Over the weekend, The New York Times published a comprehensive narrative report, based on interviews with various key players on both sides of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution (and in neighboring countries involved in managing the crisis), to try to get the full story of how President Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency came to an abrupt end last spring.
An investigation by The New York Times into the final hours of Mr. Yanukovych’s rule — based on interviews with prominent players, including former commanders of the Berkut riot police and other security units, telephone records and other documents — shows that the president was not so much overthrown as cast adrift by his own allies, and that Western officials were just as surprised by the meltdown as anyone else.
My main takeaway from reading the lengthy but compelling piece: Not only did two-thirds of eastern Ukrainians and virtually all western Ukrainians support the ouster of President Yanukovich last year (as was known from polls conducted in March, just after it happened), but it turns out all of the elites had abandoned him too — including his own ethnically Russian-dominated political party. Even former diehard supporters in the east were refusing to host him for a tour of factories and other sites, which might have provided cover for temporarily leaving Kiev for a cooling-off period without appearing to flee. (That disappearance, it seems, while not intended to create a vacuum, may actually have triggered the final decision by parliament to remove him from office early.)
By the end, security forces had shot innocent people, and the situation simply spiraled out of control, with Yanukovich unwilling to give orders — either to suppress the protests or to retreat. Whether people were always opposed to him, or were disgusted by the violence against the protesters, or were unwilling to follow an indecisive leader anymore, in the final days, basically nobody except the Kremlin was supporting him — or believed there was a “neo-fascist” coup in progress, as the propagandists continue to insist nearly a year later. In the end, there wasn’t a coup because the security forces simply abandoned the president and disappeared.
All the security commanders began calling the opposition and requesting escorts out of the capital — for as many as 5,000 troops or police — so they would not have to face protesters after 79 were killed and hundreds injured, particularly after Yanukovich promised to investigate and prosecute the very people protecting him for their roles in the shootings. (Unfortunately, a fair number of these people subsequently became separatist commanders and fighters.) Soon, there was nobody left in the capital’s streets to protect key sites — or the president himself.
In his final hours as president, aides say Yanukovich still appeared to have no idea that virtually everyone in the country had abandoned him and was stunned to learn that executive buildings had been taken over by protesters after he left the capital. He had believed, until that moment, that he would be returning shortly and would remain president for several more months until he could make a graceful, face-saving exit.