Yanukovych’s gamble and Kiev’s burning

The opposition HQ: not a subtle message from the government

The opposition HQ: not a subtle message from the government

“I am in blood
 Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
— Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4

Kiev is burning, both literally and metaphorically, as this revolution-counterrevolution-in-fits-and-starts hit one of its flash points last night. As the opposition radicalizes further and the security forces turn increasingly to lethal force, although I’m not a specialist on Ukrainian politics, I would want to make some observations about some of the aspects of the current crisis about which I do know something.

1. Violent protests are less likely than non-violent ones to bring about their desired result. It may seem churlish, but as the thoroughly-admirable Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) has demonstrated, avoiding violence and working instead on careful building of a broad popular movement tends to minimize violence but also lead to more lasting and stable political outcomes. Once the anti-government forces start throwing Molotov cocktails, it tends to stiffen the resolve of the security forces and also incline the elite towards “hanging together lest we hang separately.” As Klitschko, Yatsenyuk and the like increasingly fall behind the violent vanguard of the protests, my concern is that the scope for any kind of settlement short of a Ukrainian Ragnarok (due next week anyway, apparently) becomes increasingly limited.

Riot policeman hit by a molotov cocktail

Riot policeman hit by a molotov cocktail

2. The later, the bloodier. The Yanukovych regime was shockingly irresolute and indecisive in the early days of the protest, cracking down enough to radicalize the anti-government forces but not to disperse or deter them. When authoritarian regimes respond with prompt, decisive forces, when they demonstrate both resolution and unity, as well as their control over the security forces, then they tend—in the short-term, at least—to win. Sure, the long-term pressures undermining them will continue to grind away at the foundations of their power, but they buy themselves more time. Part of the reason for the horrifying scale of last night-s violence is precisely that, at this stage, the government finds it harder to combat an opposition which has had time to grow, to arm itself, to entrench, to train, but above all to gain the confidence that it may be on the winning side. At this stage, it may be too late for the government, but sadly the road to answering that question will likely be a rocky and blood-spattered one.

3. Power is not to be found in the barrel of a gun, but in the hands of those carrying them. The crucial question is the unity and discipline of the security forces. So far, at least, while there have been individual and often situational defections and signs of support, the chain of command within the MVS, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, appears to be holding firm. That is crucial: on the whole, security forces do not fragment from the bottom unless and until there is equivalent shearing, or at least a lack of confidence, at the top. By upping the ante, Yanukovych is increasing the pressure on the security forces, but he is gambling that either he can tame the protesters quickly enough that this won’t matter or else that protester violence will strengthen their discipline. There’s nothing like bring sprayed with flaming petrol to make you eager to crack some skulls. But this is an inherently brittle situation, and if there is some substantial defection, such as a local police chief openly refusing orders, then this could spread quickly.

Berkut officer firing a shotgun; not the signs of a regime eager for reconciliation

Berkut officer firing a shotgun; not the signs of a regime eager for reconciliation

4. Things are terrible, but they could be a lot worse. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Without in any way whatsoever condoning the violence of the government forces, I would note that they could have done much, much worse. On the whole, they have used birdshot from shotguns (brutal, but most likely to injure than kill) and the usual panoply of riot control: tear gas, water cannon, batons. This is not Chile 1973, Tiananmen 1989, or Andizhan (Uzbekistan) 2005. Of course, this reflects not any humanitarian impulse on the part of a regime which, I suspect, would understand Macbeth’s thoughts at the head of this blog. Instead, they fear the domestic and even international consequences of any escalation. But it is something to keep in mind.

5. The khaki elephant in the room: the army. So far, the regular military has determinedly remained out of this conflict; accounts of “troops” being deployed refer to MVS Interior Troops. How long can this go on? If Yanukovych cannot quickly smash the opposition in Kiev and use this both to overawe protesters elsewhere and send Berkut and other MVS units out to reinforce local elements and restore central control, then the only ways he can escalate are (1) by using greater violence, lethal force; or (2) drawing on the military. Either option in effect puts a military that has developed a strong esprit de corps and an ethos of loyalty to the state rather than any particular government, in an unenviable situation. I’m not convinced they would obey orders to join Berkut, although at present I feel they’d simply refuse rather than outright join the protesters. But again, this can change.

Russian Naval Infantry - surely one need not be worried about troops whose nickname is "the Black Death"?

Russian Naval Infantry – surely one need not be worried about troops whose nickname is “the Black Death”?

6. The khaki bear just outside the room: Russia. Is there anything Russia can or should do to protect its increasingly bloody-handed satrap? Obviously there are all kinds of options at its disposal, from covert operations (perhaps even stirring up the more extreme, neo-Nazi wing of the opposition) to sending forces. There are, after all, ground troops in the Crimea, the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade at Sevastopol. But I think—hope—that Moscow is not so stupid as to get directly involved. If anything might induce the Ukrainian military to side directly with the opposition, it might be this. Even so, Moscow has political tools aplenty, from encourage separatism in eastern Ukraine—think of a massive Transdnestria—to presenting the fate of ethnic Russians and Russian passport-holders in the Crimea as a crucial interest, a la South Ossetia/Abkhazia.

Worrying times.

Ставка Януковича и жжение Киева

Leave a comment


  1. Good analysis as far as it goes but it is Russia pulling the strings and not Yanukovych.

    However, these strings also require a linkage with the oligarchs and herding Yanukovych is much easier than herding the dozen key oligarchs in Ukraine.

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