KIEV, Ukraine -- The decision to deploy riot police against the long-lasting political protest in Ukraine's capital, under cover of darkness overnight Wednesday and then to pull them out again 10 hours later, has left the Ukrainian government struggling to find a footing at home and abroad.
President Viktor Yanukovych has greatly lifted the morale of his opponents with the seemingly ferocious but ultimately unfruitful police action and has created a new set of heroes: the veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who faced down armored cops. And he sat down with two Western diplomats who let him know their displeasure.
"I made it absolutely clear to him that what happened last night, what has been happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, in a democratic state," Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said later Wednesday after a two-hour meeting with Mr. Yanukovych. "But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine's European future, and that is what we want to see the president lead."
The dispute that has engulfed Ukraine started with Mr. Yanukovych's last-minute decision to spurn an agreement with the European Union and seek closer economic ties to Russia instead. But opposition political parties and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have shown that they disagree and have maintained a fluctuating but permanent presence on Kiev's Independence Square since late November.
Ukraine is heading for a default in early 2014 without financial assistance. The fumbled use of police appalled Western governments -- Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States viewed it with "disgust" -- and also will not make it any easier for Mr. Yanukovych to negotiate better terms with Russia, which will sense his weakness.
The opposition has called for release of all political prisoners; two students arrested Nov. 30 in an earlier police assault were released Wednesday. It also wants Prime Minister Mykola Azarov replaced. Under those conditions, political leaders had said they might accept Mr. Yanukovych's invitation to roundtable negotiations. But they said that before Wednesday's police incursion. Mr. Yanukovych would now need to impress them with uncharacteristic sincerity to get them to sign on.
"For the sake of compromise, I urge the opposition not to give up; do not go down the path of confrontation and ultimatums," Mr. Yanukovich said in a statement on his website. "Be assured that the government will act only within the law and never will use force against peaceful demonstrations."
But Vitali Klitschko, the former boxer and rising political star of the opposition, said that with the police action, "Yanukovich closed off the path to any kind of compromise."
The president also talked about finding a deal with the EU after all. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, met with him Wednesday for the second time in two days and said afterward that he promised to take action within 24 hours.
Sergei Zinchenko, 52, of Lugansk was among 50 or so Afghan war veterans who have been camped on Independence Square, and who met the special police force, the Berkut, on Institutska Street. They placed themselves in front of a makeshift barricade, while others stayed behind it. "We didn't allow the young people to come around to that side," he said. "If the Berkut was going to beat anyone, they could beat us."
The vets, known as Afghantsi, held off police. Mr. Zinchenko got a crack in the ribs for his efforts.
"For several hours, they were the only force protecting the people," said Vasyl Feduk, 29, a western Ukraine tour guide who was standing behind the barricade.
Finally, the Afghantsi retreated, police were able to cut through the barricade, and more than an hour of pushing back and forth ensued. Mr. Feduk said it gradually became clear that neither side wanted to hurt the other, for fear of escalation. It was a good thing, too, he said, because with police forces pushing toward the square from four directions, they could have caused considerable mayhem if given the order to lash out.
Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko said police were not sent in to clear the square, but instead to reopen streets that run along it. The protesters didn't believe that. In any case, when police pulled out again about 11 a.m., the streets were quickly taken back by the opposition.
Mr. Zinchenko said it was too early to call it a victory. He believes that the police will be back. Another protester, Viktor Pogorelov, 64, said of Mr. Yanukovych that "a wounded animal is the most dangerous."
By Wednesday evening, the protesters -- whose numbers had swelled as Kievans started flocking to the square before dawn after hearing news of the police incursion -- had built formidable packed-snow barricades to replace those police destroyed.