Monday, March 17, 2014

Next Moves in Ukraine (Part I) - February 21, 2014 - Watershed

This first part of a two-part post examines the critical importance of February 21, 2014, and its immediate aftermath. This week, more than any other when the history of the unfolding developments in Ukraine becomes fully written, will probably be regarded as significant as the week in April 1917 when Lenin reappeared in Petrograd on a German-provided train to instigate the overthrow of the Kerensky government. 

As exit poll results give way to official numbers in the Crimea secession referendum, upwards of 95% of voters (with over 75% of ballots counted as of this writing) have thrown their fate with Russia. Simferopol and Sevastopol are awash with Russian flags and St. George ribbons. Soviet-era songs are playing from loudspeakers in homes and public squares. North of the peninsula, thousands rally in Donetsk and Kharkiv demanding a similar process in their districts. A crisis that began with a policy zigzag had claimed its second government as the drama continues.

                                          Maidan throws Official Opposition Overboard

February 21 was a turning point. Thousands lined Kiev's independence square that evening to hear (and make demands of) the leaders who brought them to victory over government forces. Western diplomats were probably too busy fine-tuning the compromise ostensibly reached with the Yanukovich government a day earlier to pay attention to the proceedings. The media was also largely plugged out of what was happening. Periodic snippets would appear on the wire services about this or that speaker, but nobody bothered to look into the specifics. But now, as Crimea settles into a diplomatic freeze and the West readies harsher sanctions against Moscow, it is worth revisiting what took place that fateful evening or, more precisely, whether everything that has happened up until now could have been directly foretold and acted upon based on what happened at the podiums then. 

To bring things into perspective, it is worth seeing February 21 as the day of "two speeches". Up until then, the West comforted itself with the belief that Maidan's street was fully behind the acceptable, official opposition personified by ex-boxing champion Vitality Klitschko. He was a known quantity and well-connected to established legislative forces which had battled Yanukovich for months. Extolling the crowd to not give in to government provocations and opt for unnecessary violence, Klitschko, flanked by Arseniy Petrovych Yatsenyuk and others who would form the core of the post-Yanukovich government, gave a rather bland speech about the deal worked out with the West over the previous 24-72 hours. To summarize the reaction his words received, think Mitch McConnell's faux Heston rifle pose at CPAC. Activists who had just come off pitched battles with Berkut that claimed over 100 lives and felt revolutionary fever akin to what deserting soldiers might have experienced in February 1917 did not want to be lectured about "provocations" and "negotiated compromises". The people wanted action and understood, as well as Klitschko, that he was losing control of the plot. The real power now lay elsewhere. 

This was likely the point that everyone in Washington and Brussels went to bed. Too bad they did not keep watching or skipped Klitschko's warm up act. Most intriguing was a speech made by one Dmytro Yarosh, head of something called Praviy Sektor (Right Sector), a group which, until February 21, noone in the West knew really anything about. Shedding business-ware for military fatigues, Yarosh gave a difficult to ignore display of force, flanked by fighters in full body armor. For those who do not understand Ukrainian in the linked video, Yarosh swore to continue fighting the "regime of internal occupation" and not give up his group's weapons until Yanukovich was removed from office. The crowd responded with loud roars and fist pumps.  Then came Volodymyr Parasiuk, who swept to the stage like a rock star with a clearly unamused Klitschko looking on and exclaimed that he, an unaffiliated activist with loyalties to no single organization, did not "believe in political processes or negotiations" and was giving the politicians an ultimatum — either Yanukovich is gone by 10 am the next morning or his fighters were going on the assault. December elections, unity governments and monitored restorations of unconstitutional authority were not on the table. Western. officialdom may have wanted Yanukovich removed and Russia weakened through a quiet transition, but the people with the guns (and the power) in Kiev had other ideas. There was no need for fiery demands, as Yanukovich fled Kiev by helicopter that night and left his estate and party offices to the care of his foes.

In the immediate aftermath of the seizure and its approval by a rump Rada, the West consoled itself with the front men the new government put forward to make what had happened the night before appear to be something it was not. Acceptable technocrats from the official right Fatherland party were given the presidency and prime ministerships, while behind the scenes, politely ignored by Western diplomats, Praviy Sektor and other anti-western ultranationalist factions staked out their claims. Yarosh and his group are eyeing the May presidential elections and next year's parliamentary elections to become leading drivers of Ukrainian politics. If Praviy Sektor's messaging is any indication, the official western line regarding a unified European-oriented Ukraine threatened by Russian neo-imperialism may have to be reevaluated. The group rails against "sellout, marginalized democracy" (video cuts to the Fatherland technocrats currently in office), EU expansion and collapse of traditional values. This would not be so depressing if only the western establishment were paying the slightest bit of attention to what is actually happening in Ukraine rather than the mirage, idealistic Ukraine manufactured by analysts in Washington and Brussels. It does not much matter at this point whether Yarosh and his group will or will not moderate or whether the technocrats (whose first order of business, at the behest of the nationalists, was to repeal a regional, Russian language law) will regain the support of the street. Revolution would now inevitably produce counter-revolution. Either noone had prepared for this or everyone knew, but chose to look the other way. Whatever the explanation, the cart had veered on the path that would lead to Crimean secession, Russian troops along Ukraine's eastern border and a nadir in relations among the great powers.

Crimea and the East Respond

Two days after Yanukovich's departure, on February 23, an estimated 20-40 thousand people poured onto the streets of Sevastopol in Crimea. This was not simply a political protest over policy gone wrong. Far from embracing Yanukovich, the crowd considered him a used-up has been (a "vegetable") who, at the moment of truth, failed to protect the nation from extremist forces. Repeatedly, some of the organizers shouted that, they begged Yanukovich to smash the "fascists" on the streets, but he played too close to the vest. Berkut fighters, reeling from their defeat in the capital, were welcomed on Crimea as heroes and those killed were honored in similar fashion as their Maidan opponents. The black ski mask fighters from Praviy Sektor were replaced by uniform-clad cossacks, who warned criminals of immediate death if they continued their activities while Sevastopol and Crimea remained in a "state of siege". The same rhetoric of occupation and armed resistance was on full display. Just as the fighters in Kiev warned the politicians of the consequences of their misbehavior, so did the Russians in Sevastopol form self-defense units and unilaterally elect their leaders over the heads of those then in power. In Kharkiv, when a Praviy Sektor detachment captured the regional administrative building and dug in, a crowd of over a thousand spontaneously stormed the facility and raised the Russian flag from the roof and windows. 

Events were moving at a pace that neither side could fully understand or control, but it was apparent weeks ago that what was once a fragile, but still somewhat unified country had been profoundly torn asunder. To speak of the "destiny of Ukraine being determined by the people of Ukraine" after February 21 was intellectually disingenuous. There was no longer one Ukraine whose destiny could be determined. Maidan had yielded a government unacceptable to half the population with power brokers probably unacceptable by many within the anti-Yanukovich camp itself.  

As will be analyzed in Part II of this post, how Moscow and the western powers reacted to what had happened in Ukraine during the pivotal week at the end of February would determine whether everyone lived in the real world or preferred the indulgence of fantasy. Would the West come to terms with the fact that February 21 profoundly changed the rules of the game and make a fully unified, EU-oriented Ukraine impossible? How would Moscow fill the vacuum and how far would it go? Was reconciliation between the East and West possible or were such considerations no longer relevant? In other words, would the West achieve an incomplete victory and expend capital to marginalize hostile forces to its values within a Kiev government thrust upon it or would it pretend as if nothing had gone wrong and continue along its preset course? 

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