Ukraine is on the verge of spinning out of control. A pro-European protest that began more than two months ago in Kiev’s central square has flared into broad, angry opposition to the authoritarian policies of President Viktor F. Yanukovych. If the United States and European Union wish to encourage a peaceful resolution, they must use their leverage now. Otherwise the situation could degenerate further, to the point where the West will be no more than a spectator.Since its failed initial crackdown in late November, the Yanukovych government has procrastinated, employed force, and only recently offered political dialogue. This has not worked. As the government brought more police into Kiev, demonstrators became impatient with the standoff and attacked police lines. They ignored calls by the opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk to remain peaceful. Clashes in Kiev have left several protesters dead and hundreds injured, and demonstrations have spread across the country.
In a sign that he understands the precarious nature of his position, Mr. Yanukovych has begun to offer concessions — including a proposal on Monday to revoke laws pushed through Parliament on Jan. 16 that severely restrict political dissent. These concessions might have helped resolve the crisis a month or even two weeks ago. Now, however, the government is offering too little, too late. Even Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s offer to resign on Tuesday seems unlikely to appease the protesters.
In “The Anatomy of Revolution,” Crane Brinton famously observed that revolutions replace moderates with radicals, who then fall to authoritarians. Whether or not Ukraine is entering a revolutionary moment, the moderates’s hold clearly is loosening.
If the West seeks a peaceful settlement that returns Ukraine to a democratic path before mass violence erupts, this is the time to act. Washington and Brussels should immediately coordinate on several messages.
First, United States and European Union officials should make clear to Mr. Yanukovych that he must refrain from the use of force and must negotiate seriously to find a resolution to the crisis. That means going beyond his latest proposals. He must offer shared control over state security organs with the opposition. He needs to provide concrete assurances that the 2015 presidential election will be free and fair, including that Mr. Klitschko can run and that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will be released from prison.
Second, American and European officials should directly engage Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle and underscore that they need to act now to promote a settlement or face Western visa and financial sanctions. Washington took a good first step on Jan. 22 when it announced the revocation of visas for officials linked to the use of force. It should add financial sanctions and threaten also to target those close to Mr. Yanukovych, as well as their families, if they do not use their influence to end the crisis. The European Union should join in; it is in Europe that Ukrainian oligarchs close to the president park their money, buy luxury residences, travel on holiday, and send their children to school. People such as the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov must understand that they have a personal stake in achieving a peaceful, democratic settlement.
Third, American and European officials should press the opposition not to overreach. They should leave Mr. Yanukovych a way out. He could still order the police to move against the demonstrators. While that would undoubtedly hasten his departure from office, it could also mean more bloodshed and increase the stress on Ukraine’s unity.
Fourth, the European Union has already taken the good step of dispatching Stefan Füle, the Union’s commissioner for enlargement, to Kiev to mediate between the sides. Brussels needs to maintain a high-level team in Kiev for the duration of the crisis. In parallel, American and European diplomatic officials should visibly monitor the streets of Kiev: that makes it harder for the government to launch a crackdown and easier for opposition leaders to control less-disciplined protesters.
Fifth, Washington and Brussels need a coordinated message for Moscow. The West should be transparent with President Vladimir Putin about its actions. European leaders should caution Mr. Putin against taking steps that would intensify the crisis, a message that President Obama should send as well. Mr. Putin should understand that rough stuff with Ukraine would cast a shadow over his hopes as host for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi next month.
Western influence in Ukraine is real but limited and could fade. The United States and European Union should apply it now, lest the West find itself watching Ukraine succumb to widespread violence that it cannot stop.
The writers are former ambassadors to Ukraine. John E. Herbst (2003-06) is director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. William Green Miller (1993-98) is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Steven K. Pifer (1998-2000) is director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. William B. Taylor (2006-09) is vice president for the Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace.