DEBKAfile Special Report

The issues between Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych and opposition protesters led by Vitaly Klitschko, which spiraled Thursday, Feb. 20, into gun battles with live rounds, appear at first glance to be black and white – but that is true only up to a point. Is Ukraine clearly divided between pro-Russian and pro-European factions? That too is an over-simplification – much like the determination that US President Barack Obama’s backing for the protesters, countered by President Vladimir Putin’s support for Yanukovych, is the genesis of a new cold war.

Both Obama and Putin have kept their intervention in the Ukraine conflict low key. Obama has no inclination to challenge Putin, at the risk of losing his understandings with Iran and a free ride out of the Middle East by courtesy of Russia’s entry.

Neither does the US president want to be dragged into European affairs after he and three of his predecessors in the White House expended considerable energy on disassociating America from the continent and pivoting the US eastward.

The bloody confrontations in Maidan Square (renamed Independence Square by the protesters) were for him an unnecessary distraction from his chosen course. His warning of “consequences if people step over the line” was meant to sound grave, but  people remembered his warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad seven months ago since when Assad is still going strong.

Vice President Joe Biden could not have expected his demand to pull security police back from the embattled Kiev square be taken seriously by that President Yanukovych, because it would have amounted to his capitulation and handover of rule to the protesters after three months of strife.

Putin has also been careful to skirt the conflict. Although he promised the Ukraine president $15 bn in economic aid and cheap Russian gas, he has not so far laid out a single dollar or ruble. Neither has he stepped forward to mediate dispute, leaving the task to the European Union, which sent the French, German and Polish foreign ministers to Kiev to broker a deal for ending the clashes.

On the ground, casualties soared and armed gunmen went into action Thursday, Feb. 20, raising the conflict to its most violent stage hitherto. Although neither side is likely to admit this, the escalation was not spontaneous; it happened after both quietly threw bands of armed, out-of-control radicals into the fray in order to finally end the standoff.

Yanukovich enlisted Ukraine nationalist extremists, some of them fervently pro-Russian, from the eastern provinces, where more than half of the 46-million strong population is Russian-speaking and close to Moscow.

The opposition rounded up armed radicals from the west, a part of Ukraine which a century ago was under Polish, then Austro-Hungarian rule. Here, Russian is not spoken and Moscow is anathema. These gangs seized the barricades in Independence Square.
The gunfire across the square Thursday came from the shooting between the warring camps of radicals. They also accounted for most of the fatalities.

Friday morning, Ukraine’s Health Ministry said 75 people had died and more than 570 were injured in the violent clashes in the capital this week.

After this explosion of violence, both sides understood that an agreement could not longer be postponed, both to stop the bloodshed and to prevent the armed radicals taking over and throwing Ukraine into full-blown civil war.

Neither Yanukovych nor Klitshko was prepared to let this happen.

Amid a shaky calm in Kiev Friday morning, President Yanukovych announced that all-night talks with the opposition, led by Klitschko and assisted by the European mediators, had culminated in an agreement to resolve the crisis.

Before this was confirmed by the opposition or the European ministers, the president’s office revealed that it centered on his consent to an early general election in December and the formation of a coalition within 10 days – provided that the violent protest was halted and order restored to the capital. Some Kiev sources added that Yanokovych has agreed to constitutional reforms for reducing presidential powers.

In the electric atmosphere in the Ukrainian capital, it is to soon to evaluate the life expectancy of this agreement or determine whether the two parties are capable of getting past their differences and forming a working coalition government.

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