Left unchecked, the turmoil gripping Ukraine has the makings of what could be Europe’s most dangerous moment since the Second World War. The crisis has already claimed the lives of more than 50 people in clashes in Kiev this week. Perhaps a new truce between protesters and the authorities can be established, as a platform for negotiations for a more lasting compromise. As The Independent went to press, however, the fate of Europe’s seventh most populous country was hanging by a thread.
In part, the crisis is the latest episode in the tug-of-war between Russia and the West for the country’s identity that has been in progress since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, it is more complex, fuelled by disgust at the rampant corruption permitted by the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych and by the frustrations of Ukrainians, especially the young, at the direction in which their country is heading. The resentment, by some accounts, has spread into the eastern Russian-speaking regions that have been Mr Yanukovych’s powerbase, and where some of his traditional supporters are now deserting him.
But in the heat of events, such nuances are consumed by Ukraine’s ancestral division and growing evidence of a breakdown of central control. In Lviv – bastion of the historically nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west of the country – the regional assembly has effectively declared independence from the Yanukovych regime. Such developments render talk of possible civil war as anything but overblown.
Making matters worse, Ukraine is a touchstone of a sharpening East-West confrontation. Both sides – correctly – accuse each other of meddling. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, determined to re-assert itself as a great power and keep Ukraine within its orbit, is Mr Yanukovych’s strongest supporter. Moscow charges the opposition with mounting a coup on the streets, and draws dark comparisons with the Nazi rise to power in 1933.
The West, meanwhile, has sided with the protesters. The US has already announced sanctions against Ukrainian officials allegedly responsible for the Kiev bloodshed; and the EU, three of whose foreign ministers are in Kiev to try to broker an agreement, is now bringing in sanctions of its own. Quite right – not because of the direct effect but because it is incumbent upon Brussels to do more than verbally condemn such appalling violence.
First, a truce that holds is essential. Thereafter, the answer – if answer there is – is trite, but no less true for all that. Only a political solution, devised by Ukrainians for Ukrainians, can end the agony now threatening to tear the country apart. Former national leaders, relatively untarnished by the current crisis, will probably play a part in this process; so too will Ukraine’s powerful business oligarchs, reportedly appalled by what is happening.
It is hard to see how this solution will not involve the departure of Mr Yanukovych and new elections. The alternative however could be far, far worse: the deployment of the armed forces against the population, a descent into civil war, and direct confrontation between the great powers, across Europe’s deepest geopolitical fault line.