Why President Yanukovych fled Ukraine
On February 22, 2014, President Viktor Yanukovych left the president’s post vacant. But why? Wasn’t his presidency safe? The day before he had signed an agreement with the opposition, witnessed by three EU foreign ministers, that would have kept him as president until December 2014.
This analysis argues that Yanukovych decided to flee from the capital three days earlier, on February 19, after failing to wipe out the opposition with the "Operation Boomerang" police action. On that day he ordered his staff to begin packing his valuables. For the next three days, his property was placed into removal vans; once the process was over, early in the morning of February 22, he left.
Other explanations of why he abandoned his post do not reflect what actually happened. For example, Christian Neef in Yanukovych's Fall: The Power of Ukraine's Billionaires, Der Spiegel, February 25, 2014, credits the oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash with causing Yanukovych’s downfall, arguing that their supporters in parliament, 60 and 30 MPs respectively, voted with the opposition on February 20 to topple Yanukovych by removing his ability to use “anti-terrorist” actions against the protesters.
However, voting figures from that day show that very few of Akhmetov’s or Firtash’s MPs were present. As a matter of fact only 35 out of 205 MPs from the Party of Regions were in parliament to vote against Yanukovych.
Neither can the official opposition or Western diplomats be seen as the reason behind his departure, given that both sides had signed a document ensuring that he would remain president until the next election.
The facts on the ground also belie the repeated claims by President Putin and his minions that Yanukovych was toppled by a coup.
What happened was that Yanukovych removed himself from the president’s office after failing to exterminate the opposition with force. He literally gave up.
Day 1 – Tuesday, February 18 – Operation Boomerang
In Kiev that morning thousands of protesters marched on parliament in a peaceful protest to demand a change in the constitution to limit the president’s powers. The paramilitary police, Berkut, and hired thugs met them with clubs, tear gas, flash and stun grenades, and shotgun pellets, killing at least four protesters and injuring hundreds more.
For the first time, a few protesters used firearms, killing and wounding a number of policemen. Some protesters set fire to the office of the pro-presidential Party of Regions, where an employee died.
In Mariinsky Park, which adjoins the parliament building, Berkut and hired thugs trapped and attacked about a hundred protesters. In a scene reminiscent of a medieval battlefield, ten rebels laid dead and the rest left semi-conscious and bleeding (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hYvM_aIc4Y).
By the afternoon, the paramilitary police had pushed back the protesters from the government district to their protest camp on Independence Square.
At 20:00, the police launched “Operation Boomerang". Its aim was to annihilate the street fighters by taking over their headquarters in the nine-floor trade union building, and wiping out the protest camp.
According to the plan, the commander of the operation, Major-General Stanislav Shulyak of the Internal Ministry, was to have at his disposal 22,000 police personnel, including 10,000 Ministry of Interior troops, 8,000 regular police, and 2,000 Berkut police paramilitaries.
Despite suffering great losses, the street fighters survived the onslaught of Operation Boomerang. They lost their headquarters in the trade union building, as it was set on fire, and the Ukrainian House on European Square, but held on to their camp in Independence Square.
The street fighters suffered twenty-eight dead and more than a thousand wounded. Likewise, the government losses were high: thirteen dead and 565 wounded.
Day 2 – Wednesday February 19 – Yanukovych starts packing
At 05:00, in anticipation of the protesters being wiped out, Yanukovych issued a statement saying that he “categorically opposed” the use of force, and blaming the violence on the opposition.
This was typical Yanukovych, saying one thing in public and doing the opposite in private. At about the same time, President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, blamed the violence on extremists attempting a state coup.
What surprised everyone, especially Yanukovych, was that the street fighters had survived the onslaught, and were being reinforced by thousands of new recruits. Now that his final attempt to ratchet up the violence against the opposition had failed, he decided to start packing. He ordered his staff to pack the valuables in Khonka, his house on the Mezhyhirya estate, and get removers to take them away.
At 12:23, a security camera shows Yanukovych leaving his Khonka residence for the president’s office in central Kyiv. He left late probably because he had been up most of the night watching the failed outcome of Operation Boomerang.
With hindsight, this was an odd name to choose for the operation, as it boomeranged against him.
Following his departure, the security cameras show his staff packing valuables. At 16:43, the first of at least six removal vans arrived. The packing and removal took three days and it wasn’t until the early hours of February 22 that it was completed.
Supervising the packing was a lady identified as Lyubov Polezhay. According to information on her Facebook page, she was from the town of Yenakiyevo, just like Yanukovych. According to other sources, she had a child at Kyiv’s Pechersk International School, and was a hairdresser by profession and the sister of Yanukovych’s personal chef.
After arriving at the president’s office, Yanukovych met with Shulyak, the commander of the failed “Operation Boomerang”. While there is no transcript of their conversation, Yanukovych could not have been pleased at the failure to annihilate the protesters.
At 21:50, Yanukovych and his staff met the three leaders of the opposition in the presidential building. The president agreed to an armistice and declared that he would negotiate a political solution.
The mass media quoted acting prime minister Serhei Arbuzov as telling EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule, that "Berkut's Kalashnikovs will remain silent." Next day, the opposite took place.
Day 3 – Thursday, February 20 – the bloodiest day
Instead of an armistice, February 20 proved to be the deadliest day of the three-month conflict. Government forces killed over sixty protesters and wounded hundreds more.
As Yanukovych left his residence at 09:17, for the president’s office in the capital, the street fighting had resumed in earnest. Already at 07:30, street fighters launched their counter-attack, advancing with sticks, paving stones and Molotov cocktails from Independence Square towards the president’s office. The police met them with war cannon, stun grenades, teargas, a hail of shotgun pellets, and for the first time live ammunition. Reports that the street that some protesters had guns could not be confirmed. (http://www.buzzfeed.com/maxseddon/death-toll-rises-in-ukraine-crisis-as-clashesshatter- truce)
A Berkut police unit used Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles to shoot and kill protesters. The unit, nicknamed the “Black Squad” because of their black uniforms, and identified by their yellow armbands, shot at anyone, including fighters, medical staff, and journalists. Within an hour, the “Black Squad” had shot dead seventeen people and wounded hundreds more. Snipers from the state security service, SBU, shot and wounded other protesters. None of the shot protesters were seen with firearms.
Within a few hours, the police shot dead 67 and wounded a few thousand, according to the MP and former minister of police, Hennadyi Moskal.
The most seriously hurt, about 200, were transported to foreign hospitals. One who had three 40-mm bullets in his head was taken to Germany and survived.
The government forces also suffered. Street fighters killed about a dozen policemen and injured further thousand.
Over the three-day period, 103 protesters were killed and 166 were unaccounted for. Meanwhile back at Yanukovych’s Khonka residence, more removal vans arrived to take away his valuables. At about 14:20, according to the security cameras, the president’s youngest son, Viktor junior, appeared and soon left with two shopping bags.
In the afternoon, as the fighting died down and the police retreated to positions around the president’s office, the SBU through a mutual contact persuaded the leader of the street fighters, Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector, to meet with Yanukovych to end the bloodshed. The SBU drove Yarosh to the president’s office. The conversation ended unsatisfactorily for the president. Yarosh said he told him that his fighters would not sign a peace agreement and continue the fight to the end.
In the late evening, an emergency session of parliament voted to end Yanukovych’s police action against the protesters. Most of the 205 MPs from Yanukovych's Party of Regions were not present to vote, and all 32 MPs from the Communist Party were absent.
The failure of the police action caused panic in the president’s ruling circle. That evening, the VIP lounges at Kyiv airports were packed with officials and their families desperate to get away.
Day 4 – Friday, February 21 – the peace agreement is signed
On Friday, at about 17:00, parliament voted by a huge majority, 386 out of 450 votes, to reinstate the 2004 constitution in which the president has to share state power with parliament.
At 18:45, after discussions that lasted all day, Yanukovych and the three opposition leaders, Arseni Yatsenyuk (Fatherland), Vitali Klitschko (UDAR) and Oleh Tyahnybok (Svoboda) signed a peace agreement. It was witnessed by Germany’s foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, Poland’s foreign minister Radoslav Sikorsky, and Eric Fournier from the French Foreign Ministry. Russia’s representative, Vladimir Lukin, who took part in the discussions, didn’t sign it. (http://www.auswaertigesamt.de/cae/servlet/contentblob/671350/publicationFile/190 027/140221-UKR_Erklaerung.pdf)
The agreement was generous to Yanukovych, allowing him to remain president until elections scheduled to take place in December. But he had negotiated in bad faith. He had spent the day arguing about the details of the agreement when he had already decided to abandon the president’s office.
The protesters refused to accept the agreement. At an evening rally on Independence Square, the street fighter Volodymyr Parasyuk interrupted the three political leaders presenting the agreement to voice his rejection of it. To a cheering vast crowd, he warned Yanukovych that he had until ten o’clock the next morning to resign from office or the rebels would resume their attack. Little did he or the crowd know that President Yanukovych had already decided to run away.
During the day, as the president was negotiating, the removal of his valuables at his Mezhyhirya residence intensified under the protection of armed guards. At 14:22 two more removal vans arrived. The removers packed the vans at great speed and left, and followed by two more vans. Besides paintings and icons, scores of rifles and shotguns were loaded on the vans. The removers continued to work into the night.
The president returned to his residence at 20:55.
At 21:24, Yanukovych emerged briefly to issue orders to the removers. (http://news.liga.net/articles/politics/998988kak_yanukovich_pokidal_mezhigore_video_evakuatsii_tse nnostey.htm)
At 21:26, while Yanukovych was still at his Khonka residence, the newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli, www.zn.ua, reported that according to a senior source in the presidential administration Yanukovych had fled Kyiv for Kharkiv. This was the first of many premature news reports about his departure.
Day 5 – Saturday, February 22
As a consequence of the rumors that Yanukovych had fled, the police guarding the presidential building disappeared. Already at 01:00, the street fighters reported that they were in control of the government district in the capital.
But Yanukovych had not yet fled.
At 04.00, the packing of Yanukovych’s valuables ended. As the last of the removal vans drove out of the estate, Yanukovych, the unidentified dark-haired female companion, his staff and twenty-one bodyguards boarded two helicopters. They flew to Kharkiv to stay in a secret government residence called Obukhiv.
In the morning, the street fighters and journalists entered the building housing the president’s office to find a few security guards, who let them in. The thousands of police and SBU Alfa paramilitaries, who had guarded the building the previous night, were gone.
Protesters arrived at the Mezhyhirya estate. They didn’t find anyone from the 650- strong police force that normally guarded it. Soon political tourists begun to stream into the estate to view what soon became to be known as a monument to corruption.
Where did the removal vans go? The helicopters? Yanukovych?
The destination of the removal vans has not been ascertained. At least Yanukovych was able to remove his valuables; some his officials departed so hurriedly that they left behind millions of dollars. The minister of energy and coal industry, Edward Stavytsky, left in his apartment more than two million dollars in gold bars (fifty kilograms of gold), and five million dollars in cash.
As for the helicopters, they flew to Kharkiv, where Yanukovych was expected to attend an emergency conference of governors, MPs and local officials from the regions of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea. A large delegation of Russian officials also came. But Yanukovych failed to show up at the conference, which ended on a confused note with no clear decision on what the regions should do next.
Why didn’t Yanukovych attend the conference? It would have given him the opportunity to reassert his authority as president over at least eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Perhaps he didn’t go simply because he had given up being president, despite his public statements to the contrary.
Day 6 – February 23, Turchynov acting president
Parliament replaced its speaker Volodymyr Rybak with Oleksandr Turchynov, from Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party. As Yanukovych had runaway, Turchynov became acting president until presidential elections scheduled for May 26, 2014.
Parliament released Yanukovych’s political prisoner Yuliya Tymoshenko, and selected a new minister of interior, Arsen Avakov. It also voted to remove Yanukovych as president because he had fled from his constitutional obligations.
At 15:00, two hours after the Kharkiv conference adjourned, Yanukovych appeared on Kharkiv TV station 112. In the interview recorded earlier at the secret government Obukhiv dacha near Kharkiv, he stated "I am the legitimately elected president".
He explained his non-attendance at the Kharkiv conference by saying that he had needed to deal with the many attacks on his party members by the opposition. He cited the case of the speaker of parliament, Volodymyr Rybak, who he said had had to resign that day after being beaten up.
Rybak soon appeared on TV to describe Yanukovych’s claim as "absurd," and denied that any such attack on him took place.
Yanukovych made another less than true assertion: "I did all I could to ensure that in Ukraine there would be no bloodshed".
He also lied when he said: "I'm not going to leave the country or resign. I'm not afraid," As his interview was being broadcast, he and his bodyguards and companions were on their way in two helicopters to Donetsk airport. There, Yanukovych intended to board his private Falcon executive jet to fly to Moscow. But Donetsk airport officials refused to allow either his plane or the helicopters to take off.
Yanukovych left the airport to visit his long time financial sponsor, the super-oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Afterwards Yanukovych and his younger son, also Viktor, then apparently drove in a motorcade to Crimea.
Why didn’t Yanukovych stay in Donetsk, which, after all, was his political base where he would be untouchable and have political support? Probably for the same reason he didn’t stay in Kyiv and Kharkiv. He didn’t want to be president any longer.
Why he went to Crimea is not clear. If he wanted to go to Russia, his motorcade could have driven the relatively short distance from Donetsk to Russia.
For the next three days in Crimea, which was still part of Ukraine, Yanukovych didn’t do anything to reassert his authority as president. Again adding to the evidence that he didn’t want to be president anymore.
Tuesday – February 25, Yanukovych apprently arrived in Moscow.
In an interview with Associated Press on April 2, Yanukovych said that he had invited Russian troops into Crimea inorder to protect the population from an invasion of anti-Russians.
Wednesday – February 26 – occupation of Crimea
At 04:00 Russian special forces launched their seizure of Crimea, taking over government buildings and airports, and surrounding Ukrainian military bases. Russian troops carried out the invasion without identification marks on their uniforms and vehicles, in an attempt to persuade people around the world that local forces had staged a coup.
On February 28, two days after Crimea was occupied, Yanukovych appeared at a press conference in Rostov-on-Don. “I was forced to leave Ukraine because of an immediate threat to my life and the lives of people close to me,” he told the journalists. Though he still claimed to be president, he didn't criticize Russia for its seizure of Crimea.
But in an interview with Associated Press on April 2, Yanukovych regretted at having invited Russian troops into Crimea. He claimed it was to protect the population from an invasion of anti-Russians. He promised to negotiate with Putin to get Crimea back. He denied any responsibility for the killing of the protesters in Kyiv, and any corruption.
The whereabouts of his valuables from his estate near Kyiv is still unknown. His most valuable possessions, the two Augusta Westland AW139 helicopters costing around $10 million each, and his private airplane, a Falcon 900 executive jet worth around $33 million, have been reported to be at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Apparently, they arrived in Vnukovo three weeks after Yanukovych had fled Ukraine. Yanukovych got back these aircrafts surreptitiously. The Falcon left Donetsk to be repaired in Switzerland, while the helicopters went to Moldova. From these places they flew to Vnukovo.
Yanukovych’s greatest problem has always been his inability to tell the truth, whether about his corruption or why he left the office of the president.
His disinterest in reasserting his presidential powers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk and giving Crimea away, showed he didn’t want to be president anymore.
JV Koshiw is author of “Abuse of Power: Corruption in the Office of the President,” published by Artemia Press 2013 (ISBN 978-09543764-1-3).