Defying attempts by protesters in Kiev to force him out, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych went on the air Saturday, Feb. 22, to say he has no plans to resign. Apparently speaking from the eastern town of Kharkiv, he accused ”armed extremists and gangsters” of a coup against him, comparing it to the Nazi putsch in Berlin of 1933.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on the German, French and Polish foreign ministers to step in and take responsibility for upholding the deal they helped the president and opposition leaders forge Friday, and not let “armed extremists” directly threaten Ukrainian sovereignty.
debkafile: How far Moscow will go to buttress Yanikovych’s rule is not immediately apparent at this stage. The volatile situation in Ukraine is beginning to resolve itself into a split between two rival regions and governments – the pro-Western opposition in Kiev, and the pro-Russian government in Kharkiv, where Yanukovych is marshalling support.
It is important to note that not all of Kiev’s population backs opposition rule, which depends mainly on a group from the former Polish town of Lvov, which holds sway over Kiev downtown - but not the rest of the city. The Ukrainian parliament voted to dismiss Yanikovych, an early election on May 25 and release his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko from jail. The president called the decision “illegal.”
The army and security forces have not so far taken any positions, except for their chiefs declaring they would not “act against the people.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague took this as an opening to extend recognition to “the interim government in Kiev” – as the first western government to recognize Ukraine’s opposition.
Earlier Saturday, DEBKfile reported the unraveling of the deal clinched less than 24 hours earlier between Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders - with the help of three EU foreign ministers - for ending their deadly three-month stand-off. As thousands of hard-core protesters refused to abandon their barricades in Kiev’s central square Saturday, the president left the capital for an unknown destination.
In the face of the protesters’ boos, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko backed out of the Friday deal and took up their call for Yanukovych’s immediate resignation. The protesters claimed to have seized control of the president’s office and security guards were withdrawn from his residence.
Klitschko then sought a parliament resolution calling for Yanukovych to step down at once and an early election on May 25, instead of December as they had agreed earlier. The Speaker, a key supporter of the president, resigned.
The missing president is reported to be still in Ukraine. An aide says he has no intention of leaving the country. Opposition leaders, divided among themselves, appear to have lost control of the hard-core protesters and bowed to their determination to keep the fires of resistance to Yanukovych rule going at full blast.
As the crisis again threatened to career out of control, Ukrainians were asking in desperation: Where is the popular former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko? The Yanukovych regime has kept her in jail for two years. Her release was ceded in the deal he concluded with the opposition Friday, but so far this has not happened.
Our Ukraine specialists say that if she were free, she would occupy center stage of the protest movement as the most credible opposition leader, a role which none of the incumbents would be happy to relinquish. But behind bars, Timoshenko is available for the president to whip out as a high card as his confrontation with the opposition enters its next stage. It also indicates that he still exercises control over events in Kiev.
Read debkafile’s earlier report Friday, Feb. 21 on how the radicals took control of Independence Sq.
The issues between Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych and opposition protesters led by Vitaly Klitschko, which spiraled Thursday, Feb. 20, into gun battles with live rounds, appear at first glance to be black and white – but that is true only up to a point. Is Ukraine clearly divided between pro-Russian and pro-European factions? That too is an over-simplification – much like the determination that US President Barack Obama’s backing for the protesters, countered by President Vladimir Putin’s support for Yanukovych, is the genesis of a new cold war.
Both Obama and Putin have kept their intervention in the Ukraine conflict low key. Obama has no inclination to challenge Putin, at the risk of losing his understandings with Iran and a free ride out of the Middle East by courtesy of Russia’s entry.
Neither does the US president want to be dragged into European affairs after he and three of his predecessors in the White House expended considerable energy on disassociating America from the continent and pivoting the US eastward.
The bloody confrontations in Maidan Square (renamed Independence Square by the protesters) were for him an unnecessary distraction from his chosen course. His warning of “consequences if people step over the line” was meant to sound grave, but people remembered his warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad seven months ago since when Assad is still going strong.
Vice President Joe Biden could not have expected his demand to pull security police back from the embattled Kiev square be taken seriously by that President Yanukovych, because it would have amounted to his capitulation and handover of rule to the protesters after three months of strife.
Putin has also been careful to skirt the conflict. Although he promised the Ukraine president $15 bn in economic aid and cheap Russian gas, he has not so far laid out a single dollar or ruble. Neither has he stepped forward to mediate dispute, leaving the task to the European Union, which sent the French, German and Polish foreign ministers to Kiev to broker a deal for ending the clashes.
On the ground, casualties soared and armed gunmen went into action Thursday, Feb. 20, raising the conflict to its most violent stage hitherto. Although neither side is likely to admit this, the escalation was not spontaneous; it happened after both quietly threw bands of armed, out-of-control radicals into the fray in order to finally end the standoff.
Yanukovich enlisted Ukraine nationalist extremists, some of them fervently pro-Russian, from the eastern provinces, where more than half of the 46-million strong population is Russian-speaking and close to Moscow.
The opposition rounded up armed radicals from the west, a part of Ukraine which a century ago was under Polish, then Austro-Hungarian rule. Here, Russian is not spoken and Moscow is anathema. These gangs seized the barricades in Independence Square.
The gunfire across the square Thursday came from the shooting between the warring camps of radicals. They also accounted for most of the fatalities.
Friday morning, Ukraine’s Health Ministry said 75 people had died and more than 570 were injured in the violent clashes in the capital this week.
After this explosion of violence, both sides understood that an agreement could not longer be postponed, both to stop the bloodshed and to prevent the armed radicals taking over and throwing Ukraine into full-blown civil war.
Neither Yanukovych nor Klitshko was prepared to let this happen.
Amid a shaky calm in Kiev Friday morning, President Yanukovych announced that all-night talks with the opposition, led by Klitschko and assisted by the European mediators, had culminated in an agreement to resolve the crisis.
Before this was confirmed by the opposition or the European ministers, the president’s office revealed that it centered on his consent to an early general election in December and the formation of a coalition within 10 days - provided that the violent protest was halted and order restored to the capital. Some Kiev sources added that Yanokovych has agreed to constitutional reforms for reducing presidential powers.
In the electric atmosphere in the Ukrainian capital, it is to soon to evaluate the life expectancy of this agreement or determine whether the two parties are capable of getting past their differences and forming a working coalition government.