A shocking explosion of bloodshed in the center of Europe — Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv — gave way Friday to a fragile accord that may be the last chance to prevent civil war in a nation of 48 million people. Thanks to marathon mediation by the Polish, German and French foreign ministers, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and three opposition leaders agreed on a pact mandating early elections, constitutional reforms and a new coalition government.
The gunfire, mostly from government forces, that killed scores in Kyiv’s Independence Square on Thursday mercifully ceased Friday morning. There was encouraging news from parliament, where government deputies joined the opposition in quickly passing a constitutional reform stripping Yanukovych of many of his powers, firing the hard-line interior minister and approving a bill that could free imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. The Obama administration, which had sanctioned top Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday, quickly and rightly endorsed the deal.
Ukraine, however, is not out of danger. The accord is a compromise between the country’s pro-Western and pro-Russian forces, neither of which is capable of imposing its agenda on the whole country. Yanukovych, though weakened, will remain in office as late as the end of this year, the deadline for a new election; that will be difficult for the opposition to swallow after the murderous attacks by riot police on Independence Square. The question of whether Ukraine will sign an association agreement with the European Union or move toward Vladimir Putin’s would-be rival Eurasian Union is left unresolved — a limbo that could make it difficult for a new cabinet to manage an ongoing economic crisis and avoid defaulting on the country’s debts.
That’s why it’s vital that U.S. and European officials work in the coming days to neutralize the extremists on both sides who will reject the deal. Some are in the opposition: right-wing militants who demand that Yanukovych be put on trial and those who were responsible for at least some of the gunfire on Thursday. But the biggest potential source of trouble is Putin’s Kremlin, which has played the precipitant in Ukraine’s descent into violence.
U.S. President Barack Obama took the initiative to call Putin on Friday, and a U.S. official portrayed the conversation as "constructive," saying the leaders "were able to talk positively about implementing the agreement." Nevertheless, until now Putin has been unrelenting in playing Ukraine as a zero-sum contest for influence between Russia and the West. It was his pressure and bribes that caused Yanukovych to trigger the crisis three months ago by backing away from the E.U. agreement; it is he who pushed the government to attack rather than negotiate with the opposition, which Russian state media portray as "terrorists" and "fascists."
It’s possible Putin will try to use force to impose his dominion over Ukraine once the Sochi Olympics end this weekend. But Ukrainians have sent him a powerful message. Hundreds of thousands across the country demonstrated that they were willing to put their lives on the line to defend their sovereignty. The E.U. ministers deserve credit for brokering Friday’s accord, and the Obama administration played a helpful background role. But it is Ukrainians who created this chance.