The tragedy about the crackdown in Ukraine is that the day of violence began with the promise of peace. Tuesday was the day that the Ukrainian parliament was supposed to begin discussions on the basic constitutional change that is needed as a first step towards resolving the present political crisis and restoring normal governance to the country. More tragic still is that a broad consensus exists, within and without Ukraine, as to how a political exit from the crisis could be arranged.
The parliamentary debate, which was cancelled before the massive crackdown on protest, was on the constitution. In 2010, after a delay of six years, the Ukrainian constitutional court reversed legislation that had limited the power of the president. Since then President Viktor Yanukovich has enjoyed legal powers far beyond any European norm. Most observers understand that the balance of powers must be restored, not only to halt the country’s rapid descent into tyranny, but to ensure that future presidents are not corrupted by the excess of power.
Once the constitution is revised, new parliamentary and presidential elections should be held. The Ukrainian opposition, quite understandably, calls for Yanukovich to resign. Given that his family has accumulated immense wealth, his government has trodden on the rule of law, and his police have beaten, tortured, and killed protesters, it is hard to ask people to expect anything less. Even so, constitutional reform and new elections would give Mr Yanukovich a legal path towards leaving office. Even though he has imprisoned his own political opponents, it is important that the transition be constitutional, legal, and democratic.
Time is short. Ukraine is on the edge of sovereign bankruptcy. Mr Yanukovich has very little political support, even in the southern and eastern regions where he is less unpopular than elsewhere. This makes his hold on power dependent upon the fluid assets of neighbouring Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin can promise a loan of €15bn, and then expect repressive laws on the Russian model.
Russia and Ukraine have one important thing in common, and it is not language, or history, or culture, as so many commentators claim. It is trade patterns. Both depend above all on commerce with the EU. In the long run, it makes simple economic sense for both Ukraine and Russia to pursue free trade with the EU. But Moscow is following a political logic. Putin has a grand imperial vision of a Eurasian Union to rival the EU, and indeed divide it by the exploitation of issues such as opposition to gay rights.
His Eurasian Union must consist only of dictatorships, since any free society within it would challenge Russian rule; and it must include Ukraine, or else Mr Putin himself will see it as a failure. Thus Moscow must have a pliable authoritarian Ukrainian neighbour.
Russian foreign policy is extremely dynamic, but leads nowhere. At this point it is difficult to imagine, at least for people beyond the Kremlin, that Ukraine, under any leadership, is going to subordinate itself to a Russian geopolitical dream. Like Mr Putin’s earlier political obsessions, Eurasia will probably be very important for a year or two, and then be forgotten.
European foreign policy is extremely slow, but leads somewhere: to membership in an organisation that meaningfully promotes what Ukrainian protesters seek: normality. This is probably decades away for Ukraine, but the association agreements, if signed, could begin the long process of making Ukrainian institutions more transparent and less corrupt.
On present trends, Mr Putin will continue to ask for the application of the Russian model of rule in Ukraine in exchange for money, and will probably continue to be disappointed by the outcome. The downward spiral of violence brings havoc to Ukrainians but no clear victory for Russia, and it generates the risk that Moscow might directly intervene with armed force.
The EU, perhaps with American help, needs to be able to provide immediate financial assistance, conditional of course upon the basic constitutional and political reforms, as well as specific programmes from opposition parties to reduce corruption and protect the rule of law. The EU cannot solve Ukrainian problems, but it can in this way at least make a solution possible.
Timothy Snyder is Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University and IWM Permanent Fellow.