Ukraine: The Crisis Sees Its Deadliest Day Yet

4 MINS READFeb 19, 2014 | 02:13 GMT

Tuesday was the deadliest day yet in Ukraine's political crisis as protesters fought with police outside the parliament building in Kiev. At least 19 people were killed in the clashes, which escalated after the parliament failed to consider the opposition's proposals for constitutional reforms. Police have since advanced on Independence Square, the heart of the anti-government movement, but so far they have yet to enter it; its occupants erected barricades that they then set on fire. A spokesman for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has insisted that the government does not want to disperse the protesters forcibly.

Hundreds of protesters carrying sticks and incendiary devices occupied a building belonging to the Ministry of Defense, but what differentiates Tuesday's protests from earlier ones is that Ukrainians actually set fire to government buildings, including the ruling Party of Regions' headquarters and the Kiev city administration building. The protests have also spread outside of Kiev. Right Sector and anti-government activists have reoccupied the regional state administration building in the western cities of Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk after relinquishing control of the buildings earlier this week as part of an amnesty deal.

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Yanukovich met with leading opposition figures to discuss the crisis, but opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said the talks ended with no agreement. Parliament will not meet Wednesday, so the opposition's main demand — returning to the 2004 Constitution, which empowers parliament at the expense of the president — will not be addressed immediately. Yanukovich's current strategy is eerily similar to the one he employed in November and December: He offered political discussions and promised compromises without actually honoring them.

His goal is likely to contain protesters while preventing sympathizers in Kiev and western Ukraine from joining the crowds. As a result, the government has temporarily closed down the Kiev metro and road leading to the city. But these measures are unsustainable. As police encircle Independence Square, the president may try to sever the protesters' supply networks.

Western governments have responded to the violence by calling for restraint and dialogue. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has warned that those who resort to violence could be subjected to sanctions. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the European Union would reconsider its decision not to impose sanctions, a departure from the German government's previous position. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovich and asked him to exercise restraint when dealing with protesters. Unlike some previous U.S. statements, the current warnings did not condemn the Yanukovich government directly. Instead they implored both sides to negotiate a settlement.

The West's newfound temperance shows that the United States and the European Union will still support the official opposition but do not want to be associated with violent extremists. Despite their concerns, Western governments can only go so far in shaping the outcome of the crisis. They will continue to push for a peaceful solution, but two factors will constrain their efforts. 

First, the opposition is incoherent. The large turnout at Tuesday's protests — thousands showed up — belies the actual weakness of the political opposition. The turnout at Independence Square was significantly lower than participation rates during the peak of the protests in late November and early December. Moreover, while Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok as well as several members of parliament from Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Fatherland Party and Klitschko's Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform were present at the march, none of the opposition's political leaders were able to restrain activists from groups such as the Right Sector from using the march to target government buildings and police. More important, the opposition leaders have failed to fully distance themselves from the more violent segments of the protest movement. Some protesters are becoming more extremist, while the official opposition continues to support them rhetorically.

Second, Russia's influence in Ukraine exceeds that of Western governments. Today, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Russia would buy its next tranche of $2 billion in Ukrainian bonds this week. The announcement came one day after Ukrainian opposition leaders met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss potential European aid for Ukraine. Ongoing economic troubles and internal divisions, however, make it impossible for the European Union to match Russia's financial largesse.

Thus we have a fairly clear picture of how the major powers will proceed. The West has shown it is wary of continued deep support for increasingly radicalized groups. Russia is buying its way into a more strategic position. The Ukrainian regime is continuing to crack down on Independence Square, albeit measuredly, as it strings along the opposition. Moving forward, the crisis will be determined by what the protesters do next.

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