When people look back on this, especially those in the West who saw it mostly on TV, there may be a tendency to think it was all easy and that people risked nothing by coming out and protesting on Independence Square. (“A kind of revolution PARty!,” the young girl screamed, then giggled as she blew her party favor.) All they will be left with are the images from the TV set of people smiling and swaying to the music in what might have looked like a Slavic version of Woodstock, all peace, joy and love (“man!”) What will be lost in this is just how close this revolution came to spilling blood and possibly to spilling a lot of it.
I posted on what was reported about Putin’s intentions here. Why wasn’t Putin’s offer taken up? Maybe because Kuchma was not around to make a decision about it. Or maybe the troops were actually here but the go ahead was not given for whatever reason. There continue to be credible reports that Russian spetsnaz were here. (Here, here, here , here, and here.) And there were eyewitness reports of increased military activity along the Russian Ukrainian border I reported here. Both of these tie in with the Putin report.
And the Economist last week reported the following:
So far the government has let the protesters alone though there are credible reports that, on two occasions, plans were set in train to disperse the crowds. On the first, government officials reportedly scotched the initiative themselves. On the other, threatening troop movements near Kiev are said to have been curtailed after intervention from America at the very highest level.
I think there were others incidents but they may not have fit the Economist’s definition of credible. (Shouldn’t “credible” from a diplomatic perspective be different than “credible” from a journalistic perspective? To get to the point where evidence is incontrovertible may be too late for a country. It would be “hang on and I’ll let you talk to them yourself!” They’ll get it right for the morning edition and be satisfied they did but nothing good will have come of it.)
So why didn’t they strike? Who knows in the end why. I think things were crucial in the first day or two of the revolution. But that is when the US and the EU reacted. The US did not accept the vote and said that there would be consequences if the government went ahead. This was seconded by the EU. Not being able to get visas was mentioned as a punishment which did not impress many people here. But these guys have amassed fortunes and they did it not with the view of sunning themselves on the beaches of West Africa. They want to strut it in the usual places.
The one though that I think bit harder was the threat that the bank accounts of these guys would be seized. That would put the hurt on them and make it difficult for these guys to live and to function. It is reported that Kuchma has amassed a fortune from not only the sale of government assets but also from the sale of government jobs. This money is in some account somewhere probably offshore. (The havens du jour for moguls from this area of the world are Cyprus, the US, and Switzerland. Cyprus is an EU country. And Switzerland is more cooperative now than it once was.) And he has done all of this not because it doesn’t matter to him but because it does.
Both of these threats assured them that they would be treated like international outlaws. (And they would know who “them” is. And they would know that the US would know who “them” is. It would not be only the people in government but also the oligarchs behind the government.) Were they enough on their own? Probably not. But all they had to do was to keep these guys on their heels until other things began to happen. Indecision allowed other things to happen.
The second factor I think that was significant was that Yanukovych did not play his hand correctly if he wanted to take charge of the government under the circumstances as they developed. He could have and should have forced a swearing in on that Monday. Instead he did nothing and allowed Yuschenko to take a symbolic oath the next day that I think spoke directly to the Ukrainian people—at least the ones on the street, the significant ones in this revolution-- that made him in effect their president. But Yanukovych could have been sworn in on Monday and could have begun to consolidate power in his hands from that point. But he didn’t do it. Why? Some will say that it just shows he was acting entirely in good faith and that he wanted the presidency constitutionally. But I think his history and the fraud suggest otherwise.
What I really think happened was that he found himself in the big leagues no longer playing the role of local petty boss that he had played even as Prime Minister. I think he couldn’t play on this level. There was an article in the Kyiv Post where he was quoted as saying the international reaction stunned him and he wasn’t able to work for a few days because of it. I think that was right. He didn’t know what to do in the face of it. And he wasn’t a smart enough man to figure it out.
The third factor that was significant was that there was no storming of the gates by the Yuschenko people. On that Monday, I thought they would have to do something because the crowd couldn’t stay there for long. I thought they would need to take over the Administration building quickly to have a chance because the people would lose interest and go home in a few days. I was wrong on both counts. I think that the measured response of Yuschenko—Pora might call it “timid”—made it possible to start peeling off support from the police and the military. (Here and here.) There was no clash, no drawing of sides and that allowed the appeal to be made to the military and to the police: “We are Ukrainians. We are your friends.” That started happening from the first. By the time the government recovered and ordered a crackdown, there were probably doubts about whether the officer corps would carry it out. More indecision.
If blood had been shed, the sides would have been drawn starkly between the people and the police and military. Once emotions become engaged, the kind of traditional revolution would set in. Bleed the people, they come after the military. Bleed the military they go after the people. Blood for blood in one long round of it after another. This did not happen and it allowed for a leakage of support from both the police and the military that I think became a flood.
On a personal note, we did not allow the kids to go downtown at all except for once. We were concerned, and with reason, that the crackdown might happen at any time and happen too quickly to be able to get out of the way. The one time we did let them go was right after the first agreement to agree was reached between Kuchma, Yuschenko and Yanukovych. I thought that that agreement relieved tensions enough to make it safer, at least for the next day, to take them downtown to see the revolution. So we went.
Whatever it was that stood in the way of the crackdown, it was not inevitable that it happen. That it didn’t happen though we can all be thankful for.
UPDATE: Ron in the comments notes that Jane's is reporting spetsnaz in Ukraine. (At Maidan.)Part of what they claim supports the reports we have been hearing here.
Following recent JID revelations concerning Moscow's involvement in the election crisis in Ukraine, intelligence is emerging that confirms in detail the deployment of Russian Spetsnaz special forces (see JID 3 December 2004). Our Ukraine correspondent reports.
Up to 500 members of Russian Spetsnaz forces from the Vityaz special forces division in Bryansk are currently deployed at a Ukrainian Interior Ministry (MVS)
military base in Irpin, near Kiev. Two transports flew them into the Gostomel
aerodrome near Irpin between 1 and 3 am on 24 November, three days after the
hotly disputed second round of the presidential election on 21 November. A third
transport flew into the military aerodrome near Vasylkiv, Kiev on 24 November.
They report that there was no intention to use them in any crackdown but for protection of Kuchma and others; to remove sensitive documents from the building; and to secure a way out of Ukraine.