War Stories

The Collapse of Ukraine’s Brief Hope for Peace?

President Yanukovych flees Kiev as protesters take control of his palace. How far will Putin go to regain his grip? And will Obama try to stop him?

US President Barack Obama and Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
President Obama needs to play the game, or he risks being played by Vladimir Putin.

Photo-illustration by Slate. Putin: Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images. Obama: Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

As of Saturday morning, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has fled the capital, a day after signing an accord with opposition leaders. In this article, originally published Friday evening and since updated, Fred Kaplan examines the importance of Obama’s and Putin’s next moves.

What’s happening in Ukraine is a very big deal, for reasons that are obvious and inspiring—but also for reasons that are knotty and frightening.

It started last fall, with protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, which swelled and turned violent after the government cracked down. A familiar pattern, but things have taken a twist in just the past 24 hours. President Viktor Yanukovych waved the white flag and, alongside the three main protest leaders, signed a deal that meets nearly all their demands, including the restoration of the 2004 constitution (which he had repealed to give himself more power) and the holding of elections at the end of the year.

Almost at once, the Ukrainian parliament assumed its restored powers and passed laws firing the interior minister, granting amnesty to protesters, and freeing Yulia Tymoshenko, a reform politician who, after just barely losing to Yanukovych in the 2010 election, was sentenced to prison for seven years on dubious corruption charges.

But the crisis in Ukraine is far from over. The day’s events mark not its resolution but the start of its political phase. And what’s going on isn’t a clash of democracy versus dictatorship—or, it’s not only that. It is, fundamentally, a struggle for power—not only within Ukraine but also between Russia and the West.

Update, Feb. 22, 12:20 p.m.: This point took on ominous tones Saturday morning, as some of the most radical protesters occupied the presidential palace, Yanukovych fled, and politicians in the eastern, more pro-Russia region of Ukraine declared parliament’s measures to be illegal. These developments throw Friday’s settlement—as well as the future of the country and its relation to Russia and Europe—into grave uncertainty.

Take a closer look at the genesis of this crisis. It was Yanukovych’s decision in November to back out of a thickening association with the European Union and instead get back in bed with Russia, lured by Vladimir Putin’s offer of a $15 billion bailout. The first protesters came to Independence Square because they wanted to become Europeans, and not just economically; they were protesting their president’s retreat from the Western future to the Eastern past.

Yanukovych might have held things together until he started emulating his benefactor. In January he signed a decree banning public protests, as a result of which the protests grew much larger still. His prime minister resigned. As a sop to the protesters, he offered the post to a member of the opposition party, who turned it down. The turning point may have come just this week, when police launched a savage campaign against the protesters, shooting and beating them at will, occupying half the square in the process—and then, the next day, a wedge of protesters crashed through the barricades, taking the square back. A number of Ukraine watchers declared that Yanukovych’s days were numbered, and he confirmed Friday that they are.

But a few things are worth noting before we pop the cork of freedom’s Champagne.

First, by the time the protesters filled the square and beyond, even extending to cities in eastern Ukraine, their causes were vast and myriad. Many, including some right-wing nationalists who have no interest in the European Union or democracy, had joined the crowd simply to protest the police crackdowns on the protesters. So, as is often the case with these things, it is hard to declare some mandate on a claim of the “people’s will.”

Update: This point is sharpened by the fact that the protesters who occupied the presidential palace Saturday morning are from one of these radical nationalist groups. It’s clear that, to them, Friday’s accord did not go far enough—or change things quickly enough.

Second, quite apart from right-wing nationalists, the Ukrainian people are evenly divided on whether they want to lean west at all. The initial protesters live mainly in the western part of the country, which does have European leanings as well as borders. But the eastern and southern parts of the country have deep roots in Russia, dating back not just to Soviet times but to Peter the Great. Their land borders Russia, their factories and farms are intertwined with Russian markets.

Third, it is extremely unlikely that Putin will shrug his shoulders and let Ukraine go west. Ukraine is an existential matter for many Russians, especially for Putin, who has described the Soviet Union’s collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century” and has announced plans to create a Eurasian Union (as a fanciful counterweight to the European Union), consisting of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan: the heart of the old USSR.

It is worth noting that in the accord signed by Yanukovych, the protest leaders, and three mediators from the European Union, there was also a line to be signed by Vladimir Lukin, the Russian delegate to the talks. Lukin was at the ceremony, but he did not sign the document.

Update: Putin may nonetheless have felt some pressure to abide by Friday’s transitional accord, but now that the radical protesters have upended the agreement, with parliament’s consent, he may feel no such restraints—and the European Union leaders are placed in an awkward spot themselves: If Putin intervenes with force, on what basis can they resist him?

On Wednesday, while condemning the violence in Ukraine, President Obama said that his approach was “not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we are in competition with Russia” but rather to ensure that the Ukrainian people can “make decisions for themselves about their future.”

Three points are worth making here. First, international politics resembled chessboards long before the Cold War, and the resemblance will persist for eons to come. Second, Putin, well-schooled in the “Great Game” of his ancestors, certainly sees the battle for influence in Ukraine as a chessboard. Third, it is a chessboard, and there is a competition. Ukraine is a basket case: If Russia backs off, perhaps to penalize the surrendering Yanukovych (and Russia has halted the next $2 billion progress payment on its bailout), then someone has to step in. Are the EU and the United States up to it? If they aren’t, Ukraine will tumble. If they are, their move will be seen as a challenge to Russia, and tensions will soar, with accompanying miscalculations.

But perhaps Obama was sending Putin a signal—one that emphasized the second sentence of his remarks, the one about wanting the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions. Perhaps he was telling Putin that the United States has no intention of grabbing Ukraine away from Russia’s sphere but that the country should be allowed to determine its own future in free elections. (Obama spoke directly with Putin on the phone Friday afternoon.) No doubt pro-Russian parties will run in the upcoming elections. Maybe one of them will win; if not, their party or parties will surely have a strong voice in the revived parliament.

Update: Saturday morning the Ukrainian parliament moved up the elections to May, but already pro-Russia factions are declaring the move illegal. Will they take part in the elections or simply move to seize power themselves, perhaps this time with active Russian backing?

It wouldn’t have been at all surprising if the Ukrainian police had continued stomping the protesters until the square was empty. There was a time, not long ago, when Russian stormtroopers would have added their guns and batons to the “correlation of forces.” If the street violence is really over, if free and fair elections really are held at the end of the year, those things in themselves would mark another watershed in Ukrainian politics.

Earlier this month, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most astute observers of post-Soviet politics, expressed the hope that by this time next year, on the 70th anniversary of the Yalta agreement, “Ukraine should again be a halfway functioning state” that “should have signed an association agreement with the EU but also have close ties with Russia.”

As recently as yesterday, that vision seemed quixotic. Today, it seems not quite likely, but—miracle enough—possible. Update: Things are changing so swiftly that on Saturday, Garton Ash’s vision seems quixotic again—and, who knows, may switch one more to plausible on Sunday, then back again by midweek.