The view from the ground.

Mercury Rising

Can opposition leaders contain protest violence in Ukraine—or is the country headed for “prolonged guerrilla warfare”?


KIEV — There's a joke being told in the wintry streets of Ukraine's capital, where anti-government protests have entered a tumultuous, increasingly violent third month.

"Do you know what's happening tomorrow?" one protester remarks casually.

"No, what?" another replies.

KIEV — There’s a joke being told in the wintry streets of Ukraine’s capital, where anti-government protests have entered a tumultuous, increasingly violent third month.

"Do you know what’s happening tomorrow?" one protester remarks casually.

"No, what?" another replies.

"Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok, who barely control the Euromaidan, are going for a meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych, who barely controls the country."

This black humor, which mocks the country’s three main opposition figures — Vitali Klitschko, Arseny Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok — alongside the man they want to see toppled, is typical of a certain dark sensibility in Ukraine, a country that spent decades under Soviet oppression. But it also reveals growing frustration and anxiety in the Euromaidan movement, as street demonstrations spiral out of the control of their supposed leaders. Euromaidan began as a peaceful mass protest against Yanukovych’s decision to eschew closer ties with Europe and instead cozy up to Russia, but in the last 10 days, it has descended into a frenzy of Molotov cocktails, fireworks, and rubber bullets, as the protests have escalated into street battles between protesters and the notorious Berkut ("golden eagle"), a special riot police unit know for its brutality.

"I am not for violence, but we need to something to be done," says a 23-year-old protester named Nazar, who traveled from the city of Lviv to participate in Kiev. He is standing outside a building besieged by protesters over the weekend. "This is Ukraine, and if the government uses force against us, then we must use it back. It is the only language they understand," he adds. In his hands, Nazar clasps a wooden baton and a shield, with the words anti-titushka emblazoned across it. "Titushka" is a Ukrainian slang term for government-hired thugs.

With no end clearly in sight, some fear Ukraine is now headed toward simmering civil conflict. "In the worst case scenario, we could be talking about prolonged guerrilla warfare, if a solution is not found," says Oleh Shamshur, the former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States. "We have reached a point of no return. Things cannot simply go back to how they were before."

The trigger of the recent unrest occurred on Jan. 16 — locally now called "Black Thursday" — when a package of repressive legislation, including restrictions on the media and protest activities, was passed in parliament with a quick show of hands. But if Yanukovych’s intention was to deliver the final blow to the Euromaidan movement, he miscalculated: Viewing the new laws as a wake-up call, people rapidly took to the streets, and as they arrived, tension also escalated. Protesters chucked rocks across police lines, and police responded by spraying rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately into crowds. On Jan. 22 — a national holiday known as "Unity Day" that commemorates Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence — news broke that at least three people had died in clashes.

In the face of Yanukovych’s heavy-handed tactics, there is a sense among many protesters that their leaders simply aren’t doing enough. The trio of Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok, whose politics are united by little more than a desire to overthrow the current government and a generally pro-European stance, have been hampered in their decision-making because they have not been able to nominate one person to take the reins of the protest movement. Their lengthy negotiations with Yanukovych have led to naught, and many protesters feel the leaders have offered only a tepid response to reports of police torturing detainees, as well as a spate of mysterious attacks against activists and journalists. "We have been here three months now," says Luka, a 26-year-old protester. "People have been killed, people have disappeared. This is not the time for talking. How much more can we take?"

It is now questionable whether the opposition leaders — who have faced jeers, catcalls, and boos — still have the credibility to keep a lid on the protesters’ unrest. Certainly, the appetite for outright resistance, rather than negotiation, is spreading through the movement, which is increasingly being led by right-wing demonstrators. The most extreme of these come from a group known as the "Right Sector," a loosely organized confederation of nationalists and football hooligans. (The Right Sector’s precise number isn’t known, but on Vkontakte, a Russian social-networking site, it has garnered more than 140,000 supporters from across Ukraine.)

More and more fed-up protesters in the movement’s mainstream are also beginning to organize themselves to use force against the police. Many walk around the Euromaidan’s camp with makeshift weapons and shields. People wear protective headgear at all times. As the violence has escalated, women have been told not to cross the final barricade to the front line of the protests.

Outside his camp tent, a protester named Sergei, a war veteran, is training the less experienced around him in combat tactics. "Attack. Attack. Hit them with your shield, like this," he says as fellow protesters look on, crashing his makeshift armor into an imaginary foe.

Despite the announcement of a supposed truce with the government late Thursday evening by the opposition leaders, unrest continued throughout the weekend. On Friday, protesters pushed their barricades forward on Hrushevsky Street, one of Kiev’s main arteries, and used a makeshift catapult to launch Molotov cocktails into police lines. On Saturday night, they stormed a downtown exhibition center called Ukrainian House, which police were using as their headquarters, in a spectacular display of firebombs. And in the last few days, the far-right group Spilna Sprava has occupied three government ministries in the capital.

Outside of Kiev, the protests are also growing. In western and central Ukraine, groups dominated by supporters of the nationalist Svoboda Party have taken over government buildings in a number of cities.

Tellingly, over the weekend, the rhetoric of the three opposition leaders seemed to be increasingly dictated by the uncompromising mood of the Euromaidan crowds — perhaps motivated by a realization that the tide of the movement is shifting, and they have no choice but to follow or lose relevance. Crucially, they rejected a power-sharing deal offered by the president, saying it did not meet several of their demands. "[W]e’re finishing what we started The people decide our leaders, not you," Yatsenyuk said in a tweet directed at Yanukovych. When Klitschko announced the rejection to protesters, he was met with cheers. And at a rally on Saturday night, Yatsenyuk and Tyahnybok gave their personal thanks to the "fans" of local football clubs for their support of the protests — a seeming U-turn away from the leaders’ previous condemnation of those supporting violent action.

Many on the streets now say that the situation could explode even more at any moment. "This is the quiet before the storm," says Dimitri Tereshchenko, a 36-year-old barricade guard. "This is a revolution, and it is spreading across the country. We can see that very clearly."

Harriet Salem is a Belgrade-based journalist covering the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

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