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9th Dec 2022

EU sends mixed message on Ukraine, as death toll mounts

  • Berkut: meaning 'the Eagle,' is highly-disciplined and has a macho culture (Photo: mac_ivan)

The EU is sending mixed messages to Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, amid a growing death toll and fear of mass disorder in one the Union's biggest neighbours.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told him by phone on Thursday (23 January) that he risks EU sanctions, or, in his words, “possible consequences for bilateral relations,” if things do not get back to normal.

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  • Serhiy Nigoyan, 20 years old: shot dead by 'snipers' in Kiev on 22 January (Photo: Wikipedia)

Some EU countries have voiced similar views, including Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.

But the same day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told press in Berlin that: “Sanctions against Ukraine are not on the order of the day … What is important now is to stop the violence.”

The lack of clarity at the top is reflected lower down.

“I have no instructions from my capital on where I’m supposed to go or what I’m supposed to be doing,” a diplomatic source at one EU embassy in Kiev told this website.

Meanwhile, two EU envoys, Stefan Fuele and Catherine Ashton, are to meet Yanukovych in Ukraine in the coming days.

Leading opposition MPs also met him for a second time this week on Thursday.

The talks come after two months of increasingly violent protests against his decision, last November, to opt for closer Russian ties instead of EU integration.

But away from the negotiating table, Yanukovych’s security forces are suspected of killing six people and abducting up to 40 others in recent days in an attempt to terrorise the opposition movement.

Four of the victims were shot by “snipers” in Kiev city centre, while two were kidnapped and “assassinated,” according to Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, a former head of Ukraine’s internal intelligence service, the SBU, now an opposition MP.

Suspicion surrounds special police units, such as Berkut, Sokol or Omega, as well as Alpha, a counter-terrorist squad in the SBU.

But Nalyvaichenko told EUobserver no one will know who ordered the deaths unless there is an independent and international inquiry.

He added that the killings, Berkut's beatings of protesters, and the work of hired “provocateurs” are the main threats to stability: “There are gangs, agents provocateurs, walking around at night in Kiev, beating up innocent people and setting cars on fire, with no reaction from local law enforcement officers. This has to stop.”

There are several scenarios for how things could get worse.

But few for how they might improve, short of Yanukovych giving in to demands to hold snap elections, effectively ceding power and putting himself at risk of jail.

If he opts to crush the opposition by force, he has plenty of resources.

Ukraine’s ordinary police has poor morale and training.

But Oleg Martynenko, a Ukrainian security analyst, estimates there are currently 2,000 or so men from special police units in Kiev, as well as 3,000 interior ministry gendarmes from the so-called BBVV force.

Up to 35,000 more could be bussed in from other cities if need be.

Over the past few years, Yanukovych has surrounded himself with loyal security chiefs who are unlikely to hold him back.

One group is linked to his home region of Donetsk, in Russophone eastern Ukraine, where many people feel little love for the EU or for Ukrainian speakers in the west of the country.

It includes interior minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, National Security Council chief Andriy Klyuyev, and Yanukovych’s head of personal security, Volodymyr Radchenko.

A second group has direct links to Russia and includes the new head of the SBU, Oleksandr Yakymenko, who served in the Russian army.

Zakharchenko and Klyuyev control the special police and the BBVV, which has access to military-grade weapons and armoured vehicles.

In the worst case scenario, analysts say that if Yanukovych gives an order to open fire on crowds it will probably be carried out by Berkut from east Ukraine, because other officers might refuse to do it.

“One never knows what will happen until such an order is actually issued,” Mark Galeotti, a US expert on security forces in former Soviet countries, told this website.

“But if a regime is willing to be brutal, it usually wins: That’s the psychology of public order. Most people are not heroes.”

Alongside the Berkut and the BBVV, the main role of the SBU is to snoop on the opposition and to advise Yanukovych how to handle the situation.

Given that more bloodshed is likely to sever Ukraine’s ties with the EU, serving Russian interests, its advisory role could be significant.

The former SBU chief, Nalyvaichenko, says he tried to reform the service by weeding out Russian infiltrators and increasing parliamentary oversight “but the reforms were totally stopped three and a half years ago” when Yanukovych came to power.

Galeotti described the SBU as “Russia’s trojan horse in Ukraine.”

For his part, Eerik Kross, a former director of Estonia’s intelligence service, told EUobserver: “I don’t think Yanukovych takes orders from Moscow, but Moscow has plenty of channels of influence in Kiev.”

Looking at the wider picture, Kross noted that Russia sees EU and Nato efforts to build closer ties with Ukraine, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova, as a “fight for a zone of influence.”

“Ukraine is on the brink. Russia already has Armenia. Belarus is gone. Georgia is a big question mark, and Azerbaijan, for other reasons, is not so interested in the EU,” he said.

“Right now, the West has only Moldova, and even here 20 percent is occupied by Russian troops,” he added, referring to Russian “peacekeepers” in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transniestria.

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