Six weeks ago, a quarter million Ukrainians gathered on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezelezhnosti (Independence Square) to mark New Years’ Eve by singing their national anthem and affirming their desire to live free and with dignity. Tonight, as thousands of Ukrainians again sing that anthem on Maidan, their faces are lit by the fires of burning tents. Riot police and interior forces surrounding the square are threatening the imminent start of an ‘antiterrorist operation’ – signaling likely escalation to the use of automatic weapons, snipers, and powerful gas agents, including ‘specialty gasses’ recently acquired from Russia. Groups of government-sponsored thugs roam the streets, threatening isolated protestors. Yet the people remain on Maidan, determined to stand to the end.
Today’s sad events make several things clear:
1. Yanukovych and his closest associates – Kluyev, Zakharchenko, Yakymenko, Medvechuk, Arbuzov, Ryback – are cardinally opposed to any political solution that does not allow them to maintain the ‘vertical of power’ on which the current system rests. Parliamentary Speaker Rybak’s refusal to even register the opposition’s resolution regarding the 2004 constitution was based on an assessment that a portion of the ruling party might support such a resolution.
2. Today’s events are the implementation of a premeditated crackdown. The police were clearly prepared to go on the offensive, with some ‘titushki’ irregulars (identified by at least one expert as security personnel in civilian clothes) using the cover of police lines to throw rocks at protestors, and others dressed as ‘defenders of Maidan.’ Police quickly escalated the use of force, without warning and without restraint, firing into crowds and lobbing grenades from preestablished positions on the tops of buildings.
3. Fresh on the tail of his Vilnius about-face, Yanukovych has yet again operationalized the Ukrainian people’s trust in the West to his own ends. Rather than the de-escalation that the West hoped for, recent negotiations and the ‘amnesty law’ have acted as a smokescreen to prepare this crackdown. The US’s and Europe’s heavy investment in mediating a ‘negotiated solution’ have unwittingly lent that deception credibility that Yanukovych could not have provided on his own. We have also risked – and likely undermined – the opposition’s already limited political capital. And we have also unwittingly reinforced Yanukovych’s power base, by treating as reliable interlocutors those culpable of violence toward their own people and serial duplicity toward us.
4. Weeks of repression and targeted violence, the systematic blocking of paths toward a political resolution, the failure to bring those responsible for violence to justice, and the feelings that international help is not forthcoming have radicalized vast swaths of the protest movement. Even moderates see the regime as an occupying force, and negotiations as pointless. The psychological barrier between peaceful protest and armed resistance has become very thin.
In short, events are not just spiraling just out of control – they are being actively driven out of control by a regime determined to stay in power at any cost, that seeks to confront and crush opposition and civil society, and that is more petrified by the idea of compromise than the risk of total state collapse.
If the West is to retain any credibility and influence over events, we must act quickly, decisively, and intelligently. We must moderate our obsession with mediating a negotiated solution, realize that our ability to influence the regime’s core leadership through persuasion is very limited, and instead focus our efforts on those we can influence (and who themselves can limit the regime’s freedom of maneuver): essential enablers within state institutions, Party of Regions political supporters, and the country’s very substantial Western-oriented civil society. We can also shape future events by making clear that efforts to hijack Western credibility to legitimize duplicity will not go unanswered.
The core of these actions should be the implementation – not just the threat – of the following actions:
A. Targeted measures – visa bans and asset freezes – on a broad set of Ukrainian officials responsible for repression and the criminalization of power, as well as their and agents, associates, families, and business interests. The targets of these sanctions should include:
a. President Viktor Yanukovych and his family business empire, including Oleksandr Yanukovych’s Ukrainian Bank of Development.
b. Andriy & Serhiy Kluyev and their family business empire.
c. ‘Gray cardinal’ Viktor Medvechuk.
d. Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Ryback.
e. Acting Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov.
f. Senior leadership of the Presidential Administration, National Security and Defence Council staff, Interior Ministry, Prosecutor General’s Office, and Security Service.
g. Operational leadership of Berkut and other Interior Ministry forces involved in repression.
h. Regional and local officials and judges involved in supporting repression.
B. The appointment of investigators to systematically probe the nexus between the criminalization of power in Ukraine and potential criminal acts (including money laundering, RICO, FCPA/extortion, securities violations, banking regulations and tax evasion) over which the US or European countries have jurisdiction. The designation of lead investigators at the national level would be a strong, welltargeted signal and provide a natural hub for the collection of information on violations. An early step should be the identification of entities and accounts held in beneficial interest of Ukrainian Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs). The recent activity of unknown groups in Ukraine kidnapping and torturing activists would also seem to fit the definition of terrorism, providing greater extraterritorial reach. The appointment of an investigator at the International Criminal Court would also be an appropriate step.
C. Clear statements that the Ukrainian government’s current de facto state of emergency and violence against its own people is not only unacceptable, it is also illegitimate – and the latest in a string of such illegitimate (and criminal) actions going back to the creation of an artificial parliamentary majority and the seizure of the court system in 2010. This can form the background for actions to freeze state-owned assets, should the situation continue to deteriorate.
Today, these actions can still have influence. Many in the ruling party and within the security system and state administration have not bought into the brutal repression, and can be deterred from doing so. Those who are today the subject of that repression – and are now beginning to pick up arms – can be encouraged by clear Western support to show the maximum patience and restraint. But time is ticking, and conflict has its own dynamic. Only a narrow window remains – a few days to a week – for the West, through quick, concrete action, to help prevent Ukraine’s degeneration into civil war. We must use that window. And we must also now actively look beyond it, to prepare for the potential need for massive humanitarian assistance and support for economic and political stabilization in a post-conflict scenario.