As the political crisis in Ukraine deepens, and Kiev sees violent and armed clashes between Euromaidan protesters and police, a wave of building occupations in provincial centers and the prospect of President Yanukovych acquiring wider powers raises the risk of divisions, defections and ultimately conflicts within the security forces.
The back-and-forth and on-and-off clashes in central Kiev have seen both sides harden their positions. The anti-government movement, which has increasingly been penetrated by far-right activists, has seen its efforts to push political change often take second place to violent attacks on the police, using stones, Molotov cocktails and even, reportedly, some firearms. In a vicious circle, this both reflects and deepens the increasingly brutal tactics of the police, with several protesters being killed and reports of abductions and even murders. While it is unclear whether this represents policy dictated from the top or initiative from below, it nonetheless is a dramatic and alarming new development.
A government offer of a truce was rejected by protesters on January 24, further reducing the room for any political settlement. Although Yanukovych has publicly rejected the suggestion, suspicions remain that he may use a special parliamentary session scheduled for January 28 not only to reshuffle his government, as promised, but to push through the declaration of a state of emergency. One of the main consequences of this would be that he would acquire new powers to call on the military to restore order.
After all, the security forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs appear overstretched. They have been unable to regain control of central Kiev, even with the deployment of militarized Interior Troops in support of the regular police and the infamous Berkut riot police. Furthermore, they have been unable to prevent the occupation of regional administration offices in at least seven cities in the west of the country: Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil, Chernivtsi, Ivan-Frankivsk, Khmelnytsky, and Vinnitsya.
Western Ukraine is, after all, linguistically and culturally distinct from the ethnically-Russian east of the country, and here the issue of closer ties with the European Union—the initial cause of these protests—is felt that much more acutely. In addition, local political structures are much less closely aligned with Yanukovych’s “clan,” which is based in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. In Lviv, the protesters made the regional governor sign a letter of resignation, while the governor of Volyn voluntarily stepped down to “avoid violence” after his office was invaded. Elsewhere, efforts to occupy administrative offices were either foiled (Zhytomyr and Poltava) or proved temporary (in Cherkasy, police retook the building).
Especially alarming for the regime are some reports of police officers in the west either siding with protesters or, more generally, refusing to go against them or doing so half-heartedly.
In this context, Yanukovych may be tempted to gamble. One option would be major concessions. He has offered the prime ministerial portfolio to opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk. Whether or not Yatsenyuk agrees—unknown as of writing—this is not enough to end the protests: Yanukovych’s removal and the prosecution of figures involved in the bloody crackdown including Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko seem inflexible demands.
The other alternative is that he opts to redouble his efforts to suppress the spreading uprising. The only way he could meaningfully escalate would be either to resort to even more indiscriminate use of deadly force or else—or as well as—call on the military. The Ukrainian military has, though, remained studiously out of the present crisis; on January 22, the defense ministry pointedly stated that no soldiers would not take part in actions against the Euromaidan protesters. Its new-built professional ethos would sit uncomfortable with a role as Yanukovych’s stormtroopers. Any such initiative thus carries with it the risk of military units refusing to obey their orders or, even more dangerously, actively siding with the protesters. One of the lessons of the Arab Spring is, after all, that regimes fall when they alienate their soldiers.