This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Sanctions and mediation would create the conditions for a solution.
The fires burning in Kyiv are a signal that protesters are fighting a pitched battle for Ukraine’s future. More than a dozen are confirmed dead and hundreds are wounded. The rest of Europe watches, paralysed.
Three months ago Ukrainians took to the streets in response to the removal of the last vestiges of democratic and European liberties. The U-turn away from a historic trade agreement with the EU, and towards closer ties with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, was seen as the state imposing a tighter grip on economic and political freedoms.
Since then Viktor Yanukovich, along with his ruling Party of Regions, has used both violent and administrative tools to crush the protests and save his job: laws limiting civil liberties; 'death squads' capturing, torturing and killing activists; and thousands of criminal investigations and crackdowns on leading civil society organizations. Many activists have been forced to flee abroad but more than 30 are still missing. The regime has merely been using its negotiations with the opposition in recent weeks to buy time to prepare for the current engagement in Maidan Square.
This constant government pressure has further radicalized the protesters and escalated the situation. The ultimatum issued by the government on Wednesday ordering the protesters to clear the main square, and the officially authorised charge of the unreformed Berkut (Golden Eagle) riot police, is the cause of the fires and rising violence and fatalities.
A political compromise between the opposition and the government might have been reached when the protests began. This prospect has all but disappeared as protagonists on both sides have locked themselves into ensuring a definitive endgame. Most protesters will now accept nothing less than new legislative or presidential elections, and the overhaul of the political system to restore a balance of power.
This fight is essentially about the sovereign right of independent states to define their destiny. The protesters are rejecting the notion of being manipulated by Russia in a Cold War-style power struggle with the West. The economic and political pressure applied by Russia on the Ukrainian ruling elite succeeded in obstructing closer integration with the EU. The ensuing protests – the worst since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 – have taken Russia, the EU and the US by surprise.
The EU, to be fair, has tried to mediate. But so far it has failed to prevent violence or even to put the conflicting sides on a path to serious negotiations. This is partly because it has been unable to speak with a single voice. The opposition and civil society leaders have repeatedly asked for sanctions against the regime and its backers; the EU, hitherto restricted to condemning violence and being 'gravely concerned', may finally have found itself shamed into action with an unprecedented round of sanctions likely to be discussed at an emergency meeting on Thursday.
Today smart sanctions on assets and visas are the main tools open to the EU and the US to bring about a political solution. They should treat sanctions not as a punishment but as a way to change the hazardous equilibrium and move the entrenched lines. Sanctions would be effective if exerted not only on Mr Yanukovich and his immediate entourage but also on his main financial and political backers. These include oligarchs, some of whom control ruling party MPs through patronage. They are his Achilles heel. If the cost of doing business as allies of the regime becomes too high, these backers will withdraw their support and form a new parliamentary majority. Along with international mediation, this would create the conditions for a political resolution of the crisis and stop the cycle of repression and violence.
The direction in which the Ukrainian democratic struggle tilts is of strategic importance to the EU. Despite all its internal problems, the union has inspired millions of Ukrainians with its model of governance based on democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights and a market economy. This vision has fuelled the protests.
If the EU now fails to respond in an effective and decisive manner, its international credibility and soft power will take a further hit. It is a struggle that neither the EU nor Ukraine can afford to lose.
Watch Orysia Lutsevych on Escalating Violence in Ukraine at https://www.chathamhouse.org/file/orysia-lutsevych-escalating-violence-ukraine
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