Protesters Force Resignation of Ukraine’s Government

While the American media obsessed over President Obama’s State of the Union speech and the four different Republican responses, something that is genuinely important happened elsewhere. The prime minister of Ukraine and his cabinet resigned after weeks of street protests. The first post-independence president of the nation has said the country stands “on the brink of civil war.” Ukraine is not actually on the brink, but everyone can see the brink from where the country is now.

The protests began when President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign a deal that would have deepened Ukraine’s ties to the EU. He prefers lining up with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and has the support of most of the 25% of the population that is ethnic Russian. The opposition took to the streets, and in the last two weeks, the government has passed a law restricting the right to protest, put special riot police on the streets, killed a couple of protesters, repealed the anti-protesting law, offered top government posts to the opposition leadership, and now the PM and cabinet have quit.

Clearly, the momentum is on the side of the protesters, and that creates a very dangerous situation. The resignation of the government may help, but by the same token, the conditions in Ukraine are such that the opposition may decide it can get even more. Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov wrote “Ukraine has shifted into a different category of country – from that of the peaceful and half-asleep to the category characterised by a highly radicalised population.”

Parliament is considering an amnesty for detained protesters. Leonid Kravchuk, President of Ukraine from 1991 to 1994, said in parliament, “all the world acknowledges and Ukraine acknowledges that the state is on the brink of civil war. It is a revolution. It is a dramatic situation in which we must act with the greatest responsibility. We need to ease the confrontation between the sides and agree a plan to solve the conflict. We need to work on this plan step by step to ease the confrontation.”

However, the goals of the two sides are mutually exclusive. The people in the streets want President Yanukovich out of office along with the PM and cabinet who just quit. They want political prisoners freed, including Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Orange Revolution and former PM currently jailed for corruption. President Yanukovich and his supporters fear being arrested and jailed in turn should they lose power.

In the end, this comes down to what the military will do. So far, the Ukrainian army has stayed in its barracks. If the president orders the army to act, there is significant doubt as to whether the soldiers will obey. Troops drawn from the anti-Yanukovich west may rebel if forced to choose. By the same token, the army could act without orders, forcing the old regime out. The legitimacy of any succeeding regime would be doubtful at best, and unrest would likely persist, although at lower levels.

The Poles have a saying that states God is far and the Tsar is just across the river, and that could apply to Ukraine as well. Watching all of this from the Kremlin is Vladimir Putin and his siloviki. Preoccupied with the Sochi Olympic games, they won’t act right away. But they are making all the sounds one would associate with a desire to intervene. He has already warned the EU off following the visit of the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele to Kiev. “I think that the Ukrainian people are capable of solving this on their own. I can only imagine how our European partners would respond if in the heat of a crisis in a country like Greece or Cyprus, our foreign minister would appear at one of their anti-European rallies and begin addressing them,” he said at the end of an EU-Russia summit in Brussels.

Based on what the world knows right now, Ukraine’s story will not end happily.