Kiev Spirals Out of Control

by John O’Sullivan

At least nine people have been killed today in renewed clashes between the police and protesters in Kiev. That number will probably increase over the course of the night since the police are currently overturning barriers and clearing demonstrators from Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, where they have been encamped for the last three months. The battle, broadcast live on numerous television and Internet outlets, is like a scene from the apocalypse, with fires spreading, laser beams searching the landscape, fireworks thrown, smoke from grenades, and a constant deafening sound from loudspeakers.

In other words, Ukraine, which in the past few weeks had edged away from the threat of civil conflict — see yesterday’s NRO editorial — has now jumped headlong into a revolutionary struggle that may mutate into civil war. The police and paramilitary forces may succeed in clearing the demonstrators from the Maidan tonight, but that is unlikely to restore the stability that President Yanukovych seeks. The broadcast scenes will erode the government’s credit with middling opinion — they are all too reminiscent of the Soviet past. Clashes are taking place elsewhere in Kiev and the country. And the opposition, both in the streets and in parliament, has the sympathy of everyone outside the Kremlin.

What explains this sudden descent from gradual compromise and hopes of a political settlement into mayhem? Yesterday’s editorial included these two sentences:

A test of the government’s intentions will come on Tuesday, when Parliament debates a bill to restore constitutional limits on the president’s power. This is a key opposition demand, and its rejection by the government would reverse the trend toward the peaceful resolution of the political crisis.

In that test Yanukovych got an F. The speaker of Ukraine’s parliament refused to accept the constitutional resolution on procedural grounds. He is generally assumed to have acted on instructions from the president. Demonstrators tried to march to the parliament to protest this maneuver. But they were blocked by the police. Clashes erupted. And the day descended into battles and bloodshed.

Yanukovych’s supporters claim that he wanted a day or two for discussion of the proposed reform. It looks as if he was playing for time. But had he been playing for time all along? Or was he told by Putin that if he wanted the next tranche of Russian money, he would have to clear out the Maidan and establish stability Soviet-style?

At this point it scarcely matters which explanation is correct. Ukraine is facing a civil war almost solely as a result of Putin’s aggressive determination to regain control of its most important colony. That must influence the West in dealing with Russia over the whole range of foreign policy. The reset button will have to be reset.