Ukraine's Descent into Civil War

(Originally published 22 April, 2014)

The descent of Ukraine into violence is rapidly building momentum despite the truce of the Easter weekend between all parties. The confusion on the ground only adds to the increasing sense of uncertainty amongst Western onlookers, the Ukrainian people, many Russians and the international community. This confusion is being orchestrated by certain individuals on both sides amdist the chaos on the ground and the outcome for firstly Ukraine and secondly Europe is becoming increasingly ominous.

Both sides are equally culpable in pushing Ukraine towards civil war. The leaders of both the United States and the EU have turned a blind eye to the dangerous elements within the interim Ukrainian government which have to be isolated. These right-elements, Svoboda and the Right Sector leading the way, consider Russia a grave threat to their perceptions of  Ukrainian ‘identity’.

The West keen to see a ‘western Ukraine’ seem keen to turn a blind eye towards these hard-line, belligerent segments of the Kiev government, a flaw I believe in dealing with the crisis and pacifying Russia’s bullish rhetoric. Public statements, British and American propaganda are not stating that neo-fascists and hard-liners (xenophobic, ultra-nationalists and anti-Semites)  in the  government can have no place in the future of Ukraine. Those who dismantle a government or attempt to as seen in Syria have their own clear faults and though I don’t doubt the Yanukovych had to be removed from power, the individuals who take their place and their actions must come under close scrutiny.

The Russian Federation by no accounts is in any shape or form doing its best to remove the sting from the Ukrainian crisis. On the face of it the invasion of the Crimea was illegal, an affront to both Ukrainian autonomy and a violation of international law. Physically and politically, Crimea belongs to Ukraine; however mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and makes many Ukrainian citizens feel like strangers on their own territory.

The referendum though largely peaceful was done under the barrel of a shotgun, surrounded by barbed wire and Russian soldiers was done under abhorrent political pressure by militant ethnic Russians (not all). No government or election would win by such staggering proportions as we witnessed in late March.The fact of the matter is that Crimea is a part of Russia now and will remain so.

The interference in the politics of the Crimea and its determination to secede from Ukraine has now been replaced by protest and seizure of government building by pro-Russian separatists. Some of these people are innocent and fair protests, others however like in Kiev in February, are dangerous ultranationalists, thugs and Russian sponsored militants who will fight the government in Kiev for their secession.  Many are equipped with the latest Russian hardware and weaponry.

The Kremlin may deny such accusations by Western leaders.  However like their opposite who deny and irresponsibly turn a blind-eye to the far-right of Ukraine, history will judge them for their conduct in foreign policy equally. Both sides have been lying to suit their interests. The threats to the ethnic Russians were grossly exaggerated and America and her allies have been lying about the nature of their Ukrainian allies. This is more dangerous than Russian military manoeuvres in Crimea in early March as it was by-enlarge a bloodless affair.

Both sides have placed their stakes on either the revolutionary government in Kiev or that of pro-Russians, those opposed to Kiev, or Yanukovcyh’s supporters. The Geneva accords originally offered a glimmer of the hope that the crisis could be resolved by diplomatic means but neither Obama nor the government in Kiev nor Sergei Lavrov have given an indication in recent days that the Geneva accords will be implemented successfully.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accusing Putin of attempting to restore the Soviet Union (a partial truth) and to find the ‘b**tards’ responsible for the creation of the request that all Jews register their addresses to the local authorities. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister also accused Kiev of failing to harness the radical elements within its government.

Whether or not the document was false or true the words to do not point to a forecast of peaceful resolution to the crisis and NATO and the United States are doing little to fix the fault-lines in the Ukrainian borderlands.

This will encourage belligerents on both sides of the political spectrum that they have a shield with which to protect themselves from more powerful forces than themselves; Kiev has NATO and the United States whilst the separatists have Moscow to fall back on.

The more extreme elements of both sides will attempt to use force to meet their objectives and clashes between these elements (i.e militia, gangs, paramilitary units) will draw in the more powerful military components that again both sides have to offer. Kiev and the Russian Federation are to some extent losing control of the radicals on each side. Whether or not they wish this to occur is a dangerous and concerning question.

This has become a reality in recent days and weeks as Russian separatists are at odds with Kiev’s military forces.  The decision for Kiev’s government to deploy military forces against the pro-Russian separatists who seized government buildings was a poor choice, but the only one presented to them.

They would lose significant credibility in allowing another secession go unchecked by their loyalist forces and lose credibility in attempting (thus far unsuccessfully) to crack down on the militant movements in eastern Ukraine in cities such as Sloviansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv. 

Like the former Yugoslavia before its collapse, Ukraine is swiftly being swamped by economic instability due to the crisis. The deterioration in economic and social stability of the latter prompted a unnerving rise in Serbian nationalism.  Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians for atrocious crimes resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 percent Bosniak) by 1995. Some branded it ethnic cleansing, others went further labeling the atrocities genocide.

The elements are there to become an bloody conflict. Pro-Russian militia have been beating up Ukrainians and Crimeans opposed to their attitudes and threatening foreign onlookers, the protests seen in Kharkiv and Donetsk are certainly not peaceful. Russian ultra-nationalists also represent a threat to the stability of the region as any action by the Ukrainian government against them could see further reasons for Putin to occupy Eastern Ukraine and annex it. This is unaided by Right Sector members talking of a ‘clean’ Ukraine and the xenophobic attitudes of Svoboda.

Putin has recently stated that he will not hesitate to use military force if he feels that the situation, partly constructed by his government, escalates into a bloody civil war.  A Russian intervention would be have repercussions that no one will stand to gain from. A world-historical crisis would do horrible damage to the world economy and the repercussions would reverberate across the globe.

The Russian economy long stagnant is buckling under the drop in value of the ruble whilst businesses and economic organisations stand to gain little from the Ukraine crisis as sanctions against Russia will come back to bite them in the main economic hubs across the world.  Russia will ultimately not want this and stand to lose a great deal. If a war was to start between the Russian Federation and Ukraine they would win the war and secure their objectives, but the Kremlin and Russian society would have to digest severe consequences.

These consequences may vary from a decline in living standards across Russia, economic isolation, a collapse in exportal wealth and growth of the Russian economy and Russian casualties in the war which may come about if they chose to intervene.

Their actions already will be looked at by other nations who feel aggrieved at the loss of land. The Chinese are already at odds with Japan over various islands in the Pacific and as Professor Lambert of King’s College London points out the Russians hold former Chinese territory that they may contend for in the future.


Russian action in Crimea, and potentially eastern Ukraine is reshaping the world of the 21st century into a more unpleasant light. Ultimately a civil war in the short-term would only benefit Russia in that a weakened, bitter, and divided Ukraine is preferable to one that seeks to join the European Union (despite its numerous problems) but ultimately weakening a neighbour and precipitating a potential regional crisis in eastern Europe will be of no benefit in the long-term for them when economic stagnation is combined with global condemnation. The regime is still unpopular and its finances precarious despite all the strong rhetoric coming from the Kremlin.

That being said NATO and the United States have little moral or economic leverage with which it can use to intimidate the nationalist Kremlin. Geographically Moscow holds both a military and political advantage.  The Western hemisphere condemn in wake of their own violations of international politics “don’t break agreements (let’s exclude the one not to expand NATO eastward), don’t invade countries on controversial pretexts (except Iraq) and don’t support minority secession movements (except Kosovo).

The rhetoric of Western leaders does not match the actions nor do the actions taken match the aggressiveness of the speeches and threats. Although the Kremlin should always be monitored with a mixture of respect and caution, antagonising its hard-line elements without sufficient muscle to back up your convictions and opinions is a dangerous game against an nationalist authoritarian regime which has already branded the words both ‘rude and reckless’.

The leaders of Western Europe should remember that from a Russian perspective, fascism is not exactly their most favorable term when you remember Operation Barbarossa and the slaughter of over ten million soldiers and fifteen million civilians.

 Such slaughter would leave a mark greater than that of 9/11 on the United States and that of World War I on the United Kingdom, the genocide in Rwanda, and that of the Holocaust to Israel. The legacy and memories of history are very important considerations in this crisis when looking at it from a Russian  perspective. They are slaves to their history. The war may have started, we just don’t realise it yet and NATO and Russia are creating this mess, the victims will be the Ukrainian people and her children.

The question is whether the West will back down with the need to prioritise Iran, the Syrian Civil War and the alarming rise in Islamic extremism in Africa. Now they have conflict may be far closer to home in on Western Europe’s doorstep to add to the globe’s mounting problems.

Matthew William