Armored personnel carriers engulfed in flames on city streets, where combatants maneuver, in between charred skeletons of burned vehicles, exchanging shots as the wounded are rushed away from the frontline behind a screen of thick black smoke produced by burning tires. This may sound like a scene from your kid’s new urban warfare computer game, but these were real episodes of street violence that gripped the Ukrainian capital of Kiev this week. Almost 80 people have been killed, and 570 people have been injured, in the kind of violence that this beautiful city has not seen since World War II.
The clashes erupted on Tuesday when the protesters learned that the parliament’s progovernment majority had failed to schedule a vote limiting presidential powers. The skirmishes quickly spread from Kiev to several regions in western Ukraine, where protesters stormed local government and law enforcement offices to seize hundreds of weapons. Some provinces announced they would no longer obey the central government and even dispatched their police to Kiev to defend the protesters.
If that was not the beginning of a civil war, then what is? Thankfully, the warring sides reached an agreement on Friday that was brokered by diplomats from France, Germany, and Poland. It provides for an end to hostilities, restoration of the 2004 constitution, and early elections. And even though both sides have reneged on a number of agreements before, my hope is that they will honor this deal. The alternative is chaos that may culminate in the disintegration of Ukraine.
More than 20 years since its independence, Ukraine is still sorely lacking cultural and political cohesion. Pro-Russian aspirations of the population of Ukraine’s eastern provinces and Crimea contrast with the vision of a Ukraine integrated into the West that is so popular in western and central provinces.
These different visions cannot be reconciled easily. They collide each time Ukraine faces a choice between the East and West, as was the case last fall when President Viktor Yanukovych was deliberating whether to pursue economic integration with the European Union or Eurasian Economic Union, which Russia is trying to build.
Hopefully the carnage this week has made both sides realize that what they may end up with is neither a pro-Western nor pro-Russian Ukraine, but rather a divided, failed Ukraine.
Even if one side were to defeat the other in the battle on the streets, it would be a Pyrrhic victory because it would not be accepted by the populace of the provinces on the losing side. They would wait for the next opportunity to challenge the outcome.
Each attempted revolution (this is the second attempt to stage a revolution in Ukraine in a decade) decreases the chances that Ukraine will emerge as a politically and culturally cohesive, viable state, in which governments change as a result of elections rather than of street battles.
Whether choosing the direction of economic integration or the next president or parliament, Ukrainians should be able to decide these issues by casting ballots rather than throwing Molotov cocktails. It won’t be easy for opposing sides to take their battle from streets to polling stations, given the amount of blood spilled. And such a transition would have to be preceded by identification and prosecution of those responsible for the bloody carnage on both sides.
Russia, the European Union, and the United States should help Ukraine in this transition if only guided by their own interests. A failed state with a population of nearly 45 million in the middle of Europe would represent a major humanitarian challenge. A failed Ukraine would also threaten regional stability and Europe’s energy security. Given that this former Soviet republic possesses one of the most advanced defense and aerospace industries in the world, a failed Ukraine could become a giant bazaar for rogue states and international terrorist groups seeking technologies of mass destruction.
A Ukraine in peace with itself and in harmonious relations with both East and West is in the interest of not only Ukrainians themselves, but also of their neighbors and friends.
Simon Saradzhyan is assistant director of the US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism and a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a former deputy editor of the Moscow Times and Moscow correspondent for Defense News.