How to make sense of the violence in Ukraine

After bloody days and nights in Kiev, the world is wondering: How did we get here, and what happens next?

By Dan Peleschuk

Published February 21, 2014 1:15PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post MOSCOW, Russia — The latest clashes in Ukraine’s ongoing political crisis have produced the worst violence the country has experienced since gaining independence in 1991, with at least 26 protesters and police now reported dead.

Riot police launched a full-on assault on Independence Square — or “Maidan,” the nerve center of the three-month-long anti-government demonstrations — this week, and the once jovial and energetic protests have descended into violent, medieval chaos.

Meanwhile, fears of an impending civil war are stirring ever more powerfully. A tenuous pause in the violence came late Wednesday, however, when President Viktor Yanukovych said he had reached a "truce" with opposition leaders — but it shattered within hours. Thursday has reportedly been the deadliest day in the months-long protests to date, with local media saying more than 70 people were killed in the morning hours alone.

How did we get here, and what happens next?

GlobalPost senior correspondent Dan Peleschuk, who has covered the story since it began last November, explains.

How did it come to this?

The protests began last November after President Viktor Yanukovych spurned sweeping political and trade agreements with the European Union — which he had publicly supported — in favor of closer ties with Russia, Ukraine’s Soviet-era ruler. Since then, however, the demonstrations steadily escalated in size, intensity and violence, usually inflamed by attempts by police and security forces to disperse them.

The early watershed moment came when police violently raided a peaceful demonstration of mostly sleeping students on the Maidan late last year. It was all downhill from there, and it's largely been a bloody back-and-forth ever since: for example, protesters would march on a government building — or sometimes simply stand their ground — and police would crack down violently. The heavy-handed response would in turn further fuel anger, especially after the first reported deaths last month and amid widespread reports of activists being hunted down, abducted and tortured.

The violence has also given rise to some small yet influential radical groups that have spearheaded much of the anti-regime fighting. But the police actions have also radicalized many “ordinary” protesters, who see the armed, masked fighters on Maidan as their legitimate defenders from marauding security forces. Particularly problematic has been Yanukovych’s stubborn reluctance to offer meaningful concessions to protesters, who have been cast as “extremists” and “terrorists” by top officials in Ukraine and Russia.

When Yanukovych finally fired the government last month, it proved far too late for many demonstrators who saw it as a hollow gesture, and who had been demanding fresh parliamentary and presidential elections since the first violent dispersal late last year. It also doesn’t help that Yanukovych continues to blame the country’s opposition leaders — who have struggled to harness the public anger — for stoking the violence.

Is this a civil war?

Not quite yet — in the conventional sense, at least — but the makings of one are there. For starters, Ukraine has long been been split linguistically, culturally and historically between its Ukrainian-speaking western half, which was only briefly under Russian rule, and the Russian-speaking east, which has lived under Moscow for centuries. This divide colors much of the country’s social and political life. Now, that split has been inflamed by the anti-government demonstrations. Many citizens and officials in eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s pro-Russian support base, see the protests as an attempt by radical nationalists and spoiled urbanites to seize power from a democratically elected government.

Meanwhile, many in western Ukraine view the movement as push to oust a corrupt and bloody authoritarian ruler who has taken his orders from Moscow and dashed Ukraine’s European aspirations. Both sides have become increasingly entrenched.

But particularly worrying has been the formation in some western regions of de-facto “people’s councils,” which have claimed full authority — with the “consent” of the Maidan — over their respective regions. On Wednesday, the “people’s council” in Lviv, western Ukraine’s largest city, appeared to announce it would act independently from the center.

Meanwhile, protesters continue storming police and security headquarters in some regions, and the staunchly pro-Russian and autonomous Crimea, in Ukraine’s south, ominously claimed Tuesday it would do whatever it takes to defend its autonomy. Some have likened these moves to the beginnings of a secession movement, which would almost certainly boost the nationwide conflict to unprecedented violent proportions.

What can the West do to promote a political solution and prevent further escalation of the violence?

That also remains to be seen. The EU’s foreign ministers have called an emergency meeting for Thursday, and they’ve already hinted at “targeted measures against those responsible for violence,” according to a Wednesday press release. But so far, Ukraine’s political crisis has actually highlighted what many have argued has been the weakness of US and European foreign policy toward Ukraine, one in which lofty rhetoric condemning the violence on both sides appears to reflect a misunderstanding of the severity of the events on the ground as well as the strength of Russian influence over Ukraine.

Moscow, on the other hand, has aggressively promoted its policy there by offering Yanukovych hard incentives in the form of a multibillion-dollar loan and discounts on natural gas. The EU’s main bargaining chip before the crisis erupted was the political and trade agreements that would have pulled Kyiv further into Europe’s orbit.

Since that fell through, however, Western officials have appeared behind the ball and unable — or unwilling — to apply meaningful leverage against the Yanukovych regime. Many protesters on the ground, meanwhile, feel they’ve been abandoned by the same Western officials who only months earlier had celebrated Ukraine’s “European course.” The only card left to play — which may well still be in the works — is to levy economic sanctions on the officials and oligarchs who keep much of their cash stashed in European banks.

Dan Peleschuk

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