May 26, 2007

Red Alert: Ukraine -- Sliding Down a Slippery Slope

Source: Stratfor

May 26, 2007 11 18 GMT

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported May 26 that some of its forces have begun acting on the order of President Viktor Yushchenko and disregarding the orders from the Interior Ministry. Several thousand Interior Ministry troops loyal to the president are reportedly moving toward the capital, Kiev, in defiance of orders from Interior Minister Vasyl Tsuchko.

The normal rule of law in Ukraine has become more and more blurred over the past few weeks. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich has repeatedly taken advantage of the country's weak institutions in order to peel power away from the increasingly unpopular Yushchenko.

That led Yushchenko on April 2 to use his greatest constitution-granted power and dissolve parliament, forcing new elections. But the constitutional order is so degraded that Yanukovich has continued to wield parliamentary power in defiance of the decree. In order to cope with such actions, Yushchenko also has begun doing end-runs around the system.

Ukraine's top judiciary, the Constitutional Court, has fallen victim to this escalating fight since courts only have power if their independence is respected, something that neither side is doing at the moment. With the courts out of the picture and two power centers now largely reduced to ruling by decree, the only true means of influencing events now boils down to troops.

On May 24, Tsuchko sent troops to the prosecutor's office without consulting the president -- a questionable action explicitly designed to head off Yushchenko's unilateral dismissal of the prosecutor (the institution next in line after the court), an equally questionable answer. Immediately thereafter, Yushchenko decreed that all Interior Ministry forces are his to command. Now, according to the Interior Ministry, at least one faction -- the highly trained Alpha Group -- has heeded the president's call and is moving.

At this point, the troop movement is unconfirmed, but if it is true, then the situation has moved the closest to violence in Ukraine's post-Cold War history.

Ultimately, during the Orange Revolution, government forces -- all government forces -- refused any hint of orders to fire on civilians. But then, political authority was unquestionably concentrated in the hands of President Leonid Kuchma. Now that concentration is gone, and the leading politicians, to put it mildly, despise one another. Add in the breakdown of the constitutional order and Ukraine is sliding down the slippery slope of "might makes right." If things do go that far, the only country positioned to intervene in any way is Russia.

Intervening is something that Russian President Vladimir Putin, well into a long-running effort to reassert influence in the old Soviet space, would sorely love to do. But he will not move until violence has broken out. He wants Russia to serve as savior, not conqueror. Should Putin play his cards right, the West is unlikely to lift a finger. Europe has already warned Yushchenko -- via foreign policy freelancer Javier Solona -- that it does not want to see violence of any sort, while the United States does not dare give the Russians reason to be anything but helpful in strengthening its negotiations with Iran over Iraq.

The one bright spot in all this is that Yanukovich and Yushchenko, as recently as a few hours ago, were still civil enough to hold a face-to-face meeting. Although tense and anger-filled, it was a meeting nonetheless. They have not yet reached the point at which they are willing to shoot at each other, but they are certainly getting their firepower ready.

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