In a sweeping parliamentary vote, President Viktor Yanukovych has been impeached from office and has fled Kiev, presumably to eastern Ukraine. He is believed to be in Kharkiv, approximately 300 miles from the capital. Hopefully, these are the final events of what has been a costly uprising to redefine the Ukrainian government. Both domestic policy and foreign relations have been a major cause for the protests, and we are now left to wonder how a new Ukraine might position itself in relation to East and West and what that might mean for Ukraine’s own identity as a people. Yanukovych is still supported by many in the eastern, Russian-speaking regions, while the anti-Yanukovych ranks contain many Ukrainian nationalists. There are serious dangers, according to the interim president, of infighting in Ukraine, a country that often cannot even make up its mind about its World War II allegiances. Although the United States and Europe sympathize with the anti-Yanukovych protestors, they have thus far been cautious not to forcibly intervene. German, American, and other diplomats have been the leading voices in foreign intervention during the conflict, which has escalated over the last several months.
Protests Intensified Quickly
The peaceful protests that broke out in Kiev in November quickly amplified into full-blown confrontation in January as riot police were sent in to clear out the dissidents who gathered in opposition to Yanukovych’s backing out of an EU trade deal. The EU deal was abandoned in favor of a loan deal from Russia, further distancing Ukraine from Europe and tying it closer to its eastern neighbor. The frustration became palpable as many western-leaning people in the linguistically and culturally divided nation started to believe the president did not care what was best for his citizens. The Ukrainian Parliament expeditiously passed laws that enacted harsh punishment for protesters on January 16 in response to the protests and blockading of government buildings. The originally peaceful protests in Independence Square, which came to be known as the “Euromaidan” protests, turned into something approaching medieval warfare―with protesters donning makeshift armor of hockey pads, military helmets, gas masks, or whatever they could find to strap to themselves. In the protest zone, they set up barricades of burned tires, overturned buses, and snow-filled bags with large slingshots installed behind them. Molotov cocktails and bricks were the projectiles of choice. They confronted the riot police in shield walls using stolen riot shields, homemade shields from wooden boards, or their own steel shields outlined from the police’s and then cast by do-it-yourself armorers.
The West’s Response
In light of this intensifying violence, Angela Merkel stressed the need for Ukraine to preserve fundamental democratic liberties, such as the right to protest; nevertheless, she withheld any consideration of sanctions against Ukraine, perhaps not wanting to damage the possibility of an EU trade deal with Ukraine in the future. She appealed to both the government and opposition to return to peaceful dialogue, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made clear to the opposition that violence is not the answer. The U.S., however, saw less need to be delicate. The White House openly threatened imposing sanctions if the government or protesters sought more violence.
On February 2, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Steinmeier met with leaders from both sides of the Ukrainian conflict at the Munich Security Conference. There was hope that Yanukovych would see the writing on the wall since several concessions were made to the opposition, including the repeal of the anti-protest laws as well as Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s resignation. However, he asked in return that protesters go home, still not addressing the Russian loan deal that sparked these protests in the first place. The U.S. and Germany did not believe the Ukrainian president had done enough to sufficiently address his people’s grievances. As Steinmeier put it during a Berlin press conference with Kerry, “My impression is that Yanukovych, up until now, still has not fully understood how serious the situation is, as can clearly be seen by the nature of the offers that have been made. They have been made contingent on a number of conditions.” The foreign minister’s comments mirrored a popular sentiment among Ukrainians that Yanukovych is in some way delusional or out-of-touch with his people.
The violence tragically did not stop then. Around seventy-five deaths have been reported and several protesters have been allegedly tortured. The deadliest clashes took place in February, long after the first warnings from Western powers, when snipers started firing on the Maidan protesters. The White House put out visa bans for twenty Ukrainian officials implicated in the shooting orders given to police. Merkel was finally ready to discuss the possibility of imposing sanctions. Fortunately for the Euromaidan movement and the strained patience of world leaders, Yanukovych’s allies started abandoning him, and he was impeached by an overwhelming majority. The former president’s delusions do not seem to have escaped him yet though, as he still believes he is the legitimate president and acknowledges the mass uprisings and eventual impeachment as simply a coup d’état, despite the complete non-involvement of the military. He is wanted for the mass murder of protesters by the interim regime.
The U.S. and the EU—particularly Germany—now have a situation that might have been seen as an opportunity under different administrations. However, Merkel is hesitant to anger Russia—whose interests have been challenged by the opposition—and Obama is less zealous than Bush in the promotion of democracy. Germany and the United States may not have a strategic vision for the future of Ukraine yet. Their strategy will most likely be one of containment. Many things are not yet clear, such as how or if right wing groups that have been involved in the protests will be represented in parliament. Ukraine also faces imminent economic collapse and will need assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Opposition leaders, such as Wladimir Klitchko and newly released Yulia Tymoshenko, will face an uphill battle as Yanukovych supporters in the east undoubtedly fear for their representation in government. Under interim president Olexander Turchynov, Russian has already lost official status as a language. And, although Russian officials have expressed their fury over their ally’s ousting, it is not in their interest to exacerbate the situation at this point—although they are eying the Crimean Peninsula with anticipation.
No one is out of the woods yet. There will be struggle every step of the way to a reformed government. One can only hope that this struggle does not involve more violence. How Ukraine deals with its own crisis and how the United States and Germany respond to it will be a defining factor in transatlantic relations for a long time to come.