Ukrainian Tango on the Brink: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

Co-authored by Maksymilian Czuperski

After several days of fighting on the streets of Kiev, it finally seems that President Viktor Yanukovych has seized on the quickly shrinking window for negotiations, agreeing on a truce with opposition leaders. As a part of this agreement, Yanukovych promised to surrender some of his presidential powers and to declare early elections. But as the situation remains extremely tense, it can easily turn violent again.

While the combined impact of EU sanctions and diplomatic engagement by the "Weimar trio" appear to have borne fruit, pushing Yanukovych to take a step back, the billion-dollar question now is whether the latest agreement will prove any more durable than the previous ceasefire?

Last time a truce between the opposition and the Yanukovych government was announced, on February 19, for the protesters it was a matter of time until that truce would be violated. Only a few hours later, the standoff turned into the most brutal yet in Kiev. According to recent reports, at least 75 people were killed and hundreds wounded between Wednesday and Friday morning.

Though the newest deal is a welcomed respite from recent days' brutal violence, no one should be surprised if the situation in Ukraine is soon taking yet another turn for the uglier. On the contrary, such an escalation of violence fits well with how Yanukovych has acted from day one of the crisis.

Yanukovych already showed his true colors several months ago. At each chance for reconciliation he either let pass or abuse the situation to pursuit his own interests. Each time a statement of peace was made, it turned out to be a dishonest and misleading offer aimed at fortifying the Yanukovych camp. With that, he has been chopping away at any chance for reconciliation one step at a time, pushing the crisis in Ukraine to the brink.

Make no mistake: Yanukovych is still looking for an excuse to crack down on the Maidan protestors once and for all. It is absolutely critical that he is not given such an excuse. If protestors keep urging for his immediate resignation and threatening to take action if he does not comply, it will ignite another confrontation that will threaten the very values that Euromaidan stands for -- a democratic Ukraine as a part of Europe whole and free. It is therefore crucial that the opposition remains true to that dream and avoids getting carried away into using violence. Such actions will only give Yanukovych the carte blanche he wants to have. No one put it more bluntly than Radoslaw Sikorski, telling Ukrainian opposition leaders that: If you don't support this deal you'll have martial law, you'll have the army. You will all be dead."

In response to the current stalemate in Ukraine, Europe and the United States need to stay firm in their support of a peaceful outcome. This means putting pressure on both the government and key opposition figures.

What evidently eventually brought Yanukovych to the negotiation table was pressure in the form of sanctions and direct EU diplomatic engagement. Just because an agreement has now been signed, there is no reason to back down. Instead, the EU should continue the diplomatic pressure, immediately dispatching a quartet of special envoys to Ukraine to oversee negotiations between the two parties. If need be, a European country could also offer to provide "good offices" for meetings and negotiations between the regime and opposition leaders.

For those police officers in the streets, the opposition must encourage their defection by providing the prospect of reconciliation before Yanukovich will have drawn them beyond the point of return. This means not just encouraging them to defect, but to also switch sides into joining the Maiden self-defense unit. This way, a buffer zone between the protestors and the government forces can be achieved. Such a solution would make it much harder for either side to cast the first stone. Already police officers from the Western-minded region Lviv have joined the ranks of the protesters in the square.

Moreover, the West must make clear its commitment to the aspirations of the millions of Ukrainians risking their lives in the streets by expanding support for the opposition. That means boosting humanitarian and medical aid so that the many injured can receive the necessary care and those thousands of protestors who continue to be predominately peaceful, will be able to continue standing up for their cause. A special EU fund for providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine must also be established to cope with the eventuality that Putin would shut of the country's gas supplies. Close coordination with the US will also be key in this regard.

In sum, as the "Ukraine tango" continues, the West must put pressure on Yanukovich while also strongly supporting the people in streets who worry about his next dance moves. The question now is whether Yanukovich will keep moving two steps forward one step back, or if he will go for his last spin?