As recently as February 17, when an amnesty for hundreds of demonstrators went into effect, Ukraine's crisis looked like it was de-escalating. But beginning on February 18 at least 25 people died. Dozens more have reportedly been killed since then in clashes between protesters and riot police.
Here are five things to know about why things went bad so fast, and where they might go from here.
What sparked the lethal violence Ukraine?
Tensions soared on February 18 when opposition lawmakers urged parliament to revert to Ukraine's 2004 constitution, which would offer President Viktor Yanukovych fewer powers, but were rebuffed. At the same time, some 20,000 protesters marched on the parliament building in support of the opposition deputies and were stopped by police in a violent confrontation.
Amid the first reports of casualties, the Interior Ministry immediately issued a deadline of 6 p.m. local time for all protesters to leave Independence Square, commonly referred to as the Maidan. Clashes continued through the night, with 25 people dead by dawn.
Why did things turn violent despite recent steps toward reconciliation?
The big surprise about the violence—by far the worst since protests began in November—is that it immediately followed steps by both sides to de-escalate tensions.
On February 17, a government amnesty for hundreds of demonstrators came into effect after protesters left government buildings around the country, including Kiev city hall. Just days earlier, on February 14, the government freed the last of 234 prisoners jailed for offenses related to the protests.
But Ivan Lozowy, a Kiev-based political analyst, says these steps did little to ease the crisis. "The prisoners who were freed still have criminal cases open against each of them, none of the criminal cases have been closed. On the other hand, not a single criminal case has been opened against, for example, the riot police who had used excessive force [prior to February 18] and even killed people," Lozowy says. "So, there was a general sense of dissatisfaction growing over the past two-and-a-half months [of the protests], which resulted in the march on the government quarter yesterday."
Lozowy also says protesters were angered by Moscow's announcement on February 17 that it would release $2 billion in held-up aid to Kiev. The money is the second tranche of the $15 billion of aid Russia offered Ukraine after Yanukovych shunned an Association Agreement with the EU in November and which Moscow had postponed delivering amid the protests.
"It is widely believed among the protesters that the government and President Yanukovych had promised Russia they would clear up the Maidan in exchange for getting the next tranche of the multibillion-dollar loan they had negotiated in December," Lozowy says.
Can the two sides still find a negotiated solution?
It is increasingly hard to see how, because both sides appear already to have spent most of their bargaining chips. Yanukovych said in January he was ready to dismiss his entire government. But his former ministers have remained in place since the opposition said it demanded the president himself resign to make way for early elections.
Eugeniusz Smolar, a foreign-policy expert in Warsaw, says both sides now appear to view street power as the best option. "We are at the moment in a situation where a democratically elected president uses undemocratic means and anti-human means, by shooting people, to hold onto power," Smolar says. "And where at the same time the opposition is using force on the street to force him out of office."
Can outside powers help?
For months, the European Union and the United States have fruitlessly urged Kiev and opposition leaders to negotiate an end to the crisis. The problem is that, while EU and U.S. officials meet with both sides, Kiev regards both Brussels and Washington as backing the opposition.
Similarly, Russia is in no position to play the role of mediator. Moscow fully supports Yanukovych and has accused politicians in both the United States and European Union of meddling in Ukraine's national affairs.
The inability of any outside party to play the role of honest broker not only makes the Ukrainian crisis all the more unpredictable. It also raises tensions between the West and Russia as Moscow claims Ukraine as being within its sphere of interest.
Smolar says that leaves Washington and Brussels with little option but to watch and protest. "The European [Union] does not have [the power to intervene] and neither does the United States," he notes. "Should the West decide to embark on the road of direct involvement, that would mean a new Cold War, outright."
Is Ukraine on the brink of civil war?
The question arises because the heart of the crisis is a disagreement within Ukrainian society over the country's proper place in the world. Part of Ukraine speaks Russian and sees the country as closely tied to Russia, while another part speaks Ukrainian and tends to see the country's economic and political future with Europe.
Still, the country has a long way to go before civil war. What is happening today might better be described as a sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent political struggle over Ukraine's future that began when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Pro-European forces came to power following the Orange Revolution of 2004, and pro-Russian forces took power with Yanukovych's election in 2010.
With the country now approaching a new presidential election early next year, the best hope is that Ukrainians will be able to decide their future at the ballot box.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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