Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych moved to quell a growing insurgency by granting sweeping powers to the army and police after a region declared independence from his government, risking wider conflict.
Reeling from the bloodiest clashes in a three-month standoff, the Russian-backed leader’s security service said today it’s undertaking a nationwide anti-terrorism operation to restore public order and protect state borders. That gives the military the right to search, detain and even fire on civilians, the Defense Ministry said. The government and the opposition agreed on a truce and to continue talks to stop the bloodshed, Yanukovych said on his website after meeting opposition leaders.
“Imposing martial law requires parliament’s approval, but an anti-terrorist operation can be declared simply by informing the president,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, an analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kiev. “Authorities now have the right to arrest people, search homes and a whole range of other things in a way that would otherwise be illegal. The leader of the operation’s name is secret and all involved get immunity.”
The truce agreement means that a planned charge on the protest camp was called off by authorities, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, said on Channel 5.
Yanukovych today fired army chief Volodymyr Zaman and replaced him with the head of the navy without explanation.
During an anti-terrorism operation, soldiers can also legally search civilian vehicles and stop car and pedestrian traffic, according to the Defense Ministry. The security service said in the statement that protesters have seized more than 1,500 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from military bases, depots and government buildings, without elaborating.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Ukrainian Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev in December against involving the military in efforts to break up demonstrations, according to the Department of Defense. Ukraine’s military, 800,000 strong when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, has been reduced to 182,000 military personnel after two decades of budget cuts.
“If the authorities want to draw the military into the political conflict, I’m convinced soldiers will be on the side of the people,” opposition lawmaker Serhiy Kaplin said Jan. 31.
Lawmakers in Lviv on the Polish border earlier today ousted their Yanukovych-appointed governor, established a new government autonomous from his administration and declared their allegiance to the opposition in Kiev. Protesters seized government and security headquarters in at least four other regions, while Poland’s premier warned of civil war and European leaders threatened sanctions.
“We may be witnessing the first hour of a civil war,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told lawmakers in Warsaw today. “If people are dying and being injured during protests, it’s the authorities who are responsible.”
Yanukovych yesterday moved to end the crisis that has destabilized the country of 45 million, a key route for Russian gas. At least 26 people died and hundreds were injured in the clashes, which culminated in a police attempt to clear their main protest camp in central Kiev, which was repelled.
The opposition “has crossed the line when they called people to arms,” Yanukovych said on his website today. “This is an outrageous violation of the law. My advisers happen to be trying to talk me into a tough scenario, the use of force. But I have always considered the use of force a false route.”
Ukrainian bonds and stocks slumped. The yield on the government’s $1 billion of notes maturing in June jumped a record to an all-time high of 34.97 percent, compared with 22.9 percent yesterday. The Ukrainian Equities Index fell for a second day, losing 4.2 percent. The cost of insuring Ukraine’s debt for five years against non-payment using credit default swaps rose to the highest since July 2009.
Thousands remained on Independence Square today, including reinforcements from Lviv, with squadrons of police ringing their burning barricades. The violence drew a sharp reaction from global leaders.
The European Union moved toward freezing the assets of Ukraine’s most powerful officials. The bloc’s foreign ministers will meet tomorrow to weigh “all possible options,” including “restrictive measures against those responsible for repression,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in an e-mailed statement from Brussels.
U.S. President Barack Obama warned Ukraine’s military against intervening to halt the protests.
“We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible in making sure it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way,” Obama told reporters in Toluca, Mexico. “That includes making sure the Ukrainian military does not step in to resolve issues that could be resolved by civilians.”
Russia blames “extremists” and “radical elements” for the escalation of violence, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on a conference call with reporters today. While Putin had a phone conversation with Yanukovych last night, he didn’t give advice on how to handle the crisis, Peskov said.
The violence has spread throughout western Ukraine. Protesters stormed police buildings in Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk, burned the offices of the ruling parties in Lutsk and seized the government’s headquarters in Zakarpattia.
In Kiev, at least 15 protesters, nine security officers and a journalist were among the fatalities, according to officials. Opposition groups say at least 20 protesters died and many are still missing.
Still, they kept feeding flames ringing their camp to maintain a barrier against government forces throughout the night. A burnt-out trade union building protesters had seized and used as their headquarters towered over the square, sending flames into the morning sky.
“There’s no way we leave, because we have nothing to lose anymore,” said Mykola, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. “Everyone who spent the night here can already count on a dozen years in prison.”
The government closed the subway system, set up checkpoints to limit access to the city of 3 million people and took the opposition’s Channel 5 off the air. Schools and kindergartens in central Kiev will remain closed today, as will the subway, the city administration said. Lights went out over Independence Square after midnight.
“I am calling on everyone who committed crimes to put down their arms and avoid severe punishment,” Andriy Portnov, deputy head of Yanukovych’s administration, said today. “We demand a stop to all illegal action, surrender to law enforcement, free all seized premises.”
Russia, which said this week it would renew funding for Ukraine, blamed the U.S. and the EU for the violence.
“Western politicians and European structures” and their “policy of connivance” are guilty for the escalation of the violence, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said yesterday.
The opposition is seeking to overturn constitutional changes that strengthened Yanukovych’s powers and to put Ukraine on a path toward EU membership. The standoff began on Nov. 21, when Yanukovych pulled out of a free-trade deal with the EU, opting instead for $15 billion of Russian aid and cheaper gas.
“There’s probably a will to involve the army in this conflict,” Viktor Sokolov, deputy head of the Gorshenin Institute in Kiev, said by phone today. “Before today’s change, the army might not have been as loyal to the president as he would have liked. This explains the reshuffle.”