In Ukraine, Fighting Shatters a Truce

5 MINS READFeb 20, 2014 | 13:30 GMT
In Ukraine, Fighting Shatters a Truce
Anti-government protesters take cover while under fire, reportedly from a police sniper, during clashes in Kiev on Feb. 20.

A truce between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the country's main opposition lasted less than a night, with new deaths and the capture of police officers reported on the morning of Feb. 20. Yanukovich, as well as Vitali Klitschko, one of the opposition leaders, traded blame for the latest violence as European leaders scrambled to defuse the crisis. The continuation of violence puts to question the level of control that Yanukovich and the prominent protest leaders have over the events on the streets and the role that Western governments — and the Kremlin — play in calming or inciting the protests.

Late Feb. 19, Yanukovich agreed to a truce and continuation of negotiations on Feb. 20 in a parley with three opposition leaders. Far-right protesters from the Right Sector said they refuse to observe the truce, and renewed violence broke out overnight and escalated in the morning. It is unclear who is at fault. Protesters claim police provoked them, triggering police action. 

As of 9 a.m. in Kiev (0700 GMT), protesters reportedly were back in control of the locus of protests, Independence Square, also known as Maidan. By that time, reports indicated that more than a dozen people were dead, with the toll rising. Some 50 police officers were said to have been captured by the protesters. Although it is unclear who is responsible for the killings, photos are circulating showing protesters with guns as well as uniformed snipers. As protests expanded, the renewed violence triggered the evacuation of parliament.

Protests Beyond Kiev

Heightening questions over Ukraine's situation are recent events outside Kiev and speculation as to military moves and intent.

In the restive western city of Lviv, the local, self-styled "People's Rada," or "People's Parliament," announced Feb. 19 that it would seek independence from Ukraine. Afterward, the local oblast council took over administration and government services, and offices remain open. Meanwhile, regional Interior Ministry chief Alexander Rudyak reported that protesters seized 1,170 firearms during a raid on district police. While the government shut down railway lines between Lviv and Kiev on Feb. 19 in an attempt to prevent protesters from the Lviv region from joining their counterparts in the capital, buses enabled travel.

Although Lviv remains the focal point of anti-government activity in western Ukraine, protests and occupations of government buildings continue across the region. The first protester death outside of Kiev took place in Khmelnytsky in central Ukraine during a gunbattle in the local Security Service headquarters. Police were unable to restrain protesters as they broke into the Zakarpattya Regional Administration in the town of Uzhhorod, located on the border with Hungary and Slovakia. Some local police units openly showed their support for protesters in Lutsk and Ternopil. Activists from Ternopil and Ivano-Frankvisk traveled to Kiev on Feb. 20 to join the protests at Independence Square.



Several factions could be interested in ensuring a continued rift between Yanukovich and the main opposition leaders. Radical protesters have bristled at their exclusion from the president's talks with the main opposition leaders; by continuing the protests, they gain leverage over the terms of any eventual settlement. Questions remain as to the influence Russia has with some of the more radical elements in the protest movement. Continued violence, and the West's inability to mediate between Yanukovich and the main opposition, plays into Russia's hands.

Outside Players' Interests

Moscow is not interested in Europe imposing a compromise on Kiev that reorients Ukraine toward the West. This may have been part of the agenda in a meeting held Feb. 20 between Yanukovich and the French, German and Polish foreign ministers. Continued violence in Kiev likely will weaken support for the opposition, especially in eastern Ukraine, giving further impetus to the idea of a federalized Ukraine. Russian officials have floated this notion repeatedly in recent days. Continued violence also raises the potential for Moscow to build justification for eventual intervention.

For the West, a continuation of clashes is bad. Its influence limited, the West would consider the best outcome to be continued financial support from Russia for Ukraine's troubled economy with a pro-Western opposition assuming enough power in government to be a thorn in Russia's side. Escalating violence, however, diminishes the likelihood of this outcome. The West is where it does not want to be: seeking to balance between maintenance of dialogue — and a semblance of leverage — with the Yanokovich government and signaling acceptance of the events that would be seen as betrayal of the Ukrainian opposition.

The meeting between the EU foreign ministers and Yanukovich is key to developments in the coming hours. The meeting likely will influence the debate in Brussels over whether the European Union should enact sanctions on Ukrainian officials. The first leaked draft of conclusions from the meeting suggest that the Europeans could impose targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for the violence and introduce an EU arms embargo against Ukraine. It will also be important to watch whether Russia fuels the debate on federalization or indicates whether it plans to intervene.

As protests continue it will become increasingly important to watch whether Yanukovich can count on the loyalty of his forces. This morning, according to the Kiev city administration, Kiev Mayor Vladimir Makinko has withdrawn from the ruling Party of Regions and has ordered the resumption of Kiev metro operations, suggesting that Yanukovich is losing important backing in the fight against the protesters. Yanukovich replaced the commander of the armed forces and chief of the general staff on Feb. 19, and there have been reports that a lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian military has joined the protesters. 

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has said, and local sources have reported, that paratroopers from the 25th Airborne Brigade have been deployed to secure military installations and arms depots. As protesters have seized Interior Ministry and police barracks, particularly in western Ukraine, they have seized a number of weapons and equipment; thousands of items appear to have been taken. Facing a crisis in Kiev and an uprising in the west, the Interior Ministry finds itself stretched thin, and the central government may elect to call upon more military units to take over other duties. In an attempt to bolster their security force numbers in Kiev, the central government reportedly has called upon a number of troops and police units as reinforcements to the capital. This, in turn, has made it easier for protesters to seize facilities and barracks in western Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russians also maintain forces in Ukraine — namely the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade at Sevastopol. Watching this unit could provide some indication as to Moscow's intentions.

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