Today was a fraught day in Ukraine. The day started with Yanukovych’s offer to the opposition: Fatherland Party head Yatsenyuk as PM, Klitschko as Vice PM, amnesty for Maidan arrestees, a reconsideration of the anti-protest laws.
This was an anti-Godfather offer. Rather than making an offer Yatsunyuk could not refuse, Yanukovich made him an offer he had to refuse. The Maidan would have totally rejected Yatsunyuk and Klitschko had they accepted. If they had gone ahead regardless, they would have been complicit in what has happened and what would happen.
Yanukovych-and Putin-knew this. And it suits them just fine. Now they can portray the opposition as obdurate, radical and unwilling to compromise. This allows them to rationalize a crackdown. Indeed, the Interior Minister foreshadowed this theme:
The interior minister said the opposition was no longer able to control “radical forces” and was putting civilians in danger.
“The events of the last days in the Ukrainian capital have shown that our attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, without recourse to a confrontation of force, remain futile,” Mr Zakharchenko said in a statement on Saturday
If negotiation is futile, the only alternative is force, right?
But this was not the most important event of the day. That occurred at Ukraine House. A group of troops (presumably Internal Troops, or VV) secreted themselves in the House, apparently in preparation of attacking the rear of the barricades on Grushevsky Street. Their presence was discovered (How? An informant?) and opposition members rushed to the House and surrounded it. They broke windows, fired fireworks into the building, and set tires alight in the lobby.
The potential for disaster here was extreme. What could have happened? Some possibilities, all of them ugly. First, the troops (referred to as “cadets” and “conscripts” on Twitter, suggesting they were hardly hardened shock troops) could have been incinerated or died of smoke inhalation. The deaths of so many troopers would have provided the perfect rationale for the government to go medieval on the protests, on mass scale. (They have gone medieval on a small scale, killing and torturing some opposition members.) Second, the government could have launched a rescue mission that would have resulted in a bloody clash. This too would have greatly escalated the conflict, and likely resulted in a full-blown revolution and civil war.
But after a while, the fires went out. Someone apparently convinced those at the building to cool it, and not risk bringing to pass the foregoing scenarios. Things devolved into a standoff. The oppositionists surrounding the building left a path open for those inside to leave, and shouted for them to surrender. Sometime during this period, Klitschko negotiated the peaceful withdrawal of the troops inside. The situation subsided 4.5 hours after it began.
This is an important victory for the opposition generally, and Klitschko personally. It is also a humiliating defeat for the government and the security forces.
And therein lay the future danger. A humiliation of the regime–which comes after other humiliations in which protestors seized government buildings throughout western Ukraine–can lead to its collapse. The humiliations embolden the opposition, who will be more willing to risk confrontation because they perceive the security forces will back down. If they turn out to be right, the humiliations snowball and before long the government collapses.
Or it can lead the government to decide that the time for half-measures is over. In which case, the blood will flow in earnest.
Perhaps more to the point, it can lead Putin to decide that the time for half-measures is over. He may push the government for a more aggressive response, or go around the government and push the security forces to attack. (NB: as elmer notes in his comment, many Ukrainians are already convinced that Russian units are already present in Kiev.) Or he may decide that the current leadership in Ukraine is too pusillanimous, and decide on the Kabul Option, and order spetsnaz units, and FSB Alpha and Vimpel troops, supported by paratroopers, into Kiev to carry out a putsch, and install a more reliable regime that will crush the opposition.
The wildcard in all this is Sochi–as I mentioned some time back. If Putin waits to act until after the Olympics are over, things could spin out of his control, and by March his dreams of subordinating Ukraine could become the nightmare of the Orange Revolution on steroids. But if he decides that a whiff of grapeshot is necessary and tries to play the role of Nicholas I (“the policeman of Europe”) and crush the rebellion before or during Sochi, his $50 billion triumph will turn into a fiasco.
Difficult dilemma for our VVP.
It seems to me that he has fallen victim to the typical autocrat’s conceit, believing that he can control events. But revolutionary situations are never-ever-subject to the control of any will. The spontaneous events at Ukraine House came within a trice of catastrophe. But who is to say that it will be so the next time?
And there will be a next time. If you have followed events, you will note a pattern. An intensification of conflict, but a pullback by one side or the other or both before full-blown warfare erupts. But each subsequent peak is higher, more intense than the one before. And it only takes an accidental shot to cause things to spin out of control.
I don’t know where things are going. Revolutionary situations are radically unpredictable. No one controls events, and a sort of spontaneous disorder exists. The independent actions of many people can lead to a shot that his heard ’round the world.
But if you can’t reliably predict the expected outcome, you can reliably predict that the variance becomes extreme. Anything is possible, even probable, and many of them are quite horrific.
The dynamic, and the choices inherent in it, are pretty clear though. If the government continues to avoid a brutal crackdown, the dynamic favors the opposition: they will become emboldened, and success will produce more success. That very fact shapes the thinking of the government, andcracking down to stop the opposition’s momentum becomes more and more sensible as an option, even knowing that it will make the regime a pariah, both domestically and abroad. Better to be a live pariah than dead or imprisoned.
Putin knows that autocracies fall not because they are too brutal, but because they are not brutal enough. He must have absorbed that lesson watching the collapse of the USSR. I fear he may be intent on not repeating the experience.
For this reason, Sochi may be a godsend. At the very least, it puts Putin on the horns of a dilemma: no Sochi, and his choice would be quite simple. With Sochi, not so simple.
This may provide the US and the EU with the only leverage it really has. Both should make plain that unless the regime in Kiev capitulates, and forms a national unity government, that they will boycott Sochi. They should make it plain that they view Yanukovych’s government to be Putin’s puppet, and that he is responsible for what goes on there.
And irony of ironies: Putin’s triumphalism after browbeating Ukraine into turning its back on the EU and accepting Russia’s loving embrace makes it plain that he is the puppet master. By using his triumphalism against him, judo-like, the US and the EU may take him to the mat.
Alas, I doubt either has the stones to do it. But they should. It is the best way to give Ukraine a chance.
Update: A timeline in the Kyiv Post (which is now offline, which could be ominous, or it could be nothing) contradicts part of the Ukraine House story that I told above. According to the KP piece, troops had been stationed in Ukraine House since November, and this was known. Perhaps there were rumors that the troops that were there were about to launch an attack, and that’s what precipitated the storming of the place by protestors. Or maybe the more confrontational elements in the movement initiated the clash. Or perhaps provocateurs did. But it apparently is not correct that the presence of the troops was just discovered and that led the protestors to fear an impending assault on their rear. Either there developed in the crowd a belief that the posture of the troops was about to change from passive/defensive to aggressive/offensive. Or perhaps elements in the opposition were looking to precipitate a clash: spreading rumors of an impending attack would be a way of doing that. All in all, the situation looks more ambiguous to me than it did initially.
But this doesn’t change my judgment about the ultimate outcome. Whatever precipitated the assault, the retreat of the government forces in the building was a humiliating blow to the government. I have the same opinions about the implications of that humiliation. Similarly, I still believe that the clash is symptomatic of increasing tensions and escalating violence.
Today’s Twitter stream from Ukraine contained several warnings (including one with a video) claiming that busloads of Berkut had departed from Donets and Odessa, headed for Kiev. Nine was the number of buses attributed to Donets, 10 in Odessa.
There are only 3500-4000 Berkut troops in the entire country, so perhaps these were not Berkut. And whether the rumors are true or not will not be known for some time. Whoever is on those buses is not going to debark and immediately begin an assault. Some planning and familiarization with the new surroundings would be required first. One possibility is that they are to be ready for action by Tuesday, when the Rada meets, and when-according to yet more rumors-Yanukovych may declare a state of emergency. (The head of the Justice Ministry demanded such a declaration if the protestors do not evacuate her ministry building, which they occupied today.)
Even if that’s all true, it indicates a certain desperation by the regime (and Putin), and also an element of futility. Protests have spread around the country, and government buildings have been occupied in several towns. The country is in ferment-not just Kiev. Reinforcing Kiev makes the rest of the country more vulnerable to protestors seizing government buildings and ousting regime loyalists. A bloody crackdown in Kiev would likely ignite greater efforts in areas denuded of troops.
I just don’t think the regime has enough reliable manpower to be able to maintain control everywhere. Yes, the capital is the center of gravity and its security is paramount to the regime: holding it is necessary to ensure the regime’s survival. But holding the capital is not sufficient to quash a rebellion that breaks out in multiple areas of a large country.
Dawn is about to break there now, and things seem quiet. But things can change rapidly, and Tuesday could be another important day. The fluidity of the situation, and the lack of reliable information makes prognostication a mug’s game.