Ukraine in flames - Putin’s inferno

Civil strife often follows a grimly predictable pattern. What at first seems a soluble dispute hardens into conflict, as goals become more radical, bitterness accumulates and the chance to broker a compromise is lost. Such has been the awful trajectory of Ukraine, where protests that began peacefully in November have combusted in grotesque violence.

The centre of Kiev, one of Europe’s great capital cities, this week became a choking war zone. Buildings and barricades were incinerated and dozens of Ukrainians were killed.

Despite talk of a truce between some of the participants, the horror could yet get much worse. The bloodshed will deepen the rifts in what has always been a fragile, complex country (see article). Outright civil war remains a realistic prospect. Immediate responsibility for this mayhem lies with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s thuggish president. But its ultimate architect sits in the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin.

Neither East nor West

The territory that is now Ukraine has a long and painful history as a bloody borderland between East and West. But it came into being as an independent nation only in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Combining lands in the west that had once been part of Austria-Hungary, and a Russian-speaking south and east, the new country always had its doubters. Since then Ukraine’s politics have been characterised by infighting and graft—including in the years following the orange revolution of 2004, a peaceful uprising whose promise was squandered by its rancorous leaders. Many Ukrainians feel their state has been captured by a corrupt elite, which cannot be dislodged by the usual democratic means. Kiev is one of the few European cities where the European Union is synonymous with good government and the rule of law.

It was Mr Yanukovych’s rejection, in November, of a trade agreement with the EU, in favour of an opaque deal with Russia, which started the unrest. Soon the protesters were demanding his resignation, while Mr Yanukovych and Russian propaganda denounced them as terrorists. How, after three months of tetchy stand-off, the killing started this week is murky. But most of it was perpetrated by the president’s men.

The response from the West should be firm. The president’s henchmen deserve the visa bans and asset freezes that America has imposed and the EU is considering. Mr Yanukovych must rein in his troops and, if he can, the plainclothes goons who are committing much of the violence. But the protesters, if they want to stop a full-scale blood-bath, also need to compromise—to quit their symbolic base in Kiev’s Independence Square, and the other buildings they have occupied. The best option would be for the two sides to form a transitional coalition government.

A presidential election is due in 2015: it should happen this year instead, preferably without Mr Yanukovych. His regime has featured rampant cronyism, the persecution of his rivals, suborning of the media and nobbling of the courts, now topped off by slaughter. But he will be hard to move. Built like a bouncer, he twists like a weasel; he is likely to try to wriggle out of any commitments he makes when he thinks the crisis has passed. If so, the tycoons who have sustained his power, and who have much to lose in this madness, must force him out.


What should come next is less clear. Virtually all of Ukraine’s established politicians have discredited themselves, including Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader. The protesters have no clear champion—one reason the violence may prove difficult to stop. It is hard to envisage a candidate emerging who will bridge the underlying fault-lines in Ukrainian society (see map). Mr Yanukovych still commands support in the east and south; in Kiev and the west, where protesters have seized government facilities, he is reviled. A split remains terrifyingly plausible. Avoiding that fate requires, above all, an end to the Russian meddling. Mr Putin may not have lit the match this week, but he assembled the pyre.


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