Ukraine Approaches the Abyss

Anti-government demonstrators have held the main square in Kiev, Ukraine, for months now. They are upset that the government of President Viktor Yanukovich has refused closer ties with the EU and has finagled Ukraine into deepening its relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Yesterday, the police tried to clear the square in what was alleged to be an anti-terror operation. The police failed, 25 are dead (on both sides), and Ukraine has moved closer to the abyss. Everything now seems to hinge on the army.

So long as the army stays in barracks, there is a way for both sides to negotiate some kind of deal. It may not be a permanent arrangement, and it might not even address the underlying problem of Ukraine’s future. However, if civil society is allowed to function, the death toll won’t necessarily rise. If the army is ordered to move, it will (at best) be a replay of Tienanmen Square.

There are but two reasons President Yanukovich has not yet sent in the army. The first and more hopeful reason is that he still believes some kind of peaceful settlement is possible. He stated on TV yesterday, “The opposition leaders have disregarded the principle of democracy according to which one obtains power not on the streets or maidans [squares] – but through elections. They have crossed the line by calling for people to take up arms.” After that fib as there is no evidence that they made such a call, he added, “It is not too late to stop the conflict.”

The other, less positive reason, is that he doesn’t know whether the army will obey the order. If he tells the military to act and it refuses, he loses completely. If he tells the military to act and only a segment of it does, Ukraine will face a civil war of Syrian proportions.

According to Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Pavlo Lebedev, the army cannot be used to put down domestic unrest unless the government declares a state of emergency or martial law. He told Interfax-Ukraine news agency, “Under the law ‘On the Armed Forces of Ukraine,’ it is only possible if a state of emergency or martial law is introduced in the country. Under the Constitution, it may be introduced by a presidential decree and is subject to approval by the Verkhovna Rada [parliament]. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are at their bases and following their normal routine. There is full-scale scheduled training underway.”

Those training exercises are grounds for concern, whether scheduled recently or years ago. The troops will be armed and off their usual posts. That is the ideal time for an order to intervene. The question of whether they would obey the order remains.

Mr. Lebedev added, “the exacerbation of the situation in the country hasn’t left the armed forces and Ministry of Defense personnel indifferent. As citizens of Ukraine, they have stated their civil position. There have been general meetings in the Armed Forces of Ukraine at which 87% of servicemen expressed support for the president’s actions to settle the current conflict in a peaceful way and prevent an exacerbation of the civil confrontation.”

The 87% probably does represent the sentiment of the troops if one is talking about a peaceful solution in which they don’t have to shoot their neighbors. That is not the same as supporting the president.

Things to watch: a declaration of a state of emergency, and the date the exercises end — which doesn’t seem to be public information. And next Sunday, the Olympics in Russia are over.