Revolutions are a messy business. The overthrow of a repressive monarchy in France was not without its Reign of Terror afterward, but we needn’t look too far back in history for examples rife with violent excesses and lawlessness on the part of the would-be liberators. Some of these revolutionaries put behind them the means by which they came to power and espoused the values for which they fought, and some did not. The West now waits with baited breath to see if the Ukrainian revolutionaries will.
The last time the Foreign Affairs Review considered the situation in the Ukraine, it conceded that the West was seemingly incapable of playing international hardball against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and that this inability or unwillingness on our part inevitably leads to us losing. The Foreign Ministers of Germany, Poland and France, all ardent readers of the Review, must have taken this to heart when they convinced President Yanukovych on Friday to sign the historic agreement that was to bring the bloodshed in the streets to an end. Less than 24 hours later, the opposition reneged on the deal, and the duped President fled the capital. Perhaps he didn’t read the fine print. Perhaps the EU foreign ministers didn’t either, but if that’s the case, they’re too embarrassed to admit it.
Much will be written in the coming days about the price of victory for the Ukrainian opposition, and over the coming years, about the price of victory for the Ukrainian people. But what is the price of victory for the West (other than the suggested 35 billion it will likely cost to stabilise and bail out the country)? We talked a democratically elected President into signing an agreement on power sharing (unity coalition government), constitutional reform (balancing powers of the executive and the legislative) and early elections in exchange for ceasing the hostilities, only to have “our” signatories renege on the deal 24 hours later and seize complete control. Frankly, the diplomatic victory is exactly the kind of hardball Machiavellian politics that Putin excels at. The surprising passivity on the part of Russia over the weekend might be indicative of a measure of shellshock to find their Western counterparts willing and able to play rough after all. The question that lingers for this Editorial Board is – if this is what beating Putin at his own game looks like, is it worth it?
Let us take a step back and consider what really happened in the Ukraine. Vitali Klitschko, the leader of the main opposition party and another dedicated reader of the FAR is a boxer, so let’s employ a boxing metaphor. Round 1 of the Fight for Ukraine took place last November, and went indisputably to Russia. Under pressure from Putin, the Ukrainian President [un]surprisingly abandoned an Association Agreement with the European Union, years in the making, and announced just days before the treaty was to be signed that he would be pursuing closer financial and political ties with the Russian Federation instead. Putin and Yanukovych must have thought this would be a knock out blow, but what followed was an unexpected turn of events.
The pivot to the East brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets of Kiev, and despite the harsh winter conditions, the protesters never left. On the contrary, the protests swelled, and from late January on, turned increasingly violent and confrontational on both sides. Attempts at finding a political solution were unsuccessful, despite surprising flexibility and generosity on the part of the Ukrainian President, who offered just about everything short of his own resignation, including letting the opposition form a new government under their own chosen Prime Minister. This second round of the Battle for Ukraine was fought entirely by the Ukrainian people, but the spectacular rebuke of the deal with Russia and the groundswell of pro-EU sentiment tied the score at 1:1.
With his hands tied in Sochi, it seems that Vladimir Putin was not expecting Round 3, which kicked off last Friday. Alarmed by the escalating violence and rhetoric, the aforementioned trio of EU foreign ministers brokered a deal between the President and the opposition. The deal (the text of which can be read here – don’t miss the fine print like Yanukovych did!) was signed by both parties and laid a mutually agreed path for reform, cooperation, amnesty and early elections by December 2014, allowing the crisis to end and Ukraine to reform and then democratically determine its future later this year. Clearing the path for the democratic fall of Yanukovych later in the year would have been enough to call this round a victory for the West, but the round-winning sucker punch was yet to come.
With government forces withdrawn, instead of the crowds dispersing, the opposition seized control across Kiev. Facing no resistance, the people seized government buildings and the President’s residence, and the opposition politicians seized control in parliament, passing law after law without the President’s signature or any semblance of procedural legitimacy. By the end of the day, they sidestepped the judicial and executive branches by releasing former Prime Minister and Yanukovych arch rival Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, impeached the President, amended the constitution, and fired and appointed a host of top constitutional officials. Trusting in the faith of the West and the signatures of his political opponents, Yanukovych was blindsided, and his whereabouts in eastern Ukraine are now unknown.
In a televised address on Saturday, Yanukovych rightly identified what transpired in contravention of the signed agreement as a coup. He compared the opposition to Nazis, a hyperbole that’s unfortunately all too common in the parlance of civic unrest. In this case, however, there is a disturbing parallel. The Nazi takeover of the state began with the Enabling Act of 1933. Passed with a constitutional majority, it allowed for the subsequent passage of laws in breach of the constitution and without the consent of the President. The unconstitutional legislating spree that the opposition undertook on Saturday bears shocking resemblance. Article 94 of the Constitution, requiring the presidential signature for the promulgation of laws was soundly trampled. The retroactive amending of the law under which the former PM Tymoshenko was charged violates general principles of law. Article 111 requires the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court to take part in the impeachment, which was certainly ignored. Articles 112 and 114 on presidential succession and the naming of ministers were also dismissed. Articles 157 and 159 forbid the amending of the constitution in times of emergency and without verification by the Constitutional Court… and the list goes on and on. It is rare to see a Nazi analogy actually hit near the mark.
So with three rounds down and the West winning 2:1, it remains to be seen if this fight is over, or if there are counterpunches yet to come. When the dust settles in Kiev, a democratically elected President with an anti-democratic agenda and a plan to entrench his country in Russia’s orbit has fallen, and a pro-Western, pro-democratic opposition will set about rebuilding the country. The West has shown itself willing and able to play dirty, and trick an unfriendly head of state into thinking he’s signing on to a democratic transition of power, when he’s being set up for a coup.
The story that has unfolded before us leaves us conflicted and uncertain, much like Ukraine itself. Do the ends justify the means? Are bad faith negotiations and coups back in the toolbox of Western diplomacy, and how do we reconcile that with our values-centric foreign policy? Can we pre-judge a regime on how it came into power? And what will they do once in power? One of the great and un-forgiven injustices of the Yanukovych regime was the jailing of his adversary, Yulia Tymoshenko, ostensibly for betraying the country’s interests to Russia; the new regime has now levied similar charges against President Yanukovych, who is now a wanted man. If you, the reader, find that a regime can be judged by how it comes to power, then this one already looks more lawless than its predecessor. The only difference is that they seem to like the West better than the East. Maybe that’s enough?
-Editorial Board of the Foreign Affairs Review