The man who may be responsible for helping to keep the violence in Ukraine from escalating has reportedly left Kiev and gone to Crimea. But Ukrainian Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedyev’s work may essentially be done: by helping to keep the Ukrainian military on the sidelines during the massive protests that have rocked the country in recent weeks, he set the stage for a what could be a relatively peaceful transition to a new government.
The situation on the ground in Kiev has changed radically, and rapidly, over the past two days. On Friday, President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal to limit his powers, an acknowledgement that his move to align the country closer to Russia was not politically sustainable. On Saturday, with pitched battles raging in the streets between Ukrainian police and tens of thousands of protesters, parliament voted overwhelmingly to remove Yaunkovych from office and his nemesis, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was freed from prison. While Yanukovych insists that he remains in power, the moves were a hopeful sign that a violent chapter in the country’s history was ending.
But despite the battles between security forces and protesters in recent weeks — fighting that left at least 100 people dead — the Ukrainian military never got involved. That may be largely due to the efforts of Lebedyev, a thick-necked former auto mechanic and businessman whose complete lack of defense-related experience sparked intense public criticism when his appointment was announced in December 2012. Lebedyev was derided as a Yanukovych crony, which makes his refusal to use military force of behalf of his former benefactor all the more striking.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with Lebedyev to seek assurances that the Ukrainian armed forces wouldn’t intervene in the fighting or turn its guns on the protesters, jibes that could have caused a drastic spike in the carnage.
«Minister Lebedyev assured the secretary that the Ukrainian armed forces remain the protectors of the Ukrainian people, that their deployment inside the country has been focused on protecting defense facilities and equipment, and that his forces would not use arms against the Ukrainian people,» Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement late Friday.
Kirby’s statement said Hagel was «encouraged» by the apparent agreement reached between Yanukovich’s government and the opposition in that it could prevent further violence. «He commended the government’s decision to keep the military on the sidelines of the crisis thus far and urged continued restraint,» Kirby said.
But by Saturday, it looked as if Lebedyev had left for Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea. Pentagon officials said they were aware of the media reports about Lebedyev’s whereabouts and that there had been no further contact between the Defense Department and the Ukrainian military.
It had taken days to link Lebedyev and Hagel together despite efforts by the Pentagon to get the two on the phone. On Thursday, Kirby indicated that the Ukrainian armed forces were only being used to protect military facilities like weapons and ammunition storage sites – not, he stressed, against the protesters. Still, Kirby expressed frustration Thursday that Lebedyev hadn’t been taking Hagel’s calls.
«We are continuing our efforts to arrange for the secretary to communicate directly with Minister Lebedyev, but so far, the Ministry of Defense has been unresponsive to our requests,» Kirby said Thursday. The two men finally spoke on Friday.
Protests in Ukraine began last fall but have heated up in recent days. Although the country is divided over its future, the protests reflected many Ukrainians’ desire to be more politically and economically connected to Europe. Yanukovych had rejected a deal in November to be better integrated with the European Union.
He is now out of power, and the country is preparing for elections that could be held as early as May. Still, a lot can change between now and then, and the next weeks will be critical. Retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former head of the military’s European Command, warned that when the glow of the Olympics in Sochi fades, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to try to pull Ukraine closer will reawaken.
«The next shoe to drop will be the post-Olympic attitude of Russia and Putin,» Stavridis said. «As the Olympic torch goes out, buckle up — Putin will not go gently off the stage of Ukraine.»