Can Russia keep its hands off Ukraine?

European Union and U.S. envoys are gathering in Kyiv to try to bolster the democratic impulses that swept Viktor Yanukovych from office. The Kremlin, meanwhile, is looking on the Ukrainian developments as "an armed mutiny." Can it stay neutral?

As EU and U.S. envoys gather in Kyiv, Moscow looks on Ukraine as an 'armed mutiny'

After former president Viktor Yanukovych fled on the weekend, Ukrainians flocked to his palatial estate outside Kyiv to see for themselves the kind of life he was living. (Reuters)

As far as revolutions go, this one has been remarkably efficient, at least in the days following last week's blood bath when government security forces started firing on Ukraine's Maidan Square protesters.

Just take a look at the Ukrainian parliament's weekend workload: It impeached a president, released a former prime minister from jail, fired some ministers, nationalized a presidential residence, agreed on a date for new presidential elections and appointed an acting head of state in the form of Oleksander Turchinov, the speaker of the legislature.

So much sweeping change is a reassurance to many Kyiv residents. But whether it is enough to keep the country from splitting apart — or to keep Russia's Vladimir Putin from intervening — is what is on everyone's minds.

"The U.S. actually warned Russia against military attack or use of military power in Ukraine," says Kyiv-based political scientist Alexei Garan. "But I don't think it's enough actually."

Still, he, for one, doesn't think Ukraine will dissolve into separate parts.

"The split of Ukraine is not in the interest of common people, it's not in the interest of business, it's not in the interest of the oligarchs," he said in an interview.

For the moment, anyway, parliament "is working right now and there are a lot of deputies … so we still have government," said Vladimir Terren on an outing to view the recently departed Viktor Yanukovych's palatial presidential compound just outside the city.

Thousands flocked to see the extraordinary residence, which looks a little like a hunting lodge on steroids, and the manicured grounds that surround it, complete with a private zoo.

On Monday, the acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, issued an arrest warrant for the still missing Yanukovych, who took the world by surprise when he slipped out of town after signing a truce with the opposition on Friday.

Facebook pages are alight with reported sightings, but the former president, who was tightly aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has yet to surface.

Avakov took to the web to announce the warrant for Yanukovych's arrest, saying he was wanted for the "mass murder of peaceful citizens" in the latter stage of the months-long protests that brought Ukraine to a standstill.

Putin's next step?

Turchinov is hoping to form a government by Tuesday

And parliament is trying to stamp its authority in place quickly in part to reassure potential, and much needed, donors. Ukraine's economy is teetering on the edge, and the status of Russia's proposed $15-billion bailout is now up in the air.

Enter the European Union. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Ukrainian opposition leaders and visited a memorial for victims of last week's clashes in Kyiv on Monday. She was in Kyiv to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy, which is on the verge of default. (Reuters)

In the meantime, envoys from Washington and Brussels are arriving.

There are other worries as well. Over the weekend there were ugly scenes in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, the autonomous republic on the Black Sea where Russian loyalties run strong and where Moscow maintains a number of naval bases.

Avakov is reported to have gone to the east to try to ease tensions there between the people who support the revolution and the pro-Russian speakers who are calling the weekend action a coup.

With the Sochi Olympics over, the fear that Russia may intervene militarily is now being given new currency by many here.

The Russian media has depicted the Maidan protesters as thugs and thieves attacking government forces as opposed to the other way around. 

And late Monday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a close Putin confidante, was quoted by Russian news agencies referring to these latest Ukrainian developments as "an armed mutiny."

"The legitimacy of a whole number of organs of power that function there raises great doubts," Medvedev said.

"Some of our foreign, Western partners think otherwise. This is some kind of aberration of perception when people call legitimate what is essentially the result of an armed mutiny."

Politicians in bad odour

Back in Kyiv, the fear and the siege mentality seems to have lifted in Independence Square, known here simply as the Maidan.

But the mood of anger and determination, hasn't, and is mixed with grief for the scores of dead protesters.

The legislators are treading carefully because they know many Ukrainians still coming to the Maidan are disgusted with the political classes period, including the opposition.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking to journalists in Sochi on Monday, voiced grave doubts over the legitimacy of the authorities in Ukraine after Viktor Yanukovych's ouster. (Reuters)

"The only thing we can think about now is how to reach some stability," a woman told me as she and her friends went about laying flowers at one of the many shrines to the dead in the centre of town. "So these losses were actually for some purpose."

Mention politicians, even including those who fought to bring Yanukovych down, and she gets angry.

"Who actually made it [the revolution] possible?" she asks. "Our kids who were sitting here defending Maidan, fighting, losing their lives, who gave blood for it … and not politicians because they all just know how to steal."

The people of the square — from nurses and school teachers to labourers and IT consultants — say they were fighting, not for material gain, but for values like justice and equality, for the end of a corrupt system.

They also say the barricades will remain in the Maidan until those goals have been achieved. 


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?