Brutality won’t save Ukraine’s President

Published 8:15 PM EST, Thu February 20, 2014

Story highlights

Alexander Motyl: Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych's brutality seems desperate

Motyl: Violence has made protesters more resistant and determined to fight

Motyl: Party members are deserting Yanukovych, and police are joining the opposition

He says Vladimir Putin might not think it's worth his while to prop up a doomed president

Editor’s Note: Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992 through 1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the U.S.S.R., he is the author of six academic books and several novels, including
“The Jew Who Was Ukrainian”; “My Orchidia”; and “Sweet Snow.” Motyl writes a weekly blog on “Ukraine’s Orange Blues” for World Affairs Journal.

CNN —  

Viktor Yanukovych is probably doomed – even if he does not yet know it. He should just step down.

As the embattled Ukrainian President hides in the presidential administration in central Kiev, medical authorities report from 70 to 100 demonstrators have been killed and hundreds wounded. His minister of internal affairs has authorized police units to employ live ammunition. There are also fears that army units are moving on Kiev, the capital city.

These appear to be the desperate measures of a dying regime.

The turning point took place on Tuesday when Yanukovych ordered police units to storm the Maidan – the area centered on Independence Square that has been occupied by the democratic opposition since late November. Regime forces killed at least 25 demonstrators in pitched street battles, set buildings on fire and initiated a campaign of mass terror.

Alexander Motyl
Alexander Motyl

Yanukovych hoped the opposition in Kiev would disperse. Instead, the violence only spurred demonstrators to greater resistance and underscored their determination to fight to the end. More important, the brutality has had several important consequences.

First, democratic forces began seizing government buildings, attacking and disarming police units, and rejecting central authority throughout much of the country. As of this writing, Yanukovych has effectively lost control of at least half of Ukraine – mostly in the west and center – and demonstrations and disturbances are constant in many parts of the southeast, his power base.

Second, in many of the cities and provinces captured by the revolutionaries, riot police and militia have thrown down their weapons and joined the resistance.

In Kiev on Thursday, several scores of internal troops and their commander surrendered to the opposition. The coercive forces represent Yanukovych’s last line of defense; such defections mean that his regime may soon be exposed to assault by an enraged and increasingly armed population.

Third, dozens of prominent members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions have left the party and repudiated his rule. Some are genuinely appalled by the brutality of the regime; all sense which way the wind is blowing and want to save their skins – such as up to 30 pro-regime parliamentary deputies who reputedly fled the country for Western Europe. Even Yanukovych’s appointee, the de facto mayor of Kiev, has turned against Yanukovych. The regime’s own power base is crumbling.

Fourth, Ukraine’s oligarchs, who have so far supported or refused to turn against Yanukovych, are now hedging their bets. Massive bloodshed and a potential civil war is not in their interest, and the more things escalate, the more likely will their dissatisfaction with Yanukovych turn into opposition.

Yanukovych faces a no-win situation.

If he backs down, the revolutionaries will sweep the country, seize the presidential administration and in all likelihood arrest him. Given the popular anger that his butchery has unleashed, it’s not inconceivable that his fate could be that of Romania’s Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989.

If he doesn’t back down, he can no longer hope for a return to the stalemate that existed until February 18. The revolutionaries are no longer in the mood for compromise with a regime that is willing to kill its own citizens to stay in power.

Given these options, Yanukovych might decide that his only hope of salvation lies with an escalation of violence. If the criminal bands of the Berkut riot police – in cahoots perhaps with select units of the internal troops and army – begin shooting indiscriminately and employing heavy weaponry, they could certainly crush the Kiev demonstrators, although probably at the cost of thousands of dead.

In light of Yanukovych’s proven indifference to human life, this option is, alas, not impossible.

But even massive bloodletting won’t change the balance of forces. Kiev’s demonstrators will just go underground and initiate a guerrilla struggle against the regime. More important, the rest of the country will remain in the hands of the democratic opposition.

Its determination to oust Yanukovych and his criminal regime will become implacable, while defections in the coercive forces and Party of Regions could continue. Meanwhile, the economy is on the verge of collapse, social unrest will likely break out in the southeastern rust belt, and the regime may soon have no money to pay its defenders.

It could be that Yanukovych’s days are numbered, and even Russian President Vladimir Putin might not be able to help him. Putin could decide it is not worth his while to invade Ukraine to prop up a doomed regime. And an invasion of Ukraine could unleash a new cold war with the West and transform Russia into a pariah state.

Yanukovych’s friend, the mayor of Kharkiv, has suggested that he evacuate to his city. That – or flight to Russia – may be Yanukovych’s last real hope.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alexander Motyl.