The noose is tightening around Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s neck. By ordering his security forces to engage in a significant escalation of violence this week — including killings by regime snipers of randomly targeted demonstrators — he crossed a line, enraging the democratic opposition, alienating his erstwhile supporters, demoralizing some security forces and prompting the European Union finally to impose sanctions. The thoroughly delegitimized and universally detested leader now has only two bases of support: the criminal elements of the riot police, who are ready to butcher Ukrainians, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has encouraged Yanukovich to support the butchery. That may be too little to survive.
Regime forces have killed at least 77 demonstrators since Tuesday. The wounded number at least five times as many. But instead of demoralizing the democratic opposition, as Yanukovich hoped, the violence has only solidified the opposition’s resolve. Anti-regime protesters, oftentimes with the support of government members who have turned against the president, have effectively seized control of over half of Ukraine. Security forces have joined protesters in a number of regions, while over 20 prominent members of the ruling Party of Regions (PR) have demonstratively resigned from the organization. On Thursday, Feb. 20, the United States tightened its travel restrictions on Ukrainian officials responsible for the bloodshed, and the EU imposed both travel restrictions and financial sanctions that could affect those officials’ access to their Western European bank accounts.
Especially important was the convocation of a special session of the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, on Thursday. Although most of the deputies from the PR and the Communist Party did not attend, the democratic opposition and PR dissidents were able to muster a quorum and pass resolutions condemning the violence, instructing the security forces to return to their barracks and forbidding them to resort to what the government called “anti-terrorist measures” that have served as a cover for the terror against civilian protesters. Even if Yanukovich eventually chooses to ignore the Rada, its decision to condemn the terror he unleashed and the willingness of PR dissidents to join the democrats mean that his hold on power is slipping fast. Unsurprisingly, Yanukovich agreed on Friday to early elections and to constitutional changes that would trim his powers. Just as unsurprisingly, the demonstrators demanded that, having killed so many people, he immediately resign.
Yanukovich simply lacks the manpower to impose his will violently on a country the size of France and with a population of 45 million. The criminal Berkut riot police are estimated to number about 5,000. Elite anti-terrorist units number another 5,000. Internal troops number about 20,000. (The numbers are all estimates, as the regime has refused to make them public.) The army, which has about 150,000 soldiers, is unreliable, undertrained, underfed and underpaid and cannot be deployed to any significant degree. Thirty thousand loyal security forces cannot pacify as large a country as Ukraine. And as defections from the security forces continue, the number of riot police Yanukovich can trust to do his dirty work will decline.
Putin, in fact, is Yanukovich’s final remaining base of support, but even the Russian president must be having second thoughts about backing a failing leader in a country that has slipped out of his control. That was not Putin’s plan. When he strong-armed Yanukovich back in November to turn his back on the Association Agreement with the EU, which would have established closer relations between Ukraine and the union, Putin did not imagine that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators would march in the streets of Kiev in protest. And when Putin encouraged Yanukovich to adopt a hard line against the Ukrainian people, he probably thought that they would quickly be cowed and retreat.
These strategic miscalculations demonstrate that, despite his reputation for geopolitical savviness, the Russian president actually possesses a thoroughly inadequate understanding of Ukraine. Remarkably, these mistakes just replicate the miscalculations he made during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, when he supported election fraud and Yanukovich, thereby provoking three weeks of mass protests that led to fair and free elections and Yanukovich’s defeat. Is Putin capable of learning about Ukraine? Or is his proneness to strategic miscalculations reflective of a mind-set that is incapable of appreciating the independence of Ukraine? Whatever the answer, Putin bears some responsibility for the violence in Kiev — a fact that is unlikely to endear him to the Ukrainian population.
Were Putin to begin thinking geopolitically about Ukraine again, he’d appreciate that a stable, prosperous and friendly Ukraine is in Russia’s best interest. He’d also appreciate that the kind of Ukraine that he and Yanukovich have created — unstable, violent, economically weak, sullen, angry and suspicious — is decidedly not in Russia’s interest.
Although Yanukovich faces a dark end, Putin could transform the situation by simply pressuring him to resign. Putin could even offer him asylum in Russia. In doing so, Putin would be rehabilitating his reputation in Ukraine and the West and contributing significantly to a resolution of the current crisis. Such a move would earn him the gratitude of Ukraine’s democratic opposition and a seat in future international conversations about assisting Ukraine’s return to normality.
In effect, Putin could resolve the crisis and stop the bloodshed with one phone call.