Unrest in Ukraine. What will the military do?

By Oscar Jonsson:


The last few days in Ukraine have shown that President Yanukovich’s foundation of power is decreasing rapidly. At mid-day it was declared that an agreement has been reached with President Yanukovich, the political opposition and the three European foreign ministers (FR, PL, DE) who have been negotiating throughout the night. The deal states that elections will be held and until then a coalition government will rule the country, and that changes in the constitution will limit the president’s powers.

The big question will be if, despite these promises, the opposition on the street will accept any kind of agreement that involves Yanukovich remaining in place . This looks less likely and statements are already coming from parts of the opposition that an election in December with Yanukovich still in place is simply not good enough.

Security forces and other state functions in the Western part of the country have declared that they are refusing to follow central orders and there have been reports of politicians and oligarchs fleeing the country both eastwards and westwards. Today (21/2), reports confirmed that police officers from the West of Ukraine have arrived in Kiev to defend the demonstrators. Yesterday evening (20/2), the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill condemning the recent police violence, repealed the invocation of an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ and prohibited the use of military forces.

The eventual use of the military would be the key trigger for the situation to escalate to a full-scale civil war. For now, the interior forces are the main leg of power upon which Yanukovich is balancing. However, the developments above show that he is continually losing ground and that the growing desperation could induce him to call upon the military.

Nonetheless, the military is a double-edged sword in whose reliability the Yanukovich can not trust. The military is based on conscription and its ranks form a good representation of Ukrainian society in general, and the variety of anti- or pro-Yanukovich sentiment in particular. Furthermore, the military is regionally drafted and an eventual break-up would follow the East-West divide which would be futile since political preference and geographical separation would align.

A big question mark thoughout is whether the military would march if they got the order. Just two days ago, on 19 February, Yanukovich fired the Chief of General Staff and replaced him with Admiral Yurii Ilyn, supposedly a loyalist. Furthermore, the deputy Chief of General Staff resigned this morning, and a few weeks ago at the end of January, the Chief of the Ground Forces was sacked from his post. This demonstrated the lack of any sort of consolidated leadership within the top levels of the military. On the one hand this gives Ilyn more room for manoeuvre since the dissenters are now gone. On the other hand, doubt is thus generated regarding his legitimacy. Given that he was put in place by Yanukovich, it is likely he would attempt to fulfil the marching order if it came. It is important to keep in mind that if the security service invoked the ‘anti-terrorism operation’ option, the President would be able to use the military without any judicial or legislative review.

My judgement is that if the marching order came to the army, parts of it would defect. The Ukrainian army has a tradition of loyalty to the state rather than to the government. It also follows a post-Soviet tradition not to intervene in domestic unrest, and of not firing at its own people, if it does. The most glaring example for this was the Orange Revolution in 2004, when the then-President Leonid Kuchma was allegedly pressured to call on the military by President Putin, but refused. He was aware of the problems an attempt to involve the military could bring.

So, what might Russia do? I have a hard time seeing Russia going beyond providing support and advice to Yanukovich unless there are threats to the Russian naval bases in Sevastopol, in which case Russian officals have said they would go in to protect them. The other scenario is that Russian minorities will be specifically targeted with violence, in which case the Russian constitution would oblige Russia to protect them (as in the case of Georgia). However, the latter looks unlikely given that the conflict so far has been political and shown few ethnic characteristics, but it is important to bear in mind moving forward.

In conclusion, it looks like Yanukovich is playing a losing game and as his desperation increases, so increases the temptation to wield the double-edge sword of military deployment. However, Yanukovich may at least have bought himself some breathing space by agreeing to a deal he knows the opposition will by-and-large refuse. Nonetheless, he is on a slippery slope.

Oscar Jonsson is a PhD student in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London where his thesis, ‘Warfare and Peace; The Russian Understanding of War’ investigates how technological and organisational development impacts the Russian understanding of war. You can follow him on Twitter at @OAJonsson.

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