When NRO’s editorial on the Ukrainian crisis was published last week, the country looked to be on the verge of a compromise peace. The demonstrators in the Maidan had remained there for three months. It seemed that they could be dislodged only by a brutal and murderous military assault. On their part, however, the demonstrators had no clear way to getting rid of the government. Following earlier deaths of demonstrators and policemen alike, it appeared that both sides wanted to avoid the kind of clashes that might lead to more deaths and, ultimately, to civil war. And a bill was about to be presented to Parliament, last Tuesday, that would have reduced the independent power of President Yanukovych and tip the balance of constitutional authority in Ukraine toward parliament. If that passed, early elections — i.e., before those scheduled for next year — would certainly follow.
On Tuesday the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, an ally of the president, refused to allow the bill to be debated. Demonstrators concluded, not unreasonably, that Yanukovych had been playing for time. They marched toward parliament, which, surprisingly, seemed to be without police or paramilitary protection. As they drew nearer, however, police appeared and fired on them. This account is disputed, of course, and we will need to wait for an official inquiry to get the full truth. In any case, this is an old Communist police tactic going back as far as the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Yanukovych’s forces then tried to clear the Maidan by every method known to police states, including snipers, and they failed in this attempt, though at the cost of an unknown number of lives, probably exceeding 100.
If you fire on a crowd, you must either triumph or depart. One week later Yanukovych has fled Kiev and his present whereabouts are unknown. His government has disintegrated. He will be lucky if he ends up as a pensioner of the dictator of Belarus; a more likely fate is that he will stand trial at The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity. A new parliamentary majority, composed of the opposition and defectors from Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, is repealing laws, appointing new officials (and firing old ones), constructing a technocratic caretaker government, and clearing the ground for a new democratic election in May. Ukraine’s new political reality seems so far to be generally accepted by most Ukrainians.
“A week is a long time in politics,” as Britain’s Labour prime minister Harold Wilson once said; and “the unexpected always happens; the inevitable never,” as Keynes remarked.
For those two reasons, we should not assume that the new political dispensation in Ukraine is stable and likely to last. Indeed, there are good reasons for skepticism on this score. Ukraine is linguistically divided between Ukrainian speakers in the west and Russian speakers in the east. That division has been reflected in partisan political loyalties, too. Yanukovych is still at large, perhaps in his political stronghold of Donetz. Russia is his patron, and Putin needs Ukraine to be inside his forthcoming Euro-Asian Economic Union if it is to be a viable counterpart to the European Union. Putin’s journalistic mouthpieces in Moscow have been loudly speculating that Russia will intervene either to prop up Yanukovych or to divide Ukraine. And revolutions typically go through a stage of anarchy.
All these dangers are real and should not be dismissed. At the same time, they don’t at present seem to be happening. There are only a few scattered signs of loyalist rallying to Yanukovych. Most people in his own home region, including some MPs from his party, are distancing themselves from him. That’s not surprising. He ordered murder wholesale; he tried to sell his country; and the vulgar ostentation of his lifestyle as shown by television cameras touring his Kiev palace is horribly offensive to Ukrainians leading very pinched lives. Next, Putin won’t want to diminish the afterglow of the Sochi Olympics, which he has been relying on to improve his international image. If Ukraine finds itself stable and under new management, he will not have a pretext for intervention. To intervene without such a pretext, even to recover the Crimea, would make him look like an international outlaw with no regard at all for good interstate relations. And, finally, the MPs now reshaping the government in Kiev are doing so both with an attentive respect for constitutional form and procedures and in conditions of extraordinary transparency via televised debates. Whatever else it is, this ain’t anarchy.
These early hopeful signs may be misleading. Things may deteriorate. But while they persist, the U.S. and the European Union should take two steps to stabilize the situation further. They should warn Russia that any intervention in the Ukraine would have the most serious consequences for East–West relations; second, they should offer Ukraine high levels of financial aid, technical advice, and favorable trade and investment arrangements. Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has applied consistently firm pressure in favor of Ukraine’s entry into the EU system. Lately he has played an even more decisive role in helping Ukraine avoid a descent into bloodshed and in brokering a true independence. We urge that he be given the role of coordinating all Western policy toward Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership nations. We cannot help adding that Mr. Sikorski is a former roving correspondent who covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the wars in southern Africa, and the 1989 velvet revolutions for National Review with distinction. He knows how to do these things.
One other public figure has contributed greatly to the democratic and geopolitical changes in Ukraine. We refer to Vladimir Putin. Three months ago President Yanukovych was a solidly pro-Russian politician holding power securely in a poor but loyal Russian ally. Then Putin imposed long border delays on Ukrainian agricultural imports (and threatened heavier penalties) unless Ukraine abandoned its long-held commitment to associate membership of the European Union and moved instead to join Putin’s Euro-Asian Economic Union. Realizing that this meant not merely a different trading arrangement but membership in an authoritarian alliance structure without democracy, the rule of law, and genuinely free markets, thousands of ordinary Ukrainians began protests in the Maidan that led by degrees to the events of this week. If Putin had not needlessly and recklessly overplayed his hand, Yanukovych could be sitting comfortably in his gold-plated bath today. As it is, for the first time since the West yielded to his threats in April 2008 and kept Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO, Putin has been brought low — and brought low by thousands of anonymous ordinary Ukrainians.
Maybe now people bigger than he is will be prepared to take him on.