As police and protesters mounted a final, scorched-earth battle in central Kiev on Wednesday afternoon and the death toll climbed, an ominous question hovered over the entire region: If this isn't going to be a civil war, then what will it be?
Now that President Viktor Yanukovych has turned decisively away from any political compromise or settlement, his options, and those of the outside world, have become stark and limited. And he clearly has ended any possibility of compromise: On Tuesday night he ushered leaders of the major opposition parties into his office and told them, apparently with visible anger, that their only option was to clear protesters out of the square.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the resulting clashes had killed 26 people in Kiev, 10 of them police. And a final police charge on the square's encampment could prove even more deadly.
At this point, two options seem most likely: An outright civil war, or a total military crackdown and imprisonment of opposition leaders, leading to Belarus-style autocratic rule by Mr. Yanukovych and his party.
There are ominous signs that the latter option could be taking shape.
On Wednesday morning, the Ukrainian Security service posted a message on its website stating that a "criminal case" has been launched into an attempted coup by several politicians – presumably the three opposition leaders who spoke regularly at the protests. "Ukraine's security service has begun a pre-trial investigation into illegal actions being carried out by individual politicians aimed at seizing state power," a statement on the web site of the SBU security service said.
The possibility of opposition arrest and imprisonment is to be taken seriously, given the history of Mr. Yanukovych, who came to power in a fair election in 2010 but has since cracked down on democratic opposition by changing laws and prosecuting leaders. He continues to imprison former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and has resisted entreaties from world leaders to grant her amnesty. A further shift into autocracy could prove to be the safest option, from his perspective.
On the other hand, the words "civil war" are now being uttered openly by both European-minded leaders and by Mr. Yanukovych's supporters.
Indeed, Mr. Yanukovych himself suggested in a televised address Wednesday that democratic options are now off the table: "The leaders of the opposition have disregarded the principle of democracy, which says we obtain power through elections and not on the street," he said. "It is a flagrant violation of the law and those who are responsible will face justice."
The influential mayor of Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine, went further on Wednesday, describing the violence as a "civil war" and demanding the arrest of opposition leaders on terrorism charges: "The negotiations cannot be conducted with terrorists," he told reporters.
Ukraine's provinces, known as Oblasts, are divided, some of them militantly, between Mr. Yanukovych and the opposition, and the crackdown seems to have forced their leaders into polarized positions. There were some reports that Lviv, the westernmost provinces, had "declared independence" either from Ukraine itself or from Mr. Yanukovych. There was footage on Wednesday showing soldiers in Lviv surrendering en masse to the protesters.
"We may be witnessing the first hour of a civil war," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told his legislature on Wednesday. "We are dealing with an ongoing destruction of the country. If people are dying and being injured during protests, it's the authorities who are responsible. There are no doubts about that in Kiev."
And, on Ukraine's other border, Russian officials were equally militant in their language: Russia's foreign ministry, in a statement Wednesday, described the protests as an attempted coup, referring to it as a "brown revolution" – a reference to the Nazi's seizure of power in the 1930s. And Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Mr. Putin blamed the violence on "the extremist forces."
While European and U.S. leaders called for sanctions against Mr. Yanukovych and his backers on Wednesday, such measures appear to be too late to be effective: At this point, they would likely only entice the Ukrainian president to crack down harder, especially since Russia's $15-billion aid package is highly unlikely to be equalled by the West.