Violence in Ukraine: Can Russia or the West Make it Stop?

As a police operation deteriorates into a battle royale, there are few options to prevent a catastrophe

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Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, piped up on Thursday with a wake-up call for the Western world: Ukraine is now everybody’s problem. The turmoil in its capital, where pitched battles have raged all week between protestors and police, “threatens not only Ukraine and her neighbors, but Europe and the entire world,” he wrote in an open letter to the U.S. and Russian Presidents. He was certainly right about Europe, which now has a real dilemma on its hands. The only question is whether Ukraine’s neighbors can do much to resolve it.

For the West, there are few good options. Much of the influence the E.U. had over Ukraine was lost in November, when the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign a trade and association deal with the E.U. That is what sparked the protests against him, while also bringing a flood of recriminations down on him from the West. Since then, he has practically become an outcast in Europe, so any further Western pressure “would have little impact,” says Alex Brideau, a Ukraine expert at the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm based in New York City. “His preference is the hardline approach rather than compromise.”

Russia, by contrast, holds a much stronger hand. After Ukraine backed away from the E.U. deal, Moscow rushed to the rescue. President Vladimir Putin granted Ukraine an emergency loan of $15 billion in December, just enough to pull the government back from the edge of bankruptcy. So Moscow could, in theory, pressure Ukraine to stop the violence by withdrawing its next injection of cash. But the chances of that are close to zero. The Kremlin’s official position, expressed on Thursday by Putin’s spokesman, would not allow them to interfere in the crisis, at least not openly. “Interference in the internal affairs [of Ukraine] are absolutely impermissible for us,” Dmitri Peskov told a Russian daily.

Even more starry-eyed is the notion that Russia and the West might join forces to stop the violence in Ukraine, as Gorbachev suggested in his open letter. Without such cooperation, he wrote, “this could turn into a catastrophe.”

And he was right. Yanukovych’s grip on power already seems to be slipping. Mass protests have spread to cities across the country, and the discipline of his police force is clearly breaking down. In videos of the violence, officers can be seen chucking not only stun grenades but rocks and petrol bombs. The fighting now seems more like a battle royal than a police operation, and it has become increasingly personal in nature. Dozens of troops have been wounded in the clashes, which seems to have pushed their fellow officers to lash out in revenge.

The result was perhaps best summarized on Thursday by the Vedomosti newspaper, a leading Russian daily. “The battle for Ukraine,” it wrote in an editorial, “which Russia and the West have waged for two decades, has entered its most destructive phase.” But neither side seems willing or able to stop that destruction. For now, they are left to watch from the sidelines, hoping that the biggest country in Eastern Europe does not turn into a failed state.