Skip to main content

Brutality won't save Ukraine's President

By Alexander Motyl
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months. Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months.
HIDE CAPTION
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
>
>>
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.

Ukrainian athlete withdraws from Olympics
Ukrainian Protester: We stand for freedom
Expert: No hope for Yanukovych in Ukraine
Ukraine: A crisis with a human face

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT