Ukraine's protests escalated Wednesday, with reports of two people being killed amid clashes between protesters and security forces in central Kiev. These were the first fatalities in nearly two months since the anti-government demonstrations began. Whether the security situation in Kiev normalizes in the coming days remains to be seen, but further destabilization could have deep implications not only for the government of President Viktor Yanukovich but also for Ukraine's broader ties with Russia and the West.
The demonstrations started when Yanukovich decided to freeze negotiations over the signing of key integration agreements with the European Union. This prompted pro-EU supporters to take to the streets in protest. These demonstrations eventually went beyond the issue of EU integration and took on a general anti-government tone. While the size of the protests peaked at several hundred thousand people in the first few weeks, eventually they became significantly smaller by late December and the first weeks of January.
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However, the government's Jan. 16 decision to restrict the freedom to protest in the central part of the capital — over a two-month period — re-energized the demonstrations. The timing and reasoning behind the decision is unclear; the government appeared to be in a comfortable position as protests naturally dwindled. Yanukovich himself felt no pressure to capitulate to the protesters' demands, which included his resignation and new presidential elections. It seemed that the demonstrations had lost much of their steam and no longer posed a significant threat to the government, even if they continued indefinitely in their diminished form.
Nevertheless, Yanukovich decided to move forward with the anti-protest measures and signed the bills into law, setting the stage for protests to escalate in size and violence over the weekend. On Sunday, roughly 100,000 people took to the streets of Kiev in open defiance of the anti-demonstration law. But unlike the mostly nonviolent nature of previous protests, the new demonstrations saw significant clashes take place outside the main protest area, Independence Square, with targeted violence occurring on nearby Hrushevsky Street near the Ukrainian parliament. This prompted the government to authorize the use of lethal force by security forces in further demonstrations.
The most notable aspect of the increasingly violent protests is the prevalence of ultranationalist and right-wing groups involved in the fighting, particularly the recently formed Right Sector movement. Members of this group have called for the forced removal of the Ukrainian government, rejecting any prospect of negotiations with Yanukovich. At the same time, the movement's members have stressed that it is not an organized group but rather an informal cohesion of various existing ultranationalist and far-right groups such as Patriot of Ukraine, Trident, White Hammer and UNA-UNSO, as well as unaffiliated individuals.
The rise of far-right elements in the protests and the ensuing escalation of force can be seen within the context of a growing discontent among the demonstrators, frustrated that the government has not sufficiently responded to their demands. Still, the mainstream opposition is being careful to distinguish themselves from the more extremist and violent groups (and individuals) participating in the protests, referring to them as "radical provocateurs". Indeed, the three main opposition leaders — Vitali Klitschko of the UDAR party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland party, and Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda party — have made a concerted effort to distance themselves and their parties from the radicals. The three leaders met with Yanukovich on Wednesday — the first time in recent weeks — in an attempt to find a settlement to the current impasse. While no agreement was made during the three-hour conference, they pledged to meet with Yanukovich once more the following day.
In the meantime, many foreign powers have weighed in on the escalating situation in Ukraine. The European Union and the United States condemned the Ukrainian government for the violence, while Russia urged the West not to "meddle" in the crisis and blamed the violence on the radical protesters. This reveals a dichotomy not only in Ukraine's political spectrum but also in Russia's tussle with the West for influence in the country and their divergent designs for the political evolution of Ukraine.
The key aspect of the crisis will be whether the government is able to mollify or overcome the protesters, either by offering major concessions to the opposition or by brute force. While the former was considered unlikely to occur due to the geopolitical constraints that Ukraine faces, the growth and influence of right-wing groups has added a new and unpredictable dimension to the demonstrations. This has contributed to a growing sense of urgency; even the mainstream opposition has called for a nationwide strike Thursday, saying that it would soon "take the offensive" if the Ukrainian government did not meet their demands. This statement presents a key decision point for Yanukovich, who will have to decide whether to further crack down on protesters or show meaningful concessions that his government has, until this point, not been willing to give.