The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
On Saturday, Ukraine’s parliament voted to impeach President Viktor Yanukovych, perhaps bringing to an end to the months of protests that followed his November refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The events leading up to Saturday’s vote were frenzied: clashes earlier in the week had left over 100 people dead; on Friday, the European Union had brokered a controversial peace deal between Yanukovych and the opposition; and on Saturday, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison and promptly flew from Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine where she was being held, to the Maidan, Ukraine’s Independence Square. Her return, which could upset the fragile balance among the protest movement’s three main opposition leaders, sparked concerns among protesters that this week marked the end of Yanukovych’s rule but not the start of something new.
Of all last week’s events, Yanukovych’s removal was perhaps the most surprising. The deal he signed with the three opposition leaders and EU representatives on Friday had allowed him to stay in office until December, when early elections were to be held. Later that night, however, a commander of one of the protest movement’s defense units sent Yanukovych an ultimatum from the stage in Independence Square: resign, or face an armed surge. By early Saturday, there were unconfirmed reports that Yanukovych had, indeed, left office. Later that day, however, a mysterious television interview surfaced on UBR, a Ukrainian business channel. In it, a worn-out looking Yanukovych called the week’s events a coup and vowed to fight on. “I don’t intend to leave the country,” he said, “I don’t intend to step down. I am the legally chosen president.” Even so, he was stopped that evening trying to leave Ukraine and then, somehow, vanished. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which has a support base in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine, has been quick to drop him, blaming him for the unrest in Ukraine. In an official statement on Sunday, party officials lamented that “The million-member party effectively become the hostage of one corrupt Family,” referring to Yanukovych’s innermost circle. And it seems that even Yanukovych’s onetime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has given up on him, judging him to be incompetent. No one is sure what Russia’s next move will be; Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine was summoned back to Moscow late Sunday.
Now that Yanukovych is gone and his some of his closest allies have disappeared, the opposition must get to work on forming a new government. Parliament named Oleksandr Turchynov, the speaker of parliament (and, incidentally, a close Tymoshenko ally), as interim president and has given lawmakers until Tuesday to form a new unity government. Several politicians will likely be vying for a role.
The first is Tymoshenko. She was the heroine of the Orange Revolution of 2004, in which Ukrainians camped out on the Maidan to protest against a presidential election that they believed Yanukovych had stolen. In the years that followed, she became prime minister twice. She ran for president in 2010, but lost to Yanukovych by 3.5 percentage points. She was imprisoned in October 2011 on charges that were seen as politically motived. Indeed, her imprisonment is one reason that Brussels had put off signing an association agreement with Kiev (until Ukraine’s government decided to drop the agreement itself in November).
Already, Tymoshenko appears eager to take charge. “This is your victory, because no politician, no diplomat, could do what you have done: you have removed this cancer from this country,” she proclaimed to an expectant crowd in the Maidan on Saturday evening. She has announced that she does not wish to be considered for the post of prime minister. As soon as she was released, she said that she would be running for president.
If she does, it will upset the fragile balance between the three opposition leaders who have attempted to guide the protests in the Maidan: Vitali Klitschko, a 42-year-old world-boxing champion; Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who led Tymoshenko's Fatherland coalition in her absence; and Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) party. The three were already divided over who would run in the next presidential election, which was originally supposed to take place in early 2015. If all three remain intent on running, they will now have to jockey for position against Tymoshenko as well. That—and the sudden removal of Yanukovych, a clear common opponent—could cause their declared unity to crumble.
Tymoshenko’s return is particularly threatening to Yatsenyuk, although he called repeatedly for her release. His problem is that he lacks charisma. During the protests he often played second fiddle to the more outgoing Klitschko and Tyahnybok. There is no way he will be able to hold a candle to Tymoshenko, whose greater charm was on display in a video clip recorded just after she landed in Kiev on Saturday. In the clip, which has already been watched over 500,000 times on YouTube, a group of activists guarding the airport is seen asking her to remember who carried out the revolution and not to squander the people’s hopes. “I want you to know that that’s the most important thing for me,” she reassures them with a smile. Seconds before, in the same video clip, Yatsenyuk is seen struggling to respond to queries about his perceived privileges, in this case a motorcade. “You’re not in power yet and you’re already behaving like this,” one of the men mutters.
Tymoshenko’s return might also spell trouble for Klitschko, who, according to early polls, had the best chance of the three protest leaders of beating Yanukovych. Unlike Tymoshenko, he is a fresh face with no previous political history; he began his career as a member of Kiev city council in 2006 and was elected to parliament in 2012, but hasn’t sat in government. However, his lack of experience could also be seen as a weakness. On Friday night, he had a tough time explaining to protesters why he had signed the deal with Yanukovych. On the stage in the Maidan, one protester said it was a disgrace that the leaders had shaken Yanukovych’s hand. Shortly after, Klitschko apologized to the crowd and asked for forgiveness. In remarks on Sunday, he suggested that he still wants to run for president.
It is also unclear whether Tymoshenko’s return leaves any space for Tyahnybok, the nationalist leader whose politics always made him an uneasy fit on the Maidan, but who nevertheless rose to become one of the three main opposition leaders, alongside Klitschko and Yatsenyuk.
But it isn’t time to dismiss the three revolutionaries quite yet. After all, the broader reaction to Tymoshenko’s release has been mixed. For many on the Maidan, her release from prison is one thing, but her return to politics is quite another. Some Ukrainians believe that she already had her chance when she became prime minister in 2005 after the Orange Revolution and again in 2007–2010, noting that she did little to reform the country or to bring it closer to the European Union. Indeed, her administration was marked by infighting among the Orange Revolution forces, something many would rather not repeat. Still, other Ukrainians think that she would make the best leader, at least compared to the other less experienced or less charismatic candidates.
For now, it is impossible to say that one position is in the majority. And that points to an interesting fact of the Euromaidan: the protesters have not been standing outside for three winter months for the sake of one of the opposition leaders—and that includes Tymoshenko. They have been protesting for fundamental change in the system—for rule of law, closer relations with the European Union, and an end to corruption. They succeeded in ousting Yanukovych, and they sense that Tymoshenko also belongs to his era. There was something almost anachronistic about her appearance in the Maidan on Saturday. Many in Ukraine no longer want populist leaders like her, who pledge to look after them; they want leaders who will introduce accountability, respect the rule of law, and fight against corruption.
As Ukrainians mourn those who died last week, they will resent—more than ever—what they see as careerist attempts by politicians to take advantage of the situation. That is why, even after Yanukovych’s departure, some of the protesters are still out in the streets. Klitschko, for one, has called protesters to stay there until the reforms begin. They could be in for more long months to come.