Kiev, Ukraine – Ukraine spiraled deeper into crisis Wednesday as the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and several thousand grimly determined protesters — along with their supporters in Russia and Europe — prepared for an extended confrontation over the fate of this country of 46 million.
As measures of the turmoil, the authorities announced a nationwide “anti-terrorist operation” to keep guns and power from “extremist groups” and cashiered the country’s top general, then turned around late in the day and declared that a “truce” had been reached with political leaders of the opposition.
But it was clear that, with their bloody offensive to take back the center of Kiev stalled by a ring of fire, the Ukrainian authorities were concerned about maintaining control, particularly in the western part of the country.
“In many regions of the country, municipal buildings, offices of the Interior Ministry, state security and the prosecutor general, army units and arms depots are being seized,” said Oleksandr Yakimenko, head of state security.
The Defense Ministry later added a further beat to a drumroll of ominous warnings a day after the capital, Kiev, erupted in a frenzy of fire and fighting that left at least 25 people dead.
“Military servants of the armed forces of Ukraine might be used in anti-terrorist operations on the territory of Ukraine,” the defense ministry said, raising the prospect that Yanukovych could call on the armed forces to restore order — and keep himself in office.
That statement brought a quick response from President Obama and other Western leaders, who sought to defuse the crisis even as their differences with Russia hardened in an escalating East-West struggle redolent of the Cold War.
It was not clear how the military could be legally deployed for what would be a domestic policing mission unless the authorities first declared a state of emergency, a step that Yanukovych has previously shied away from and for which the military has shown no enthusiasm. That was why the firing of the pro-European chief of the Ukrainian general staff, Volodymyr Zaman, set off alarms in the West.
Also raising concerns was the fact that U.S. officials have sought to contact senior Ukrainian military officials by phone and “nobody is picking up,” a senior State Department official said. The United States has been warning against the imposition of a state of emergency “for months and months,” the official said.
Together, the moves suggest that Yanukovych, whose resignation many protesters see as a necessary precondition for calm, will press on with a high-risk strategy rooted in his view — zealously encouraged by the Kremlin — that Ukraine confronts not a popular uprising but a foreign-backed putsch by extremists.
Charred buildings, debris
Throughout the day Wednesday, thousands of Kiev residents braved riot police and roaming bands of pro-government “sportsmen” to visit the besieged protest encampment in Independence Square, now a harrowing vista of charred buildings and smoldering debris.
Among the dead in the fighting were nine police officers. The Health Ministry said 241 people had been wounded, but Ukrainian news reports put the number at more than 1,000.
The protesters are a hodgepodge of groups, some radical enough to alarm some European diplomats, who have been arguing for weeks over whether to impose sanctions on Ukrainian leaders, many of whom have assets outside the country. But few, if any, share Yanukovych’s — and also Russia’s — view that the government is simply a victim.
“Yanukovych claims to be the victim of the radicals of the Maidan, and that he did not want such violence. We accept that the opposition made a mistake,” said Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who is traveling to Kiev to see the Ukrainian president Thursday morning, along with the French and German foreign ministers. But, added Sikorski, who will also meet Yanukovych’s opponents in an effort to mediate a political settlement, the “president’s credibility with everyone is now zero.”
Skepticism over truce
The distrust was evident Wednesday night, when a statement was posted on the president’s website declaring that he had agreed to a truce with the main opposition leaders and was ready to start negotiations “with the aim of ending bloodshed and stabilizing the situation in the state in the interests of social peace.”
There was no immediate comment from the opposition, and scant signs that riot police officers or protesters in Kiev were pulling back.