The worst violence in Ukraine since it gained independence in 1991 erupted in the center of Kiev on Tuesday. Authorities reported that at least 20 people were killed after clashes between anti-government demonstrators and police prompted security forces to attack an opposition encampment in Independence Square. The roaring flames from burning tents and barricades, visible on live Internet broadcasts, may destroy the prospect of an early compromise between the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Western opposition.
It wasn’t immediately clear which side started the violence, which came just days after an amnesty deal had lowered tensions in the capital. But blame for the political breakdown lies with Yanukovych. Having agreed to negotiate with the opposition on a new prime minister and cabinet acceptable to both sides, he stepped back from the talks after the amnesty agreement last week. On Monday, parliamentary deputies from the president’s party blocked the opposition’s attempt to move reform legislation, including a constitutional change that would reduce the president’s powers.
That seemed to trigger a backlash among right-wing opposition militants in the streets of Kiev on Tuesday. The government responded by foolishly issuing an ultimatum setting a 6 p.m. deadline for the end of “disturbances,” then dispatching riot police in a violent assault on the Independence Square camp.
Russian President Vladimir Putin probably will be pleased. He has pushed Yanukovych not to compromise with the opposition, which he describes as a creation of Western intelligence services. He insists on playing a zero-sum game with the aim of subordinating Ukraine to Russia’s dominion at the expense of its relations with Europe and the United States. Three months of crisis have shown he is unlikely to succeed: Too many Ukrainians are ready to put their lives on the line to defend their country’s sovereignty. But Putin persists. Yanukovych’s foot-dragging with the opposition was rewarded by Russia’s purchase of $2 billion of the nearly bankrupt government’s bonds on Monday.
As unlikely as it looked in the video footage Tuesday, a political settlement may still be possible — if only because it is the only solution to the crisis. After a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden, Yanukovych met with opposition leaders early Wednesday. Tuesday’s bloody street battles show again that Ukraine will be ungovernable unless Yanukovych accepts reasonable opposition demands for political and economic reforms. If he does not now accede to that reality and pull back his security forces, Western governments should be prepared to apply the sanctions they have been threatening.