Ukraine Leader Strains to Keep Grip as Crisis Grows Deeper
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine spiraled deeper into crisis on Wednesday as the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych and several thousand grimly determined protesters — along with their supporters in Russia and Europe — prepared for an extended confrontation over the fate of this fractured country of 46 million.
As measures of the turmoil, the authorities announced a nationwide “antiterrorist operation” to keep guns and power from “extremist groups” and cashiered the country’s top general, then turned around late in the day and declared that a “truce” had been reached with political leaders of the opposition.
But it was clear that, with their bloody offensive to take back the center of Kiev stalled by a ring of fire — and even the deployment of paratroopers to help protect military bases — the Ukrainian authorities were concerned about maintaining control, particularly in the western part of the country.
“In many regions of the country, municipal buildings, offices of the Interior Ministry, state security and the prosecutor general, army units and arms depots are being seized,” Oleksandr Yakimenko, the head of the state security service, the SBU, said in a televised statement.
The Defense Ministry later added a further beat to a drumroll of ominous warnings a day after the capital, Kiev, erupted in a frenzy of fire and fighting that left at least 25 people dead, including nine police officers. The Health Ministry said 241 had been wounded, but Ukrainian news reports put the number at more than 1,000.
“Military servants of the armed forces of Ukraine might be used in antiterrorist operations on the territory of Ukraine,” the Defense Ministry said, raising the prospect that Mr. Yanukovych could call on the armed forces to try to restore order — and keep himself in office.
That statement brought a quick response from President Obama and other Western leaders, who sought to defuse the crisis even as their differences with Russia hardened in an escalating East-West struggle redolent of the Cold War.
It was not clear how the military could be legally deployed for what would be a domestic policing mission unless the authorities first declared a state of emergency, a step that Mr. Yanukovych has previously shied away from and for which the military has shown no enthusiasm. That was why the firing of the pro-European chief of the Ukrainian general staff, Volodymyr Zaman, set off alarms in the West.
Also raising concerns was the fact that American officials have sought to contact senior Ukrainian military officials by phone and “nobody is picking up,” a senior State Department official said. The United States has been warning against the imposition of a state of emergency “for months and months,” the official said.
Together, the moves suggest that Mr. Yanukovych, whose resignation many protesters see as a necessary precondition for calm, will press on with a high-risk strategy rooted in his view — zealously encouraged by the Kremlin — that Ukraine confronts not a popular uprising but a foreign-backed putsch by extremists.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, thousands of Kiev residents braved riot police and roaming bands of pro-government “sportsmen” to visit the besieged protest encampment in Independence Square, now a harrowing vista of charred buildings and smoldering debris.
The residents brought supplies to the young men in masks and helmets who, for the authorities, are now the only true face of the country’s political tumult.
With the subway system shut down, they walked, carrying bags of groceries, tires and scrap wood for the protesters’ protective ring of fire, and jerricans of gasoline. Two middle-aged women walked nonchalantly down a central street of Kiev toward Independence Square, known as Maidan, pushing a shopping cart rattling with ready-made firebombs in wine bottles.
The protesters are a hodgepodge of groups, some radical enough to alarm some European diplomats, who have been arguing for weeks over whether to impose sanctions on Ukrainian leaders, many of whom have assets outside the country. But few, if any, share Mr. Yanukovych’s — and also Russia’s — view that the government is simply a victim. “Yanukovych claims to be the victim of the radicals of the Maidan, and that he did not want such violence. We accept that the opposition made a mistake,” said Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who is traveling to Kiev to see the Ukrainian president on Thursday morning, along with the with French and German foreign ministers. But, added Mr. Sikorski, who will also meet Mr. Yanukovych’s opponents in an effort to mediate a political settlement, the “president’s credibility with everyone is now zero.”
The distrust was evident Wednesday night, when a statement was posted on the president’s website declaring that he had agreed to a truce with the main opposition leaders and was ready to start negotiations “with the aim of ending bloodshed and stabilizing the situation in the state in the interests of social peace.” There was no immediate comment from the opposition, and scant signs that riot police officers or protesters in Kiev were pulling back, though a fleet of empty buses arrived overnight at a staging area near the square for a possible withdrawal or redeployment of at least some of the government’s antiriot force.
In a televised address to the nation early Wednesday, as battles raged between protesters and columns of riot police, Mr. Yanukovych said opposition leaders had “crossed the limits when they called people to arms” and demanded that they “disassociate themselves from the radical forces that provoke bloodshed.”
The protest movement certainly contains extremist elements but, at least in Kiev and many other cities, particularly in the western regions, it has a wide base of public support and will not end with the arrest of “extremists.” After talks with Mr. Yanukovych late Tuesday as violence spun out of control, the opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyiuk complained that the president had only a single offer: “that we surrender.” He declined.
As the mayhem that gripped Kiev on Tuesday gave way to relative calm, the authorities on Wednesday reinforced squads of riot police, bringing in hundreds of fresh officers to support those who had fought through the night. They massed at a roundabout at the end of Khreschatyk Street, the main artery leading to Independence Square. A dozen military-style dump trucks, armored cars and other vehicles waited nearby. By late evening, however, there was no sign of a new push to sweep away the thousands of protesters still singing and chanting around a stage in Independence Square.
The turnout, although modest compared with the hundreds of thousands who thronged into the protest zone during the movement’s peaceful phase, illustrated a key ingredient to the remarkable resilience of a movement here, and in other cities, that comprises both a dedicated and often radical core and a broad base of people simply fed up with a government they see as corrupt and brutal.
Lyudmilla Sedchuk, a soft-spoken pensioner, said she did not like violence but wholeheartedly supported young men hurling stones and firebombs at police officers. “They are excellent people, these brave lads,” she said, “The extremists are the ones standing on the other side,” she added, glowering at a line of riot police officers.
Adding to the Ukrainian leadership’s alarm Wednesday were a string of reports from the west of the country, a longstanding bastion of antigovernment sentiment, that the offices of governors, prosecutors, the police and the state security service had been stormed by protesters and, in several cases, set on fire.
In Lviv, a city near the border with Poland, what had been a peaceful blockade of a sprawling compound housing barracks and the Interior Ministry’s western command turned early Wednesday into the seizure of a major military installation.
Andriy Porodko, 29, a businessman who had commanded the earlier blockade, said the “soldiers all surrendered” without a fight and had allowed protesters to take control of the compound, including an armory full of weapons. Ihor Pochinok, the editor in chief of a Lviv newspaper, Ekspres, said the city was bubbling with fury at the assault Tuesday on Independence Square but “was functioning normally, except for state authorities.”
Protesters, he said, had also stormed the offices of the regional governor, a Yanukovych appointee, resuming an occupation that had ended just three days earlier, and raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the state security service and several district police stations. Around 140 guns were seized from a police armory.
Beyond Lviv, antigovernment activists besieged or seized police stations and administrative buildings in Uzhgorod, Lutsk, Khmelnitsky and Poltava.
In Lutsk, northwestern Ukraine, protesters attacked the regional police department, which responded with stun grenades and other fire. The building was then set on fire by protesters throwing gasoline bombs.