Kiev in flames

Not only are protesters lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police during a bloody standoff at Independence Square in Kiev, but there are reports the police have used incendiary devices against the protesters.  When opposition leaders address the forces occupying the square, they are surrounded by roaring fires.  The New York Times describes the striking image of protesters burning their own supplies to build the flaming wreckage from yesterday’s conflict into a defensive “ring of fire” between themselves and the riot squads:

Protesters in Kiev stoked what they are calling a ???ring of fire??? separating themselves from the riot police in a desperate effort on Wednesday to defend a stage on Independence Square that has been a focal point of their protests and to keep their three-month-old movement alive.

Men staggering with exhaustion dismantled the tents and field kitchens from the movement???s earlier and more peaceful phase and hauled their remnants onto the fires. They piled on mattresses, sleeping bags, tent frames, foam pads and whatever else looked flammable, burning their own encampment in a final act of defiance.

At least 25 people are dead, including protesters and police, and the situation is poised to degenerate even further.  It may well become a full-blown civil war, as there is a regional conflict in play as well as a political divide, pitting the Europe and America-inclined western part of the country against the dominant Russian-aligned east.  Although it was thought, earlier in the week, that the protest movement had been largely confined to Kiev, there have now been reports of demonstrations in other cities, including a raid on government offices in the western city of Lviv.  The BBC has video of what appears to be security troops in Lviv surrendering to the protesters.

Reuters brings us the latest developments:

Ukrainian riot police charged protesters occupying a central Kiev square early on Wednesday after the bloodiest day since the former Soviet republic, caught in a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, won its independence more than 22 years ago.

At least 18 people, including seven policemen, died on Tuesday during hours of violence between security forces and civilians who have staged protests against President Viktor Yanukovich since last November.

Many were killed by gunshot and hundreds more were injured, with dozens of them in a serious condition, police and opposition representatives said.

Despite Western demands for restraint and dialogue, the state security service first set a deadline for the demonstrators to end disorder or face “tough measures”, and then the police advanced into Independence Square, the center of the protest campaign.

Protesters responded with petrol bombs, fireworks and stones. Live television footage showed police throwing stun grenades at the protesters separated from them by a line of burning tents, tyres and wood.

The crackdown began shortly after Moscow cut a $2 billion check to the Ukrainian government, a boon Reuters describes as conditional on the government getting tough with its Western-backed dissidents.  This follows the announcement that Russia would buy up $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and offer them fuel at discount prices.

The Russians blamed the violence on European governments and the United States, accusing them of fomenting unrest by supporting a protest movement riddled with violent radicals.  In a meeting with opposition leaders, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to make any concessions, insisting that opposition leaders must purge the radical elements from their coalition as a prelude to further discussion.  The opposition describes this as a transparent ploy to break up their movement, after which Yanukovych can go back to ignoring them.

The standoff has actually been building up for months, prior to the outbreak of violence.  The protesters want closer ties to the European Union, citing the relative prosperity of other former Soviet satellites who have moved into the EU orbit.  The event that precipitated the battle of Independence Square was Yanukovych suddenly backing out of a trade agreement with the EU in November, preferring Russian welfare checks instead.  (The Ukrainian government’s official reason for nixing the long-gestating EU deal was that Ukraine’s economy was too weak for productive trade, absent the cash infusion it received from Moscow.)  The protest movement has come to be known as Euromaidan, combining Europe with the local name for Independence Square in Kiev.

Scuttling the European Union deal touched a match to the accumulated powder kegs of other complaints from the protesters, who regard Yanukovych as a corrupt dictator, an impression not likely to have changed after he stuffed Russian money in his pocket and ordered a paramilitary crackdown on them.

There’s also the small matter of how he’s got one of his chief political opponents, Yulia Tymoshenko, stashed away in jail.  The famed Orange Revolution swapped in Yanukovych for Tymoshenko; Ukrainians hopeful for greater constitutional liberty turned on their new leader with the high-octane fury of revolutionaries who feel betrayed by a disappointing leader.  The protesters are now calling for a rewritten constitution that would weaken the imperial presidency.  If they succeed, maybe they should send that new constitution over to the United States so we could have a look at it.

Speaking of imperial presidencies, the Obama Administration has been predictably useless during the crisis, sending spokesman Jay Carney out to cluck that the violence is “appalling,” and leaving its response in the hands of Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden.  You can relax, besieged protesters of the Maidan.  Kerry and Biden are all over this.  This is also the crack foreign policy team that managed to get a top diplomat, Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, caught on tape saying “F**k the EU” while discussing the Ukrainian crisis.

Russia, remembering how much fun it was to smack John Kerry all over the Middle East, responded by telling the Administration buffoons to butt out.  From CNN:

Since political tensions began, Washington and Moscow have weighed in on opposite ends and kept doing so Tuesday.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych to press him to stop the violence, placing the responsibility to de-escalate mainly with government.

Secretary of State John Kerry later backed up the Vice President’s words. He called for the Ukrainian government to halt violence immediately, and reopen dialogue with the opposition.

Russia accused Washington of meddling in Ukrainian affairs.

Washington is trying to tell “the authorities of a sovereign state what they should do next and how they should do it,” an article in Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti’s read.

So much for Hillary Clinton’s “reset button” with Russia.  This Administration has been agonizingly slow to realize that Russia’s interests are directly opposed to the United States, or else it just doesn’t care for reasons of Hospice America twilight-of-the-West ideology.  Somehow I think that fat wad of Russian cash, and barrels of cheap oil, are going to count for more in Kiev than the stern disapproval of Shotgun Joe Biden and John “climate change is a weapon of mass destruction” Kerry.  Maybe Kerry should try convincing the Ukrainians to turn their backs on all that cheap Russian gas in the name of global warming.

The Euromaidan protesters are using new media to get their message out, including a viral video called “I Am a Ukrainian” that introduces their movement to the rest of the world:

“I know that maybe tomorrow we will have no phone, no Internet connection, and we will be alone here.  And maybe those men will murder us, one after another, when it will be dark here.  That’s why I ask you now to help us.  We held this freedom inside our hearts, we have this freedom in our minds, and now I ask you to build this freedom in our country…”

Alas, I’m not confident the West currently has the economic or intellectual strength to build freedom in anyone’s country.  How are the people who “run” the American government by selling billions of dollars of debt to China supposed to criticize the Ukrainian regime for selling $15 billion in debt to Moscow?  $15 billion wouldn’t keep Barack Obama’s government running for six hours.

Update: Former UN Ambassador John Bolton lays into the Administration over the Ukraine, and links it to other foreign policy crises: “What we???ve got in Putin is a man with a strategic vision and an autocratic mentality.  In Obama we???ve got a weak, feckless, inattentive president who not only doesn???t know what America???s interests are, I don???t think particularly cares about American national security.  He???s devoted to transforming America domestically. We can see this all over the world. American influence is slipping, slipping away in Ukraine, Venezuela, the Middle East and we will pay the price for this for a long time unless people speak up.”

Update: There’s a great detailed timeline of the Kiev conflict at Reason, pinpointing a specific event that caused the already massive protests to escalate into deadly violence: regime security forces preventing opposition members from entering the Parliament building.