Ukraine’s crisis sits on a knife edge as protest morphs into revolution

John Hulsman
THERE is almost nothing more difficult for a political risk analyst than assessing the dynamics of a revolution, a situation in which long-held conventional wisdom can be upended in a matter of minutes. For only one question matters in Kiev today: what is the likely end game for Ukraine, and how do we get there? Given that at least another 21 people were killed yesterday morning, as security forces opened fire on the protesters, the whole thing now sits on a knife’s edge.

Three basic compass points will guide our way. First, forget all the sturm und drang surrounding Western sanctions, how angry President Obama is with President Putin of Russia, and the Russians urging Ukrainian President Yanukovych to face down his opponents in the streets. In the end, none of this is decisive. It is safe to say that Russia is providing Yanukovych with more support than the West is the demonstrators. This matters at the edges. But short of Russian military intervention (which would amount to a new global Black Swan for both investors and governments), outside forces will not determine the outcome in Ukraine.

The second lesson can be boiled down to a universal truth expressed in the lyrics of the great Jim Morrison, “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers.” At the beginning of most revolutionary situations, the state has the vast preponderance of force, but it must be prepared to use it.

The doleful rule of revolutions is that it is only when elites compromise that they go the way of the dinosaur. Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia did not fall when they repressed their people. Rather, their reigns came to an end after a period of compromise with their opponents. By contrast, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia shot to kill the Decembrists, allowing himself to die safely in his bed. Yanukovych has shown signs of equivocating; paradoxically, if he were to try to reach out to the protestors after this week’s carnage, his continued control of Kiev would be put at grave risk. His iron fist would have been shown to be less than advertised.

Lastly, how organised are the protestors, and how quickly can they coalesce? The Maoists in China, the Jacobins in France, and the Bolsheviks in Russia never had majority support; they won their respective revolutions because they were organised, ruthless, and prepared to use force to advance their cause. Radical elements seem to be emerging among the Ukrainian protesters, whose popularity is likely to swell given the state’s recent bloodletting. But they must organise themselves very quickly, or their challenge to Yanukovych will flicker out.

Our revolutionary compass points give Yanukovych a slight edge just now to stay in power, but one that is far from assured. If he loses his nerve, and if his opponents radicalise and organise in the wake of what has happened, he could well be toppled. Ukraine is truly a case where everything is still to play for.

Dr John C Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.

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