Ukraine Protests: International Sanctions May Be Irrelevant to The Unfolding Crisis

With scores of anti-government protestors now dead, the Ukrainian president undoubtedly has blood on his hands. But the European Union and international community risk making the situation worse by imposing sanctions.

As Ukraine slides into its worst bout of violence since the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and as mangled corpses pile up on the streets of Kiev, the natural instinct among most Western politicians and commentators is either to search for culprits or for the most immediate (and preferably the cheapest) punishment which can be meted out on the Ukrainian government. But neither finger-pointing nor finger-wagging are appropriate responses to the horrors of Ukraine; preventing these horrors from getting worse is the only honourable course for the moment.

It is true that almost everyone who dealt with Ukraine miscalculated. From the moment the country became independent, it was obvious that only a sustained and very active international engagement would save Ukraine from becoming the battleground for spheres of influence between Russia and the West. However, Western governments spent decades blowing hot-and-cold on a country which is too big and too poor to be considered a serious candidate for full European integration yet too strategically-significant to be ignored. And, when the European Union finally came up with a coherent strategy in the shape of a new Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement offered to Ukraine last year, these were too radical for the current Ukrainian leadership to accept.

Furthermore, while it was right for the EU to negotiate these deals only with Ukraine, Europe’s decision not to engage in a broader dialogue with Russia about Ukraine was misguided. In effect, Europe’s offer of an association put Ukraine in precisely the position the country should have never been put: facing an existential choice between opting for integration with either the East or the West. A crisis was, therefore, inevitable, and Europe’s miscalculation hastened it.

But miscalculation does not equal guilt, for the only people who should be blamed for the current bloodshed are the Ukrainian rulers and their Russian patrons. If he was honest about his country’s future association agreements with the EU, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych could have easily alerted European negotiations about any obstacles which needed attention. Mr Yanukovych could have also postponed the signature of the deal. But he decided to ditch the negotiations altogether, because of some very personal interests. Yanukovych faces re-election next year just as the Ukrainian economy is nose-diving. A deal with the EU cannot produce the quick economic benefits he needs; that can only come from Russia which offered cash and also guaranteed that Yanukovych would not have to deal with pesky European election observers during the ballots. In effect, Yanukovych threw Ukraine into Russia’s lap, because that’s where he belongs.

Nor is it true that the current bout of fighting was unexpected. Opposition leaders such as the former boxer Vitalii Klitcschko were clearly losing control over the demonstrators, and some violent elements – as well as plenty of hoodlums – attached themselves to the demonstrators in the Maidan, as Independence Square in Kiev is commonly referred to; that, after all, is the fate of most revolutions. But the assaults on the square, conducted by thousands of policemen, security services and government-paid hooligans, were clearly prepared in advance: the ‘ring of steel’ thrown around the Maidan and the suspension of all the underground train services were preludes for the operation, indicating that the operation was hardly a ‘response to a spontaneous combustion’ as some hapless Ukrainian officials now claim it to be. This was the usual operation ordered by any dictator who refuses to tolerate dissent. And it resulted in murder, pure and simple.

What Can Be Done Now?

The initial temptation in the West now is to impose sanctions on Ukraine’s top leaders and any senior officials identified with this violence. Sanctions are tempting because they cost next to nothing to impose, don’t preclude any further measures, appear to uphold Western moral principles and may persuade the public that 'something' is being 'done'.

But in the case of Ukraine, sanctions may be utterly counter-productive. The key objective now is to prevent the Ukrainian military from joining the fray, for this could result in the country’s descent into an outright civil war. President Yanukovych, who replaced his top military commanders last night with people presumably more loyal, clearly does not want to use his armed forces: he knows the example of previous dictators who quickly discovered that militaries are notoriously reluctant to fire on their people and usually simply disintegrate when given such orders. But Yanukovych also knows that the current crisis in Ukraine can no longer be solved by compromise: it’s a battle either won by the president, or by his opponents.

It is inconceivable that, after all the blood spilt, the opposition would agree to share power with Yanukovych. Nor can the president retire gracefully without facing criminal charges, or a bullet in Russia, where he would be accused of double-tricking Russian President Vladimir Putin if he abandons Ukraine’s current post-Russia stance. So, Yanukovych’s only remaining course is either to sit tight and hope that his gamble succeeds and he disperses the demonstrators, or be consumed by the flames of violence he unleashed. Seen from this perspective, the dangers of a military intervention in Ukraine are very real indeed, and it is this danger which should seize all the West’s attention.

In the medium term, the only hope of unseating Yanukovych from power – which must now be a key European objective – is by persuading the bevvy of security service officers, party apparatchiks and oligarchs surrounding Yanukovych to ditch the man: dictatorial, kleptomaniac systems such as Ukraine’s only crack from inside; they won’t be removed by crowds of demonstrators storming presidential palaces. Yet by imposing selective sanctions on individuals, the EU and other Western countries may be doing nothing more than consolidating Yanukovych’s regime, and the hold which Russia has over the country.

None of this means that Western governments should just sit idly by: a great deal of diplomatic work will be required to persuade the Ukrainian military – directly and above the head of their murderous president – that it’s not in the interest of either their country or the armed forces to engage in a bloodbath. More could also be done to warn those currently murdering people that their day of justice will come, as is surely will.

But nothing should ultimately be done to scupper even a faint chance of overthrowing the Yanukovych regime, and of welcoming Ukraine back into the European family of nations.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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