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The violence continued Thursday in Kiev’s Independence Square where protestors have been clashing with government forces as they demand political changes in the country.
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Fellow, Simon Saradzhyan, talks about the possibility of civil war in Ukraine and what the demonstrations mean for Russia as well as the U.S.
Q: Does the violence Tuesday (February 19) represent a turning point in the political crisis in the Ukraine?
Saradzhyan: I think it does. Both President Yanukovych and the militant wing of the protest movement seem to have burned all their bridges by resorting to deadly use of force. As many as 28 people have already been killed and more than 350 have been injured in violent clashes in Kiev between law-enforcement and the opposition since Tuesday morning.
This is unprecedented — the worst street violence that Kiev has seen since World War II. The skirmishes have spread to other Ukrainian cities, such as Ivano-Frankovsk where protesters have stormed government buildings and police headquarters to seize hundreds of weapons and announced they will not obey the central government. If this is not the beginning of a civil war, then what is?
Q: What are the protesters demanding in terms of political reforms?
Saradzhyan: The moderates are pushing for amending the constitution to curb presidential powers, and essentially restore the 2004 constitution, which empowered the parliament — rather than president — to appoint a premier, most of the government ministers, and provincial governors. The opposition is also demanding early presidential and parliamentary elections and the signing of free trade and association agreements with the European Union. The radicals want Yanukovych and his Party of Power out of power now.
Q: What is at stake for Russia in this dispute? What is at stake for the United States?
Saradzhyan: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisors essentially see Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians as one people, therefore, seek to draw Ukraine into Moscow’s orbit. The size of Ukraine’s population and, to a less extent, its economy would make it a valuable asset in the Eurasian Union, which Putin is building in the post-Soviet landscape. “Loss” of Ukraine to the west would not only sap Putin’s Eurasian integration ambitions, but may also, in the Kremlin’s opinion, lead to eventual integration of Ukraine into NATO, which Russia’s defense doctrine identifies as the “source” of primary military threat to Russia.
Both preservation of democratic values and the need to avert humanitarian catastrophe in the Ukraine matter to the U.S. and European Union. Ukraine also matters to the NATO because it has been a contributor to U.S. led stabilization efforts, sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, providing its territory and aircraft for transit and transportation of NATO cargos to Afghanistan. It has also participated in NATO-led cooperative security programs, sending warships to the Mediterranean to assist NATO's Operation Active Endeavour. Ukraine was also the first of the CIS states to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. In contrast, a failed Ukraine could present a challenge to Europe’s regional stability that would further hinder U.S. efforts to pivot to Asia.
Ukraine also matters because it remains a major energy transit country with much of Russian gas still flowing to European allies via its territory. We all recall the impact that the two Russian-Ukrainian gas “wars” on consumers had in Europe. No one in Western Europe wishes to repeat that as a result of destabilization in Ukraine.
U.S. and Russian policymakers would probably agree that a failed Ukrainian state is much worse than either a pro-Russian or pro-western Ukrainian state. It is not only because U.S. and Russia would have to allocate resources to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine. Ukraine also possesses some of the world’s most advanced defense industries that used to churn out ICBMs’ and continues to make launch vehicles to date. A failed Ukraine could become a giant bazaar for rogue states and international terrorist organizations seeking technologies of mass destruction and long-range delivery systems.
Q: How do you foresee this standoff ending?
Saradzhyan: It is my hope that both the opposition and the government will negotiate a peaceful way out of this carnage. Eventually, all the divisive major issues should be put to vote.
The alternative to peaceful resolution is lasting chaos, if not disintegration.
Each new revolution, successful or not, (and this is the third attempt to stage a revolution in post-Soviet Ukraine) decreases chances that the Ukrainians will get to live in a much-deserved normal country, in which governments change as a result of proper elections rather than riots.