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

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Competing Claims of Responsibility for Mali Hotel Attack

Malian authorities ask public for help in identifying gunmen killed in attack, amid conflicting claims of responsibility from multiple jihadist groups active in the country

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs