News / Europe

    News Analysis: Attention Focuses On Ukraine's 'Thin Blue Line'

    Riot police officers take position outside Kyiv's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Ukraine, Feb. 1, 2014.
    Riot police officers take position outside Kyiv's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Ukraine, Feb. 1, 2014.
    Robert Coalson, RFE/RLRFE/RL
    After weeks of protests and intermittent clashes between demonstrators and police in Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine, the country's police and security forces are stretched thin.  It remains to be seen whether or not President Viktor Yanukovych can continue to count on their loyalty.

    One video purported to show a masked Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] officer in the Western region of Ivano-Frankivsk announcing his resignation and that of several of his officers.

    The video, which was released last week, claimed the unidentified man was a member of the SBU's elite Alpha special-operations unit.

    Another video posted on January 30 purports to show a former officer of the Interior Ministry's special semi-militarized troops discussing widespread discontent among his former comrades facing the barricades in Kyiv.

    After weeks of mass demonstrations, videos like these - and reports that pro-European protesters in Western Ukraine met only mild resistance when they occupied government buildings in 10 regions last week - have raised questions about the possibility of splits in the country's law-enforcement and security services.

    If police begin refusing to obey the government's orders - or if some line up with the demonstrators - it would be a potentially decisive development in the ongoing standoff between President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition demonstrators.

    Ukraine isn't quite there yet, analysts say. The thousands of Berkut specialized crowd-control officers and Interior Ministry troops have been responding to orders - pushing back protesters, dismantling barricades, and using non-lethal force as instructed.

    Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and expert on security services in post-Soviet states, said the Berkut, Ukraine's elite riot police, are almost a separate caste of people, selected and trained to emphasize obedience.

    "These are very different people. On the whole they are recruited from ex-military, especially paratroopers and such like," said Galeot. "They have a very macho and actually quite insular culture. Although they haven't always been used effectively, in the main these are tough, professional, well-trained - if not particularly humane or subtle - elements."

    He added that images of police being engulfed by flames from Molotov cocktails allegedly thrown by protesters make it hard for many front-line police to view the protesters as merely patriotic Ukrainians who have "taken another path."

    But the longer the crisis drags on analysts say, the higher the likelihood that the loyalty of law-enforcement troops could bend, or break.

    Berkut officers, Galeotti noted, generally live and work in their communities and it is a real possibility that officers could end up sympathizing with those on the other sides of the barricades. "There is always that possibility and I think this is one of the issues as the conflict flares up more, particularly outside of Kyiv. As you start going westward, the people in Berkut are going to be west Ukrainians, they may well see their relatives or their friends or people they were at school with in the crowds... and also, they are more likely to, even if they are willing agents of the current regime, they nonetheless emotionally have ties with the sort of strand of opinion that says Ukraine should be part of Europe, that Ukraine should not be a Russian satrapy."

    In such situations, including the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, one shouldn't expect open defections but rather "an unwillingness to get involved," Galeotti says.

    As the opposition becomes increasingly entrenched and sets up, for instance, parallel governing institutions, it becomes easier for officers to step aside:

    "If I was an officer in charge of a [Berkut] regiment in Lviv [in western Ukraine] and I could see that there were real signs that the tide was turning against the government, there arises that question of do you really want to be on trial in a few months' time after the regime has fallen for your actions. Again, I don't think that what we'll be seeing is necessarily defections but just simply an unwillingness to get involved."

    Perhaps mindful of this, the government appears to be taking measures to bolster its enforcers.

    Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Ratushnyak said last week that the cabinet had allocated additional funding to "staff up" law enforcement agencies. "Today we are only speaking about the fact that the cabinet allocated financing for law enforcement agencies, which today are not completely staffed. We face a shortage of 14 percent," he said.

    Analysts and opposition leaders fear this means the government might add up to 45,000 additional police.

    However, Hennadiy Moskal, a parliamentarian with the opposition Batkivschyna faction and a former deputy interior minister, tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that adding to the ranks of the Berkut is no simple matter - since it involves fairly rigorous selection and at least six months of training. "So raising up a new Berkut officer is not just a matter of the stroke of a pen, or of demonstrating the political will, or anything like that."

    If Yanukovych's government seeks to beef up security by calling on the military, it could bring about a crucial turning point, according to Galeotti. "The military has very pointedly said 'we do not have a role in these kinds of operations.' And if then the government started to say, 'we want you to go out and support the Berkut,' I wouldn't be surprised if - especially in the west of the country - we began to see not necessarily units siding with the protesters, but units refusing to obey their orders. And as soon as that happens, that is really the beginning of the end for a regime."

    RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Tetyana Yarmoshchuk contributed to this report from Kyiv.

    You May Like

    In Britain, The Sun Still Doesn’t Shine

    Invoking Spitfires and Merlin, Leave voters insist country can be great again, following surprising 'Brexit' vote last week

    Double Wave of Suicide Bombings Puts Lebanon, Refugees on Edge

    Following suicide bombings in Christian town of Al-Qaa, on Lebanon's northeast border with Syria, fears of further bombings have risen

    US Senators Warned on Zika After Failing to Pass Funding

    Zika threats and challenges, as well as issues of contraception and vaccines, spelled out as lawmakers point fingers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeasti
    X
    June 29, 2016 6:15 PM
    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora