Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Stefan MeisterSenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is a man of the past with no ideas for his country. The best service he could do for Ukraine is to resign.

The longer Yanukovych stays in power, the more he loses legitimacy. He has used violence against his own people, and all his actions since his decision in November 2013 not to sign an association agreement with the EU have provoked more demonstrations. He is unable and unwilling to reconcile with the proactive elements of Ukrainian society because his main interest is to stay in power at all costs. Yanukovych is a typical post-Soviet leader who doesn’t understand that his country’s society is transforming, and that he cannot stop that process.

Yanukovych cares only about his own position and the loyalty of those around him. Now, he has maneuvered himself into a situation where any change will worsen that position, even though it may be good for the country. If he resigns, he might end up like former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. If he does not resign, his only way to end the demonstrations is through violence, because the protesters will accept nothing less than his resignation.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

It is not up to Viktor Yanukovych to decide whether he should resign. He should call Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin to find out.

Clearly, the Ukrainian leader has lost his political compass, but he may take comfort in the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Two years ago, few savvy analysts would have bet on the Alawite regime in Damascus. Today it seems pretty solid. Assad counted on Putin, and Putin delivered in the form of a chemical weapons disarmament deal that forestalled military action.

In Ukraine, Yanukovych will follow the same tack. He will rely solidly on Moscow and count on European serendipity and American domestic troubles. People on the streets of Kiev will keep grumbling, but any political solution is up to them. If they are not strong enough, wise enough, or connected enough to jump-start a new political agenda, the regime will go on.

And the world? Well, for the next few weeks the world will watch the Sochi Winter Olympics and debate the finer points of curling and ice-skating.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

No. Like it or not, Viktor Yanukovych was elected in what was considered a relatively fair election. Removing him at the behest of protesters in the street is not the sort of thing a democracy should get into the habit of doing. He made a policy choice that has proved wildly unpopular, and he has forced through legislation that is clearly undemocratic, much of which he has now promised to repeal.

The real concern should be the president’s violations of democratic norms, rather than his decision last fall to reject an association agreement with the EU. The demonstrators are not blameless, as they have gone beyond peaceful protests to blocking streets and occupying government buildings. That is something that few democratic governments—with the possible exception of France—would tolerate.

Both sides in the Ukrainian crisis need to back off and find a compromise that preserves the gains made by the 2004 Orange Revolution and continues the slow and painful process of building a legitimate democracy. The opposition should accept the recently vacated office of the prime minister and work with the president to reach a solution.


Dmitri TreninDirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center

Viktor Yanukovych should withdraw from politics. But a number of other things need to happen as well.

The present crisis in Ukraine has gone farther than many expected. The country is teetering on the brink of large-scale violence and chaos. To forestall this, Ukrainians need to reach a domestic compromise. In addition to Yanukovych’s replacement by an interim president, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, that compromise should involve four other elements.

First, the 2004 constitution should be reinstated, with an enhanced role for parliament and a reduction of the powers of the presidency. Second, new parliamentary elections should take place in 2014, followed in short order by fresh presidential elections. Third, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko should be released from prison and allowed to take part in politics again. Fourth, there should be a general amnesty for all participants in the recent confrontation.

To help Ukrainians achieve such a compromise, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, under its current Swiss chairmanship, should step forward as the principal facilitator. The Swiss should also talk to those outside powers with interests and influence in Ukraine: the EU, Russia, and the United States.

Ukraine’s political stabilization and future reforms will be impossible without massive economic and financial support. That should come from the EU. The Europeans need to put their money where their mouth is. Russia would be wise to allow this.


Marcin ZaborowskiDirector of the Polish Institute of International Affairs

Yes, he should. It is true that Viktor Yanukovych was elected in competitive elections that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared free and fair. Under a truly constitutional system, he should stay in office until the next election in 2015.

However, Ukraine is no longer a truly constitutional system, not least because Yanukovych changed the rules of the game halfway through his presidency by boosting his powers and silencing his opponents by throwing them in prison. His mismanagement of the economy brought Ukraine to the verge of collapse, while his personal fortune grew massively, making him one of the richest people in Ukraine.

Yanukovych’s inept policies and his subservience to Russia, which fly in the face of Ukrainians’ fierce attachment to independence, have brought thousands on to the streets and led to the emergence of the Maidan protest movement. The demonstrations have endured, grown, and become increasingly radical.

Yet the opposition leaders do not lead Maidan, but rather are tolerated by it. That is increasingly polarizing not just Ukraine’s political scene but also its society. As tensions grow, there is more violence—there have already been four confirmed cases of politically motivated assassinations and many more disappearances of leading activists. If these trends continue, Ukraine could even descend into civil war.

To prevent the worst from happening, Yanukovych should depart the scene, and there should be an orderly transfer of power to a national unity government. That new administration should call immediate elections and reinstate the 2004 constitution. In fact, things have gone so far that this may be the only way out of the current conundrum. For Yanukovych to leave the scene peacefully, he would need a guarantee of immunity from prosecution and the preservation of at least some of his fortune. That might not be fair, but it may be the price worth paying to prevent disaster.