It’s possible that with an agreement hammered out Friday, the violence in Ukraine will come to an end. Possible, but after so much bloodshed and destruction, hardly certain.
The agreement signed by the Ukrainian government and opposition leaders appears to be a serious one, reached with the involvement of European and Russian leaders and to the satisfaction of the Obama administration.
It didn’t come a moment too soon. Protests that had been under way for months had reached a point that they were drawing a murderous response from a cowardly regime. The agreement, if it holds, will prompt an immediate return to the 2004 constitution, which gives more authority to the parliament at the expense of the president.
As a result of Friday’s agreement, the parliament also voted to dismiss the country’s interior minister, who was blamed for the recent violence against protesters. Members of parliament also approved a change in law that may lead to the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, a jailed opposition leader.
Blame for this violence falls squarely on the government. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been moving toward democracy and seeking closer ties with Europe. But three months ago, the government caved in to Russian pressure and abandoned plans to sign a historic political and trade agreement with the European Union.
That move by President Viktor Yanukovych signaled a move away from the country’s nascent democracy and toward the suffocating embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been clear in his belief that the collapse of the former Soviet Union was a historic disaster.
What Putin and Yanukovych evidently hadn’t counted on was the determination of his people to escape the permanent, cold shadow of Russia. Freedom was too enticing an idea, so much so that the death toll from Thursday’s violence alone reached 75.
There can be no doubt as to whose side the United States should take in this confrontation, though the Obama administration must continue to be careful in how it responds. Certainly, no one is talking about military involvement, but even economic sanctions must be considered closely. If the West pinches too hard, putting financial pressure on Ukraine through restrictions on money, trade and other areas, it could drive the country closer to Russia rather than peeling it away.
There is no reason to believe this crisis has ended, though perhaps the bloodiest part has. Putin wants to keep Ukraine in its orbit and the people of that suffering country want to reach beyond its neighbor’s crushing grasp. The changes agreed to in Kiev should help, but unless the Russians or Ukrainians unexpectedly change their minds, it’s hard to see this as more than a pause in a longer-term struggle.