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.
Yanukovych has also benefitted from Moscow’s intense media campaign against a Ukrainian agreement with the EU. A poll in November showed that 45% of the population favored Ukraine joining the EU and only 14% favored joining the Customs Union. But a poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in late November showed that 39% preferred the EU and suddenly 37% the Customs Union. Mirroring the historic split in the population of Ukraine, support for the EU is strong in the west and center, whereas the east and south look towards Russia and the Customs Union.
But Yanukovych’s political problem is that the proponents of the EU option are much more passionate than its opponents. The demonstrations in Kiev were a spontaneous outburst against Yanukovych’s dismissal of the deal with the EU and his subsequent crackdown on the first protesters. In contrast, the government had to bus in counter protesters who showed little enthusiasm for establishing a permanent presence on the streets.
That is why the ostensibly sweetheart deal from Putin will not solve the Ukrainian President’s political problem. The agreement will not satisfy the people on the streets of the capital. They understand that the generous terms of the agreement were designed to prevent Ukraine from taking the first serious step towards Europe and to save a corrupt and authoritarian government. They also understand that there might be secret clauses to the deal – for instance, giving Russia partial ownership of Ukraine’s gas pipelines – that make the deal not nearly so favorable for Ukraine.
Winter Weather and the Holidays
Yanukovych received one more gift in late December, the arrival of the Christmas season in Kiev. From the Western Christmas December 25 through the Orthodox Christmas January 7, Kiev largely shuts down. He was counting on the pull of the holidays and the cold weather to get people off the streets. It is true that numbers on the Maidan, especially at night would drop to the single thousands. But the December 25th attack on Tetyana Choronovil led to an increase in demonstrators the next day, and tens of thousands gathered on the streets on January 1st.
This means that the standoff will continue. Reports suggest that the opposition leadership was thrown off balance by the Putin-Yanukovych deal. This highlights why Yulia Tymoshenko remains in jail. The opposition should have been prepared for that deal. Yanukovych would only return to Moscow–he stopped there after his trip to China in the first days of the protests –to achieve some benefit to help resolve the crisis.
The opposition and the protesters still hold the trump card. They control the streets of the capital and the government cannot use force to pry them out. They need to understand, however, that President Yanukovych is not going away. He appears to have stopped the hemorrhaging of support within his own government. They need to be realistic in their goals. A presidential resignation is not in the cards anytime soon.
But if the opposition has the leadership and organization to spend a cold winter on the streets, President Yanukovych will have to offer a real gesture to end the crisis. Russian help alone will not sustain him in power.
John Herbst is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. This piece represents the views of the author and not of the National Defense University.