Ukraine crisis: what it means for the West

An extract from Andrew Wilson's latest book.

Friday, 21 February

In retrospect this was the end, though it did not look like it at the time. Interior Minister Zakharchenko reportedly issued orders to 3,500 militia to carry arms at 3 p.m. Armed special forces reportedly returned near the Maidan towards midnight.[1] There was plenty of flight from the government’s ranks, but still no real rebellion. The claim that the oligarchs now moved decisively to bring Yanukovych down does not hold water.[2] They defected late as part of the general panic, but they did not induce that panic: defeat on the streets of Kiev did so.

Parliament’s motion to end the police action on Thursday evening, 20 February, was undoubtedly a watershed, but only thirty-five Party of Regions MPs were present.[3] Only 236 out of 238 MPs present (there are 450) supported the motion. Seventeen MPs formally left the Party of Regions, followed by another five late in the evening. The rest had other things to do.

Three EU foreign ministers, Sikorski of Poland, Steinmeier of Germany and Fabius of France, who later left for China, arrived for emergency negotiations on the Thursday morning. Putin sent the Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to join in. Andriy Klyuyev and Andrey Portnov, Yanukovych’s legal ‘expert’ (who used to work for Tymoshenko) played as intermediaries and swapped the roles of good and bad cop, making it extremely difficult to get concessions out of Yanukovych. Klyuyev would set political booby-traps; Portnov acted as the ‘legal’ refusenik blocking any constructive compromise (he would soon end up in Russia, openly working for Russian interests). Overnight talks broke up at 7.20 a.m on Friday morning. At a meeting with the Maidan Civic Council there was strong criticism of any deal that left Yanukovych in power and failed to flesh out transition mechanisms.[4] Sikorski said it was the best deal he could get and: ‘If you do not support this, you will have martial law, the army, you will all die’.[5]The Maidan Council reluctantly agreed.

Later the plans for an even bloodier assault on the Maidan were released. ‘At least one helicopter would be deployed, as well as armoured personnel carriers, supporting thousands of army soldiers to back up 22,000 law enforcement personnel comprised mainly of riot police and the national guard … It was planned to involve up to 10,000 fighters and internal forces and about 12,000 police officers, including 2,000 Berkut.’[6] The operation would have used as a pretext an alleged plot by Right Sector to set off bombs at government buildings. Traffic, electricity, water and telecommunications would be shut off in the city centre during the operation, while four television channels said to be independent or opposition-leaning would have been shut down before and during the operation.[7]

But Yanukovych had to make some kind of deal. An agreement was finally signed on Friday at 6.45 p.m. The ‘Orange’ constitution would be restored, leading to a national unity government. A new constitution would be written by September. Yanukovych would remain as President, but new elections would be held in December. They were actually due in March 2015, so three months early was no big deal. New election laws and a new Central Election Commission (CEC) would oversee the vote (the then CEC being totally corrupt). There would be an investigation into the violence conducted, under joint monitoring by the authorities, the opposition and the Council of Europe, and there would be an amnesty for protesters arrested since 17 February. The agreement also stated that:

The authorities will not impose a state of emergency. The authorities and the opposition will refrain from the use of violence … Both parties will undertake serious efforts for the normalisation of life in the cities and villages by withdrawing from administrative and public buildings and unblocking streets, city parks and squares … Illegal weapons should be handed over to the Ministry of Interior bodies.[8]

Parliament voted unanimously, 386–0, to return to the 2004 constitution, and then 332–0 in a vote to suspend Interior Minister Zakharchenko, who had direct authority for the slaughter. The ‘anti-terrorist operation’ was suspended. Another bill introduced changes to the criminal code, allowing for the release of Tymoshenko.

Russia claims that this was a binding agreement, though bizarrely the Russia envoy Vladimir Lukin did not sign it. But Yanukovych was negotiating in bad faith and ultimately just fled. He was not forced out by the West. Far from levering him out, the USA and EU did everything they could to get Yanukovych’s people and the parliamentary opposition to agree the compromise. In fact, they were in danger of propping him up. Nor was Yanukovych forced out by the crowds, who were still concentrated in the centre of Kiev, at a safe distance. Even if he was afraid of ending up like Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, chased away by his own people and subject to arbitrary ‘trial’ by his own entourage, Yanukovych was still several steps ahead. He was not in any immediate danger, and protestors had not crashed into his office, though they had occupied the vacated presidential headquarters just up the hill from the Maidan.

About a hundred militia had surrendered to Maidan activists by late Friday morning.[9] Their colleagues hastily left their positions around parliament just after lunch.[10] But at the same time, there were reports of heavily armed Berkut reinforcements on the way into town from the airport.[11] According to Ukraine’s leading paper, Interior Ministry troops and most Berkut had already abandoned Yanukovych, but his own 200-strong security detail and the elite Alpha unit remained loyal. He also had plenty of armed titushki to defend him. Twelve buses with heavily armed personnel were seen in Kiev.[12] The Security Service (SBU) only stopped the anti-terrorist operation a day later, on the Saturday. So the situation was still confused.

The everyday forces of public order, on the other hand, knew what some of their number had just done. They stood aside as protestors walked into the presidential building on Bankivska Street. But there was no general looting or vengeance. Captured militia were treated well and released. In fact, this softly-softly approach allowed most of the sniper force to escape. Some politicians were already fleeing, followed by the police – in almost all cases in that order. The belated announcement of Western sanctions on 20 February added to, but did not cause, their panic. What Yanukovych probably feared most was that those around him would not protect him, given that he had issued so many threats to them to stay in line. Like many bullies, he was also a coward.

At a public meeting on the Maidan that evening, one leader of the ‘hundreds’, Volodymyr Parasyuk from Lviv, raised the prospect of renewed action if Yanukovych did not resign by 10 a.m. the following morning. He finished his emotional speech by threatening action ‘with arms’.[13] This was more a personal commitment to his fallen comrades, than an appeal to all to join him; still less was it the united threat of all those then present.

The moderate leader of one of the parliamentary opposition parties Vitaily Klitschko was booed when he announced the EU-brokered deal.[14] Russians constantly claim that ‘no sooner than it had been signed, the deal was rejected by the Maidan’,[15] and so there was a coup d’état. But this is false. The deal was being criticised – and for good reason – not rejected. There was no voting process on the public square. The Maidan Public Council reluctantly backed the deal by thirty-four votes to two.[16] If Yanukovych ran away simply because one rabble-rousing speech got a big cheer, then that was his own personal choice.

Yanukovych actually fled because he had finished packing. Preserving what he could of his wealth seems to have mattered more to him. Ukrainian prosecutors estimated that he took $32 billion (out of his supposed $100 billion total graft) to Russia with him, much of it literally crossing the border in trucks.[17] That kind of round-but-precise figure was suspicious. How did they count it? It would amount to several trainloads. But Yanukovych certainly sent a lot of money ahead. He got back to Mezhyhiriya quite early, given the circumstances, at 8.55 p.m.; he then fled when the packing finished at 4 a.m. He was undoubtedly planning his next move, but does not seem to have issued any significant orders, other than to complete the packing. Yanukovych left with twenty-one bodyguards in two helicopters for the secret government Obukhiv residence near Kharkiv.[18]

Yanukovych was removed from office by parliament later that day, Saturday 22 February. Here, corners were cut. According to the constitution, impeachment was a long process with several hurdles, and the final hurdle was high: a vote of three-quarters of MPs, or 338 out of 450. The vote to oust him was supported by 328. According to one MP,

This was not an impeachment as such, but a ‘change of power by consensus’, a form of ‘political-legal’ solution by a unanimity vote (supported by ALL factions). If such a consensus had not been reached, there would have been more bloodshed. Parliament had to take responsibility and consolidate power, which was falling apart after Yanukovych withdrew himself (samousunuvsya). The Berkut … wanted to surrender to some legitimate power, and not to Right Sector.[19]

Oleksandr Turchynov from Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party was voted in as acting president. Russia considered this a wholly illegitimate, rather than imperfect, process. One reason for insisting Yanukovych was still the real president was that he was persuaded to ask for Russian military intervention on 4 March, once he was in Russia – which was the closest thing that Russia had to legal cover for the annexation of Crimea. But it was poor cover: Yanukovych in exile failed the ‘effective political control’ test now established in international law and designed to prevent minority or exile factions in civil wars constantly calling for outside help.[20]

Yanukovych was not the only one to flee. Energy Minister Eduard Stavytsky left behind $5 million and 50 kilograms of gold in bars, plus gold, platinum and diamond jewellery.[21] Kiev’s city airport at Zhuliany on Thursday evening was like a scene from a Martin Scorsese movie, with fleeing oligarchs taking money in hand luggage and fur-clad women tripping over their heels. Former Interior Minister Zakharchenko and ‘Family’ cashier Kurchenko fled to Belarus on 21 February. Interestingly, Belarus President Lukashenka didn’t want them around, and the local KGB (still called the KGB) told them to leave for Russia by 6 p.m. the next day.[22]

This is an extract from the book Ukraine crisis: what it means for the West, published by Yale University Press

[1] ‘The Interior Ministry confirms there were snipers at the government building on 20 February’, Ukraїns’ka Pravda , 10 April 2014;

[2] Christian Neef, ‘Yanukovych’s fall: The power of Ukraine’s billionaires’, Der Spiegel, 25 February 2014;

[3] Jaroslav Koshiw, ‘Why President Yanukovych fled Ukraine’, JV Kosiw blog, 23 April 2014;!Why-President-Yanukovych-fled-Ukraine/ck8a/F4D49016-F69F-45D6-AE4A-027C10E02B79

[4] Michał Potocki and Zbigniew Parafianowicz,What he heard from Sikorski: sign your agreement or die. Oleksiy Haran reveals the backstage negotiations on Ukraine’, Gazeta Prawna, 14 March 2014;,to-on-uslyszal-od-sikorskiego-podpiszecie-porozumienie-albo-zginiecie-oleksij-haran-ujawnia-kulisy-negocjacji-ws-ukrainy.html

[5] ‘Sikorski, arguing with the Maidan Council, said otherwise all will die’, Ukraїns’ka Pravda, 21 February 2014;

[6] ‘Moskal names the leaders of the snipers who were on the Maidan’, Ukraїns’ka Pravda , 12 June 2014;

[7] Roman Olearchyk and Neil Buckley, ‘Papers reveal Yanukovich [sic] plans to turn army against protestors’, Financial Times, 24 February 2014.

[9] ‘Media: Militia captured en masse by EuroMaidan activists’, Ukraїns’ka Pravda , 20 February 2014;

[10] ‘The cordon was urgently removed from outside parliament: the commander pushed fighters into buses’, website, 21 February 2014;

[11] ‘Seven buses of “Berkut” are travelling from Borispil [airport] to Kiev’, website, 21 February 2014;

[12] ‘In place of the siloviki in Kiev come titushki with firearms’, Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, 21 February 2014, story posted at 18.45, the same time as the agreement;

[13] See his speech at; and the English version of his words at

[15] Dmitri Trenin, The Ukraine Crisis and the Resumption of Great Power Rivalry, Carnegie Center, Moscow, 2014, p. 6;

[16] Potocki and Parafianowicz, ‘What he heard from Sikorski’.

[17] Guy Faulconbridge, Anna Dabrowska and Stephen Grey, ‘Toppled “mafia” president cost Ukraine up to $100 billion, prosecutor says’, Reuters, 30 April 2014;

[19] Email from Rostyslav Pavlenko, 25 February 2014.

[20]See ‘Political legitimacy and international law in Crimea: Pushing the US and Russia apart’, Diplomatic Courier, 8 May 2014; and ‘Here’s what international law says about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’, New Republic, 2 March 2014;

[21] ‘Cash, jewelry seized in ex-Ukrainian ministers’ offices, apartments’, Kyiv Post, 22 March 2014;

[22] ‘Belarus demands that Zakharchenko and Kurchenko leave the country by 1800’, Khvylya website,

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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