Ukraine’s Just Coup

As Ukraine’s newly appointed government confronts a deepening separatist challenge in Crimea, Viktor Yanukovych continues to describe his removal from office as a “coup d’etat” (here). According to a recent poll by a reputable firm, roughly one-quarter of Russians agree. A month earlier, 84 percent of respondents in a similar poll saw the protests against Yanukovich as a coup attempt.

But that’s all spin and propaganda, right? Yanukovych is a friend of Moscow’s, which presumably views his ouster as part of a broader Western plot against it, and state-guided Russian media have been peddling this line from the start of the EuroMaidan protests a few months ago.

Well, pedantically, Yanukovych is correct. Academic definitions of coups d’etat generally include four criteria: 1) they replace the chief executive; 2) they do not follow constitutional procedure; 3) they are led or facilitated by political insiders; and 4) they involve the use or threat of force. Sometimes we attach modifiers to signify which political insiders strike the blow—military, palace, parliamentary, or judicial—and the criterion regarding the use or threat of force is often interpreted broadly to include arrest or even credibly menacing statements. When political outsiders topple a ruler, we call it a successful rebellion, not a coup. When political insiders remove a sitting leader by constitutional means, we call it politics.

Ukraine unambiguously satisfies at least a few of these criteria. The sitting chief executive was removed from office in a vote by parliamentarians, who qualify as political insiders. Those parliamentarians were encouraged by a popular uprising that represents a form of coercion. Even if we assume, as I do, that most participants in that uprising would not have physically harmed Yanukovich had they captured him, their forceful attempts to seize and occupy government buildings and their clashes with state security forces are clearly coercive acts.

And, crucially, the vote to remove Yanukovych doesn’t seem to have followed constitutional procedures. Under Articles 108-112 of Ukraine’s constitution (here), there are four ways a sitting president may leave office between elections: resignation, incapacitation, death, and impeachment. None of the first three happened—early rumors to the contrary, Yanukovych has vehemently denied that he resigned—so that leaves the fourth, impeachment. According to Article 111, impeachment must follow a specific set of procedures: Parliament must vote to impeach and then convene a committee to investigate. That committee must investigate and report back to parliament, which must then vote to bring charges. A final vote to convict may only come after receipt of a judgment from the Constitutional Court that “the acts, of which the President of Ukraine is accused, contain elements of treason or other crime.” Best I can tell, though, those procedures were not followed in this case. Instead, parliament simply voted—380 to 0, in a body with 450 seats—to dismiss Yanukovych and then to hand executive authority on an interim basis to its own speaker (here).

The apparent extra-constitutionality of this process gives us the last of the four criteria listed above. So, technically speaking, Yanukovych’s removal checks all of the boxes for what we would conventionally call a coup. We can quibble about how relevant the threat of force was to this outcome, and thus whether or not the label “parliamentary coup” might fit better than plain old coup, but the basic issue doesn’t seem especially ambiguous.

All of this should sound very familiar to Egyptians. Twice in the past three years, they’ve seen sitting presidents toppled by political insiders while protesters massed nearby. In both instances, the applicability of the “coup” label became a point of intense political debate. People cared, in part, because perceptions affect political outcomes, and what we call an event shapes how people perceive it. We shout over each other until one voice finally drowns out the rest, and what that voice says becomes the history we remember. In a world where “the will of the people” is seen by many as the only legitimate source of state authority, a whiff of illegitimacy hangs about “coup” that doesn’t adhere to “revolution.” In a peculiar twist of logic and semantics, many Egyptians insisted that President Morsi’s removal in July 2013 could not have been a coup because millions of people supported it. The end was right, so the means must have been, too. Coup doesn’t sound right, so it couldn’t have been one of those.

It’s easy to deride that thinking from a distance. It’s even easier with the benefit of a hindsight that can take in all the terrible things Egypt’s ruling junta has done since it seized power last July.

Before we sneer too hard at those gullible Egyptian liberals, though, we might pause to consider how we’re now describing events in Ukraine, and why. Most of the people I know personally or follow on social media believe that Yanukovych was a rotten menace whose removal from office was justified by his corruption and, more recently, his responsibility for the use of disproportionate force against activists massed on the Maidan. I agree, and I’m sure the documents his accomplices dumped in the Dnipro River on the way out of town will only clarify and strengthen that impression. Yanukovych’s election win in 2010 and his continuing popularity among a large (but dwindling) segment of the population weighed in his favor before 19-20 February, but the shooting to death of scores of unarmed or crudely armed protesters undoubtedly qualifies as the sort of crime that should trigger an impeachment and might even win a conviction. That is, those shootings qualify as an impeachable offense, but impeachment is not what happened.

As moral beings, we can recognize all of those things, and we can and should weigh them in our judgments about the justice of what’s transpired in Ukraine in the past week. Moral and analytical thinking aren’t the same thing, however, and they don’t always point in the same direction, or even occur on the same plane. I’d like to believe that, as analytical thinkers, we’re capable of acknowledging the parallels between Yanukovich’s removal from power and the things we usually call coups without presuming that this acknowledgement negates our moral judgment about the righteousness of that turn of events. Those two streams of thought can and should and inevitably will inform each other, but they don’t have to move deterministically together. Let there be such a thing as a just coup, and let this be an instance of it.

PS. For an excellent discussion of the philosophical issues I gloss over in that final declaration, see Zack Beauchamp’s “The Political Theory Behind Egypt’s Coup” (here).

Leave a comment


  1. Good post, Jay. Jonathan Powell and I have already updated our dataset to include a successful coup for Ukraine ( This marks their first coup. Following a string of 6 coup attempts (half successful) in 2012, we saw only one in 2013 (Egypt) and now our first of 2014. You also make solid points above about the expected reaction to calling this a coup…it will be negative. Jon and I received quite a bit of blowback from around the globe for coding the 2013 event in Egypt a coup. This should not be the case, particularly when we see coups overthrow leaders like Yanukovych. While coups continue to be the primary way that democratically-elected leaders fall, Jon and I have a forthcoming paper in Foreign Policy Analysis ( showing that coups also open the door for democratization when they happen against authoritarian leaders. Hopefully this coup will produce the true, long-term freedom that Ukrainians desire and deserve.

  2. So did the deaths that transpired immediately before the “just coup” qualify as a massacre by the criteria for your early warning system?

    If I’m reading it right, they do, although the rapid fall of the government thereafter might help explain why the forecast proved incorrect.

    • As it happens, we are still trying to answer that question. It’s a multi-person, deliberative process, so I can’t tell you now where we’ll wind up, but I will indicate what we ultimately decide on the original post.

      • That’s fair. I’ll look forward to the outcome with interest. I really appreciate the effort you went into to lay out your criteria even if it means extra work at the front and back end.

        Also, I should amend that the forecast wasn’t necessarily incorrect. Just that the events that transpired were a low-probability outcome according to the forecast.

      • (That is, it would be a low-probability outcome assuming this does end up being coded as a massacre.)

  3. Great assessment. One thing that I like to do in these ambiguous cases is to look at who should come into power next. You focus on the legality of Yanukovych’s removal, but even if we assume his removal was legal or we assume protesters had already caused his de facto ouster, Article 112 suggests the Prime Minister should have become the acting President until a subsequent election could be held. This did not happen, further calling into question the legality of the transition. My thoughts on this resulted in a hastily-written assessment here: (

  4. Andrew Wojtanik

     /  March 1, 2014

    Great post! Very clear in your criteria and useful in comparing with Egypt.

  5. In the same breath you say that Yanukovych was an authoritarian as you say he was a democratically elected leader in a democratic system. So which is it? Your description of the violence that occurred in Kiev also leaves much to be desired, the “protesters'” were not unarmed, nor were they crudely armed, whatever that means. They were very much armed as significant photo evidence across different media platforms has proven. Compare the riotous actions of the fascist led militants to a scenario in which equally violent “protesters” exact the same kind of action in the US and tell me how much violence would the US state apparatus meet out in that situation. This analysis is bereft of any real geopolitical analysis. Your real question here is trying to justify an anti-democratic coup as a move towards more democracy, even though you as an American liberal champion of “democracy” are supposed to be against these kinds of anti-democratic actions. Your real problem is that you are experiencing massive cognitive dissonance.

    • I think your characterization of my analysis and motivations is inaccurate, but I take your point about cognitive dissonance. See the post that followed for some introspection on that.

  6. Andrew

     /  March 10, 2014

    Your narrative has one significant error. Only 328 deputies voted in favor of impeachment with the necessary 338. Since there were no step in compliance with the constitution,it’s not a breach of the impeachment procedure but the absence of the procedure as such. Look at the impeachment broadcast.

    The result of voting was shown at the 2.00.

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