrainian government. Sikorski of Poland is planning to meet with the opposition in Kiev before the trip to Brussels in hopes to mediate between the two groups. Laurent Fabius, France’s Foreign Minister, has shown signs of backing sanctions, while Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has stated the intention to retain close contacts with Russia in the talks.
The Kremlin, while decrying the violence in Ukraine, has supported Yanukovych’s claims, with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, asking Western powers to convince opposition groups to agree to Yanukovych’s demands. In Sweden, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt states that Ukraine would have been better off had it made a trade agreement with EU powers rather than siding with Moscow.
This East/West fracture seems to parallel the fractures seen within the troubled country. While Russia and the West pass blame back and forth for supporting one side or another in the struggle, western and eastern regions of Ukraine itself reflect the divide. Eastern Ukrainian cities like Kharkov and Donetsk discuss tactics to forcibly suppress the protestors. Meanwhile, the west of Ukraine with its close ties to Poland, has taken more to the opposition; and some cities, such as Lviv, have even taken the opportunity to declare autonomy. In Ivano-Frankivsk, the security forces commander has refused to follow any orders he deems illegal.
Now, with declared sanctions from world leaders halting the violence and forcing the two sides to negotiate, Ukraine can only hope that this great divide can be bridged. For now there has been an end, at least, to the bloodshed. Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party has confirmed that there is no further police action taking place in the Maidan. Fires still burn there, though no longer accompanied by violence. At the moment, all that can be heard in Independence Square are the voices of thousands of protestors chanting and singing.
By Kat Turner