Civil strife often follows a grimly predictable pattern. What at first seems a soluble dispute hardens into conflict as goals become more radical, bitterness accumulates and the chance to broker a compromise is lost.
Such has been the awful trajectory of Ukraine, where protests that began peacefully in November have combusted in grotesque violence. This week the center of Kiev, one of Europe’s great capital cities, became a choking war zone. Buildings and barricades were incinerated and dozens of Ukrainians were killed.
Despite talk of a truce between some of the participants, the horror could get much worse yet. The bloodshed will deepen the rifts in what always has been a fragile, complex country. Outright civil war remains a realistic prospect. Immediate responsibility for this mayhem lies with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s thuggish president, but its ultimate architect sits in the Kremlin: President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The territory that is now Ukraine has a long and painful history as a bloody borderland between East and West. It came into being as an independent nation, however, only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Combining lands in the west that once had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a Russian-speaking south and east, the new country always had its doubters.
Since then Ukraine’s politics have been characterized by infighting and graft, including in the years following the "Orange Revolution" of 2004, a peaceful uprising whose promise was squandered by its rancorous leaders. Many Ukrainians feel that their state has been captured by a corrupt elite which cannot be dislodged by the usual democratic means. Kiev is one of the few European cities where the European Union is synonymous with good government and the rule of law.
It was Yanukovych’s November rejection of a trade agreement with the E.U., in favour of an opaque deal with Russia, which started the unrest. Soon the protesters were demanding his resignation, while Yanukovych and Russian propaganda denounced them as terrorists. How the killing started this week, after three months of edgy standoff, is murky, but most of it was perpetrated by the president’s men.
The response from the West should be firm. The president’s henchmen deserve the visa bans and asset freezes that America has imposed and the E.U. is considering. Yanukovych must rein in his troops and also, if he can, the plainclothes goons who are committing much of the violence.
The protesters, however, if they want to stop a full-scale blood bath, also need to compromise, to quit their symbolic base in Kiev’s Independence Square and the other buildings they have occupied. The best option would be for the two sides to form a transitional coalition government.
A presidential election is due in 2015. It should happen this year instead, preferably without Yanukovych. His regime has featured rampant cronyism, the persecution of his rivals, the suborning of the media and the hobbling of the courts, now topped off by slaughter. He will be hard to move, however. Built like a bouncer, he twists like a weasel and is likely to try to wriggle out of any commitments he makes once he thinks the crisis has passed. If so, the tycoons who have sustained his power, and who have much to lose in this madness, must force him out.
What should come next is less clear. Virtually all of Ukraine’s established politicians have discredited themselves, including Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader. The protesters have no clear champion, one reason that the violence may prove difficult to stop.
It is hard to envisage a candidate emerging who will bridge the underlying fault lines in Ukrainian society. Yanukovych still commands support in the east and south. In Kiev and the west, where protesters have seized government facilities, he is reviled.
A split remains terrifyingly plausible. Avoiding that fate will require, above all, an end to the Russian meddling. Putin may not have lit the match this week, but he assembled the pyre.
To most rational observers, fomenting chaos across the border in Ukraine might seem an odd ambition for Russia. Not to Putin, who regards Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s sphere of influence and saw the Orange Revolution as a Western plot to steal it. His economic sanctions and threats helped to persuade Yanukovych to turn his back on the E.U. It is clear that the loans and cheap Russian gas that prop up Ukraine’s teetering economy are conditional on Yanukovych taking a tough line with the protesters. It’s Putin’s bullying and machinations that have brought Ukraine to this pass.
If Yanukovych continues to hang on, weakened at home and ostracized abroad, Putin will be content, for he will have another dependent leader to add to his collection of pliable clients. He might not stop there, however. Russian hawks have long wanted to annex Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred to Ukraine, reputedly while drunk. This upheaval could provide a pretext for Putin to grab it.
Either way, a wretched Ukraine will help convince the Russian people that street protests, and political competition, are the road to ruin.
It is past time for the West to stand up to this gangsterism. Confronting a country that has the spoiling power of a seat on the United Nations Security Council, huge hydrocarbon reserves and lots of nuclear weapons is difficult, but it has to be done. At a minimum the diplomatic pretense that Russia is a law-abiding democracy should end. It should be ejected from the G8.
Above all, the West must stand united in telling Putin that Ukraine, and the other former Soviet countries that he regards as wayward parts of his patrimony, are sovereign nations.
There is a kind of rough justice in the timing of Ukraine’s turmoil. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, its tiny southern neighbour, even as the Olympic games began in Beijing, prompting formulaic Western protests but no meaningful retribution. The events in Kiev interrupted the winter Olympics in Sochi, intended to be a two-week carnival of Putinism.
This time the West must make Putin see that, with this havoc in the heart of Europe, he has gone too far.