Early this morning, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt shared on Twitter what he rightly called “ominous information”: there were reports from Kiev indicating that special forces had taken control of a TV tower in the Ukrainian capital. Mr. Bildt could not help but wonder if a dark scenario was in the works. The sad answer is that it is highly probable – mainly for three reasons.
First, the war of words has officially begun. As reported just yesterday, the Ukrainian police has given pro-European protesters a deadline to abandon the public buildings they are occupying, adding that they could face a “harsh crackdown”. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov openly denounced them as “Nazis and criminals”. With the December 5-6 OSCE Ministerial Council already in the books, both the sources and the combined timing of those statements reinforce their credibility.
Second, President Viktor Yanukovych is coming back home after signing fresh and lucrative deals with China, which promised up to $8 billion in investments, and probably also Russia, where he and Vladimir Putin discussed a future strategic partnership deal and to negotiated a loan of at least $12 billion. Perhaps even more importantly, there are reports that Gazprom’s Alexei Miller also met young Ukrainian oligarch Sergey Kurchenko to discuss the supply of 10 billion cubic meters of gas at a price of $210-230 per thousand cubic meters from January 1, 2014, compared to current prices of over $400 per thousand cubic meters.
The combination of both deals would be a huge breather for an economy stuck in recession, entirely dependent on Russian gas and facing the repayment of over $60 billion in debt in the coming 18 months amid a $10 billion deficit in the balance of payments. Yanukovych will surely capitalize on those agreements to strengthen his position and will feel emboldened to crack down on dissenters.
Third, in the tit-for-tat game both leaders are playing, Putin just wants Yanukovych to act strong. As recently as last Tuesday, Russian official news agency RIA Novosti reported the results of an independent poll showing that support for Putin’s actions was at a 12-year low. With the Sochi Winter Games just around the corner, Putin will surely push his suddenly loyal ally to use compelling methods to quell dissent and thus send a strong but veiled signal to Russia’s own dissenters.
These three reasons, combined with the EU’s logical inability and unwillingness to act strongly in the face of increasing signs of distress in Ukraine and Russian pressure, and the absence of a strong message of engagement in the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit, will probably lead the emboldened Ukrainian authorities to repress the massive EuroMaidan rallies rather sooner than later and using whatever means they consider adequate.