A day before, Feb. 21, a complete power vacuum arose in the capital. Central governmental bodies stopped operating, the officials left their offices, and Yanukovych’s cronies fled the capital. The state collapsed.
No new government bodies were created; the chaos was rising. The country was absolutely unprotected from Russian moves, and the situation was critical. Russian propaganda flooded the Maidan, and it became obvious that Russia was preparing an intervention.
On Feb. 22, a convention of regional councils of Party of Regions headed by Yanukovych was to be held in Kharkiv. It was dubbed Ukrainian Front and could destroy Ukraine and invite “Russian peacemakers.” I believe it was the most dangerous moment when Ukraine could seize existing as a state and be divided along the Dnipro River.
Kharkiv was a real stronghold of separatism back then. Headed by Hennadii Kernes, a powerful organized criminal gang has been operating in the region. It was ready to form into militant units.
On Feb. 21, Kernes (Kharkiv mayor – ed.) and Dobkin (then Kharkiv governor – ed.) announced that on Feb. 22, delegations of regional councils from each region of Ukraine were to gather under Kharkiv mayor Hennadii Kernes and rule out the ‘coup d’état’ in Kyiv. Yanukovych also arrived. Up to 3,000 supporters of Yanukovych came to the city and were brought in, mostly from the Party of Regions factions from southeastern and central Ukraine. It was an obvious attempt to create and alternative government system to that in Kyiv, which would have fight for reinstating Yanukovych as president. It would have had catastrophic consequences for Ukraine.
Ukrainian Front was created by Party of Regions leadership in Kharkiv on Feb. 1 as a response of Yanukovych and his Moscow masters to the developments in the political situation of the country. Their goal was to “take the Maidan away from Kyiv and unblock the government’s operation.”
On Feb. 10, the first session of the Ukrainian Front was held. The participants were scolding “Maidan bandits.” Kharkiv governor Mykhailo Dobkin announced creation of a private security agency, the People’s Guard, which was to attack the Maidan.
Organized bandits from Kharkiv, together with Berkut [secret forces unit – ed.], on Feb. 18, 2014 showed their loyalty to Yanukovych. Under order by Kernes and Dobkin, they attacked protesters in Mariinskyi park in Kyiv. Together with Berkut soldiers, they killed five heroes of the Heavenly Hundred and wounded more than 200 people.
So Kharkiv authorities had combat-capable units of ‘self-defense’ back in February. It was ready to become the gates of the Russian invasion.
It became obvious in the evening of Feb. 21: the Ukrainian Front could have divided Ukraine and cause immediate occupation by Russian troops.
Here is my view of the invasion scenario:
First, Yanukovych fled from Kyiv, but a legal collision arose. Whatever Rada would pass on his overthrow, he was still a president under the Constitution. It was a matter of loyalty and whether he would be recognized as a president and commander-in-chief by regional councils and law enforcement agencies.
All chiefs of law enforcement agencies and special unit commanders were appointed during Yanukovych’s tenure and did not want to act. The stance of authorities in the regions where troops were located was of key importance.
Under such circumstances, Yanukovych would have arrived in Kharkiv, spoken to representatives of 20 regions, announced the coup in Kyiv; the Ukrainian Front would have decided on recognizing Yanukovych as legitimate president of Ukraine by all present regional representatives; they would have addressed Russia to send in “peacemakers” to save Russian-speaking population from the ‘junta’ genocide. Regional councils, controlled mostly by the Party of Regions, would have adopted similar addresses, and Ukraine would have split in two parts: Ukraine with capital in Kyiv, and “Ukraine of Putin and Yanukovych” with capital in Kharkiv. Militants of the “People’s Guard” would have organize bandits into gangs and dispersed protests the same way they did in the Mariinskyi park.
Strategically, Kyiv’s position would have become hopeless. The Kharkiv region is a center of Ukraine. If Russian “peacemakers” entered the region, then the rest of the eastern Ukraine would fall like domino pieces to the benefit of Yanukovych.
Controlling most of the country’s territory, Yanukovych would have been again legitimized as president. Supported by Russia, he would have dictated conditions to Kyiv and the Maidan. After eastern regions fall, southern would have followed.
In February 2014, Russian “peacemakers” could have entered any southeastern region on Ukraine on tanks, and there would have been many people fooled by propaganda who would have met them with Russian flags hoping that Putin is destroying Ukraine to raise pensions and salaries. Russian troops could have entered Kyiv as well with no problem — the command of the army was in chaos.
There were no doubts that the enemy saw these opportunities and was going to use them.
I called Hennadii Korban, with whom I was communicating during Maidan events, we discussed the threat and he recommended calling Ihor Kolomoiskyi. Kolomoiskyi and his 1+1 media group had been avid supporters of the Maidan since its beginning. Kolomoiskyi had some long-time business links with Kernes, although he never publicly spoke on Maidan events. Korban told me to ask Kolomoiskyi of his opinion right now — “he could warn Kernes so that he understood a thing.”
At around 1 a.m. I called Kolomoiskyi and recorded the following short but impressive commentary, which is a direct threat to Kernes:
“Separatism will not pass in my homeland, the Dnipropetrovsk region. Separatism will not pass in any southeastern region of our country. I want all politicians to take a sober look at the situation and form their attitude first of all within the Constitution of Ukraine and Criminal and Procedure Code. The one who will take on Ukraine’s unity will definitely lose.
“I especially want to address one person — Kharkiv Mayor Mr. Kernes. Hennadii Adolfovych, I believe it a misunderstanding that you were opening the Ukrainian Front. You will be granted a moral right to command a front and lead it to a battle only after you take your combat preparation seriously, and when you will risk yourself and your loved ones. … God save you from looking into eyes of mothers whose sons failed to return from your front. Ukraine never waged wars of conquest, and it will not surrender an inch of its lands. Mr. Kernes, if you start playing with fates of millions of people, you will make your own life even harder. Think of it.”
It was the first time when a Ukrainian oligarch unambiguously assessed the legitimacy of Yanukovych and opposed the scenario of Ukraine’s division. This statement must have affected Kernes.
Then-ally of Kolomoiskyi Borys Filatov also issued a strong statement:
“I am warning each deputy from Dnipropetrovsk against voting for the country’s split. We will get you bitches from underground. We will get you and lynch you.”
The effect of the statements made by Kolomoiskyi and Filatov was huge. The Ukrainian Front convention was to start prior to the Verknovna Rada session, at 9 a.m. That would have allowed President Yanukovych to voice his position prior to speeches of the people’s deputies. He could have put up his own and dangerous initiatives, given the anarchy in the government. He was controlling half of the parliament, and in order to make decisions and amend the Constitution, he needed a 300 strong majority. At 8 a.m. it turned out that the start of the Ukrainian Front convention was postponed — first for an hour, then for another one.
At 10 a.m. the Verkhovna Rada started its session. Oleksandr Turchynov delivered a speech: “Most of the acting ministers have disappeared. We do not know where the president is. So the only legitimate body in this country is the Verkhovna Rada. If we do not find the president in a couple of hours, the parliament should vote for restoration of the constitutional order.”
It was a breaking point. The Ukrainian Front convention opened late, and did not pass any dangerous decisions for Ukraine. Kernes and Dobkin disappeared; their militants didn’t take to the streets. The anti-Ukrainian front lost its chiefs.
At 12:30 p.m. 288 MPs elected Turchynov the head of the Verkhovna Rada. This put a start to the new revolutionary vertical of power. If not for this parliamentary majority and MPs’ assuming responsibility for the situation in the country, Ukraine could not have been saved. The voting of the 288 MPs for the new government was of key importance.
Turchynov announced the parliament was assuming responsibility for the events in the country.
The MPs supported the bill No.4193 “On self-withdrawal of the president of Ukraine from exercising his constitutional powers.” This bill stipulated for presidential election on May 25, 2014.
The parliamentary official newspapers Holos Ukrainy published the bill on returning to Constitution of 2004. This was announced from the Maidan stage by independent MP Petro Poroshenko. He showed the people a copy of the newspaper and said “It’s a symbol of our victory!”
The Ukrainian Front failed to gather on time, Yanukovych didn’t show up. The decision on his discharge was supported by 328 MPs. It was a historic step.
A constitutional majority was formed in the parliament which brought Yanukovych down. It was a historic step. The dictator was gone.
The Ukrainian Front gathered at around 1 p.m. Of course, they were defaming the Maidan. However, it didn’t go as planned — its organizer Kernes flew to Switzerland to talk with Kolomoiskyi. In Kharkiv, a pro-Ukrainian demonstration took place, with up to 20,000 participants, which possibly scared Yanukovych as well.
Given all of that, Yanukovych canceled his speech in Kharkiv. Kernes couldn’t offer him guarantees of security, and Yanukovych didn’t risk speaking in front of his loyal supporters.
On that day, the anti-Ukrainian “Ukrainian Front” disappeared from the Ukrainian political scene forever. They were ready to play the Russian scenario, to support any moves by the Kremlin, and justify any invasion.
The same night Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Russian special operation forces illegally entered Ukraine on helicopters and took him to Russia.
Putin wanted to make Yanukovych his puppet. At the same time, Russian leadership realized that no authorities in Kyiv, with no money in the state budget, would lead to complete chaos and possible riots that make a perfect environment for invasion.
It was a strategic mistake of the Kremlin — they lost time, and as Yanukovych got out of the game for several days, his power system collapsed.
Today it seems obvious that it was Feb. 22 when Putin lost his chance to invade the entire Ukraine. The Kremlin didn’t think the Ukrainian society would support forming authorities without Yanukovych.
Ukraine succeeded to stand despite no authority and empty budget. The society managed to organize itself during the Maidan. The new authorities were recognized by the people and soon after — by the global community.
Yanukovych again attempted to legitimize the invasion of Russia in Ukraine on March 1 from Rostov-on-Don. He signed an address to the U.N. and a request to the Federal Council of the Russian Federation to send in troops in Ukraine. However, it was too late. If this address was passed at the Kharkiv convention and supported by the Party of Regions in regional councils, it would have been a bitter blow to the new Kyiv government.
Putin’s attempt to destroy Ukraine as a state failed during those days. The Kremlin didn’t expect the consolidation of the society and decisive actions of the parliament. The Russian Federation started planning invasion of Ukraine in parts.
But those were the days when Ukraine started building a really independent state.
Yurii Butusov, Censor.NET