Many Ukrainians think so, and they may have a point.

Here’s the way their argument goes. Start with the fact that President Viktor Yanukovych is so widely detested as to be bereft of the least shred of legitimacy. Continue with the fact that his regime is screamingly incompetent, corrupt, and hostile to reform. Add an internal economic crisis that is compounded by a global economic crisis. And stir in mounting popular discontent that will only get more brazen as the threefold crisis—of leader, regime, and economy—deepens. 

What’s left for the regime? What is its only remaining power resource? 

The answer is: force and violence. 

All governments, after all, maintain popular support, elicit compliance, and thereby stay in power with some combination of five resources.

If leaders are charismatic, people will support them because they believe in their wisdom. Yanukovych, needless to say, does not fit the bill.

If regimes have ideological appeal, people will support them because they believe in their visions for the future. The Yanukovych regime, as all Ukrainians know, has only one vision: plunder.

If regimes have economic resources, people will support them because of the material advantages that accrue to them. As even the Yanukovych people admit, they have no goodies to distribute and can stay afloat only by increasing taxes and cutting social programs.

If regimes have generous outside benefactors who provide them with the resources they lack, people will support them because of their ability to get free rides. Yanukovych has nowhere to go for such support: the Europeans insist on democracy in return, while the Russians insist on vassalage. 

Which leaves violence. If regimes have powerful coercive apparatuses, people will acquiesce in them because they fear for their lives. Does the otherwise bankrupt Yanukovych regime have the coercive wherewithal to force Ukrainians to love it?

The thousands of militiamen and special-forces agents that invariably appear, clad like Star Wars extras, at demonstrations would appear to suggest that the answer is yes. If so, then violence is not only possible but likely, especially as the regime’s illegitimacy, incompetence, and isolation grow.

But the picture is actually much more complicated than that. Bona fide authoritarian regimes always need the support of the army and the secret police in order to stay in power. Ukraine’s armed forces are underfed, undersupplied, underpaid, and undertrained. They can’t be relied on to tie their shoe laces, much less to crack down.

Ukraine’s Security Service is a fair-weather friend. It may have connived to undermine President Leonid Kuchma; it appears to have played some role in preventing a crackdown during the Orange Revolution. And it knows too much—both about the rottenness of the Yanukovych regime and the hatred of the public—to blithely throw in its lot with a lost cause.

The militia, which may number about 350,000, is also unreliable. Take a look at their fuzz-covered faces at a demonstration. They’re always looking away, as if they were ashamed of what they’re doing. And rightly so. Many of them are new recruits. Few of them believe in the regime. Most have joined because of the money and especially the bribes they extort from citizens. In sum, they’re mercenaries, and mercenaries, as we know from world experience, often flinch when push comes to shove and they have to crack the heads of friends and relatives and realize they have no place to hide if and when the regime comes crashing down.

That leaves the special forces. These guys are tough, and they’re probably ruthless. But even thugs can’t be counted on in crises. After all, what made Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the USSR’s KGB, or Germany’s SS so formidable is that they were true believers in the regime and its leader. What exactly do Ukraine’s elite forces believe in? 

The Yanukovych regime is now in the unenviable, but richly deserved, position of having nothing but coercion and violence to keep it in power. But resorting to violence is a very risky bet. The forces of coercion may carry out your orders—or they may not, especially if the protestors are senior citizens and coal miners in the Donbas. And even if they do carry them out, they’re likely to provoke a mass outburst of people power that will only hasten the regime’s collapse. Knowing that a large-scale use of coercion will probably fail, the Regionnaire thugs are likely to use violence selectively. But that strategy, too, is a dead end, as it won’t eliminate the opposition while continuing to enrage the population.

Worse, Yanukovych’s role model—Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime—is showing some big cracks. The United Russia party can hang on to power only by falsifying the recent Duma elections, while regular Russians, who are supposed to be quiescent, happy, or apathetic, have taken to the streets in protests. And, unlike Yanukovych, Putin is charismatic—and has ideological appeal, economic resources, and effective forces of coercion.

So what’s a powerless autocrat to do? Pray? Take to the bottle? Consult a fortune teller? 

Now that he’s backed himself into a corner, you can be sure of one thing: if Yanukovych does decide to spill the blood of his citizens, that won’t be a sign of strength, but of weakness, decrepitude, and despair.

Yanukovych would be sweating bullets—if he had any.

Alexander J. Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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