“As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made this statement in December, when events in Ukraine were at an early stage of upheaval. At the time, it smacked of hyperbole, but really, it was just premature. In the past few days, downtown Kiev has been aflame, and no Ukrainian has been immune to the violence on the streets—not peaceful protestors, journalists, activists, armed resisters, policemen, or government officials. As this week’s death count reached more than 75, central authority dissipated in Ukraine’s western regions, fractures among the ruling elite widened, and international condemnation of the violence grew. It is impossible to imagine a return to the status quo ante political order.
Ending the violence and restoring stability in Ukraine requires genuine political change. But this does not mean handing total power to protestors. Rather, it means establishing the conditions necessary for a government of national unity that can responsibly take the reins of power in this divided country.
On Friday morning, a deal was signed that does just that. Accepted by the government, the elected leaders of the opposition, and at least part of the protest movement, the deal establishes: a full stop to the use of force; an immediate restoration of substantial political authority to Ukraine’s parliament; the subsequent formation of a national unity government; a further constitutional rebalancing of powers; and a new presidential election by the end of 2014. In a surprise move, the parliament also overwhelmingly voted to free from prison former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
This compromise emerged in the wake of unprecedented international and domestic condemnation of the profound escalation of violence this week. Clashes on Tuesday and early Wednesday morning sparked fear of civil war, with both protestors and police suffering casualties; 16 protestors and 10 police were killed. But on Thursday, Ukraine’s police appeared to have been given full authority to suppress what had become an armed uprising: Nearly 50 protesters—many of them armed—were shot dead within hours.
U.S. and European leaders presented a unified front in the face of this violence, contrary to reports of their differences. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama condemned the use of violence on both sides but rightly emphasized that the government of Ukraine is “primarily responsible” for guaranteeing the security of its citizens on the streets, managing disorder, and avoiding complicity in human rights violations. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton issued an identical message. Both the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions against top Ukrainian officials: visa bans and, from the European Union, asset freezes.
The United States and the European Union also marched in lockstep on a way out of the crisis. Even before this week’s escalation of violence, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland elaborated on a possible solution: the establishment of a “technical government”—one of national unity—that could heal the divide in the country, restore Ukrainians’ faith in their government, carry out the policies necessary to bring Ukraine back from the brink of default, and restore the trust of international institutions and partners. On Thursday, Secretary Kerry insisted upon political change, noting that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “must undertake serious negotiations with opposition leaders to establish a new interim government that will have broad support.” President Yanukovych met for hours that day and then again overnight with the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers as they sought to secure his consent to a negotiated political transition.
Achieving a government of national unity is not just a matter of inviting opposition leaders into government or even of holding early elections. As the agreement establishes, it requires a more fundamental change to Ukraine’s political structure. Under the country’s current system of rule, which President Yanukovych imposed on the country shortly after his election in 2010, the president wields virtually exclusive authority—an authority that he has consistently used to undermine the democratic system that brought him to power. This is why his offer at the end of January to make Arseniy Yatseniuk, an opposition leader and member of the Ukrainian parliament, prime minister fell short. To assure a national unity government—and even democratic elections—the parliament needs to regain the powers of authority it had prior to 2010, which will enable opposition politicians to share genuine authority and ensure the integrity of elections. Armed protestors marched on parliament on Tuesday to compel lawmakers to make these changes but ended up clashing with police on the way, leading to the escalation of violence.
It is not surprising that the Ukrainian government agreed to this deal. The president’s authority on Thursday began to fall apart at the seams. The Party of Regions head of the Kiev city administration, who is effectively the mayor of Kiev, quit the ruling party and promised to restore normal functioning of city services downtown, just weeks after his appointment. About 30 deputies from the ruling Party of Regions joined opposition members to call for a halt to the “anti-terrorist” operations launched against protestors. Oligarch and government backer Rinat Akhmetov condemned government violence, opining that, “there are no circumstances which justify the use of force toward the peaceful population.” Reports emerged of high officials fleeing the country. Yanukovych sacked the head of the armed forces on Wednesday; the latter’s deputy himself resigned in protest Thursday night. These developments must not be interpreted as signs of defection to the opposition, but they did signal that a tipping point had been reached as a growing number of elites became willing to participate in, and accept, a negotiated and inclusive political solution.
Russia is likely to support an agreement that has broad support within Ukraine’s ruling elite.
Despite harsh rhetoric against what Russian officials are labeling an attempted “coup d’etat,” Russia does not welcome Ukraine’s descent into chaos. On Thursday, Moscow dispatched a respected moderate, recently retired Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, to Kiev to mediate and expressed derision at the Ukrainian government’s lack of ability to maintain order. Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov today called the deal, “a way out of the crisis,” although he expressed skepticism that it would be accepted by the “extremists who seem to have the upper hand.”
That is, indeed, the last piece of the puzzle. At least for now, those who have taken up arms against the government—and possibly many who de facto control administrations and security forces throughout western Ukraine—may refuse to settle for anything less than President Yanukovych’s immediate resignation. If so, it will be necessary to overcome or circumvent their opposition. If demands for the president’s resignation hold up the agreement, it should still not be allowed to fail. The Party of Regions can be offered the opportunity to nominate a caretaker president, subject to opposition approval, for the duration of the transition period.
It goes without saying that the United States should join the European Union and Russia in expressing unwavering support for this political settlement, as well as devising international guarantees for its implementation. The tragic developments of the past few days raise the specter of a much darker future for Ukraine. The country need not navigate out of its serious crisis of statehood alone.
Cory Welt, an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is associate director and research professor at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.