The thugs move in -- updated
I have felt some degree of shock at seeing pictures like the one above from places I personally remember, having been there just a few years ago. My earlier post summarizing the current conflict is here.
It seems unlikely that the government expected the degree of resistance the protesters have mounted. There are about 25,000 of them in the square; many of them have guns and firebombs and they have been using them. The situation now looks more like a civil war than a protest.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko has met with Yanukovych in an effort to reach a peaceful solution, but the talks broke down without result. It seems likely that Wednesday will bring more violence.
While the Putin regime in Russia has lately grown increasingly shrill in its condemnation of the protests which threaten his efforts to drag Ukraine into Russia's orbit, I doubt that he is behind the Ukrainian government's action. Putin is very concerned with the success of the Sochi Olympics, which still have several more days to run; the last thing he wants is a bloody mess with his fingerprints on it competing for media attention right now. No doubt he wants Yanukovych to crack down on the protests -- but not until the Olympics are over.
The weekend saw anti-government demonstrations in Kiev which drew 350,000 participants, the largest turn-out to date. My guess is that it was these events that spooked Yanukovych into acting.
While both Russia and the West are stepping up their efforts to influence the situation with rhetoric and threats of economic sanctions, their options are limited. In contrast with, for example, the Russia-Georgia clash of 2008, military intervention is probably infeasible. Ukraine's population is 47 million, about one-third the size of Russia's own; its army, including reserves, has more than 1,200,000 soldiers, larger than the armies of Britain, France, and Germany combined. Russia's army is even larger, but Ukraine would be a formidable opponent if its army resisted, as it probably would. Russia would win eventually, but it would be a full-scale bloody war. Putin might even have problems with Russian soldiers being reluctant to fight a people so closely related and so culturally similar to the Russians themselves.
It's the attitude of the Ukrainian army which is likely to prove crucial. Tens of thousands of armed and determined protesters, supported by hundreds of thousands more people in the capital city and millions in the rest of the country, are probably too big of a problem for the police to cope with. If Yanukovych takes the next step and calls in the army, will the soldiers open fire on their own people at his command?
It's a question many of those soldiers themselves are probably pondering at this moment. The revolutions of the Arab spring showed how important the answer can be. In Egypt, the decision of soldiers to shift their allegiance to the people allowed Mubarak's regime to be brought down with only a few hundred casualties; in Libya, where the army largely remained loyal to Qaddhafi, the result was a full-blown civil war which cost an estimated 25,000 lives, in a country far more sparsely populated than Ukraine.
Let's hope that if Ukraine's soldiers face the same choice, they make the right decision.
Update 1: As I write this, it's just after 11:00 AM Pacific time, which is 9:00 PM Kiev time. So far the government forces have not launched a renewed attack. Perhaps they're re-assessing the situation, or perhaps they intend to attack at night.
The Guardian has a new live update feed, and Julia Joffe explains why Putin has reason to fear what's happening. "If it can happen in Kiev.....it can happen in Moscow." Know hope.
Finally, the protesters have posted this video:
Update 2 (Thursday morning): Fighting has erupted again, with the Guardian reporting that protesters "have gained the upper hand" and "have captured dozens of policemen". Also that "the common riot police lines dissolved as they were bussed away, to be replaced by “Berkut” (police special forces)" -- perhaps the government is afraid regular police can't be relied on to fight against the people? The situation remains confusing. All I can do is wish the best to these people who have the guts to fight for their freedom.