Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
In Kiev, they know it’s his last chance.
This crisis came down to money. Ukraine needed to borrow $8 billion, and the capital markets weren’t keen on lending it to a state considered the most corrupt in Europe. The EU, IMF and World Bank offered immediate relief and access to international markets, but demanded reforms to strengthen democratic institutions property rights and economic competition. They were not prepared to tolerate a Ukraininan elite scrounging at their expense. They wanted Ukraine to emulate Warsaw rather than Minsk.
Viktor Yanukovich, however, had options: one other option to be precise. Ukraine’s former colonial master was ready to offer an alternative bailout. Yes, the long term price was high — rumours abound that Moscow will take stakes in Ukrainian industrial firms — but it requires none of that unpleasant reform, and certainly no requirement to free Yulia Tymoshenko. Don’t think about the APR. Just get a loan from Putin.com.
For a while it looked like the protests were starting to fade. In a few months, after the international attention had died down, the leaders could be arrested, co-opted or forced into exile. In this, Russia would be a political adviser as well as a loan-shark, First, foreign funding of Ukrainian institutions would be forbidden. No more training of journalists and “civil society,” thank you very much. And, to intimidate demonstrators, protesting would now carry a sentence of 15 years.
This, however, proved a colossal miscalculation. The West, as ineffective on Ukraine as it has been on Syria or Egypt (and proving it by allowing Russia to bail out Hungary last week), had already started to reconcile itself itself to losing Kiev, to it gradually declining into a Russian satellite once more, its buildings crumbling, its people finding ways to leave, and its wealth laid out to be re-looted by Moscow’s big men.
It reckoned without the Ukrainians, who have come back on the streets in their hundreds of thousands, wrapped up against the cold, and padded against the riot police’s baton charges, who see their democracy, being extinguished before it could quite get established. The revolt has spread beyond Kiev, and beyond anti-Yanukovich Western Ukraine. Protests, riots and attempts to seize government buildings have been reported as far away as Odessa.
In the last 24 hours, events have become increasingly ominous. Three opposition men have been shot. Others have been beaten, and left to freeze to death. The Berkut riot police are outnumbered and exhausted by increasingly radicalised and well-equipped protesters who have obtained clubs, old military and motorcycle helmets, and gas masks in large numbers.
The pro-Opposition Kyiv Post has reported that the government is allocating funds to double the number of riot police and establish “civic patrols” to give veneer of legitimacy to the groups of titushki on which it is now relying to intimidate Eastern cities. Today, the government withdrew a threat to impose a state of emergency hours after it issued it. It had said the justification, the brief occupation of the justice ministry by militant protesters, was no longer present, but in reality it would struggle to impose an emergency decree and cannot rely on the police and army to implement it.
As I write, the main opposition leaders are trying to negotiate a compromise with Yanukovich: the anti-protest law will be repealed, and constitutional changes to deprive the presidency of power are on the agenda. Whatever graceful exist the protesters offer him, we can be certain Yanukovich will be under extreme pressure from Moscow. One of his former parliamentarians has even told the Spanish paper El País that he is “terribly frightened” of what Moscow could do to him.
The stand-off in Kiev is about democracy and freedom, and Ukrainians’ desire to cashier their corrupt governors. It is also about geo-politics. In the battle for influence over Ukraine, Russia has been willing to play hardball, but so far the West had dithered. Tomorrow there will be a short EU-Russia summit, just two hours long, and strictly business. Putin needs to understand that the Ukraininan elite he is supposed to protect will face travel bans and other sanctions if they don’t listen to their people. But that is not enough: Russia must understand that its attempts at imperialism carry serious consequences: smart sanctions should be drafted, and fraud offices primed to apply anti-money laundering conventions with full rigour. Just as they can use energy as foreign policy, so can we: fracking projects should be accelerated to provide Gazprom with stiff competition.
If we had expected Britain to stand up for democracy, we would be disappointed. Rather than putting pressure on Russia, Her Majesty’s Government wants to do business with them. The Telegraph’s Matthew Holehouse exposed Telegraph a defence agreement that the MoD is negotiating with Russia. Ill-advised at the best of times, this “Military Technical Cooperation Agreement” has become a diplomatic liability. Philip Hammond should scrap it forthwith.