Yanukovych's Survival Strategy

Will it work?

President Yanukovych returned from Moscow on December 17th with an early Christmas present: an outwardly generous deal that would drop the price of Russian gas to Ukraine by one-third in 2014 and would provide up to $15 billion in Russian purchases of Ukrainian bonds. It was Yanukovych’s first good day since the protests began in late-November against his decision to curtail the negotiations with the European Union on an association agreement.

The Russian subsidies in this deal are at the heart of President Yanukovych’s strategy for dealing with the crisis. But despite the headlines, it is unclear if this strategy will succeed.

Yanukovych learned early in the current crisis that he could not use visible force to clear the streets of the massive demonstrations challenging his legitimacy. So he has developed a three-pronged approach to solve the problem indirectly.

Half-Hearted Gestures to the Opposition

First Yanukovych has offered some gestures, half-hearted gestures in reality, to mollify his critics. In this category, he met with opposition leaders and the three former Presidents of Ukraine – Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko – to discuss possible steps to ease the crisis. He also received EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Toria Nuland on December 11th and maintained his continued interest in signing a deal with the EU. He underscored this point by keeping Deputy Prime Minister Arbuzov in Brussels to talk about terms for the deal. The Yanukovych regime also responded on December 14 to demands to indict the officials responsible for the bloody crackdown on the demonstrators of November 30 by announcing that Oleksandr Popov, the head of the Kyiv City Administration, and Volodymyr Syvkovych, the Deputy Head of the National Security Council, were under investigation for their role in the event. The two were also suspended.

None of these steps have been persuasive, however, because they are more form than actual substance. While Yanukovych reassured Ashton of his continuing interest in the trade association agreement, Arbuzov in Brussels offered nothing in his talks with EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele who, in frustration, announced on Twitter that the negotiations were on hold. The announced investigations of Popov and Syvkovych were dismissed by protesters and opposition as the punishment of scapegoats. Neither man would have the authority to launch a crackdown.

Limited Use of Force and Intimidation by Threats and Selective Violence

The second element of the Yanukovych strategy is limited use of force in the streets and intimidation by announcement, innuendo, and selective violence. Massive force is a political loser in Ukraine, but repression in the shadows has been useful at times. With this in mind, he first tried to take back city streets unoccupied or lightly occupied by demonstrators. But this tactic failed in the wee hours of December 11th, as police tried to move protesters off parts of the Maidan (Independence Square), ground zero for the protests. The protesters stood firm and used an early warning system to summon others in support. And the protesters have stayed despite threats from law enforcement officials that they might be subject to prosecution. The authorities also tried to intimidate opposition leaders by seizing computers at the headquarters of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party and hinting darkly that they are investigating possible coup plots against the duly elected government.

As these tactics failed to achieve the desired effect, the regime upped the ante, targeting leaders and selective activists for physical reprisals. The most prominent attack came Christmas night, December 25th, against opposition journalist Tetyana Chornovil. That same day, a similar fate befell Dmitry Pylypets, who helped organize demonstrations in Kharkiv. There are also numerous reports of vandalism directed against the cars of activists outside of Kiev.

Carrots and Sticks from the Kremlin

The third prong of Yanukovych’s approach relies explicitly on the Kremlin and President Putin’s neo-imperial instincts. For the moment, the two are operating in tandem, although their interests are far from identical. While Yanukovych stopped negotiating with the EU because he did not want to release political rival Tymoshenko from jail, he justified snubbing the EU by citing the trade sanctions that Russia had already levied against Ukraine. Signing a deal with the EU would lead to a punishing economic response from Moscow.